Oral Questions: Police Grant Report

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John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I would like to say a few words about police funding and, in particular, its significance for policing in Cumbria. There are two key issues: first, the police budget itself, which we are discussing; and secondly, the police funding formula, which is for the future but of equal importance. Before doing so, I would like to make one or two general observations.

It is well documented that Carlisle and Cumbria experienced serious flooding before Christmas. This was a very large local emergency. The Cumbrian
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constabulary rose to that challenge brilliantly. Its officers showed leadership, offered practical support and co-ordinated the emergency services. They also showed a lot of empathy. I remember meeting one PC who had himself been flooded, and instead of being at home, he was out there on duty helping everybody else. That demonstrated to me the importance that the police have over and above their normal duties. I pay tribute to the Cumbrian police and crime commissioner, Richard Rhodes. He has led Cumbria extremely well in a mature and professional way, and he has cross-party and widespread support throughout the county. This again demonstrates to me that it was right to create the PCCs. They should continue, and I will certainly support their continuation.

On the two issues I mentioned, I first turn to police funding in general. The House will recall the debate initiated by the Opposition—it has already been mentioned—calling for a 10% cut in police funding. I welcome the Government’s decision not to follow the Opposition’s lead but to maintain and, indeed, increase funding for the police, in what we all recognise as still very difficult financial circumstances. This will be welcomed in Cumbria and has certainly been welcomed by the Cumbrian constabulary. It will also be welcomed across the country, in recognition of the fact that the police are an important part of our society. They are the lead emergency service. Given concerns about security and safety, this funding will give confidence to our communities.

On the important issue of the police funding formula, I refer back to my earlier comments. The floods brought home to me how important it is that we have a Cumbrian police force, because it offered leadership, local knowledge and an ability to respond that I am not convinced would have been there had it been part of a larger, more remote force with headquarters elsewhere. The funding formula as consulted on would have had a dramatic and negative impact on Cumbria. Indeed, my local newspaper recognised this and ran a campaign that attracted a huge amount of support. That again demonstrated to me that support for the police and for a Cumbrian police force was deep-rooted.

I was therefore delighted that the Minister was in listening mode when he took on board the potential problems and issues for places such as Cumbria and agreed to postpone, or pull back from, going ahead with his consultation on introducing a new formula. I now wait for the new consultation to come out. I take this opportunity to emphasise the key issues for my county—primarily, rurality and sparsity. There are half a million people in Cumbria, but if one took a map of Cumbria and superimposed it over London and part of the south-east, there would be 20 million. It is a huge area. We have poor infrastructure, with a large mountain range right across the middle of the county, and we are a long way from any urban centre. Manchester is two hours away; Glasgow is an hour and a half away; and even Newcastle is over an hour away. I therefore look forward to the consultation, and I will certainly participate in it.

I give full support to the Government’s financing of our police as set out in the current settlement. I am glad to see that we are still the party of the police and the party of law and order.

Rebecca Harris: I absolutely welcome the announcement of those funds. A lot of things are already going on in the police, but it does cost money just to modernise and make improvements. I wish we did not have such an enormous debt in this country, but ultimately, in a strange way, the drive to create efficiencies means that, when our economy is back on an even keel and the money is again flowing in, our police service will be enormously efficient. Old practices, which have been stuck in place for many years, will have been ironed out.

John Stevenson: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that such innovations and making our police forces far more efficient have been due to the introduction of police and crime commissioners?

Rebecca Harris: Absolutely. I will come on to that point later, but the innovation of police and crime commissioners was an enormous achievement of the last Parliament. My police and crime commissioner has been highly visible, and much more so than the old police board that he replaced. To this day, people do not realise that such police boards even existed, but they know the name of their police and crime commissioner and are able to approach him.

Essex police force remains very keen to see a review of the funding formula that determines individual police force allocations across the country. The changes to the formula proposed by the Home Office last year would have meant an increase of more than £10 million in the funding for Essex police. We hope that a review later this year will increase the amount of central funding for Essex.

As I have said, Essex is an area with an historically low policing precept. I believe it is about £140 on average, compared with a national average of more than £180 for a band D householder. Essex police force is very proud to say that it has been a lean and efficient force for a long time. I recently surveyed my residents to ask whether they would be prepared to pay extra if that meant additional officers and greater police visibility. Unsurprisingly, the response was of course overwhelmingly positive.

Because of the difficulties of the existing rules about how PCCs can put across their case in a referendum and about how such a referendum is triggered by a rise of 2% or higher, there has been real concern in Essex, with such a low precept, that we would only ever be able to have an increase of 1.99%. That would embed, in perpetuity, a disadvantage for such a lower-cost force compared with more expensive ones. I am very grateful to the Chancellor and Home Office Ministers for listening to that point. The Government are now allowing police and crime commissioners in areas with the lowest precepts to have flexibility in raising their precept. In Essex, that has made it possible to raise the base budget for Essex police by £3.8 million to £266.3 million this year. Frankly, it is right for forces with the lowest precepts to raise their precepts on local council tax payers, rather than call on central Government and national resources to get other members of the public, who may already be paying a higher price for the police in their local area, to provide funding through a higher grant allocation. This is the right and fair way forward, and it is understood by local residents.

The current budget includes increased investment in specialist police officers and police staff to tackle child sexual exploitation, child abuse, serious sexual offences and domestic abuse. There will also be an increased investigative capacity to tackle those horrible crimes and greater support and safeguarding for victims. We now hear so much more about those hidden harms, which we did not used to talk about and recognise in the same way. As we have heard in this debate, the figures for domestic abuse, child abuse and other hidden harms have been rising, which has contributed to the appearance that violent crime is rising. I would contend, as I am sure would most police officers in my area, that these crimes are not rising. What is rising is the confidence of people to come forward and report them, knowing that they will be dealt with sympathetically. The police are taking a very different approach to such crimes and have had training in how to deal with them. They also wear cameras now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) said, and other changes in legislation have been made.

Within the budget, there will be greater investment in the training that is needed to equip officers to investigate internet-enabled crime and cybercrime, which are affecting individuals and businesses across the country. That subject is very topical this week.

I welcome the autumn statement and the funding review, which will enable Essex police to keep many more PCSOs than it had planned and to make many positive innovations. Essex is lucky to have been served by such a fantastic police and crime commissioner in Nick Alston. I say unashamedly that he is the best police and crime commissioner in the country. He was recognised by his peers in an election on that basis. He
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has served as the inaugural police and crime commissioner at a time of real change and financial difficulty. We would not be in such good shape in Essex were it not for his sterling support for and challenge to the police. Far from being a faceless police board of the great and the good that no one knows about, his name is incredibly well known. I have only been able to accept his resignation because the highly able Roger Hirst is standing as the Conservative candidate in the police and crime commissioner elections.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have allowed the hon. Lady to cover a broad scope, but I do not want to get into campaigning and electioneering. This must not become an election campaign, rather than a debate on the police funding grant.

Rebecca Harris: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your indulgence.

Despite the huge debt burden this country faces, I am proud that the Conservative Government have managed to protect police spending as much as they have. I very much welcome today’s motion.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Does my hon. Friend also welcome the news that Labour-run Carlisle and Labour-run Cumbria are also receiving some transitional relief?

Kevin Hollinrake: I do welcome that news.

This funding is targeted at the locations with the biggest falls. Opposition Members need to understand the profound feeling of unfairness that exists in my community, not just about funding for rural services but about the way in which our schools and healthcare are funded. How would they explain to an elderly constituent of mine in need of adult social care why she should get less funding than somebody in an urban area when she pays more in council tax? Why is that right? The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) mentioned disadvantage, but a band D council taxpayer in my area pays £1,472 a year, which is £200 more than someone in his constituency.

These are deep cuts for the people we need to protect in our communities, whether they affect our libraries, our bus services, our post offices or those in our voluntary sector who do such fine work but who rely on central moneys to pay for the car schemes, the home visits, the day care and the relief care. I therefore welcome the fair funding review that the Secretary of State has announced. We just want fairness. We do not want a better deal than urban areas; we just want a fair deal, and whatever deal is arrived at needs to be baked into the system.

Historically, underfunding by successive Governments has led to our paying more in council tax and to our homes being more expensive to buy or to rent and more expensive to heat. Among the elderly population in my constituency, the numbers are rising three times faster than those in metropolitan areas, and the cost of providing services to those people is much more expensive. The Government recognised that in 2013-14, but we only got 25% of the funding that we were due, owing to damping.

What we need is a simple, transparent system that recognises need. Whatever that system might be, if it is fair Conservative Members will sign up to it without question. None of us is complaining about the size of the cake; we just want a fair distribution. We realise that we need to make cuts. Every time we have one of these debates, Opposition Members refuse to say where they would make such cuts. They are deficit deniers. We need to make cuts in our area. Our local authorities need to become more efficient.

In my area, we have eight separate local authorities. That cannot be right at a time when we are having to make deep cuts, and we need to look for efficiencies. That cannot be an efficient way to run local government. Local authorities have a part to play in this, and we have a chance to reorganise as part of the devolution revolution. We have a complex system with five clinical commissioning groups, five health trusts, eight local authorities and a huge number of voluntary organisations. If we are to make the best of the money available and balance the books, local government will of course have to play its part if we are to become more efficient. We need to bring together all our services, such as health, social care, housing and education, to ensure that they are interconnected and that they work more effectively without duplication, complexity or bureaucracy. This settlement gives us the breathing space to develop a new fairer funding formula—a simple, fair, future-proof and rural-proof formula—and I am very happy to support the motion.

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