Mark Hunter calls for more funding nationally for police

January 31, 2007 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in House of Commons

I would like to preface my contribution by congratulating our police officers and acknowledging the tremendous work that they and their support staff do throughout the country, sometimes under extremely difficult circumstances. I am sure that other Members will join me in doing so and agree that is our obligation, as Members of Parliament, to ensure that the support and funding that is so desperately needed is available to the police.

The funding given to police authorities must be realistic, in order to allow them to deliver the high level of local policing that the population expect and deserve. Last November, the police service expenditure forecasting group estimated that without additional funding, the gap in police funding nationally in 2007-08 would be £380 million, being optimistic, or £391 million, being realistic. It also forecast that in 2008-09, that gap will reach £582 million or £656 million respectively. As the Association of Police Authorities argues, that gap "represents a significant proportion of the overall police budget and poses a very real risk to maintaining current services and capability".

This report does little to reduce that gap. The mere3.6 per cent. announced does not address the funding crisis that many police authorities are facing.

In my constituency of Cheadle, the Greater Manchester police face a £39 million deficit over the next three years, according to the Labour-run authority's own figures. Some estimates suggest that that could result in the loss of more than 600 police officers, in addition to the 216 already lost.

It is a matter of record that Michael Todd, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, has already said that as long as the GMP continues to subsidise the funding of the Metropolitan police, the situation is unlikely to get any better. Frankly, given the obvious lack of financial support from central Government, the GMP will have no choice other than to cut local services.

Such a situation is unacceptable, but it is sadly not uncommon. The Hampshire force, as we have already heard from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), will have to cut 10 per cent. of services in the next financial year and predicts that unless funding increases significantly, it will be looking at a 20 per cent. cut in the following year. The North Yorkshire police force predicts that even with a 5 per cent. increase in funding it will still have a £3 million deficit next year, and the Derbyshire police authority faces a £14.6 million funding deficit over the five-year period to 2010-11.

The Government need to do more to sustain the work that local police authorities are doing. A joint report by the APA and ACPO in November last year called for "Government to provide realistic levels of funding to ensure continued improvements in policing for communities across England and Wales."

By not meeting their responsibilities, the Government have left local council tax payers to foot the bill for the increase in police numbers that Labour promised. The amount of police expenditure financed through council tax has almost doubled, in real terms, between 2001-02 and 2006-07. Council tax now accounts for more than 21 per cent. of police force expenditure finance, compared to only 12 per cent. in 2001-02.

With high levels of council tax everywhere, and the Government threatening to take capping action to stop the average council tax increasing by more than 5 per cent., the police are entering a funding crisis that can be fixed only by significant increases in funding from central Government-3.6 per cent. is not enough.

To add insult to injury, residents paying council tax are actually being double charged to cover the cost of community support officers. Due to the cuts in Government grants, police authorities increasingly have to go back to local councils to ask for more funding to make up the deficit. That is over and above the police authority precepts that residents are already paying. That effectively means that some residents are paying for CSOs twice, once through their precept and once when police authorities are forced to return to local councils with a begging bowl. That situation places too much of the burden on local council tax payers.

The Durham police authority is a case in point. The situation there is desperate. If funding does not improve it will have to reduce police constable numbers by up to 300, and with the current budget it is planning a reduction of 100 police constables in the coming year. Even with those cuts, the Durham police authority would need an 18 per cent. council tax rise to meet the bill.

Lack of central funding and a capping of council tax leaves nowhere for police authorities to turn, and cuts are inevitable if the Government refuse to provide a realistic level of funding for local police authorities. Members of Parliament from all parties agree that we need more police out on the streets. A stronger police presence is essential if we are to be serious about fighting crime and resolving the issues of antisocial behaviour which blight the lives of too many of our constituents.

However, under this grant report, the level of funding offered means that police numbers will again fall in a majority of police authorities. The cuts are already taking place. The Home Office's announcement yesterday, admitting that police officer numbers nationally have fallen by 173 from the end of March last year to 141,873 at the end of September, comes as no surprise to those of us who have been involved with police funding issues in our constituencies.

In the last year, 2005-06, 24 forces reported reductions in officer numbers, while only 19 reported increased officer numbers. Police authorities cannot keep up police officer and CSO numbers if their funding is being cut. In Hampshire, which was mentioned earlier, budget cuts caused the number of CSOs to fall by approximately 40 per cent. The Government are putting the police authorities in a very difficult position. Plans that have been made based on higher levels of funding and high staffing numbers must be re-made, wasting precious time and resources.

Jan Berry, the chair of the Police Federation, spoke to The Observer earlier this month on this issue and said:

"If you're going to increase police numbers you have to make sure you've got the money to maintain that".

The Government have not done so.

Lack of funding has also caused a significant number of police station closures. Some 580 police stations have closed since Labour came to power in 1997, with the worst hit areas including Essex with 66 closures, South Wales with 43 closures, Gloucestershire with 40 closures and Greater Manchester with 39, including two in my constituency.

The Government are making it more difficult, not easier, for police to provide good local services. Local police stations are vital to ensure that the local community have confidence in their police, and are important for consolidating ties between police and community to allow them to work effectively together. By closing so many police stations the Government are creating a situation in which a permanent and personal local police service is a thing of the past for all too many people.

The Liberal Democrat "We can cut crime!" campaign, launched last week by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) posited a solution to the funding problem-namely that the £97,000 per day currently being spent on the identity card scheme be spent on local police. That money could go directly to police authorities, which could use it to create 10,000 more police officers and 20,000 community support officers to back them up. It could also be spent on greater use of the latest IT systems and communications technology. The APA has said that one of the key risks of funding shortages is that police authorities will be unable to invest "in improved technologies and systems which will produce longer term savings and efficiencies".

The fourth report of 2004-05 by the Home Affairs Committee noted that a Home Office commissioned study, "A Diary of a Police Officer", found that officers were spending as much time in the police station as they were on the street. Of the 43 per cent. of time spent in the station, 41 per cent. was spent on preparing prosecution files and paperwork. We need to reduce that time by spending more money on employing civilian administrative staff to allow police officers to spend more time out on patrol where they are needed.

If this debate has shown anything, it is that we need more and better funded police services, not an expensive and intrusive identity card system, to tackle the criminal problems facing Britain today. I have knocked on a fair few doors in my constituency and others over the years, but I have not met anybody who has said that they would prefer an identity card scheme to greater investment in our police forces and an improved police presence-so woefully inadequate at present in many constituencies-on our streets. Such people may exist somewhere.

The introduction of some flexibility into police funding is welcome, but it does not go far enough. The crime fighting fund and the neighbourhood policing fund have been criticised by the APA and ACPO for placing unnecessary restrictions on police authorities. Both require a particular mix of staff that may not be optimal for the individual local communities concerned. Only the police authorities can know what mix of officers and other staff is needed to provide the best level of local policing. Placing ring-fenced restrictions on funds can lead to distorted budgets and cause highly trained officers to be moved into administrative roles. That causes inefficiency and the poor use of resources.

The APA and ACPO have both gone on record with their requests for the freedom and flexibility needed to deliver the best possible local policing to our communities. We need to give them that freedom by stopping the ring-fenced funding and allowing police authorities to make staffing decisions that are tailored to the needs of their areas. The APA has stated that, to meet its financial needs fully, the police service needs a funding increase of more than 5 per cent. annually just to stand still. Without significant moves in that direction, the accumulated impact of the deficit facing so many police authorities will worsen, police staff and officer numbers will continue to fall and the much needed police presence in our communities will be even less substantial than at present. That will allow levels of crime and antisocial behaviour to soar to completely unacceptable levels.

The Government grant report does not do enough. Some police authorities will be happy with the funding that they have been allocated, but many will not. They will have to make difficult decisions in the coming year about whether to cut services or seek a rise in the council tax precept to an exceptionally high level. They should not have to make such a choice. The Government must support local policing and increase funding to a level that would allow police authorities to provide the sustainable and improved service that our local communities demand and deserve.

Finally, the Government's approach to delivering local policing, like so many other policy areas, has been disfigured by their talking big but delivering small. It has dashed the expectations of many local communities. The stop-gap funding provided by the Government shows their inability to keep their promises, and reflects the political short-term-ism that permeates so much of their policy. Cutting police numbers while wasting money on big Government schemes such as ID cards shows a woeful lack of priorities and the extent to which the Government are out of touch with what the public want.

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