Police Funding Formula Debate

1st March 2016

Mike Penning responds to a debate on the Home Affairs Committee’s report into reform of the police funding formula.

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): May I welcome the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) to the Dispatch Box? I think she may be there for some time, because she delivered a much better speech than those delivered by the shadow Policing Minister and the shadow Home Secretary last week.

I agreed with some of the hon. Lady’s comments, particularly her closing remarks about how this country and the police deserve a fair funding formula. The reason that did not happen under 13 years of Labour, and probably even before that, is that it is very difficult to achieve. As I have previously said from this Dispatch Box, there is no doubt that there will be winners and losers if we change the formula. As the Home Affairs Committee has said, however, the existing formula is opaque and we desperately need to change it—and fairly.

Steve McCabe: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: In a moment. I just want to make a little progress and then I promise that I will give way, because I am going to refer to the west midlands at length.

It is fair to say that policing is undergoing continuous change and that it has changed considerably even in the past five years. The National Audit Office has rightly indicated that the way in which we are making the reporting of crimes more effective and accurate should not be used in an attempt to say that crime has suddenly risen. Since 2010, for lots of different reasons, there has been a reduction in crime, but there have been some increases in the reporting figures in the past year. We accept that and are looking at it very carefully, but the NAO made a specific point. In some areas, it is absolutely brilliant that more people have the confidence to come forward to report crimes such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, which historically have not been reported as much as we would have liked and have probably not been treated as correctly as we would have wanted by police forces around the country. I think that most people would accept that.

Steve McCabe: The Policing Minister has said that achieving a fair funding formula is incredibly complex, and he has acknowledged that it is beyond the competence of his civil servants. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) has said that he is seeking fair funding, as are the rest of us. Given the difficulties, doubts and suspicions, will the Minister give a commitment that any future fair funding formula will be subject to proper independent scrutiny and analysis, so that we can all have confidence in it?

Mike Penning: I will come on to the report’s recommendations. Whether we use the organisations referred to by the Home Affairs Committee or others, it is crucial that we have the confidence to say, “This is where we are, this is what we think is right and the chief constables are with us.” I reiterate, however, that whenever the contents of a pot of gold are dispersed, there are winners and losers. At the end of the day, though, we must make sure that it is fairer.

Mr Kevan Jones: The Minister is right to raise the important issue of the pressures put on police forces by historic abuse cases. Durham faces a £2 million-plus bill for Operation Seabrook. Is it right that such a complex investigation, which is clearly needed, should fall on Durham? Should there not be a central pot to refund it for such operations?

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Some forces have much larger percentage costs for historical cases and they have an opportunity to apply to the Home Office for assistance. It is right and proper that the investigations are done by the forces. Some investigations were not done correctly early on, which is even more reason why we should address them. I know about the inquiry referred to by the hon. Gentleman and I am more than happy to look into it. A piece of paper will probably be passed around my back while I am speaking, but I do not think I have had a request from Durham.

On the subject of Durham, it has done fantastically well, hasn’t it? If someone from the moon had landed here this afternoon and listened to this debate—some people probably wish they had travelled in the other direction—they would have thought that Durham had really struggled, so let us say from the outset that it has done fantastically well. It has even done really well in the latest independent reports on police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy. It has been rated outstanding on nine of the 12 points, good on another two, and the other one, which relates to a serious error on stop and search and the use of a Taser, requires improvement.

The force has done all that with a reduced workforce and a higher percentage of officers on the front line. It has experienced a substantial reduction in numbers, from 1,705 to 1,057, but it has massively reduced crime, including during this year. When the hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, I am sure that he will praise the police in Durham, as I have done.

Mr Jones: The Minister cannot have been listening to my speech, in which I praised the great leadership of the chief constable, Mike Barton, and the Labour PCC, Ron Hogg—and, more importantly, the men and women of Durham police. That is no reason why the force should not be fairly funded, however. It has done things well, but that has not been achieved easily. Clearly, it would not have got a fairer funding formula under the Government’s proposals.

Mike Penning: Durham has done more with less, and it has done so excellently. I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely, as I have said at the Dispatch Box on more than one occasion, that we need a way of funding our police that is fairer than the existing formula. He has said on more than one occasion today how difficult things have been for Durham. He is quite right to say so, and things have been difficult for other forces as well. I believe in giving praise where praise is due, and Durham has done fantastically well. It has reduced crime with fewer police but a higher percentage of officers on the front line than in 2010, and that is great.

Sarah Champion: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I will not give way now, but I will do so in a minute. Most of the debate was not about the future funding formula; it was about the previous funding formula and previous austerity measures. There was a degree of concern—from, I accept, Members on both sides of the House—about how that was done and about how we should go forward.

Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), have asked about the uplift in firearms capability. We have put £36 million out there, and there will be more to come. It is separately funded. Hon. Members have raised the issue of counter-terrorism, which is also funded separately from the formula.

I accept that in Bedfordshire, as the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) said, there are some real issues with the funding formula, and I have met him and other Bedfordshire Members to talk about that. There is more that could be done. Bedfordshire was given counter-terrorism money but did not manage to spend all of it. That is really interesting, in view of the fact that it was given the funding for that specific use. The percentage of warranted officers who are off duty because they are not fit for operational duties is 10%. That percentage is high for such a small force, and it is, understandably, a concern. I accept that there is work that we can do together.

Peter Dowd: Does the Minister acknowledge—let us use that word—that given what happened with the review of the police funding formula and its withdrawal, there is deep concern that the same thing should not happen again and a fear that the formula will not be fair? That is the concern.

Mike Penning: Opposition Members can exacerbate that fear, but they cannot deny that I came to the House and ate an awful lot of humble pie because my officials got things wrong. As a Minister of State, I took responsibility for that, and we will go forward to make sure that we get it right. I repeat that there will be winners and losers; that is always going to be the case. Some people will be happier than others.

Mr Shuker: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I give way to the hon. Member for Luton North—Luton South; my apologies.

Mr Shuker: We are only neighbours; it is fine. I accept that Bedfordshire, like all forces, will not be perfect in every respect, but does the Minister concede, on a point about which I have heard him speak before, that Bedfordshire does not have masses of reserves lying around that it can use to tackle problems? I have heard, for example, that only £2.7 million is unallocated in the four-year medium-term plan. To suggest that in some way—physician, heal thyself—we can fix it without fixing the funding formula would be unfair.

Mike Penning: I have not suggested that. I have said time and again at this Dispatch Box and to the PCC and the chief constable that Bedfordshire does need help. That is why I put the deep dive into Bedfordshire, as well as into Lincolnshire, to see exactly what was going on. Fantastic work has been done in collaboration with the other local forces. The capabilities review, which I will come on to, is crucial in ensuring that many of the forces get the sort of help they need.

Every time I stand at this Dispatch Box, I say how proud I am to be the Policing Minister for England and Wales, but I have never been prouder than I was yesterday at Didcot. We have all seen Didcot on our TV screens, but only when I went there did I understand the scale of the industrial accident—I use that word advisedly, because a police and Health and Safety Executive inquiry is still going on. Half the building has collapsed. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are injured and the families of those who died. One family have had their loved one given back to them, but three of the bodies—I have to use that word, because we are in the recovery phase at the moment—are still underneath all the rubble. It will be some considerable time before it is safe to reclaim them so that their families can bury them and, understandably, grieve.

When I was at Didcot yesterday, I met some very young officers who arrived at the scene first. I can only imagine, even with the experiences I had in my different roles before I came to this House, what went through their minds. They went in one direction when lots of people were going in the other direction. There was a dust cloud, so at one stage they were not even sure where the incident was. There were lots of injured people and lots of people who needed help. The work that took place and the unbelievable teamwork that went on across the blue line during the incident was reported to me yesterday.

On behalf of the House and the country, I said thank you to every one of the emergency workers and personnel who were there, even down to the volunteer groups that came with tea and coffee. That happened literally within minutes because of the agreements that they had with the local police under the gold command. I said two things to them. I said that I was enormously proud, as Minister with responsibility for policing and fire issues, to be with them—there were also members of lots of other agencies—because they had done fantastically well. I also told them that what they saw on that afternoon would live with them for the rest of their lives. It was not physical injuries that I was talking about, but mental injuries.

We have touched on mental health today. The emergency services tend to be very macho, as do our armed forces, but post-traumatic stress can touch everybody—sometimes a couple of days later, sometimes a couple of years later and sometimes many years later. I have friends who served in the Falklands who have only started to suffer in the last couple of years. Our thoughts must be with those people.

A key thing that happened at Didcot—this is mentioned in the report—is that capabilities from other forces came to help. It was not just the traditional mutual aid that we saw in London a couple of weeks ago for the Syria conference, when armed response units came from all around the country, including from Northern Ireland—I was very proud to see the men and women in the green uniform on the streets of London. We must ask what we can learn from that. Are there lessons to be learned for our control rooms? There were lots of 999 calls. The police got the initial call, but there were also calls to the fire service, and there was a slight difference in terminology.

That shows why it is crucial in the funding review that we get the chiefs to tell us where their capabilities will sit. It looks quite simple initially: will they be in the force, whether it be Merseyside, Hertfordshire or the Met, in the regional organised crime units or at the National Crime Agency? Actually, it is much more complicated than that. As we touched on earlier, the forces have been doing work on joint capabilities for some considerable time. When we look at the new formula and at where the capabilities will be delivered from, it is crucial that we do not damage the work that has been done. We must not tell the forces to tear up the very close work that they have done and say, “You can’t do it there. It has to be done under the ROCU.” It is not for the Policing Minister to do that.

Alongside the funding review, the chief constables are coming forward with their own capabilities review. I cannot today give the House and the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee a timescale and date for the start of the new consultation, because I need that review to have reported to me. It would be ludicrous if I announced a new review and people said to me, “We will structure it this way” but then came back with another formula. I am not willing to do that.

Keith Vaz: The Minister has given us a pathway and timetable that we did not have before. Is he saying that as soon as the capabilities report comes to him, he will consider it and then start the funding review? Is that the timetable he is now setting in place?

Mike Penning: I am trying to be honest, as I always am when at the Dispatch Box or giving evidence to a Select Committee. Is this in my destiny today? Could I start a new consultation tomorrow? Yes I could, but I would not have the information within my grasp to do that. I have not got a date from Sara Thornton for that report. It is enormously difficult getting 43 police chiefs to agree where they will place their capabilities. For instance, East Midlands police covers homicide in the whole area, but most of the other ROCUs do not. Things such as cybercrime and encryption need to come with us because it should not be for the House or a Minister to tell chief constables “That’s what you should be doing”. The constables should be telling us where the capabilities will be, so that we can help with the funding formula.

Mr Gareth Thomas: The Minister will remember from the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) that there has been speculation that the review will be put off until 2019. I appreciate that the Minister cannot give a timetable, but can he categorically rule out it starting as late as that?

Mike Penning: No Minister would stand and give such categorical responses—I cannot, because that would be wrong. We are determined to ensure—the Met is crucial to this—that we have an understanding from the chiefs and the PCCs about where they are asking the capabilities to be delivered from, whether ROCUs, local collaboration or the NCA. Then we can come forward and get it right.

I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and her response was very measured, but when in government the Labour party said that it would implement this measure but it did not, and that is part of the discussion that we are having. Crime has massively changed since then.

Sarah Champion: The Minister is right to say that crime has massively changed. Does he share my concern that when we get data for online crime—fraud, grooming or abuse—the crime figures will spike?

Mike Penning: The National Audit Office suggested that that would be the case, and we have to accept that. That does not mean tomorrow morning, next week or next month when those figures are produced, that suddenly from that night on there is a 5 million or 6 million increase, or whatever the figure is, because it is happening to us all in our constituencies now. The difference is that we are going to publish it—the only way we can do this is to be honest about it and publish it. I do not know why previous Ministers did not publish that information in previous Administrations—believe it or not, I am not allowed to see those figures, because we are not allowed to do due diligence on what went on in previous Governments, and we are not allowed to see that guidance. I think it is because initially this issue was not taken seriously enough, and then people started to realise that it is actually a very difficult figure to pull together.

Richard Drax: I know from my constituency that Dorset is working with Devon and Cornwall, and other police forces are looking at how they run their blue- light services, including the ambulance service and fire brigade. Is the Minister saying that only when everyone has had a look at this issue in their various areas and come up with some joint policy that uses our resources and money better will he be able to say, “Okay, now we have various people doing different things. Now I will come up with some funding allocation”?

Mike Penning: I hope I did not say that because that is not what I intended to say. I intended to say that forces that have already collaborated should not be worse off by anything that we bring forward. The chiefs are doing their own capability review across policing—the collaboration with other services is a slightly different thing. Once I know where that delivery point will be and, in other words, where they think the services will be—they could be in ROCUs or local collaboration, as in my hon. Friend’s part of the country, or within the NCA, or within a force—we will have a basis for coming forward with a fairer formula.

Mr Kevan Jones: I want to ask a question about what the Minister is trying to achieve. If he is doing that now, why was it possible in the previous review to think that he could come up with a fair funding formula in eight weeks? What is the role of the Treasury? Is it still sitting on his shoulder trying to get savings, or are we starting with an entirely new process? One key thing that has been raised in the debate—I think the Minister realises it—is that he has to get the confidence back of chief constables, PCCs and the police family.

Mike Penning: I have broad shoulders, but they are not broad enough to take on the whole Treasury. However, the Treasury’s influence is only that it is a flat cash terms agreement for four years, not one year. That is the agreement we have. All the chiefs and PCCs know it. They did not know—they do now.

It would be wrong if I did not mention Scotland, not least because we heard a very interesting contribution from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and another one. I did not allow myself to get involved in the spat between the Labour party and the Scottish National party. All I can say is that I thought the SNP position was—I am almost lost for words—ridiculous. That is being polite. Suppose someone goes to their bank manager and asks for a loan of £10,000, £100,000 or even £1 million and he agrees it after looking at the business plan. If, as they walk out after presenting their business plan, they say to bank manager who is giving them the money, “By the way, I want another 20%,” he will laugh. I laughed when I first read that that is exactly what the Scottish National party have done.

Richard Arkless: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I will take an intervention in a minute, but we must try to understand that, if SNP Members put a business plan for a joint force in Scotland together and submit it, and accept that they are not going to get the 20%, how can they come to this House and bellyache?

Richard Arkless: I would make two points. First, when that person walks out of that bank and finds out that every single competitor on the street has better terms, it starts to rankle and they protest about it. Secondly, when we included that in our business plan, we made our protestations clear. We told the Government that we did not think it was right. We reserved the right to campaign on it for ever and a day. That is what we will do. The fact that it is agreed and in the plan does not make it right.

Mike Penning: If someone signs a contract and has an agreement, they are tied into it. At the end of the day—[Interruption.]They can protest as much as they want, but at the end of the day, they signed a contract that said, “No VAT”. They are now in that position where there is no VAT. [Interruption.] I am not going to give way.

Mr Speaker: Order. This is a disorderly way of proceeding. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) must not chunter from a sedentary position in hopeful anticipation of the Minister giving way. What he does is signal. If the Minister gives way, he can intervene.

Mike Penning: I am coming to a conclusion, not least because we debated this matter last week and two weeks before that. I have no idea why the Labour party called 

a debate last week, which has meant that fewer Members are in the Chamber today to debate the Select Committee’s report.

At the end of the day, all hon. Members want confidence that our police are there. They are there. We need to have confidence that crime is dropping. It is dropping. We need a different formula and we will try to provide one. I am sorry that I cannot give the Chair of the Committee the dates of each individual part, but I think he will understand why I want to get this absolutely spot on and right, which is why I have given the responses I have given today. It has been a sensible debate, even if I have not agreed with everything I have heard from Labour Members.

6.44 pm

Keith Vaz: This has been an excellent debate, with so many right hon. and hon. Members talking about their local areas. The passion and respect we have in this House for our local police force is quite obvious. I want to add my thanks to Simon Cole, the chief constable of Leicestershire, and to the men and women of Leicestershire police, especially with an hour to go until the next time they will be at the King Power stadium protecting the best football team in England—with apologies to what happened to your own team, Mr Speaker. It is just one example of wonderful policing work.

Mike Penning: I know that as an Arsenal supporter, you, Mr Speaker, will find it somewhat difficult to be listening to a Leicester supporter, especially after the weekend, but the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The policing of football grounds has changed massively. It is done completely differently. Thank goodness the sort of violence we used to see when I was younger is no longer there.

| Hansard