Daivd Ruffley MP tells Minister to stop wasting police time

Wednesday, 9 February, 2011

David Ruffley, MP spoke in the House of Commons on the 9th of February on the subject of national police funding and police red tape. It was praised by the Minister for Police and the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The full text of the debate can be found here http://tinyurl.com/65kk4rm . Mr RuffleyÕs speech and that of the Chairman and Minister are below. The video of Mr RuffleyÕs speech can be found here http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=7546.

David Ruffley : ÒIt is worth reminding ourselves and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)-after her, if I may say so, commendably feisty speech-that public spending constraint in this country is inevitable, because of record debt and record peacetime borrowing. The police services of this country cannot be exempt from the tough decisions that the Government make. Frankly, a Government who did not make those decisions would not be worthy of the name.

The police grant report before us shows that central Government funding for policing will fall by 20% in real terms by 2014-15. If the precept rises that are forecast in the Office for Budget Responsibility report to 2014-15 take effect-we have no reason to think that they will not-the real-terms cut will be 14%. In considering those stark figures, we should also have regard to two statistics. The first is that there was a 5% increase in police numbers between 2004 and 2009. In 2004, when there were 5% fewer police officers, I do not recall the world or the ceiling caving in.

We also know that police services in this country since 1997 have been incredibly well resourced. I must pay a debt of honour to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who was my opposite number when I was the shadow policing Minister. He was part of a Labour Home Office that invested in the police service over the years, and from 1997 there was a 20% real-terms increase in policing. I do not recall our ever voting against those measures on police grants. So let us recall that a huge amount of money has been put into the police service in recent times.

I should like to place on record what the Suffolk police authority is receiving this year, compared with previous years. The Home Office principal formula police grant in 2008-09 was £40.2 million. In 2009-10, it was £41.5 million. The figure for 2010-11 is £42.8 million, and for 2011-12, the first year of this grant settlement, it is £45.9 million. It is forecast to fall in 2012-13 to £42.8 million for the county of Suffolk. The total formula grant, which includes moneys from the Department for Communities and Local Government settlement, was £69.2 million in 2008-09, rising to £71 million in 2009-10, to £72.7 million in 2010-11 and to £73.2 million in 2011-12. The total formula grant for policing in the county of Suffolk will fall to £68.3 million in 2012-13.

I will meet the Chief Constable of Suffolk, Simon Ash, shortly to discuss how those numbers will impact on policing on the ground. Here, today, we need to ask ourselves what Ministers are going to be able to do to ensure that these funding constraints do not undermine crime prevention and detection. In short, how will law-abiding citizens be kept safe from crime and from the fear of crime? The answer must be that the police will have to do more with less, and there should be scope for that.

Again, I pay tribute to the previous Labour Government to the extent that they managed to increase the number of police posts to 147,000-a record in this country's history. Sadly, however, they did not ensure that those officers spent more time on patrol. I will not repeat the statistic from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford used earlier. Instead, I will use one that the hon. Member for Gedling gave me when I was shadowing him. He told me that patrol officers themselves-not all police officers, and not CID-spent an average of 14% of their time on patrol. That was the statistic at the time of the last general election. Most of my constituents would find that not only utterly unbelievable but utterly unacceptable.

I am not going to lay the blame for that on the previous Labour Administration. The problem of police bureaucracy has been going on for a lot longer than that. This bureaucratic mindset is certainly not the fault of police officers, who, in my experience, especially of Suffolk constabulary, are professionals dedicated to protecting the public from harm. It is the fault of the many-headed hydra of bureaucracy, with its so-called police "doctrine", paperwork, process and systems, that has been building up over decades. It embeds a risk-averse culture, and it stifles any can-do approach in policing.

Bureaucracy is wasting police time. I contend that, if we are to ask the police to do more with less, we have to take an axe to the bureaucracy and mean it. Unfortunately, under successive Governments of both political stripes, Ministers have too often reached for the political rhetoric of "a bonfire of regulations" and so forth. Rarely has that rhetoric been followed up with tough ministerial action to repeal unnecessary secondary legislation and unnecessary primary legislation to allow the police to get on with the job.

If we are to ask the police to do more with less, it seems incumbent on the Government of the day to reduce the burden on ordinary, hard-working police constables-an issue that has implications for the police officer numbers debate. Commenting recently on the spending reductions that were in prospect under the previous Government as much as they are under the present one, Chief Superintendent Steve Hartley of the Bolton force in Lancashire said:

"We have got to be clear-success isn't just founded on numbers. It's how we use people. This is not just about cuts. It's about how we get our officers in the right places at the right time for the right reasons."

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) suggested, counting the number of police officers in uniform is not a realistic measure, in the current climate, of what constitutes good and effective law and order, or good and effective policing. Surely, as a matter of logic-I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, who is an extremely bright parliamentarian and understands numbers-it is not beyond the wit of man or all of us in the House to understand that what counts is the number of visible police hours delivered by a constabulary, not just the uniformed officers it has. If one hour out of every seven of a patrol officer's time is spent on patrol, surely we can agree that, in principle, that one hour could be increased to two, three or even four hours if we cut the bureaucracy on the police.

The role of Ministers comes into play here. That bureaucracy cannot be cut by the Police Federation or by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and it certainly cannot be cut by the police constable on the street. It has to come from the top. Bureaucracy reduction must come, in the first instance, from policing Ministers.

Since the general election, I have heard that 800,000 police hours have been saved by the current Government as a result of the abolition of the stop and account form and the streamlining of stop-and-search procedures. That is a paltry amount if we realise that there are more than 147,000 police officers-we have got to do better than that. I would be grateful if the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice set my mind at rest on this point in his concluding speech.

Two reports by Jan Berry were commissioned by the previous Labour Government-quite sensibly, as she is a well-respected and intelligent former chair of the Police Federation, which had representation on her working body, as did ACPO, members of the public, clever civil servants and others. The task was to produce a list of measures to reduce bureaucracy and red tape on our hard-working, front-line police officers. I would like to rattle through some of the bigger ticket items that struck me as important, on which I believe we should take action. I am citing from the list of conclusions in the final report produced by her reducing bureaucracy taskforce, which said:

"Consider evaluation of the Modernising Charging Pilots with a view to rolling out improved arrangements where charging decisions are taken by the appropriate person according to the complexity and seriousness of offence."

My right hon. Friend the Minister has done some work on that, as indeed have I. The idea was that we should look again at the statutory charging regime that the previous Government introduced in 2004, and establish whether a charging sergeant could charge people with more offences in the "triable either way" category without the need for an automatic reference to the Crown Prosecution Service beforehand.

It is a thorny issue. We can see the logic behind the introduction of statutory charging-it was intended to reduce the number of cracked trials and discontinuances, which were extremely expensive for the Courts Service and for Government generally-but there is a definite sense that it has reduced the rapidity with which charging sergeants in custody suites can charge someone who is pretty likely to plead guilty, having been caught red-handed. We do not need sergeants in custody suites hanging around waiting for the CPS. All too few police stations have a CPS lawyer on site to give a quick and simple instruction or approval to the sergeant in question; most do not benefit from that luxury.

The second suggestion by Jan Berry's team that struck me, because I have some experience of it as well, was that we should remove the requirement to complete disclosure schedules-which must be written out laboriously by uniformed officers because that is what is provided by the relevant primary legislation, although we all know that they must be checked by the CPS eventually in any case-prior to first hearing in the magistrates court. It was also suggested that we should consider shifting the trigger point for more serious offences in the Crown court to the point at which a not guilty plea is entered.

Another hardy annual is, of course, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000- "the grim RIPA", as it is sometimes called-and the way in which it is applied to relatively routine direct surveillance operations. For instance, a police constable may wish to carry out surveillance of a supermarket car park because he has reasonable grounds for believing that a great deal of breaking and entering is taking place. Some police forces, amazingly-although not all-interpret the RIPA guidance and the statutory codes as meaning that a constable must obtain a RIPA written authorisation from his superiors, which can be extremely time-consuming, before he can go to the car park and hide behind a wall to see whether any villains are going to start breaking into cars. We must do something about that kind of ridiculous approach to applying RIPA and observing the statutory codes. One option would be to rewrite the codes. The hon. Member for Gedling said that he was interested in that option. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that action is being taken in regard to RIPA and similar procedures.

Let us talk about this. Let us tell the police officers on the ground what we are doing for them: what the House of Commons is doing to cut the nonsensical amount of bureaucracy under which they labour. They have had enough, the public have had enough, I have had enough, and I am sure that the Minister has had enough-not of what I am saying, but of the ridiculous, endless use of rhetoric and the absence of action. Let us see the Home Office get a grip.

The next issue that I want to raise has been discussed with me by the esteemed Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). At the beginning of 2009, there were four pilot schemes in Leicestershire, the west midlands, Staffordshire and Surrey. I do not want to be too "anoraky" about the subject, but the gist of the objective was to slim down the crime and incident recording part of the duty of a police officer who arrests someone for, say, shoplifting in a store. Could not the information simply be written on a side of A4, or the equivalent on a hand-held device? It would be useful to know whether those pilots have been rolled out to every single police force in the country; and, if not, what powers does the Minister have to ensure that that is done? On many occasions, I have been wearily told that this is a matter for chief constables. The time has come for a bit of centralisation that works, in order to ensure that police forces adopt sensible common-sense procedures to reduce bureaucracy.

One key element of reducing bureaucracy and saving police time-so that officers can spend more time on patrol, apart from anything else-is getting rid of the double or treble keying of information. That is the phenomenon by which sometimes a single piece of information, such as a suspect's address, name or date of birth, has to be keyed into different forms even if they are online because of the incompatibility of certain IT systems. It is all very easy to say, "Well, let's just get better IT," but the fact is that this is a very difficult and complicated issue. There are also huge resource implications in junking legacy systems, and although having one national computer system might speed things up in theory, it is not really an idea of this world. I would be grateful if the Minister gave a short answer to the question of what we are doing about having a national set of police forms available on one IT platform.

Reducing bureaucracy is the most important thing this House and Government can do to ensure the money set out in this grant goes further and is spent in a smarter way. But there is another area that should also be addressed: the general efficiency agenda, which my right hon. Friend the Minister spoke about so compellingly and, I know, from a deep well of knowledge. I just want to strike a note of caution. Having worked in the Treasury under my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and having also done the policing job as a shadow Minister in the previous Parliament, I got rather tired of the alphabet soup of consultants from PWC, KPMG and Deloitte who would regularly-and for huge sums of money, so far as I could work out-pile into a constabulary, do a report stating the mind-numbingly obvious about how the police could speed things up, and then promptly decamp. The police might follow the recommended procedures for a year or two, but the lessons they had been taught by these highly paid consultants were often forgotten, and even if not forgotten were not able to deliver the serious efficiency gains of the magnitude my right hon. Friend the Minister is talking about in the context of this settlement. We need smarter procurement, shared back-office services and, most importantly, mandated collaboration.

In concluding, I want to ask the Minister two final questions that are key to those of us who want this police grant to represent value for money so we get the most bang for our buck. First, I echo a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) about police authorities and chief constables needing to do the right thing by getting on with collaborating to save money and to squeeze efficiencies out of their budgets. In my experience-and history tells us this, too-the likelihood is that they are not going to do that if left to do so on an ad hoc basis. Therefore, when the Minister starts mandating, will he also consider imposing financial penalties on police authorities that do not mandate and do not deliver police efficiencies?

My final and most important plea is this: if we are to be taken seriously as a Government who are keen to achieve our goals, for public interest reasons and because we want the police to spend more time on patrol and less time behind their desks, we have to show that we are serious about tackling bureaucracy. Will the Minister undertake to produce an annual report to Parliament setting out the procedures, forms and processes he has abolished with an estimate by each item of the number of police hours saved as a result of those cuts in bureaucracy? I hope that my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity to use mandated collaboration and attach penalties to it, and to make a report to Parliament telling us how many police hours he has saved each year he has been the Minister, and I hope he is the Minister for a very long timeÓ

Keith Vaz : ÒIt is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), and given the risk of having the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) make throat-cutting signs at me, as well, I will try to be as brief as possible. We started off talking about police cuts, but I think we will soon have cuts to this debate. We have heard excellent speeches and I am sure that the House, eager to get on to the next business, will not want me to detain it for too long on this subject.

This is a very important subject, however, and I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds, who made a thoughtful and eloquent speech. It was right for him to praise the work of the previous Government, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and the fact that there was such investment in the police service. He was right to praise them for the amount of money they spent, which has resulted, of course, as he then told us, in the economic problem that is affecting the country, and the need, in this Government's view, to try to cut that expenditure.

What was important about the speech of the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds is that he concentrated on the bread-and-butter issues that sometimes elude us when we discuss these matters in the House. Front-Benchers are rightly concerned about numbers; indeed, the police grant debate is getting very much like a debate on immigration, in which Front-Benchers rightly concentrate on numbers. However, to the public, the real issue is, how does this affect them in their constituencies? How does it affect the local police force? Are they going to get less of a service than they had before the suggested changes?

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), whom we in the Home Affairs Select Committee greatly miss, has his own version of dealing with these cuts. He has set up a help zone, so if anyone needs a policeman, they do not necessarily have to go to the local police station; they can visit the hon. Gentleman's staff. I am glad he paid tribute to his staff, because the number of calls they get will probably increase as a result of his contribution today.

Chief constables have rightly taken up the challenge set by this Government, and their tone has changed enormously since the proposals were announced. Certainly, the tone of the chief constable of Manchester, in his latest press release of 9 February, is quite different from the one he adopted before, when he lamented the number of police officers who would be taken off his payroll. Now he is saying that he welcomes the need for collaboration; indeed, I think he said in the final sentence of his press release that he was "upbeat" about the cuts. Of course, that contrasts with what he has said before, and certainly contrasts with the quotes given to this House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who has quoted other chief constables who are very concerned. I am not sure whether it is because one chief constable is starting off their career and another is ending theirs; but the fact is that they are in a very difficult position.

The Minister is going to have to accept that, during his term as Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice-the Select Committee has always found him extremely helpful and courteous in providing us with information-there are going to be fewer police officers. It is difficult for him to say that, and certainly difficult for someone like me, who, in debates such as this in 23 years in this House, has always expected Conservative Ministers and shadow Ministers-and, indeed, Liberal Democrats-to ask for more police officers, rather than fewer. However, fewer officers is the inevitable consequence, and whether the figure is the 10,000 talked about by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the smaller figure mentioned by the Government-we do not have a precise figure from them-or the 20,000 referred to by the Police Federation, the fact is there will be fewer police officers.

This is, therefore, a big challenge, which is why I welcome what the Minister said about procurementÓ

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Of course. Unless it is to tell me that I have to stop, I will certainly give way to my hon. Friend.

ÒAs if I would. My right hon. Friend talks about the work of his Committee. The Minister said that although the damping mechanism was applied this time, it may not be in the future, at a cost of a further £30 million of cuts to Northumbria police in the future. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to seek to work very closely with the Government should those changes to that formula and mechanism ever come to fruition?Ó

ÒThe Select Committee is always keen to work with the Government. I do not wish to prejudge the report on police finances that we will be publishing in a fortnight's time. The Minister gave good evidence to the Committee, providing some interesting figures, and the House will have to wait for that report to see what members of the Committee have had to say.

The Minister is right to focus on procurement. He is also right to say that 80% of the budget relates to staffing, but that does not mean that we should not examine the issue of procurement. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is not in his place, talked about this issue, and Essex and Kent police, along with other police authorities, are working together.

One of the real questions for the previous Government is why we had 13 years of record expenditure but perhaps not the challenges that ought to have been made by Ministers about how the money was spent-that is not a criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. I am not saying that the money was misspent, but it is important to examine what happened to that expenditure.

The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds discussed bureaucracy. I think that he will find agreement on that issue across the whole House but, as he said, we tend to talk about these things but what really matters is implementation. That brings me to my third and penultimate point, which relates to the new landscape of policing. I say to the Minister that we do not yet have a narrative on crime and crime reduction from this Government. We have had some ambitious plans. The Select Committee has never worked so hard to keep up with the number of changes that the Government are envisaging, first with the police and crime commissioners, then with changes on police financing and then on the new landscape of policing. However, we needed to have some kind of a template before we embarked on those major changes.

We know that the Government want to abolish the Serious Organised Crime Agency and that the National Policing Improvement Agency is going to go, but it should have been up to the NPIA to give leadership to local police forces on procurement. What is going to happen now? It seems that individual forces will be charged for access to the databases of the new national crime agency. What worries me about the budget is that that has not been factored in. It is vital that we know what extra charges will fall on local police forces as a result of the creation of the national crime agency.

My final point is that whatever budgets a local police authority puts in place, a police and crime commissioner will be elected. As the House knows, the previous Government changed their position on the election of members of police authorities. Now that the Government have decided that this is what they want to do, people should allow police and crime commissioners the opportunity to manage the local police force. However, they will be inheriting a budget that has been set by a previous police authority, and the demands from the newly elected police and crime commissioners for more police officers will be much more important to the Government than even the demands from Labour Members.

So there is still much work to be done on the landscape of policing and I do not think we can accept the current situation as being the end. Many right hon. and hon. Members, including some from Liverpool and Staffordshire, and the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Bury St Edmunds, have pointed out that there will be fewer officers, and that does mean a reduction in service. How local police forces deal with that depends on the leadership of Ministers, which I hope will be forthcomingÓ

Nick Herbert: ÒWith the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to the points that hon. Members have made. First, I have listened to the points made by the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and I understand the implications for forces that raise less money from local council tax payers. I have explained why the decision we took was fair, I have said that we will continue to discuss these issues and the impacts on forces, and I am happy to have a meeting.

I always pay attention to the views of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I believe we have set out in clear terms how the police landscape must change, but his remarks will no doubt move me to make a further speech on the issue, a copy of which I will of course send to him, to clarify the position. I draw his and the House's attention to the speech I gave to the City Forum two weeks ago when I set out in terms how the savings that we need to achieve could be made.

I commend the speeches of my hon. Friends, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), who admonished the House about the drive to reduce bureaucracy. I took every word he said seriously. The Government will say more about this and we are driving this issue, as is the leadership of the police service. We have made progress but there is more to do. I shall write to my hon. Friend regarding his additional points about how we should secure the very important reductions in the bureaucratic burden on the police.

I particularly welcomed the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has had to leave the Chamber. They focused on how resources are deployed rather than just on the amount of money.

Both sides, including the Opposition, admit that police funding has to be cut, so both sides must recognise that that must mean the overall police work force will fall. What is totally disreputable about the Opposition's attack is that they would cut funding and they know that that would mean a smaller work force, but they still mounted that political attack. The public will see through it. In dismissing the finding in the HMIC report that police availability and visibility is too low, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) shows that she is new to the job and has homework to do. The report says:

"The fact is that general availability, in which we include neighbourhood policing and response, is relatively low."

She should pay attention to the inspectorate's recommendations rather than dismissing them so lightly after just a few weeks in her jobÓ