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  Neighbourhood Policing

 

 
This speech was given as part of a debate in the House of Commons on 15 October 2003.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I shall try to be brief, as I know that other Members wish to speak. Our motion states that we believe that the Government are seeking to achieve their aims

"through a burdensome and ineffective bureaucracy",

a phrase that the Government amendment seeks to strike out. In listening to this debate, I have been struck by the fact that most contributors, including our own Front Benchers and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) - he now speaks on these matters - have made it clear that the situation is burdensome. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman used such phrases several times, yet he has been in his job for only 24 hours. I should like to hear the Minister acknowledge that the police still face an excessive burden.

I went out on patrol with the Norfolk constabulary a few months ago, and before doing so I visited the new headquarters, which is in my constituency, and the local Wymondham police station. The officers there showed me all the forms that they have to fill out; indeed, they spread them out over a huge conference table, which the forms more or less covered. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is writing this down, and I can tell her that the forms were supplied not by Norfolk constabulary but from the centre, and that local officers were forced to comply with them.

If the Minister does not believe that the system is now too burdensome and bureaucratic, perhaps she will take the word of the chief constable of the Norfolk constabulary. His report of 26 August to the Norfolk police authority enumerates the problems that the police have been facing. We are familiar with the problems that many police forces have had to absorb: additional tasks in support of, or compliance with, extra initiatives, legislation and processes, including best value; data collection for performance indicators; efficiency planning; annual reports; performance planning; consultation; activity-based costing; and various legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998, the working time directive, and legislation on information and security, and on freedom of information. There are also the diversity issues that constabularies now have to contend with, the implementation of the recommendations of the Climbié report, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, equal opportunities provisions, the implementation of the Police Reform Act 2002, and so on. Those, of course, impose extra burdens as well as extra costs, but there is the additional problem of the funding process itself, which imposes still further costs.

The chief constable of Norfolk expressed in his report to the police authority the constabulary's concern that Government policy

"seems to provide funding more and more by discrete ring-fenced packages rather than through the general formula, often on a bidding basis which is competitive between Forces. This causes a great deal of work on the part of individual Forces, often at short notice and with the prospect that this work may not result in funding being allocated and may therefore be nugatory. Even when bids are successful, a huge bureaucratic process is attached to grant claims, monitoring and reporting expenditure, and auditing, and, typically, the long-term continuation of ring-fenced funding streams is not guaranteed."

I know that the Minister said recently that she would like to see, where possible, a reduction in the amount of ring-fenced grants, and I urge her to take that commitment seriously. Where such funding is necessary, it should be as clearly defined as possible and requirements should be given to constabularies as early as possible.

Even if the Government believe that they are doing their best, I would like them to acknowledge that there is still a long way to go in reducing burdens on the police. I quote again from the chief constable's report, which said that police staff were

"being subjected to an increasing burden of form-filling, paperwork and bureaucracy arising from numerous statutory and other initiatives, target-setting and performance monitoring that is significantly diverting resources from front-line policing."

He was talking about August this year, and continued:

"We accept that the police service must be fully accountable and open to scrutiny but we feel that the balance has tilted too far in one direction."

I would like the Government to acknowledge that the balance has indeed tilted too far in one direction. Much more radical action is necessary to tilt that balance back in the other direction and I hope that the Minister will confirm that in her response tonight.