West Midlands Police (Funding) - [Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Mike Wood: It is a pleasure to be called to participate in my first Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in congratulating Richard Burden on securing the debate on this extremely important topic. As the son of a west midlands police officer, who served for nearly 30 years in West Midlands police and before that in the Birmingham force, through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and mid-’90s, this issue is important to me personally. The future of West Midlands police is obviously dear to me, as well as vital to my constituents.

I appreciate that time is short, and I will try to keep my remarks brief and avoid repeating things that have already been said better by my right hon. and hon. Friends. As has been said, we have seen crime levels fall by 17% in the west midlands over the last few years. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield that the crime has changed, but I do not accept his assertion that crime levels have not fallen. The evidence is that, however crime is measured, the trend generally points in the same direction. If anything, the scale of the fall, on other measures, is greater than 17%.

 

Jess Phillips  Birmingham, Yardley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is absolutely not the case with crimes such as domestic and sexual violence?

 

Mike Wood: Sorry, but whether we take our crime figures from the police or the victims of crime surveys, the general trend in the west midlands and nationally is down. Of course, some sections of crime—the hon. Lady is right to identify domestic violence as an issue—have had a large impact on recent crime figures. Domestic violence is, of course, an important issue, which West Midlands police has to address; and it is, in fact, working hard to do that.

The work being done to reduce crime across the west midlands has come at a time when the Government have had to take extremely difficult decisions, and they will continue to do so. That is despite the scare stories we have had since day one, when we were told that decisions that have now been taken would inevitably lead to apocalyptic outcomes, but that is not what we have seen. Of course, we all want the best funding settlement for West Midlands police, but we should be careful about accepting at face value some of the more apocalyptic predictions.

As I said, West Midlands police has achieved significant reductions with reduced budgets. We are fortunate to have a police force that is innovating and that has shown that it is, where appropriate, prepared to work with the private sector to deliver the police service we need. Its success in that field has been recognised as outstanding by HMIC.

 

James Morris ​(Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the innovative work of West Midlands police, and I can think of one area where that has been somewhat understated. West Midlands police identified a problem with people with mental health conditions being put in inappropriate locations. They are now working in an innovative partnership with the NHS, and there has been a huge reduction in the number of people being put in inappropriate locations under the Mental Health Act 1983.

 

 

Mike Wood: I absolutely agree, and I was fortunate enough to join my hon. Friend on a visit to see that initiative. We accompanied the team as it responded to a call, which it dealt with in a way that ensured that the person involved received appropriate medical care, rather than ending up in a police cell, which was clearly the worst place for them. Police forces around the country could learn a lot from the work being pioneered in the west midlands.

The West Midlands police force is clearly being ambitious in its plans, but we have to ensure that taxpayers in Dudley South and across the west midlands get a fair deal. That means making sure not only that the funding settlement is fair to the west midlands, but that the money is spent effectively. The heart of the Conservative approach is that we must fix the roof while the sun shines.

That does not mean that things are perfect or anywhere near perfect. The police funding system does not work as it should—it is complex, opaque and out of date. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, the damping system seriously disadvantages the west midlands, and it has done so for the past 10 years, since the last Labour Government introduced it. That needs to be addressed as part of the review. That is why it is right that the Government focus on replacing the existing funding formula with a simpler one, but we must make sure that forces such as the West Midlands get the deal they deserve and need. The new funding formula needs to reward forces that innovate and that succeed in bringing down crime. It also needs to recognise the level of underlying crime that remains in the west midlands, as well as the need to tackle it and the resources that are required to do so.

The West Midlands force is the second largest in the country, and there is a need for funding that reflects that. However, too often it also seems that we do not get the full 100p for each pound of police funding, and we have seen questionable uses of that funding. Only last week we heard of a local police officer receiving almost £33,000 in overtime alone. I think there is perhaps rather more to that than appears in the newspapers, but that is clearly not an ideal or efficient way to allocate resources. The overtime bill for 39 forces in England and Wales rose by £6 million last year, and it has totalled more than £1 billion over the last three years.

 

Julian Knight (Solihull)

My hon. Friend is making some important points. He is spotting many of the inefficiencies that already exist, including in relation to the office of the police and crime commissioner. Will he comment on the fact that the commissioner has reserves of up to £100 million and that £30 million has been spent on Lloyd house?

 

Mike Wood: My constituents have certainly come to me with concerns about how West Midlands police is using, or intends to use, those reserves to make sure that the best possible service is provided. Yes, people were surprised—

 

Jess Phillips  Birmingham, Yardley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

 

Mike Wood: If I could just finish a sentence, I will give way.

People are surprised at the use of £33 million to refurbish Lloyd house. I understand that there were some contractual obligations, but the situation is obviously not sustainable. Tying up so much of the force’s resources in a prime property in Birmingham city centre is not delivering the police service we need.

 

 

Jess Phillips  Birmingham, Yardley

 

I agree, as I am sure everybody here does, that we must spend our resources wisely, so does the hon. Gentleman feel that the £4 million spent as part of a flawed policy on an exceptionally flawed by-election, which was badly managed by the Home Office, was a good use of spending?

 

 

Mike Wood: I campaigned in last year’s by-election. Obviously I was not happy with it being in August or with the result, but we have to move past both those factors.

The current police allocation formula is clearly outdated and in desperate need of reform. I will respond to the Home Office consultation as soon as I work out what some of the questions refer to.

 

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South)

Is it opaque?

 

 

Mike Wood: Some of the model does, as the hon. Lady suggests, lack clarity. The lack of detail about how the five factors involved are to be incorporated and the information they are based on makes it difficult to understand how a new formula would affect the west midlands. That is a serious problem, which I hope the Minister will reflect on. It certainly makes it difficult for me and other Members to understand how a change would affect our constituents.

More broadly, as well as needing a fair funding formula that delivers fair funding for the west midlands, we must accept that it is not sustainable in the long term for 87% of the funding to come from central Government grant. As the former finance spokesman on Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, I am the first to argue for council tax bills to be kept as low as possible. However, I hope the Minister will discuss with DCLG colleagues whether there might be some way to introduce an element of flexibility into the referendum criteria, as happened in previous years, recognising low-precepting authorities and perhaps setting a cash ceiling that would trigger a referendum, rather than a straight percentage increase. West Midlands fire service certainly took advantage of that three or four years ago. It would help to put West Midlands police on to a more sustainable footing if the balance between centrally and locally funded streams were addressed better.

It is clear that the police reform that is happening locally is working. West Midlands police have been working to identify and respond to crime, and crime has fallen. I want to express my thanks to West Midlands police force, my local police officers and, of course, the West Midlands police leadership, from the chief constable down.