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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Police authorities must analyse their budgets very carefully to justify any precept increases, or they could face council tax capping, Home Office minister Hazel Blears told MPs.

It became clear during Home Office questions that government is concerned about the financing of police and support staff such as community wardens, key priorities - especially given Labour's achievement in increasing the number of police staff.

The issue was first raised by James Paice, Conservative MP for South-East Cambridgeshire, who welcomed the increase numbers of police officers, even though, he said, they were being paid for by council tax increases rather than by the government. The government had said that next year there would be an increase in spending on the police of 4% to include formula spending, the specific grant and Home Office direct expenditure.

'Yet the Association of Police Authorities says that it needs an increase of 6% just to stand still', said Mr Paice.

'Is it right? If so, by how much will council tax go up, or will we see fewer police next year?'

Ms Blears said over the past three years there had been an increase of about 25% in financial support for the police. The government was due to announce the police settlement in mid-November and the Home Office was doing all it could to maximise support for police authorities.

She warned, however, that government expected police authorities to justify any budget increases - and she was sure that was what they were determined to do.

Later, on a specific question on police authority precepts from David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, junior Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart said the use of reserve capping powers in England was a matter for deputy prime minister John Prescott. The government was clear that the trend in council tax rises was not sustainable.

She added: 'We hope that capping will not be necessary for any police authority. The public rightly e xpect continued improvement in policing services. I expect police authorities to set budgets next year that ensure further improvements without placing excessive burdens on the local taxpayer'.

Dismissing the reply, Mr Heath commented: 'That was an exercise in wishful thinking if I ever heard one. The police authorities themselves estimate that next year the average council tax increase will be 15% just so that they can stand still - and that comes on top of the 24.5% actual average increase last year'.

He said the minister could not have it both ways. Was her policy that there should be unacceptable increases in council tax or unacceptable reductions in police numbers? he asked.

Peter Pike, Labour MP for Burnley, said he and other Lancashire members had met representatives of Lancashire police authority who gave a blueprint of what they believed the county's policing needed in the years ahead. It would mean a massive increase in the police budget.

Mr Pike said the problem with financing the police through council tax was that people tended to look at the total tax demand and the overall tax increase. In his area there were three tiers: the police authority, Lancashire CC and Burnely BC. The gearing of the tax had resulted in an unfair system of taxation.

Ms Mactaggart agreed, saying councils and police authorities should put the best possible case for extra resources.

She added he was right to point to the consequences of gearing, whereby an extra 1% on the council precept for police spending required a 4% increase in the amount charged to the local council taxpayer. That system had been introduced by the Conservative government and people were still suffering as a result.

Hansard 27 Oct 2003: Column 1 - 4; 13 - 15

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