Tom Richmond: Heads should roll over police budget shambles

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WHY has no one at the Home Office taken personal responsibility and resigned for crimes against accounting – and basic competence – which have thrown police budgets across the country into chaos and confusion?

I ask this question at the end of a challenging week in which Home Secretary Theresa May’s hapless deputy, Mike Penning, was dragged to the House of Commons to confirm that the Government’s new funding formula was being scrapped because of the threat of legal action from a number of predominantly rural forces, including North Yorkshire, who had argued – powerfully – that the new budget calculations were flawed from the outset.

Though the Government has, belatedly, admitted that it had made a statistical mistake, it does not excuse the ill-feeling that has been engendered by this episode. It will be difficult to trust future pronouncements from the Home Office until this supposedly “great office of state” can prove its competence.

Why? Having come up with a new funding method to ensure that urban and rural constabularies receive funding that is commensurate with their population levels and policing needs, I cannot believe that the Home Office’s top officials did not check the veracity of the new data.

Before informing chief constables and crime commissioners of their projested allocations, why did Ministers, including the aforementioned Mrs May, not interrogate their officials on the intricacies of the new system before it was signed off? After all, this is the first test for any new product developed by industry.

Yet what happens? Letters are sent out to the 43 forces in England and Wales in which some constabularies, like West and South Yorkshire, receive a slightly better settlement than intended while others soon discover that no recognition has been given to the cost of policing areas which welcome a large number of tourists and visitors each year.

Ministers then accuse the crime commissioners of being misinformed, and vice-versa, before the Conservative Government pleads guilty, after Tory crime tsars, including Julia Mulligan from North Yorkshire, threatened to seek a judicial review against their own party. Her case was compelling – North Yorkshire was set to lose just over £4m, and be left with 10 police community support officers covering more than 3,341 square miles.

When a contrite Mr Penning finally issued a rambling apology, he suffered the embarrassment of being rebuked by the Speaker because Ministers had decreed– wrongly – that this matter did not constitute urgent business. John Bercow said MPs would concur that the Home Office “suffered from the quite material disadvantage of being wrong”.

Where Mr Bercow erred, however, was with his unnecessary intervention when Dewsbury backbencher Paula Sherriff questioned Mr Penning.

She said: “The director general of policing sent the letter outlining the error on Thursday 5 November. Is the Minister honestly telling us he was not made aware of its contents until Friday?” Sadly, the use of the world “honestly” was ruled out of order because it breached the assumption that all Ministers are honest when making statements to the House.

So what? The plain truth of the matter is that the Government changed the funding formula, made a hash of it and then tried to defend the indefensible. Still that’s what you get when David Cameron appoints Mike Penning, a former fireman with next to no experience of running a business or major government department, to the role of Policing Minister because he wants to prove that the Tories are, once again, the party of the working classes. Competence and ability should always be the defining tests.

Though some will praise Mr Penning for not blaming civil servants, this brings me back to my original question, ahead of a Spending Review that is likely to be based on the type of calculations used by the Home Office, and which has left police forces none the wiser about their future budget plans.

This is a resignation issue and the Home Office should set up a new independent panel, as advocated by Mrs Mulligan, to allocate funds in the future.

It couldn’t do a worse job.

NOT content with absenting themselves from Parliament for three weeks during the party conference season, MPs have enjoyed a three-day break from the House of Commons due to a mini-November recess.

Why? There’s plenty to discuss, not least the European Union renegotiation, House of Lords reform and how rural areas can receive fairer funding in the future.

This simply plays into the hands of all those who believe that there are too many MPs, and that they’ve got too much time to pursue their own interests.

For, before MPs broke up to make way for a Youth Parliament event yesterday, they did find time to hold an adjournment debate on the protection of hedgehogs and their habitats.

You could not make it up.

TALKING of the House of Lords, I can’t understand this mania with appointing supposedly full-time working peers who then contribute very little to Parliamentary proceedings.

As I said last week, it is proving impossible for Dido Harding to perform her dual role as chief executive of the beleaguered phone company TalkTalk while manning the Tory benches in the Upper House.

The same can be said of Sebastian Coe. According to Hansard, his last speech in the Lords was on October 25, 2011, and I’m guessing his duties as president of the IAAF will take precedence as athletics struggles following the latest doping scandal to rock the sport. Perhaps the title Lord Coe should be made redundant.

NOW this year’s Remembrance commemorations have drawn to a close, please can I respectfully request a change in tone so future events are not overshadowed by a running commentary by the national media on the elegance of the Duchess of Cambridge’s latest frock or whether Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was suitably dignified when he nodded his head at the Cenotaph.

Neither should be allowed to detract from the importance of remembering those who gave their tomorrow for our today – it is frankly insulting to Britain’s war dead to trivialise such services as fashion parades or to use them to score snide political points.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk