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Mark Wallace: We need a better system for funding the police

Mark_wallace Mark Wallace of The TaxPayers' Alliance cites the recent experience of Lincolnshire - where the police are at the bottom of the national funding league - to support his case.

The troublesome issue of police precepts has reared its head again this week. Most of the time, council tax is simply discussed as one lump sum, and the responsibility for its level is placed at the door of the local authority alone. It’s often forgotten that in that total is a slice for policing, as well as a slice for the fire service, set by their respective authorities.

Policing is one of the highest priorities amongst the public, so it is strange that we still have such an arcane and unaccountable system for raising funds for it. That system frustrates the public, who feel disenfranchised and powerless when it comes to demanding more and better policing, and the police themselves, who have to play a bizarre game to try to get more funds.

More than anywhere else, it is in Lincolnshire that the police precept has become an issue. By freak of history and the complexities of the calculations carried out in the Home Office to determine funding, Lincolnshire Constabulary receive the lowest amount of funding per head of population of any police force. As their Chief Constable concedes, someone has to be bottom of the funding table, but they feel that they are underfunded, arguing that the Home Office’s equations fail to provide for Lincolnshire’s population patterns properly.

It is at this point that the current funding system starts to get in the way. Instead of being able to go to the people directly with their case for more money, the Police Authority have to play a weird game of PR cat and mouse with the Government.

Apparently the PA decided to shock the Government into giving them more money by budgeting a massive increase in the local police precept – 79% to be precise. This, I suspect, was less a serious figure that they expected to be approved but a publicity device to draw attention to their claims for greater central funding. The Government immediately exercised their capping power, and restricted the increase to a not inconsiderable 26%.

The losers in this first, rather bizarre, skirmish were Lincolnshire’s taxpayers, who have to foot a £380,000 bill for reissuing the whole county’s tax bills to show the reduced police charge. Ironically, this will come out of the Police Authority’s budget.

The next clash came this week, when the PA announced they were going to carry out a “survey” of local residents to demonstrate that people were happy to pay more tax to get a better police force. We do not know how much the exercise is costing, but it is certainly of limited value. The “survey” is in fact a heavily biased petition. No pollster carrying out a genuine survey to gather the representative views of the public would ever countenance prefacing the questions with a 500 word essay explaining why you should vote for a particular option. Any results from this will be far from a reliable test of public opinion.

The issue of whether Lincolnshire Police Authority should get a huge amount of extra money is still moot. Needless to say, I am of the opinion that the public are very unlikely to be able to afford any more taxes in the current conditions, but actually that is only part of the reason I’ve drawn attention to this case. The real problem is that Police Authorities need to get into this kind of ridiculous horsetrading in the first place.

If they were democratically accountable bodies, and if people could vote for the kind of policing and the level of police precept that they want, and if the policing budget was raised more locally, then this situation would not occur. Law and order is a really important public service – it deserves better than a pantomime of pretend polls and shock budgets.

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