For what purpose is our funding loss fit, Dr Reid?

Home secretary John Reid says his department is unfit for purpose and should be split in two. But before that happens, there’s the matter of a showdown over police funding to deal with, as crime correspondent BEN KENDALL reports.

Less than a year after Charles Clarke left the Home Office, two of his key policies lie in tatters.

First, proposals to form regional super forces - which would have seen Norfolk police merging with Suffolk and Cambridgeshire constabularies, thereby freeing up resources and cutting costs - were scrapped.

This decision alone has caused a financial crisis for many forces, which must make efficiency savings and raise their share of the council tax simply to continue operating their present level of service.

Then, three weeks ago, after two years of planning and recruitment, police forces were told they would not receive their full allocation of promised funding to recruit police community support officers (PCSOs), the government's much-vaunted answer to calls for more uniformed officers to be put on the beat.

Neighbourhood policing was one of Labour's key pledges when it was

re-elected in 2005 with a manifesto declaring: "We are giving the police and local councils the power to tackle anti-social behaviour; we will develop neighbourhood policing for every community."

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This latest U-turn has left forces with the impossible choice of cutting police officer numbers, failing to provide the policing teams for every community that the government had promised on their behalf - or increasing council tax so much that they risk stiff financial penalties.

In Norfolk, the two former options are simply not workable. The county already has the lowest ratio of police officers per head of population, and, with community teams already in place in the eastern and central areas, it would be impossible to neglect to introduce them in the west.

Compared with the foreign prisoners scandal that brought an end to Norwich MP Mr Clarke's Home Office reign and the more recent controversy about murderers and paedophiles convicted abroad being free to work in British schools, neither decision is likely to grab the headlines.

But, in terms of providing the kinds of hands-on policing the public demands, they are fundamental policies, and without them police forces will struggle to modernise.

At a public consultation last week, Norfolk Police Authority chairman Stephen Bett said: "We are dealing with a Home Office that just cannot do anything correctly at the moment, and it is driving me and everyone else at the authority right up the wall.

"First, the government scraps proposals to merge police forces across the country. The home secretary himself said this was a good idea which would have saved money in the long term, but he said the resources weren't there to back it.

"Then, after two years of planning to introduce safer neighbourhood teams in every community in the county, we are given just three weeks' notice that the funding we were promised has been withdrawn. This is not how you do business."

Mr Bett had been a long-term supporter of force mergers. This would have allowed forces to share resources - for example, backroom administrative staff - and free-up funding for frontline policing. It would also have meant police were better able to cope with major incidents, a fact highlighted by the Suffolk prostitute murders inquiry, which required staff to be seconded from forces across the country.

The police authority believes the scrapping of this policy alone was a major blow for its financial future. But adding insult to injury came the loss of almost £1m to pay for the 91 PCSOs needed to bring Norfolk up to the 280 originally promised by ministers.

Mr Bett said this was all the more galling as the force had spent two years preparing for the scheme only to be given such little notice of,

and little explanation for, the funding cuts.

Tomorrow, he and chief constable Ian McPherson will challenge police minister Tony McNulty to find a solution. Having already been told no further cash is available, their only option is to raise council tax by 7pc - 2pc more than previously planned, and equating to £3.19 for the average household each year.

This is likely to top the government 5pc "capping" level at which financial penalties are incurred. Even if ministers offer the reassurance that it will not enforce capping, such a large increase is likely to meet with public resistance - as was evident at the recent consultation - and would still incur a £500,000 re-billing cost.

Ultimately, the funding would have to be paid for by taxpayers in one way or another. The only issue is whether it is met through local or national taxation. But it is difficult to escape the feeling that the government is attempting to pass the buck by taxing by stealth. This may be a good way of keeping Home Office costs down, but it is surely not reasonable to expect councils to fund manifesto pledges made originally for political gain?

When John Reid took over at the Home Office last May, much was made of his declaration that the department was "not fit for purpose".

Recent events would, perhaps, prove this to be true. However, it also seems that the ministers responsible for policy decisions are grasping at straws and, by undoing much of the good work which had previously been put in place, do not seem fit for their own purpose.