Minister under fire over police numbers

A Home Office minister came under fire last night after admitting government funding cuts had left police in Norfolk high and dry - and saying the county would be “on its own” in meeting future cash shortfalls.

A Home Office minister came under fire last night after admitting government funding cuts had left police in Norfolk high and dry - and saying the county would be “on its own” in meeting future cash shortfalls.

Policing minister Tony McNulty was visiting the county to hail its new teams of community support officers a success.

Just two months earlier Mr McNulty had slashed £1m from Norfolk police coffers threatening the existence of the very same teams.

The only way the force could pay for the 280 community officers promised by the government was by sacking police officers or raising council tax. Police chiefs opted to increase tax but have been warned financial penalties may now be imposed as punishment.

Stephen Bett, chairman of Norfolk Police Authority, described the visit as “arrogant” adding it displayed a lack of awareness of the

impact government policy has had on the area.

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Mr McNulty, who visited Sheringham to see neighbourhood policing in action, defended the cuts saying they were “a national decision” which has had “some unfortunate consequences on a local level”.

He added: “We believe neighbourhood policing teams are what the public want. They increase visibility and offer the reassurance people have been calling for and also have the local knowledge to really know what their communities need. Everyone I have spoken to here in Sheringham is in full support of the teams.

“We took the decision to reduce funding for community support officers across the country. At the same time we allowed police forces the flexibility to reduce police officer numbers in order to achieve a balance between traditional officers and community officers.

“That may not have been an option in rural areas like Norfolk where officer numbers per head of population are already low. But with any decision made at a national level there will be some unfortunate implications for some areas.”

Mr McNulty described the cuts as a “levelling off” in funding after a decade of record investment. He said the situation was likely to remain the same in coming years and there was a need to re-examine the role local taxation plays in running public services.

Mr Bett said: “Quite frankly I don't think Tony McNulty cares what the consequences of Home Office policy are for Norfolk because he is on his way out along with everybody else at the department.

“The situation is a complete and utter shambles and for him to visit Norfolk to praise our neighbourhood policing teams after taking a decision to withdraw funding for those teams is nothing short of arrogance.

“The Home Office is only interested in immigration, homelands security and the prison service - it is not interested in the police and is leaving police authorities to pick up the pieces of its mistakes.”

In a further blow, another government office, the Department of Communities and Local Government, has refused to rule out the possibility of “capping” - financial penalties imposed on any authorities that breach council tax targets.

This could include Norfolk Police Authority which increased council tax by 7pc - 2pc above the approved level - and would further stretch a budget already close to breaking point.

A letter from Stephen Claughton, deputy director of local government finance, to the authority states: “I cannot give any commitment in relation to further financial support from the government.

“The government has not yet taken any decisions on the use of its capping powers in 2007-09. Ministers will consider setting capping principles after all authorities have set their budgets. Any authority affected will have the opportunity to challenge its cap before final decisions are taken.”

Mr Bett said: “If the government does choose to cap us, it will have a fight on its hands. The only reason we increased council tax to such a level was to foot the bill for a government scheme which ministers are no longer prepared to pay for.”

Mr McNulty toured Sheringham visiting community centres and areas that have been affected by petty crime. He saw offenders on community service cleaning up graffiti on an estate in the town before attending a public meeting for invited members of the community.

Later he visited Norwich to meet frontline domestic violence workers and see how the new specialist domestic violence Court will operate in the city. There are now more than 60 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales, including the one in Norwich which will open in April.