HC Deb 07 July 1997 vol 297 cc606-7
14. Mr. Hawkins

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to increase the number of police constables. [5520]

Mr. Straw

Under legislation passed by the Conservative Government in 1994, it is for individual chief constables and police authorities to determine the number of constables and other officers in each force, having regard to the resources available to them. This means, as my predecessor found to his cost, that the Home Office has no direct control over police numbers in any force outside London.

We are working with the police to relieve them of unnecessary bureaucratic burdens to allow chief officers to put more police officers back on the beat: that includes implementation of many measures to cut down delays and inefficiencies in the criminal justice system and a major reform of the Crown Prosecution Service, which has been widely welcomed by the police.

Mr. Hawkins

I am sure that the Home Secretary will have been told by those who participated in the focus groups held by the Minister without Portfolio that the public certainly want to see more police officers on the beat. I am grateful to him for paying tribute to his predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), on his success in introducing a great deal more civilianisation in the back office so that more police officers could go back on the beat. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is his intention to continue to civilianise back office operations so that chief constables can put police officers where the public want to see them?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I made that clear in a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers last week. The one thing that we do not need focus groups for is to discover that what the public hate more than anything else are political parties that make promises and then break them. In the 1992 election, the Conservatives promised an extra 1,000 police officers on the beat by 1997. What happened? There were 469 fewer police officers over that period.

Fiona Mactaggart

While my right hon. Friend may not have powers to determine the number of police constables on the beat, will he encourage police forces to organise their manpower so as to ensure that more police constables are available on foot or bicycle rather than being stuck away from the public? Seven people at my advice surgery on Saturday were concerned about disorder, crime and the unavailability of police constables in our local area.

Mr. Straw

The need to raise the status of general patrolling in police forces is very important and is being addressed by both the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's chief inspectorate of constabulary. I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point, but the public want not only a police officer on the beat on general patrol but a fast response by the police in motor cars in an emergency. Chief officers have a difficult challenge in balancing those competing claims.

Dr. Mawhinney

Accepting the Home Secretary's comment about the responsibility of chief constables, how many more police officers would he like to see by 2002?

Mr. Straw

I should like to see more police officers on the beat, but I do not intend to make the mistake made by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues during the Conservative Administration, when they made promises and then broke them. We intend to make promises and keep them.