HC Deb 15 March 1999 vol 327 cc703-5
14. Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

If he will make a statement on the number of policemen employed on 31 December 1998. [74590]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

The latest available information relates to 30 September 1998. On that date, there were a total of 126,504 male and female police officers in England and Wales.

Mr. Letwin

Is the Home Secretary aware that beneath those figures there is a real and growing problem in rural areas? What plans does he have to help people such as my constituents in the Sherborne area who are currently served by rather fewer policemen than were serving their predecessors before the war?

Mr. Straw

I am, indeed, aware of the pressures on the police service, and I am pleased to say that we have increased police spending in Dorset, the hon. Gentleman's own police area, by £3.7 million, or 5 per cent.—getting on for twice the national average—to take account of exactly those pressures.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to fight crime, it is not only policemen we need but the necessary equipment? Does he accept that a considerable gap is now beginning to develop between the type of equipment used by, for example, some sophisticated smugglers or corporate fraudsters and that available to police forces? Perhaps it might be a useful investment to upgrade the computers and other services available to the police.

Mr. Straw

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the need to harness the best of information technology in fighting crime. One of the problems that we faced when we took office was that the police service had as many different information technology systems as there were police forces, and the systems did not communicate properly with other parts of the criminal justice system. One of the things that we are now doing is trying to ensure common and compatible systems for all parts of the criminal justice service.

Sir Norman Fowler

Does the Home Secretary agree that under the previous Conservative Government the strength of the police service rose by more than 15,000, whereas under this Government the strength of the police service is falling, and complaints are coming in from around the country—from rural areas and city areas—of police forces being left no option but to cut services and manpower?

Mr. Straw

I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman should go on about the Conservatives' record on police manpower. I have the Conservative manifesto for 1992, promising 1,000 extra police officers, and the speech by the then leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in October 1995, promising an extra 5,000 on top of the original 1,000. What happened? Six thousand extra police officers were promised between—[Interruption.] No, I am talking about the period after the right hon. Gentleman left to spend more time with his family, not before. Six thousand extra police officers were promised between 1992 and 1997. That promise was comprehensively broken and instead, the number of police officers, far from rising by 6,000, fell by 469. One of the reasons why the Conservatives lost office was because of their broken promises on police numbers.