HC Deb 01 November 1999 vol 337 cc11-4
7. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

If he will make a statement on the size of the police establishment of officers. [94996]

8. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

If he will make a statement on the number of police officers in England. [94997]

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

I made a full statement of the position on police numbers to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and to this House on Tuesday last, 26 October.

Under legislation passed by the previous Government, the powers of the Home Secretary to set overall police numbers were removed. The Government have allocated money for a crimefighting fund which, among other things, will provide the funding for 5,000 more recruits over and above the number that forces would otherwise have recruited over the next three years, commencing in April 2000. Some £35 million of new money will be available to support this next year, and there will be further funding in the following two years. All this is additional to the comprehensive spending review settlement for policing.

Mr. Viggers

The Home Secretary gave the Labour party conference the impression that there would be more police officers whereas, in fact, numbers are falling. If the right hon. Gentleman did not set out to mislead people, can he explain to us why so many people were misled?

Mr. Straw

What I said at the Labour party conference was entirely accurate. Moreover, if I had failed to provide a baseline—as it turned out a baseline 4,000 too few, which was hardly to my advantage, and very much to my disadvantage—I could justly have been criticised for failing to provide the whole story. I provided a baseline and provided the additional numbers over and above which that baseline would add. The figures for wastage for the previous three years were well known and, as it happens, it is matter of record that the then Liberal Democrat spokesman on the subject, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), pointed that out on the very same day. The only people who were misled were those who—frankly—wanted to be misled, but that was certainly not as a result of what I had said.

The point that the hon. Gentleman needs to bear in mind—I hope that he does and that he tells his constituents about it—is that under his Government, whom he supported in the Lobbies, from 1992–97, despite promises of more police made not least by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald here in January 1997, police numbers fell by 1,500 over that period. It is precisely because of such falls that I was able to negotiate with my very good friends in Her Majesty's Treasury and secure this additional funding, for which I hope that Hampshire, among other forces, will apply.

Mr. Burns

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that during the last general election the West Chelmsford Labour party mouthed the slogan, "Everybody wants more bobbies on the beat"? As a fellow Essex man, has he noticed that in the last full year for which figures are available the number of police officers in Essex fell by 37, from 2,928 to 2,891? Could he tell me and my constituents in which year he expects the number of police officers in Essex to be the same as it was when we left office, and when he expects it to be higher than when we left office?

Mr. Straw

I understand why the hon. Gentleman is asking the question, but, for reasons that he fully understands, I cannot give him that answer. He voted in 1994 to take away the power of the Home Secretary to set overall police establishments. As it happens, I voted against that. The matter—genuinely within available resources—is one for chief constables and the police authorities.

As I said to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), I accept that, for no other reason but the way in which the formula operates—it grieves me, as it concerns my home county—Essex has done less well than the average. As a result, I very much hope that Essex makes a good bid for additional funding from the crime-fighting fund for next year and the year after.

I should make another point about the West Chelmsford Labour party, although I do not carry all its incantations in my head—despite my affection for the constituents of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). Yes, we said that we would take measures to release more officers for operational duties, and that is precisely what we are doing through, for example, efficiency savings in early retirement and sickness arrangements, and the management of back-office arrangements. As a result of very good work by police authorities and chief constables, many more officers, in a great many forces, within the total, which may remain level, have been released for front-line operational duties.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Am I right in recalling that when the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was a member of the previous Government, crime doubled? Does the Home Secretary share my view that she and her colleagues give the impression that they will not be satisfied until half the population are in prison and the other half are in the police force? Although police numbers are important, do not members of the public want a success made of crime partnerships, which involve councils, the police and community and business organisations, so that crime can be tackled from the streets where they live and not from some police service headquarters?

Mr. Straw

As ever, my hon. Friend's memory is perfect. He is entirely right to recall a fact that Opposition Members are trying to excise from the national memory: under the Conservatives, crime doubled.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Crime fell.

Mr. Straw

The way in which the Conservatives produce such smoke and mirrors—if I may coin a phrase—is by picking on different dates. Crime doubled under the Conservatives, and it is one of the many reasons why it will be decades before the British public ever show the confidence to vote for them again.

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the crime partnerships. Many police chiefs say to me that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is one of the best ever pieces of legislation to come their way. In the west midlands, where I was this morning, there is tangible evidence of the effectiveness of such partnerships—in Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Coventry, of course, and Birmingham. The best evidence of how an imaginative chief constable has been able to put more officers on front-line operational duties is in the west midlands, where Ted Crewe, the chief constable, has released 700 officers from back-office headquarters jobs for front-line operational duties. I wish that Opposition Members would start applauding such innovation.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend's constituency is just a few miles away from mine, and is served by the same Lancashire constabulary. I am sure that he will know that the Burnley Express is running a campaign—"More Bobbies for Burnley"—based on what it calls my right hon. Friend's impressive speech, which it was, at the Labour party conference. Will he respond positively to that? Will he give an assurance that the Dordrecht initiative, which has been supported by the Home Office in Burnley and has had a massive effect in reducing the level of burglaries and robberies, will continue to enjoy his Department's support?

Mr. Straw

I am always anxious to satisfy my friends from Burnley—both my hon. Friend and, of course, Mr. Alastair Campbell—not least because of what my hon. Friend would say about a certain football team if I did not. I am aware of the importance of the Dordrecht initiative. Such matters must be decided on objective criteria rather than on simply who is, as it were, one's old pal. However, I shall ensure that that application is given very careful consideration.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Home Secretary join me in paying tribute to the work of the Sussex police, who continue to do a fine job, albeit with fewer and decreasing resources? Will he acknowledge that, although there are difficulties in calculating exact numbers because of the number of police at Gatwick airport, there is widespread anxiety in the villages, particularly those of Mid-Sussex, that the number of police who are assigned to look after them is gradually falling? Will he give my constituents some hope that that number will increase?

Mr. Straw

I acknowledge the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. It is a truth at all times that there will never be sufficient police officers to satisfy everyone and chief constables have difficult decisions to make about where to put them.

I am aware of what has happened to police numbers in Sussex. I take one period. Between 1995 and 1998, Sussex received a 12.5 per cent. increase in its budget and numbers went down, but numbers have gone up in some forces that had either the same or a lower increase. That is where chief constables' decisions on how to allocate resources make a difference. [HON. MEMBERS: "Blame them."] It is not a question of blaming chief constables, but it is a fact that, since 1994, it is chief constables—of course, within the overall money—who have set the number of officers and the number of civilians, and have made decisions on the use of and expenditure on equipment. If one looks down the table—I would be happy to provide it to the hon. Gentleman—one finds that there are significant variations in how chief officers have used their discretion within the same level of resources.

The pot of money from the crime-fighting fund is not unlimited, but I hope that Sussex, along with other forces, will make an application for additional officers.

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