HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc751-4
8. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

Which police forces find it (a) most difficult and (b) easiest to recruit officers; and what mechanisms exist to attract potential recruits from the latter to the former forces. [130329]

12. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

If he will make a statement about those police forces which are experiencing recruitment difficulties. [130333]

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

The Metropolitan police service and the City of London police are finding it the most difficult to recruit police officers; a few other forces, including Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Thames Valley also report recruiting difficulties, but most forces, including Cheshire, West Midlands and Lancashire, are having no difficulty—indeed, the Sussex force in the south of England has reported considerable success in attracting recruits.

As I have just told the House, to alleviate the recruitment problems in London I announced that, from 1 July, there would be a £3,327 increase in the London allowance for those Metropolitan or City of London officers who joined on or after 1 September 1994. Later this summer, the Home Office will launch a national police recruitment campaign, and I am confident that the campaign will help those forces that are experiencing recruitment difficulties. Potential recruits responding to the campaign will be directed toward forces that are recruiting, with an emphasis on those in greatest need.

Mr. Twigg

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The extra resources for more policemen and women are clearly much welcome. However, cannot more be done for areas such as mine in Cheshire, where there are more applications than positions, to give people incentives to go to forces such as those in the Metropolitan areas? Is there not a case for police forces doing more to retain officers and to stop the haemorrhaging in certain areas?

Mr. Straw

I hope very much that, following the very substantial increase in the London pay lead, which brings it to £6,000 a year above forces outside, many applicants who might previously have wished to join forces such as Cheshire's will be attracted to applying either to London forces or to those in the south-east.

Mr. Cunningham

Can my right hon. Friend say how the west midlands compares with other areas on recruitment? Secondly, what proportion of the 9,000 new officers proposed over the next three years will be allocated to the west midlands; more importantly, what will be Coventry's share?

Mr. Straw

My understanding is that recruitment in the west midlands is going well. I hope very much that it will be even more satisfactory following my announcements last week of significant increases in funding for the police service. I understand that total profile recruitment for 2000–01 for the west midlands is 555. Profile recruitment to the end of June was 149, and that was being met. Of those, 51 are officers provided under the crimefighting fund.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Home Secretary announced that last year's growth was just short of 3 per cent., and we saw over the year a drop across the country of 1,700 officers—not a recruitment figure—which accelerated in the last six months, with a loss of about 1,000 officers. Given his answers in the House last week, when does he expect net recruitment to produce a police service across England and Wales of the 1997 size? Does he expect in the coming year a net increase in officers in every force? Will he give a guarantee that, unlike last year, every force will receive a net real-terms increase in the money that it receives after pensions moneys have been taken out?

Mr. Straw

As I told the House last week in answer to the hon. Gentleman, we anticipate that numbers should return to the April 1997 level some time in 2002, and then rise, on the funding that we have already provided, to their highest ever. Without notice, I cannot give him the detailed information for which he asked, but I shall certainly be happy to write to him.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Home Secretary gave the figures for recruitment of regular police officers. Are those for the recruitment of special constables broadly similar? Will he give an indication of which counties have the greatest difficulty with early retirement and the retention of police officers over a longer period?

Mr. Straw

The figures that I gave were for full-time police officers and not for special constables, who are of course unpaid. I cannot give the hon. Lady detailed information about variations between forces in retention and retirement rates, but I am happy to write to her about that. I can tell her, however, that there are significant variations between otherwise similar forces on retirement, retention and sickness rates. Those illustrate variations in the performance of management. That is why, with Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, we are expecting forces greatly to improve their performance. In London, improvements in sickness management have put hundreds of officers back on the beat.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one thing that police officers who are also community constables find so frustrating about the job is the extent to which they are taken off their community duties for other duties, as demand requires? To what extent does he expect the additional police officers whom he announced last week to change that practice? Does he intend to monitor the application of those additional officers to ensure that more community constables can do the job for which they are employed?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right. An Audit Commission report about two years ago showed that at any one time, only about 5 per cent. of the total strength of police services was available for general patrol. There has been a habit in many police services of giving higher priority to all other activities than to general patrol. I do not believe that that order of priorities is supported by the public. Yes, we will monitor the degree to which the additional officers are used on general patrol community duties and in the front line in fighting crime. We are providing the services with a great deal of back-room assistance, including an expansion in the number of scenes of crime officers. I very much hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will monitor, in their own police forces and police districts, the effectiveness of the additional funds that we are providing.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Can the Home Secretary now answer the question that I put to him when he announced his public spending, and which he was then unable or unwilling to answer: after he has taken away from his projected £1.6 billion for police over the next three years the £500 million that he announced for the radio, the cost of salary rises and the cost of the pensions bill, how much will be left?

Mr. Straw

That was an extraordinary performance from the right hon. Lady. The simple fact is that police spending will rise by well over 6 per cent. in real terms next year and by almost 4 per cent. in real terms the following year. That contrasts extraordinarily well with the fact that when she was a Home Office Minister, police spending in real terms fell in one year by 0.9 per cent.

Miss Widdecombe

Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer the question. May I ask him an easier one? Given that the number of police constables was rising when he took over, and given that the number has fallen consistently ever since, can he say whether he expects that by the time the Government leave office at the end of this Parliament, the number of police constables will be greater, smaller or the same as the number that he inherited?

Mr. Straw

Before the right hon. Lady devises her questions, it would be helpful if she could work out the difference between figures that are rising and figures that are falling. It was she who recommended the budget for 1997–98 to the House on 27 January 1997 and had the House approve it, and she who, during that debate, promised that there were funds available for police numbers to rise over the following three years by 5,000. In the year in which she laid down the budget, police numbers did not rise. They fell from 127,158 in March 1997 to 126,814 in March 1998. That was one more of the thousands of promises that the Conservatives failed to fulfil.

Miss Widdecombe

Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman does not know the answer to that question, either. May I throw him an even easier one? As a result of the spending plans announced last week, does he expect that the crime figures for 2000–01 will show a fall?

Mr. Straw

That depends on the criminals. Is the right hon. Lady saying, and will she go into the general election promising, that if people vote Conservative, crime will rise, year on year on year? [Interruption.] Oh, she is not saying that. She is inviting us to say it. What we are promising and what we are doing is putting in place the biggest-ever investment in police and crime reduction that the country has ever seen. Already, our programme of crime reduction is driving burglary and car crime down.

If the right hon. Lady wants to swap figures, let me give them to her. Under her, when she was a Home Office Minister, there was an increase in police spending in real terms in 1995–96 of 0.49 per cent., in 1997–98 of 0.12 per cent. and in 1996–97 a decrease of 0.91 per cent. That compares with an increase this year of 1.47 per cent., an increase next year of 7.4 per cent. and an increase the following year of 3.5 per cent.

Will the right hon. Lady ever come to this Bench—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes!"] I meant the Opposition Bench. Will she come to that Bench to tell us where and when Conservative budgets would make cuts following the single pledge of the shadow Chancellor? One pledge would definitely be fulfilled: police budgets would decline again in real terms under any Conservative Government.