HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc6-10
5. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What forecast he has made of the total number of police officers in England and Wales at 31 March. [112576]

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

Following the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, the number of police officers at any one time is a matter for the chief constable of an area to determine within available resources. At the end of September 1999, there were 125,404 officers in post. Audited information on police numbers for 31 March of this year should be available at the end of June.

Under the crime fighting fund, funding is being made available from April 2000 to pay for the recruitment of an additional 5,000 officers over and above the number who would otherwise have been recruited. Pressures on police funding and their possible impact on police numbers are also being considered in the 2000 spending review.

Mr. Brady

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply. Given that in Greater Manchester we now have 120 police officers fewer than we had at the last general election, and that in the past year the figures for recorded crime in Greater Manchester have risen by 10,000, is it not obvious that the Government are failing to deliver on their promise to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime? Now that we know that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment was only joking when he said that there would be no more selection in schools, will the Home Secretary tell us whether he was only joking when he said that he would be tough on crime?

Mr. Straw

We most certainly are delivering on our promises. I am not clear about the figures for rising crime which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, because the figures that I have show that there was an increase in Greater Manchester, but it was a very small one of 0.2 per cent., or 754 offences, and not 10,000.

As to police numbers, the hon. Gentleman will know that between 1993 and 1998, under budgets for which the Administration whom he supported were responsible, police numbers fell significantly. Unfortunately, they have continued to fall, not least because of budgets that we set at the level that the previous Administration had suggested. However, I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that, as a result of allocations that we have made under the crime fighting fund, police numbers in Greater Manchester will rise by 378, and I hope that he will applaud that.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the increases proposed for Essex county under the Government's crime fighting fund, which mean that there will be 23 extra officers next year, 40 the year after and 40 the year after that? Will he explain to both Opposition parties what increases and reductions mean? Will he also explain further to those parties the programme of civilianisation, because Essex police officers are having a job trying to explain it to Opposition Members?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he says, over the next three years, we have provided allocations for an increase of 103 officers in the Essex police force. On the variations that take place in particular areas, I can do no better, so far as Essex is concerned, than to quote the Colchester divisional commander, Superintendent Julian Field. He says that police numbers fluctuate up and down all the time. Sometimes people are attached to us for a little while and sometimes people are seconded. As for the loss of 12 officers—a policy that the previous Administration at one stage applauded—he said: That is because of a programme of civilianisation of officers who performed a range of jobs like crime prevention and licensing. Before Opposition Members make too much of the reduction in police numbers, I remind them that it was a deliberate policy of the previous Administration, which was flagged up in their 1992 manifesto, that many jobs previously undertaken by police officers should in future be undertaken by civilians.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Home Secretary is often very straight with the House. Will he be straight with the House about police numbers? Is not the truth that although he has been consistent on the figure of 5,000 extra officers which he announced at the Labour party conference, that is extra to a number of recruits, which has now changed three times? The total figure for extra recruits over the next three years is now 17,500. The projections show that 16,800 officers are likely to leave, which means that the net figure of extra officers is 700, and we are already 1,600 down since the last election.

Would not the Home Secretary's promise be as hollow as the one that he has accused the Tories of making if he were now to say that, at the end of this Parliament, the Government will have delivered more police officers than there were at the beginning? Are we not likely to have at least 1,000 fewer officers and, if so, what will he do about that?

Mr. Straw

Precisely because the previous Administration passed into law the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act, which transferred the power over police numbers from the Home Secretary of the day to chief police officers, I made no promises about the total number of police officers before the election, at the election or since. I do not believe, as the Conservative party does, in pretending to the public that it is possible for the Home Secretary to deliver something that no Home Secretary can, within the current law, deliver.

I have, however, promised, and will deliver, the money to provide for 5,000 additional recruits over and above those that the police service was otherwise going to recruit. We have set out in full the projections on which those bids have been based.

I have said that I hope that police numbers will be above those at the previous election, but I cannot in any way guarantee that—not least because the level depends not only on the number of recruits but on the level of wastage. We—particularly the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—are working to see whether there are ways in which we may suggest that officers should not leave the police service prematurely, as well as ensuring money for the 5,000 additional officers.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although total numbers are obviously important, their use in the police force and how forces use their resources is equally important? There is still wide variation between the best and worst force in the country, and it is a priority to ensure that resources and numbers available are better used.

Mr. Straw

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The same message applies to the police service as applies to the health and education services: inputs are no guarantees of outputs. My hon. Friend and I know that Lancashire police service, with no better resources than any other, has been able to deliver significantly better results, with a record reduction in crime of 10 per cent. over last year, owing to more effective management and better strategies than some other services.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

How much confidence can people who live in London have in the Home Secretary's stewardship when they have borne the hugest—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hugest?"]—rise in the decline of police numbers? Is he aware that the Metropolitan police alone accounts for 792 officers lost, and the City of London another 114 officers lost, since his term of office began? Before he resorts to the answer of "civilianisation", as he did in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), is he aware that the number of civilian staff in the Met has fallen from 11,390 to 10,791 under his stewardship?

Mr. Straw

The latter arises as a result of an outsourcing contract, under which people who were previously in the public sector are now in the private sector. As for the number of officers in the Metropolitan police service, I can guarantee to the right hon. Lady and the Conservative party—I absolutely guarantee this—that our record from 1997 to 2002 will be infinitely better than hers over the previous five years. Has she forgotten the record cut in staffing at officer level in the Metropolitan police service of 1,773 in the six years from 1993-98? She should hang her head in shame at her record on the Metropolitan police service.

Miss Widdecombe

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, just for the record, how many police constables there were in the Met when he took over and how many there are now?

Mr. Straw

As police constables have to be supervised by sergeants, inspectors and other officers—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh yes, they do. Without that supervision, there is poor management, which in the past has been a major problem in the Met. I tell the right hon. Lady that, in 1993—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] The excuses and explanations should be coming from the Conservative party, given its record on the Metropolitan police service. In 1993—[Laughter.] The right hon. Lady laughs at the decline in the Metropolitan police service that took place under her Administration. In 1993—

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Labour is in charge now.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman's party was in charge in 1993, when there were 27,867 police officers. By 1998, under the last Budget set by the Conservative Administration, there were only just over 26,000. That was the Conservative record.

Miss Widdecombe

I was laughing not at crime, but at the Home Secretary. He seems to imagine that the past two and a half years have not happened; that the decline of more than 792 in the number of Met officers has not happened; that the decline of more than 2,000 in the number of officers right across the country has not happened; that the fall in the number of police constables has not happened; that the first rise in crime for six years has not happened; and that the revolving doors prison policy has not happened. The right hon. Gentleman is in charge. Let him take responsibility.

Mr. Straw

I am happy to debate the issue of police numbers, but the last people in the world to protest their own record are members of the Administration who held office between 1992 and 1997, and the very last people in the world to call for more money to be spent on the police service are the Conservative Opposition.

I remind the right hon. Lady that the money that we are putting into the police service—the £1.24 billion over these three years, and the £400 million for crime reduction—has been condemned as reckless by her and her party. We had further evidence of what would happen if a Conservative Government were ever elected from the comments made on 1 March by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), shadow Treasury spokesman. Speaking with the authority of the shadow Chancellor, which the right hon. Lady certainly does not do, the hon. Member for West Dorset promised spending on critical public services. He said: By those, I mean health and education but only possibly … the police and defence.—[Official Report, 1 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 493.] That is what we can expect from the Conservatives—just the possibility of a little additional spending on the police service, whereas the spending by us is regarded as reckless.