HC Deb 08 January 2001 vol 360 cc691-5
2. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

If he will make a statement on police recruitment (a) in Devon and Cornwall and (b) nationally. [142643]

5. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

If he will make a statement on police recruitment. [142647]

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

We have made available £454 million for this financial year and for the next three years to bring police numbers to their highest ever level by 2003–04. To back that, the first ever national police recruitment advertising campaign was launched in the summer. I am pleased to tell the House that those measures are already proving successful. Police numbers at the end of September last year were 444 higher than in March 2000, reversing the decline that began in 1993. Recruitment continues at a high level.

Between March and September 2000, 84 new officers were recruited in Devon and Cornwall, increasing total officer strength by 32. Funds for 235 extra recruits have been allocated to the constabulary for the period 2000–01 to 2002–03.

To deal with specific recruitment problems in the London area, the pay of all post-1994 officers in the Metropolitan police was increased by more than £3,300 a year from July last year. An offer to increase the pay to home counties officers working within a 30-mile and 40-mile radius of Charing Cross by £2,000 and £1,000 a year respectively has been made by the employers.

Mr. Tyler

Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's pledge yesterday that the number of police officers will rise dramatically, does the Home Secretary anticipate that there will be more police on the beat in Devon and Cornwall and nationally after the next general election than there were after the previous general election?

Will the Home Secretary particularly consider the problem of retention? He has already implied in the figures that he gave for Devon and Cornwall that recruitment and retention have to go together if we are to build the strength of our force. Will he particularly consider the costs in Devon and Cornwall of losing officers and examine the considerable pension costs that that entails? Will he meet a deputation to discuss that issue?

Mr. Straw

I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that police numbers in Devon and Cornwall, as at 31 September last year, were higher than they were in March 1997. Police numbers nationally are likely to be greater than they were in March 1997 at some time in 2002–03, but they are already greater in quite a number of police force areas.

We have allocated substantial additional funds for rural forces. I think that Devon and Cornwall will receive about £1.6 million in addition to the best ever real-terms settlement for the police service, which also covers Devon and Cornwall. The overall result will be a well-funded police service. I am pleased to say that the British crime survey already shows that crime levels across the country were down by 10 per cent. at the end of 1999 compared with 1997, proving that even though money was tight in the first three years of this Government—for reasons that everyone understands—our overall crime and disorder policy has been working successfully.

Mr. Rendel

Welcome though the crimefighting fund and extra money for police recruitment are, is the Home Secretary aware that, according to a report that will shortly be sent to the Thames Valley police authority, only eight recruitment applications have been received by Thames Valley police? Is he also aware that, in spite of the crimefighting fund, none of the money will be used by Thames Valley this year because the rate of loss is as high as the rate of recruitment, and the net increase in officers is therefore likely to be zero? Given that the high price of housing is the main reason for that problem, what does he intend to do about it? Will he introduce a housing allowance or an innovative shared ownership scheme in west Berkshire, which is outside the area that receives extra funding?

Mr. Straw

I am happy to look closely at the hon. Gentleman's figures, but the official figures published at the end of last month show that by September last year, police numbers in the Thames Valley and, for example, in Devon and Cornwall, were higher than in March 1997. As for the pay of officers who work close to London—this is not relevant to all officers in the Thames Valley police force because it covers a huge geographical area of three counties—not only do we understand the problem, but we have ensured that funds are available to increase the pay of officers who work outside the Met area but within a 30-mile radius of London by £2,000, and the pay of those who work in the 30 to 40-mile radius by £1,000.

I regret that that offer is stalled in the Police Negotiating Board, just as the previous and very welcome offer to increase the pay of Metropolitan police officers by £3,300—which is at long last being paid—was also stalled in the PNB because the staff insisted on going to arbitration. I very much hope that common sense will prevail and that the PNB, which is not directly controlled, will agree the money so that it can be paid to Thames Valley officers.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

We in the west midlands have paid our taxes and there were 156 extra police officers in the West Midlands force by the end of last September. That number is still rising. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is best left to chief police officers and police authorities to set the number of police officers, against the background of extra resources, that they consider appropriate for their area, rather than the Home Secretary of the day taking a wild stab at it and making a decision on what must be an arbitrary basis?

Mr. Straw

The previous Conservative Administration changed the law in 1994–95 and took the power to set the establishment of each police force away from the Home Secretary and allocated it to chief police officers. Although money has been tight in the past three years, some forces have done reasonably well. There is no correlation whatever between the forces that have received above-average increases in their budgets and those that have maintained officer numbers.

I commend Sir Ted Crew, chief constable of the West Midlands police, on his work and that of all his officers in getting ahead with the money allocated under the crimefighting fund and recruiting those net 156 officers. I am pleased to say that the positive results of such energetic efforts in the recruitment campaign have been repeated in other police force areas, including Greater Manchester, which recently had the largest intake of police recruits in the history of that service.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

We welcome today's news from the Home Secretary, but I am concerned about Lancashire. We hear about inner cities, but can we have an assurance that police numbers will be increased in Lancashire and particularly in the southern division?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend will know that one area in Lancashire is slightly more important than Chorley, and selfless though Blackburn always is, it deserves a fair share of the cake. The allocation of officers within a force is a matter for the chief constable in consultation with the police authority. However, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that, in the six months between March and September last year, the net number of officers in Lancashire increased by 36. That enables that excellent constabulary to build on its good record of cutting crime very significantly over the past three years.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

The Home Secretary will know that, in Littlehampton in the early hours of 15 December, a 13-year-old boy, Danny Herbert, was stabbed repeatedly and left in a critical condition. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, when people in my constituency and throughout the country hear of such incidents, many feel strongly that such criminal behaviour would be deterred if more policemen were patrolling the streets of our towns and cities?

Mr. Straw

I express my great sympathy to the victim of that terrible crime and to his family. We all understand the huge distress caused by such crimes. People feel reassured by the visible presence of police officers patrolling the streets on foot or in vehicles, and we want their number to be greatly increased. Much of the current police operation is designed to increase the visibility of the police service, which varies significantly throughout the country, as Audit Commission figures to be published on Wednesday will show. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to use a specific, tragic example to make a partisan point about police spending, because that would be extremely regrettable.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I welcome the news that, for the first time in 10 years, the Metropolitan police now has more recruits joining than officers leaving. Will my right hon. Friend consider the nationality qualification for joining the police service, which in London excludes 13 per cent. of the working-age population—more than 250,000 people? Some of those people may not want to join the police or may not be suitable, but many could be recruited. That would greatly ease the recruitment problem in London and increase the number of ethnic minority officers in the Metropolitan police.

Mr. Straw

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and, without making any guarantees about the result, I can tell him that the matter is under consideration in the Home Office and by the Commissioner and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Commonwealth citizens, which includes many potential recruits from the black and Asian communities, can join the police service. For the first time, the number of black and Asian officers in the Metropolitan police service exceeds 1,000, which is more than 5 per cent. of the total. There has been a good drive within the Metropolitan police to increase the number of black and Asian officers in line with the recommendations of the Macpherson report.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Does the Home Secretary agree that there has been a one-off recruitment boost because rejected applicants have been allowed to join police forces, but that that process will soon have run its course? How does he assess the future given that police officer resignations have risen by 60 per cent. since the previous general election and the national recruitment campaign is obviously failing?

The report of the recently knighted Sir Charles Pollard to his police committee, to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) referred, says: As a result of the Home Office National Recruitment Campaign the force has received only 8 completed application forms. The National Campaign recommenced on New Year's Eve for a two month period. With resignations up by 60 per cent. and the national recruitment campaign failing, is not recruitment about to fall again? It is already down by 2,500. What will the Home Secretary do about that? Will he be as complacent as he has been today?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman asks me for my assessment of the future. If the Labour party continues in government, by 2003–04 we shall have the largest ever police service in England and Wales. All our successful efforts over the past three and a half years—to cut crime by 10 per cent., to get violent crime down by 4 per cent., to reduce vehicle crime by getting on for 20 per cent. and to cut domestic burglaries by 15 per cent.—will continue; so, too, will high levels of recruitment to the police service.

On the other hand, the past is the best guide to the future when it comes to the Conservatives, so if a Conservative Government were elected, very significant increases in crime and, on the promises already made by the shadow Chancellor, cuts in police spending and recruitment would be likely.