HL Deb 08 March 2000 vol 610 cc1039-41

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the latest figures for the total number of police officers in England and Wales; and whether these figures represent an increase or reduction in the total number of police officers in England and Wales since March 1997.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, at the end of September 1999 the total number of police officers in England and Wales was 125,464. That is 1,694 fewer officers than in March 1997. At the same date, civilian support staff numbers were 53,254, an increase of 243 since March 1997. Civilians now account for 30 per cent of police service personnel. Following the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, the actual number of police officers at any one time is a matter for chief constables to determine within available resources.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he agree that since March 1997 police numbers have fallen from 125,052 to 123,050 and that 30 police force areas out of 43 have fewer police officers, or are my figures fictional?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the figures that the noble Baroness has read out differ from mine, but that may be because the accounting period is slightly different. I had expected some sympathy from the noble Baroness as on 22nd July 1996 she said (at col. 1164 of the Official Report): we can play with statistics as much as we like, but I can say that the money for 1,000 police officers has been made available to the police … The chief police officers themselves are predicting that there will be over 1,600 more in this present financial year, 1996–97". Sadly, the noble Baroness got it wrong and there was an increase of 257 police officers.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that it was the previous administration—this is not a planted question—who enacted the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 which, as he rightly said, took away the power to determine the number of police officers from the Home Secretary and gave it to the chief constables, some of whom unfortunately decided that the money was better spent on things like bigger headquarters, bigger and better cars, and so on, but not on manpower? Does he also recall that it was the previous administration who took away housing allowance for new recruits, thereby, at a stroke, creating a two-tier police service and that that is one of the major factors in low morale and the great difficulty that many of our police forces have in attracting recruits?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with wisdom and greater knowledge of these matters than most Members of your Lordships' House. I agree with him. Actions taken by the previous government have made recruitment increasingly difficult within the police service. Sadly, it is the case that police numbers have been falling since 1993. They fell in every year in the life of the previous government with the exception of 1996–97. That underlines the difficulty. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has set aside ring-fenced money within the crime fighting fund to increase the number of officers by some 5,000 over and above those who would ordinarily be recruited. That is a statement of our longstanding commitment to retaining the strength of our police service.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, I chair a police authority. Can the Minister confirm that one of the main reasons why we do not have sufficient money with which to finance more police officers is the great cost of police pensions? Can he tell us when the Government will make the long-awaited announcement on what we shall do about police pay and pensions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I accept that police pensions place a particularly heavy burden upon local police authorities. There is no doubt that that continues to be a problem. Pension costs have been an increasing burden on police authorities. The Government are looking at the situation. We have been looking at it since March 1998 when we published the consultation document, and we are looking at all the options. When we come to a final view on the matter we shall endeavour to consult further with the Association of Police Authorities so that we can get it right for the future and so that police authorities do not have to carry an undue burden in relation to pension costs.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister referred to the famous 5,000, which he called additional numbers. Will he confirm that even including those, the target for the next three years is to acquire 17,500 extra policemen? Given that over 16,000 are due to retire, that means there will still be fewer policemen at the end of the next three years than there were when the Labour Government came to office, at which time, as he just confirmed, the numbers of policemen were rising?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the numbers of policemen rose only over the last year of the last government against a background of a decline since 1993. We stuck to their spending plans for the first two years of our government and police numbers continued to decline. That is why my right honourable friend set up the crime fighting fund. It is a ring-fenced fund to get police officers in place. As no doubt many will be aware, there will continue to be recruitment difficulties. Our aim is to ensure that we have 5,000 additional police officers over and above those that the chief constables expect to recruit.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords—

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend but the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, wished to ask a question also. However, we have reached 15 minutes on the clock and must move on.