HL Deb 22 January 2001 vol 621 cc7-10

2.52 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the present level of recruitment and retention of police officers, particularly in areas of high housing cost.

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

My Lords, most forces are recruiting successfully, helped by the national recruitment advertising campaign. Even in the Met, which has had severe problems, numbers of recruits are rising. By the end of September 2000, total police strength was up 444 on the March 2000 figure and will increase further as the impact of the Crime Fighting Fund increases. Wastage in the police service is very low at 4.7 per cent in the year 1999–2000.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As I have previously declared in the House, I am a member of the Thames Valley Police Authority. Despite the intensive and quite expensive advertising campaign, we have recruited an additional 45 officers this year; and 44 officers have left the force to transfer to other authorities. In view of the recruitment difficulties experienced around London, will the Government give urgent consideration to the payment of part-time police officers in the same way that payments are made to people serving in the Territorial Army and the retained fire service? If the Government are unwilling to go along that route, do they have any other answers to the problems facing the police authorities around London?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we give active consideration to all useful ideas and contributions to the debate. One or two useful ideas came from the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere following the Question posed last week in another place. We shall consider carefully that proposition.

I am pleased to hear that Thames Valley Police Authority is beginning to increase the number of recruits. The facts are plain. The figure for recruitment in the year 1999–2000 was 190. For the first six months of last year there were 126 recruits. If those figures can be reasonably extrapolated, they suggest that in the full year there will be in the region of 250 new recruits. The wastage rate runs at a lower level, so the Thames Valley Police Authority will increase its numbers. That is to be welcomed.

Numbers are now going in the right direction. The service should be congratulated on that. The Government should be congratulated, too, on having the courage to launch a national recruitment campaign. We are sensitive to all those concerns, in particular as regards the police force areas surrounding London where there have been some additional problems.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that low police morale—the chairman of the Police Federation wrote about it recently in the House Magazine—is indicated by the 60 per cent increase in police resignations over the past four years?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is difficult to speculate on an accurate measure of changes in levels of morale in the police service. I well remember the fall-out from the Sheehy report in the early 1990s. As a consequence of the implementation of that report, there was a massive loss of morale in the police service.

I believe that wastage rates are relevant in this debate. The wastage rate in the police force nationally stands at 4.7 per cent—exactly the same as in 1997 when the administration of which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, was a member left government.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will the Minister care to give the figures—I am sure they are engraved on his mind—of the number of police officers in service when the Government were elected and the number in service today?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to provide the noble Lord with those figures. They may not be engraved perfectly on my mind but I am sure that they exist. In March 1997 there were 127,158 police officers. The strength at the end of March 1999 was 126,096 officers. There has been a further decline since then. Those figures are a matter of public record.

However, the fact is that police numbers are again rising. Those figures are true. In two-thirds of police forces in England and Wales police numbers are rising because of the active approach we have adopted to recruitment. We expect that police numbers will continue to rise until 2003. That is our objective. I believe that all sides of the House should congratulate the Government on ensuring that we keep police numbers high because we believe that that is the way to retain public confidence.

Lord Carver

My Lords, do the Government approve of the action of the police at East Molesey in encouraging a group of old age pensioners to man the police station because there are not enough police to do so?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is a new one on me! I am told that it was reported on the radio this morning. If that is considered helpful and appropriate, no doubt it is.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister believe that individual police forces are making sufficient effort to recruit from our ethnic minorities? It is over 20 years since I raised in another place the deplorable level of recruitment from ethnic minorities in our major police forces. One still gains the impression that, although the low numbers are explained away extremely glibly, there is no real effort to find recruits from an age group in which our ethnic minorities are particularly strong. That is an opportunity missed.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord has an honourable record in promoting ethnic recruitment and supporting those initiatives. It is an initiative which the Government have taken very seriously. As the noble Lord knows, the Home Secretary has set targets for each police force area. In most of those areas, we are satisfied that progress is being made. The national recruitment campaign has made a feature of promoting the desirability of ethnic minority recruits joining the police service. We believe that it is an excellent profession that is widely supported and that it should have more ethnic minority officers. That would be for the good of ethnic minority communities and society as a whole.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I do not know whether I heard the Minister correctly, but I think he said that the Government should be congratulated on having had the courage to launch a police recruitment campaign. On reflection, does he not think that that was a rather strange thing to say? The Government would have been entitled to a great deal of blame if they had not done something that was so obviously necessary.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I shall take that as a note of congratulation. For most of the years of Mr Major's Conservative Government there was a decline in police numbers. That government failed to launch a national recruitment campaign. We have had the courage to do so because we believe that it is right.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in not particularly expensive outer London boroughs, newly appointed police constables depend on housing benefit? Will he confirm that that situation is not the fault of the social security system? What plans do the Government have to do something about it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have heard those comments elsewhere and I am concerned about them. That is why we decided last year to put back an element for housing into the pay of police officers serving in London, not as a housing allowance but as a top-up for London weighting. The housing allowance had been taken away by the previous government when implementing the Sheehy report. That is the sort of measure that led to the recruitment difficulties that the previous government suffered and that we have suffered in our early years. It was a grave mistake. Members of the previous government should regret it and apologise for it. We have put that situation right.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a more constructive proposal to deal with the serious problem of the cost of housing in certain areas for police recruits would be the promotion of the shared equity housing scheme? Will the Government look with the police authorities to see how that can be done?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that helpful suggestion. The Government are on the case. In December last year we announced the starter homes initiatives that will help 10,000 key workers to buy their own homes in high demand areas. We introduced that proposal because of the problems that have been referred to this afternoon. It will make £250 million available over the next three years. We have made it clear that the fund will be targeted at police, teachers and nurses. We are looking forward to the relevant agencies bringing forward proposals so that we can put extra money into helping recruits and those already in the services. The initiative that the noble Earl referred to is precisely the sort that we would endorse.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I welcome any increase in the number of police officers, but does the Minister accept that the morale of the police is at a very low ebb? Does he agree that, given that neither House has a regular major debate on policing issues but instead deals with them piecemeal, it is about time that a Royal Commission was established to look into issues of pay, conditions, recruitment, retention and morale in the police? Would not that be helpful?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is an interesting idea, but, although Royal Commissions are easily set up, they have a habit of taking a long time to deliberate. We need to keep the issues constantly under discussion. Your Lordships' House is a good vehicle for that, as are the Home Affairs Select Committee and another place. We have had many important debates on those issues and I am sure that we shall continue to do so. The Police Negotiating Board is the appropriate vehicle and forum for discussions about pay and conditions. We receive many representations about police-related issues. They are part of an important national debate. I fear that a Royal Commission would be a way of kicking things into the long grass. We need to give them vigilant attention.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what are the perceived dangers for which the Government would need courage to run a recruiting campaign for policemen?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is a fatuous question. The noble Baroness is rather expert at those, of course. We should encourage people to join the police service. The Government have that duty. The noble Baroness was a member of a government that presided over a decline in police numbers. I hope that she will have the courage to join the government Benches in endorsing our recruitment campaign and encouraging all those who feel public spirited enough to join the police service, because we need people to join the service and we need them now.