§ 11 am
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
I welcome the opportunity to introduce one of the last Westminster Hall Adjournment debates of this Parliament—[Interruption.]
§ Dr. Cable
It concerns a subject that is of considerable concern to my constituents and, I suspect, to many others across the capital. It is important to begin by acknowledging that matters have moved on since the initiation of regular debates in this Chamber on the London police, who are now the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police Authority. None the less, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) has important residual responsibilities, particularly in respect of funding and of senior appointments. Indeed, much of what I say today will be relevant to him, rather than simply an indirect reference to the work of the MPA.
Many of my later remarks will seem critical or express concern, so I shall begin on a positive note. Good things are happening in the Metropolitan police. Many of my constituents reacted very favourably to the way in which the Metropolitan police handled the recent major demonstrations against globalisation, and I unreservedly support the work of the police in containing those demonstrations in a highly effective and professional way. As one of my constituents said, that is what we pay our taxes for.
After many years of decline, there is some—albeit short-term—evidence that recruitment figures are stabilising and possibly improving. The Government's crime fighting fund and the top-up from the mayor and the Greater London Authority have provided funding at least to stabilise, and perhaps to increase, police numbers. I gather that sufficient recruits passed through the training school at Hendon in the past few months to enable the targets to be met, and we hope that those figures, which demonstrate the positive element in the picture, are sustainable.
My colleagues who are here today represent the many different aspects of London. Like me, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) represents suburban Twickenham. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), however, represents a rather different aspect of London and London policing.
Although I want to speak on a London-wide basis, I begin from the perspective of my own constituency, where there is a paradoxical situation. One might wonder why someone from Twickenham wants to raise crime as an issue. All surveys show that the police in Twickenham are extremely popular. The local police division survey showed that they are highly respected, very popular and the subject of little criticism. Senior officers work extremely well with the local community. In terms of key indicators such as burglary and street crime, all statistics demonstrate that ours is an exceptionally safe borough with very low rates of 94WH recorded crime. Moreover, there is considerable evidence to suggest that performance targets are being met.
However, that picture contrasts with the perceptions of constituents of all political persuasions, who often express serious fears. A contingent of constituents who visited my surgery last week were literally shaking with anger at the lack of order in their suburb. They said heatedly that it was the south Bronx of London, but I cannot imagine anything less like the south Bronx. The following day, I looked round the area and at first sight I was reassured. The street was placid, tree-lined and attractive, but a closer look revealed that every bus shelter had been smashed, every white wall had been daubed with graffiti, there was broken glass in the road and every car seemed to have been damaged. I was told that, the night before, 20 or 30 youths had gathered on the street corner drinking heavy spirits, smashing bottles and abusing residents. The police were called, but said that they could not come because they had no resources. There was a tremendous feeling of frustration.
I have raised the paradox of fear of crime and the apparent objective reality of very little crime. I am often told by the police that the problem is one of perception and I am beginning to worry about the concept of fear of crime. We are told that residents are suffering from a paranoid delusion and fear something that does not exist, but it does exist. The objective reality underlying the fear of crime is that in many parts of London, and certainly in mine, policing levels are low. In my division there are around 250 police officers and the number in Kingston is similar, which are by far the lowest numbers in London, at around one third of the level in a comparable population such as Lambeth. Lambeth has special problems, but are they three times more serious? Many of the crimes in my constituency about which people care passionately, such as widespread criminal damage, do not fall within the key indicators that are measured and monitored by the Metropolitan police, and much of the frustration arises from the fact that the problem is not treated as seriously as the main crime indicators.
Much crime is unreported. After another night of violence, I spoke to residents in Hampton and it seems that around 50 orders were placed with a local glazing company to replace broken car windows. However, only 15 incidents were reported to the police and when I asked some of the residents why they had not reported them, they shrugged their shoulders and said, "Why bother? There is no follow-up and nothing happens. Why should we report them?" They say that it is difficult to get anyone to come out from the police station and one wag on the police telephone said, "Why don't you call your MP?" The frustration is real.
There is a potential backlash in constituencies such as mine. We pay disproportionately more for London policing because of the precept on council tax. My constituency is an area of high council tax because of the way in which the mechanism of local government funding works and people pay disproportionately more and received disproportionately less in return. Of the 1,000 new police officers promised by the Metropolitan police authority, we shall have 14. That is very welcome and will bring the division up to its theoretical full strength, but it is a very small number and does not even begin to address the concerns that I am describing.
95WH My concern is not parochial. I read the previous debate on the Metropolitan police and many of the same concerns were expressed by my colleagues in south-west London, by Conservatives in Uxbridge and Bexley, and by Labour Members in Croydon and Upminster. They were concerned about crime, much of it unreported and much of it not in high priority areas—for example, criminal damage and graffiti. The problem is not being tackled.
I have outlined the context in which I launch the debate, but I shall now concentrate on police numbers and recruitment. As the Minister knows, the context is one in which police numbers have declined steadily, year on year, without interruption since 1990. If blame is to be attached, it is widespread, although police numbers were much lower in the 1960s and 1970s.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that during the years of Conservative government, the number of police officers in London rose by 4,500, but under the present Labour Government, the number in London has fallen by 3 per cent. and crime has risen by 3 per cent. in the past year? That cannot be a coincidence.
§ Dr. Cable
It depends on which years we use as our base. In 1990, police numbers were 28,300. Since 1997, they have fallen to 26,675. Why the Conservative Government changed their priorities and started cutting police numbers is something that the hon. Gentleman will no doubt explain later.
There has been a transformation in the funding arrangements. The combination of the fighting fund and the GLA has created a more optimistic environment. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I shall run through the arithmetic. Over the two years from March 2000 to March 2002, the base case from which the police and the Home Office will have been working is the expected decline in police numbers of about 2,700 because of wastage and retirement. Usual recruitment will bring in another 1,070, leaving a deficit of 1,600, as a result of which the rate of decline in police numbers will have accelerated.
Since its introduction, the crime fighting fund has funded 1,200 posts over two years, but that still leaves a deficit of 400 to 500. The extra precept contribution from the GLA now means that a positive balance has been achieved over that two-year period. That is welcome, but given that the crime fighting fund and the precept increase are politically difficult accomplishments, how does the Minister see such stabilisation being sustained for years in light of the fact that there will be a high level of attrition from the police through retirement? There will be a substantial bulge within the next few years.
As for recruitment policy, everyone welcomes the fact that London allowances have been increased substantially, thereby nullifying the negative effect of the withdrawal of housing allowances by the former Home Secretary under the Conservative Administration. That is a welcome change. However, I find certain aspects of the recruitment problem mystifying and inconsistent. When helping a police officer who had left the force prematurely and was living in police housing, I discovered that his house was 96WH in the process of being auctioned and that police houses throughout my constituency were being sold off at private auction, with no end use by the police service.
Common sense suggests that that is utterly perverse. We have an enormous police recruitment problem. There are police officers in my constituency who commute from Portsmouth and round the M25 from St. Albans because they cannot afford housing in the area. Yet, police property is being sold off. Substantial amounts of it have been sold over the years, most recently under the MPA, but previously under Home Office guidance. Will the Minister clarify matters? The only explanation that I have been given is that there is a mismatch between the accommodation that is available, which is mainly family, and that which is wanted by young recruits who are often single men and women.
However, even a moderately imaginative landlord could find a way in which to convert a three-bedroom house into bedsits with shared communal facilities. A little imagination by the Metropolitan police property department would solve the problem, which relates to the wider issue of affordable housing, our access to which is shrinking. In many areas such as my constituency, there is no land on which to build new houses. The stock of housing that can be afforded by young professionals, including police officers, is diminishing, yet an asset is being sold for no obvious reason. There is a distinct lack of joined-up thinking. I hope that the Minister will bring that problem to the attention of the Metropolitan police.
As for recruitment, we recognise that it is not only a matter of numbers. There must be quality and balance among the recruits, the most obvious being the ethnic mix. We know that the police are making big efforts. I pay tribute to Mr. Grieve and the impact that he has had in making the Metropolitan police a friendlier environment for ethnic minorities, both as members of the public and recruits. The culture is changing in a welcome way. Recruitment numbers are beginning to reflect that, but are still hopelessly inadequate in terms of the 25 per cent. target that has been set.
The problem is not simply one of ethnic minorities. Many types of people could make a useful contribution to the police service, but were discouraged in the past by unimaginative forms of recruitment. The Home Office has been examining recruitment criteria and perhaps the Minister would report on that. About a year ago, I brought to his attention the case of a young man who had a large gap in his teeth. Under a 1920's regulation he was debarred on medical grounds. That case was investigated and solved, but it was the tip of a large iceberg.
The problem is not only one of full-time police officers. One of the points emphasised by my colleagues is the need to examine a much more varied portfolio of police careers, especially the role of specials, the numbers of whom have declined astronomically in London and elsewhere under the Government. There are many unnecessary financial impediments such as lack of compensation or reimbursement for court time spent by specials. An unnecessary regulation has been brought to my attention whereby special police officers cannot stand for Parliament. One of my political colleagues, Jonathan Simpson who is a special police officer in Hampstead and Highgate, has had to choose 97WH between a political career and one as a special police officer. There is no obvious reason why such a regulation should continue to exist.
Similarly, there is broad consensus among police thinkers of the need to use volunteers creatively—to man the police station for example, not go round with baseball bats late at night.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)
I seek a point of clarification on the interesting question of the political responsibilities of police. A similar issue arises in relation to being a parish council member. Is it the view of the hon. Gentleman's party that all special constables should be able to serve in Parliament and take part in voluntary activities such as being a councillor for any political party? Does he believe that to be the case both for special constables and police officers in general? It is a genuine inquiry.
§ Dr. Cable
We have made the proposal in respect of special constables. As a result of the transfer of responsibility, police officers are no longer—even indirectly—civil servants. Metropolitan police officers work for a London authority rather than for the Government, so the potential conflict of interest that might have arisen as a result of a police officer being a Member of Parliament does not arise. We are putting forward the proposal for specials, but the Minister may wish to respond to the fact that the logic applies to the wider recruitment problem.
§ Mr. Heald
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the reason for the decline in the number of specials is that councillors cannot join? Does he agree with the special constable who said in Police magazine in February that the reason was that the service was a:thoroughly demoralised and over criticised, under-resourcedorganisation whosemembers work anti-social hours and often find themselves in…danger"?
§ Dr. Cable
The hon. Gentleman widens the discussion unnecessarily. The Minister asked a precise and helpful follow-up and the hon. Gentleman's intervention was propaganda.
I noticed many specials in the lines of police officers manning the anti-globalisation protests. Therefore, they share in the credit attracted to the force as a whole, with all the improvements in morale that follow.
Clearly, the question of police manpower is not simply a numbers game, important though the number of officers is. It is also an issue of the usefulness of police time. I know that the Minister has devoted a lot of thought as to how much of the frankly absurd form-filling requirements of the police can be dealt with. I have seen studies that suggest that progress has been made on that problem, but much needs to be done.
In terms of the allocation of time, a question that concerns many of us is why police time cannot be spent more productively on the street. A recent survey conducted in north London showed that approximately 10 per cent. of operational police time was spent on the street, while 40 per cent. was spent administratively. 98WH Police officers often cite the little bit of received wisdom that the chance of a police officer on patrol encountering a criminal committing a crime is about as likely as being hit by an asteroid. That little bit of wisdom has acquired a dangerous life of its own. A little reflection suggests that, if beat policing is done more flexibly and thoughtfully, and if, for example, police walk on opposite sides of the street rather than together, or go on a car patrol and fan out from the car, many of the things that our constituents want to see, such as a visible police presence on foot outside their homes, could be achieved with an economy of manpower. I should be interested to hear from the Minister responsible for police how far thinking has developed in the police in terms of that old controversy.
On the use of time, I recognise that, as an economist would put it, substituting capital for labour can often be an intelligent way of managing resources. One way of substituting capital for labour is replacing people with cameras, or, at least, cameras that are watched.
I end with a little whinge to the Minister about cameras. I have tried for some years to support the local police and council in their efforts to introduce a CCTV system. He may recall my asking at Home Office questions why Treasury rules did not allow us to have a system because of the difficulties of funding recurrent costs. He wrote me a nice, sympathetic letter encouraging my local council and police to apply under his funding. They spent 18 months putting together a package and finding revenue streams that would enable them to cover recurrent costs, which they put forward a few months ago. A few weeks ago, they were told that they had been rejected because by then all the money had been spent. I hope that he will give a morale boost to my area by suggesting that the relevant fund will have a fresh look at that application. That is an example of the wider point that we are dealing not merely with numbers but with good use and deployment of resources.
Discussion about police numbers and police time relates to input rat her than output. Eventually, we want to know whether crime is being reduced, as that is the name of the game. I do not want to enter into a sterile debate about whether crime is rising or falling. I simply make the point that there are big disparities in the way in which crime is measured, as we know from recorded crime and crime surveys.
A particular anxiety for my area is that many of the crimes that matter most to people are simply never recorded. If every graffiti tag were recorded, the crime figures would be astronomical and disastrous, which they are not. I ask the Minister—we are entering a general election in which crime reduction will be a key theme—to bear it in mind that in many areas such as mine there is still very deep apprehension about crime and the lack of policing, however it is measured.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on having secured this important debate, albeit on the eve of the election. It helps us, before we leave this place, to focus on some of the real issues.
Police numbers have been a political issue for many years. If we were to read debates in the House from the 1960s and 1970s, we would see that similar arguments 99WH were being rehearsed. We have not learned from past mistakes in dealing with police levels, and I shall broadly enter that domain before making some more detailed points.
My hon. Friend rightly discussed the importance of performance as well as numbers. In the past, some Governments, in particular Mrs. Thatcher's first Government, decided that all that they needed to do was throw money at the police, and they wasted a lot of resources. Later Tory Governments decided that that was not the thing to do and slashed police numbers.
§ Mr. Davey
I do not accept that. In some periods, the number of Metropolitan police officers doing real jobs involving catching crime, whether on the street or in the office detecting criminals, fell. Police numbers in the Metropolitan police fell for 10 years, which included a long period of Conservative rule. The Conservatives seemed to take the position that the issue was not police numbers but performance. We need to stop thinking along the lines of the issue being numbers in one period and performance in the next—we need to tie both together and raise our ambitions about police performance levels.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham is right to say that the key issue is outcomes, not just in terms of reducing crime but in respect of making our neighbourhoods, homes and communities feel safer. My constituents in Kingston and Surbiton are similar to my hon. Friend's constituents in that they perceive a great deal of crime, some of which is graffiti and vandalism. That is often called "low-level crime" in the jargon, but for our constituents it is serious; they see it as they come out of their doors and it makes them feel unsafe. We have an ageing population and many pensioners feel unsafe to go out on the streets. That is a public cost; it is a disadvantage to a society.
Some outcomes that we should be measuring are intangible. The issue is not simply whether car crime or burglaries have fallen or risen; we need to consider outcomes that are difficult to measure. If we put them high on the list, up there with such serious crimes as rape and street robbery, the need for extra police would be far more evident. We need to measure police performance rigorously to ensure that there is proper output for the input from the taxpayer. Let us ensure that those outputs and outcomes reflect the real desires of our constituents, rather than those that are easy to measure for Ministers and their officials. That is not what the game should be about: the outcomes and outputs should be those that matter to our constituents, and they are sometimes not as measurable as we in our technocratic world might like.
Having made that general point, I want to discuss some of the challenges that we face in respect of police numbers in London. The long period of decline is flattening out and things seem to taking an upturn; our challenge is to make up the police numbers that we have lost, so that we can raise levels of performance. At the same time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said, from 2002 for about three or four 100WH years there will be a bulge, as a lot of officers will retire. We must keep recruitment going to make up for past losses and to prepare ourselves for the huge bulge of retiring officers. That is an enormous challenge for the Government and the Metropolitan Police Authority.
We must recruit thousands of officers, year on year, for a long period, especially if we want the police to meet the wider objectives to which my hon. Friend and I have referred. In Kingston, burglary and car crime are falling, but street robbery is increasing, as are a lot of minor crimes that are not measured, such as vandalism and disorder from gangs of youths resulting mainly from intoxication. if we want to crack down on such crimes, areas such as Kingston will need a substantial rise in police numbers.
We also need a strategy to persuade the media to report crime properly. In the past week or so, the local police in Kingston published the latest figures, which showed some reductions in crime. The local paper, however, decided to pick on one figure that showed an increase from a relatively small basis and make a splash headline out of it that totally misrepresented the crime statistics. That is not helpful in the fight against crime or in explaining to communities or individuals what is happening.
§ Mr. Charles Clarke
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman but, to be honest, I have thought about the matter a lot, and other than by spending a lot on positive PR, I am not sure of the approach that we should take to achieve what he wants. Does the hon. Gentleman have any proposals on how to achieve the aim that he sets out?
§ Mr. Davey
I, too, have thought about the problem, which is difficult. With a free press, if a journalist gets it into his or her head that there will be a scare story, there is nothing that one can do to stop it. I would not want it any other way. However, in the Kingston division the retired chief superintendent Alan Given and his successor, Geoff Braithwaite—who is very welcome—have taken a very proactive approach to dealing with the media. They have managed to get positive stories in the local papers for a considerable period. It is all about borough commanders and senior police officers taking a proactive response, rather than just responding to stories. It is similar to the way in which Millbank operates its spinning.
§ Mr. Clarke
Is the hon. Gentleman recommending that we should apply Millbank techniques to the police force in Britain?
§ Mr. Davey
I would not want to go in that direction. For example, I would not want to see Sir John Stevens visiting a school and singing a hymn at the launch of his campaign to get more money—that would not go down terribly well.
I shall discuss positive aspects of what is being done to meet the challenge that I have outlined. The recruitment exercise referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham is going well, and I have joined in that in two ways in Kingston. I joined chief superintendent Braithwaite and his officers at a recruitment fair in the Bentalls centre, which is the main shopping centre.
101WH It pulled in not only potential recruits but young children who may be recruits in future. We watched actors performing an arrest. Some actors played drunken youths, and we saw how a police officer dealt with that situation sensitively. That demonstration of policing in town centres is a pro-active method of encouraging more people to join the police force.
Chief Superintendent Alan Given, who was head of Kingston police, was appointed by Sir John Stevens to head the recruitment task force at 26 Aybrook street, where the headquarters for recruitment is based. I went there a month or two ago to discuss how the recruitment exercise was going. what problems had been encountered and how they were dealt with. The first thing that was impressive was the management information database. Previously, the police did not know what was happening to applications or people coming through Hendon. Currently, there is careful monitoring and recruitment performance is assessed from the data. Surprisingly, that results in some of the flaws of previous practices being exposed, and new innovative methods of getting people to apply to and join the police.
A table of sources of inquiries breaks down where inquiries from potential applicants come from, such as from answerphone, billboard, career centre, Home Office, internet, jobcentre, magazines, newspapers and so on. A brief perusal of that table shows how, in July 2000, most requests were made by applicants leaving their name and address on the answerphone. I am pleased to say that that is no longer the main source of inquiry for an application, and more inquiries now come from responses to newspapers, magazines, proactive work by the police, and, interestingly, via the internet. In July 2000, 69 inquiries were received from the internet, while in February, 1,001 such inquiries were received. The Metropolitan police are moving into the 21st century and using the internet as a method of getting people to apply for jobs. That is welcome, and I pay tribute to Chief Superintendent Alan Given and Sir John Stevens for the work that the task force is doing. I could go through many other tables, but I feel that I may try your patience, Mr. Welsh.
Information is now being made available, and it is significantly influencing recruitment methods. Old practices are being abandoned. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has alluded to some of them, and I want to describe one more. An applicant was told that he was too young and that he should go away and get some experience of life. He backpacked round the world for two years, but when he returned, he was told that he could not apply to join the force as he had not been resident in the UK for the past two years. There are far too many examples of the Metropolitan police acting in arcane ways and setting up obstacles, so it is not surprising that the tearing down of old practices has led to a large increase in recruitment.
A key question is whether institutions such as Hendon should be expanded. Can it currently accommodate enough recruits for us to realise our ambition of policing the capital as thoroughly as Londoners would wish? If the numbers of recruits passing through Hendon are kept up over the next few years, would that be sufficient 102WH to meet the challenge that we are facing? The Minister should examine that issue with the Metropolitan Police Authority.
I have a couple of minor criticisms of the Government. I am delighted that they restored the housing allowance. The Tories cut it and that was a disastrous policy: recruitment fell dramatically, which set back policing in the capital by several years. However, the Government failed to restore it quickly enough. My party had to harry them for three years before they eventually got round to reintroducing it, but even then they did not do it properly. There are several anomalies, and I wish to draw one of them to the Minister's attention. Prior to 1994, single officers received half the housing allowance. In 1994, that allowance was frozen: if such officers subsequently married, they still received the single person's housing allowance. However, those officers, who have been serving for several years, might now be working alongside new recruits who receive the full London housing allowance, regardless of whether they are single or married. Experienced officers receive less housing allowance, even though they have remained in the police, merely because they happened to be single prior to 1994. What message does that send to them? It cannot be right. I hope that the Minister will tackle such anomalies.
The Government are addressing another important issue because my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) brought it to their attention in the House several months ago: the need to encourage officers to stay in the force longer. I hope that the Minister can report some progress on that. Although it is important to encourage new recruits, it is also necessary to address the issues of quality and experience, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said. We must ensure that the cadre of police officers comprises not only new and inexperienced recruits but a broad range of officers, some with 30 or 40 years' experience, others with 20 years, and 10 years, and five years. Veterans and new recruits learn from each other, and they offer different skills and attributes to help meet the challenge of policing in London. It is therefore essential that the Government swiftly produce concrete proposals to encourage officers who are approaching their 30-year period of service to remain in the police.
I have spoken to several officers about the matter, and it is apparent that the key issue is their lump sum payment after 30 years' service. They want to be allowed to stay on when they take the money, rather than also be required to take their pension, and to be penalised by the tax system. Although that change might require primary legislation, the Government must facilitate officers to stay on by addressing that financial matter. That would provide a massive incentive, and make a considerable contribution to the recruitment challenge and to helping to ensure that we get the correct mix of officers within the London force.
§ Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)
Before my hon. Friend concludes, will he comment on another annoying feature of the police force nowadays, whereby an officer who has become familiar with an area, has built up contacts among the general population and knows the children and the head teachers of the schools is then 103WH moved somewhere else? I appreciate that there are reasons for doing that, such as avoiding corruption, but I cannot believe that it is good practice. It is damaging not only for the officer's family but for children who grow up in the community and elderly people. It is important for them to know their police and to see them regularly in the area, but the current practice militates against that.
§ Mr. Davey
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right. The policy of tenure under the former Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis is gradually and diplomatically being phased out by the new commissioner, and not before time. I hope that it will tackle the sorts of problems to which my hon. Friend referred. She and I share a wonderful area called New Malden, which crosses the boundaries of our two constituencies. It happens to have the largest population of Koreans in the UK, for the historical reason that the Korean embassy was situated nearby. A few years ago, the local beat officer went to the trouble of learning Korean. That shows the degree of commitment of some of our wonderful officers. Having learned Korean, however, he was moved away to an area where there was no Korean population, supposedly in the interests of his career. That was bad policing—the officer did not want to move, but he was required to do so. That is an example of how absurd bureaucratic practices can diminish good policing.
I want to make two other points, one of which is a constituency lobbying point in respect of technology, and, specifically, cameras. I know that the Minister is still in office, and Parliament is not dissolved, so I am sure that he can answer positively. Kingston council applied for funding for CCTV on Tolworth Broadway. I wrote to the Minister on the matter when the Home Office turned the application down. I was disappointed because there has been a spate of vandalism and attacks on individuals going about their business on Tolworth Broadway. Shopkeepers and the local community feel that if they had CCTV, they could protect the area far more effectively. The police believe that such IT investment could be used to good effect, and that criminals who are vandalising property and attacking law-abiding citizens could be caught. I hope that, in the last few days of this Parliament, the Minister will review that decision and consider making a grant to Kingston council, to enable CCTV to be installed in Tolworth Broadway.
My final point is a general one about the allocation of police resources—the famous resource allocation formula, which I am sure that hon. Members have considered. I am delighted that my noble Friend Lord Tope, who is chairman of the finance committee of the Metropolitan Police Authority, is considering reform of the resource allocation formula in London. It must be reformed. because it does not reward success. If crime is reduced through effective policing, resources are taken away, which is the most perverse incentive that I can think of for tackling crime. If local police reduce one or two of the headline crime statistics, there are many other services that they would like to provide to their community. Such a resource formula will not increase service or performance levels, because the incentives are wrong.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham on representing his constituents on this issue with a tenacity and ability that is probably 104WH unequalled by any other Member of Parliament. He has done a sterling job, and has raised an important issue, which Liberal Democrat Members have a great ambition to resolve through major investment in London's police.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words. I am grateful for the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in seeking Adjournment debates. I have not counted but, at the end of this Parliament, he is surely near the top of the Adjournment debate league. He does it not because he loves speaking in such debates but because he is keen to ensure that issues are brought to the Minister's attention and that progress is made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said.
I should explain that the red box in front of me is not here because of some new arrogance or delusions of grandeur on my part. The reason is simply that my office prepared my papers for today and put them in this box. I have never before appeared in the House with a red box, although in a few weeks' time, I and all my hon. Friends will have red boxes.
The issue is important, and I am grateful that we are debating it again, less than a week before the dissolution of Parliament. The blunt fact is that police numbers have gone down significantly during this Parliament. That is not something for Labour to be proud of, and the public will be reminded of it regularly before the election. The decrease in numbers was not necessary. It was obvious that that would happen if the Government did not alter their spending limits. The Home Secretary epitomised the Government's belated awareness by appearing at Hendon the other day, surrounded by police recruits. The Minister was aware of the need for publicity campaigns and more money before he became a Minister at the Home Office, and it is something that some of us have been urging on the Government throughout the term of the Parliament.
Police numbers have gone down across London and in individual boroughs. In my borough of Southwark, we have a larger police establishment than in outer London boroughs, but we are not up to strength. People such as the borough commander, to whom I pay tribute. say that they would be able to do more if they had the full complement of police officers. Clearly, adequate resources are needed to deal with tragedies such as the death of Damilola Taylor and the investigations that followed it.
Another unsatisfactory situation is the decrease in special constables in London and the rest of the country. That problem is less obviously the fault of the Government, and they have shown a belated interest in it. I was privileged to chair the special constables awards in Portcullis house the other day in the presence of the mayor of London, the commissioner and others. It was a splendid event, which honoured excellence in special constable work. The winner this year is a special constable who looks after Deptford market in the London borough of Lewisham. Police and special constable numbers must increase in the London boroughs.
§ Mr. Heald
When we pressed the Government to keep recruitment up and to increase police numbers, their 105WH reaction was that our argument was sterile and simplistic. That is what the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) said. Only recently have the Government woken up to their duty to have a recruitment campaign and put some officers on the street.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is bizarre that, in the first half of the Parliament, the Government said that they could not do anything about police numbers, which were entirely a matter for chief constables. The Government said that they would allocate money, but they stayed within their spending limits. The second half started with the famous Bournemouth speech; the Home Secretary got into a bit of a pickle, and suddenly the Government started allocating money. That money effectively became ring-fenced and allowed police numbers to increase.
I shall not be overly political, but my hon. Friends have pointed out the weakness in the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). After a good record on police numbers from 1979 to 1992, for some inexplicable reason the previous Tory Administration suddenly took their eyes off the ball and started the decline in police numbers that the Labour Government continued. In London, neither Labour nor the Conservatives come to the election with a history of having done well in their last term of office. They have done badly with respect to police numbers and safety for Londoners.
§ Mr. Hughes
The uninitiated may not be aware of this debate. It is about police officers. I do not want to get stuck in the statistics groove, but the crude facts are that the numbers of police officers—people drawing their salary and putting on the uniform—decreased between 1992 and 1997. The numbers had risen before then. I pay tribute to those officers. Of course it matters whether they are out on the streets or behind a desk. I agree that we need them more out on the streets.
§ Mr. Charles Clarke
For the sake of accuracy, police numbers went down from 1990, not from 1992. That is two years more than the hon. Gentleman stated.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am aware of that. I was not seeking to hide it. I was seeking to take each Administration separately. I was comparing the previous Tory Administration with this one.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is about to speak on behalf of the Tories, yet surprisingly not one single Tory or Labour Member representing London is here. In a one and a half hour debate the speakers will include the person who moves the debate, the Minister who responds and probably the spokespeople from the three parties. It is unusual for the other parties not to have at least one representative. I cannot believe that all the people who are not here will also be absent this afternoon. I wager that many 106WH London Members, Tory and Labour, are in the House today. They are just not at this debate on policing in London.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (in the Chair)
Order. I know that hon. Members are keen to fight the general election, but I hope that they will stay in order and on the subject.
§ Mr. Clarke
Just for information, there is a meeting, as there is every week at 11.30 am, of the parliamentary Labour party, which my colleagues are attending. The Prime Minister is speaking at it and that is why they are not here today.
§ Mr. Hughes
That is quite a good, although not a completely good reason. Surely one representative of the London Labour MPs could have attended the debate, but if the Prime Minister is upstairs reading from the hymn book and singing at the troops I am sure that it will all be lovely.
§ Mr. Hughes
The Minister is bound to say that.
My colleagues and I are much strengthened in our case. We six Liberal Democrat Members have had police manpower in London at the top of our agenda in this Parliament and are therefore pleased—I pay tribute to the Government for this—that responsibility has now been transferred from the Government to the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority. I pay tribute to those authorities and to the mayor for the way in which they have started their work. The mayor made it clear that he wanted significant numbers of extra police in London and the GLA therefore raised the precept to start that process. That was a good decision, which we gratefully supported.
§ Mr. Hughes
It was extraordinary that when the parties on the GLA put forward their budget proposals, the Tory proposal was significantly lower than that of the mayor, the Liberal Democrats and Labour members. The blunt truth is that people have choices. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not cease to remind his electorate of that in the next few weeks, and rightly so. At the end of the day, political parties are teams and we are collectively accountable for our decisions.
One matter that the GLA and the MPA have taken over has particular interest for my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). The Carriage Office, which regulates taxis in London, has been given the long overdue job of dealing with minicabs. That is indirectly related to police manpower because the more people who are working, the quicker the job can be done. I therefore wonder whether we will soon have a change in regulations about numbers of taxis generally, which is a concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Will we get on with licensing 107WH minicabs so that the safety issues, on which my hon. Friend has been a pre-eminent campaigner, can be addressed?
§ Dr. Tonge
Is my hon. Friend aware that only last week in my constituency a young woman was raped by a bogus minicab driver? That was not the first such incident; it happens far too often in London. Is he aware that it is two and a half years since the Bill was enacted, but we are only just beginning to license minicab firms, let alone drivers and their vehicles? Is that not a disgrace?
§ Mr. Hughes
It is a disgrace. I was not aware of that case, but we would all express revulsion at it. I hope that my hon. Friend's comments, although brief, will be noted and that the Commissioner, his force, the Carriage Office, the GLA, the MPA and others will get on with the job. Every day that that does not happen, people's safety is at risk. I am sure that, like the rest of us, my hon. Friend will keep up the pressure.
Like Sir Paul Condon, Sir John Stevens is seized of the need for more police officers in London. I pay tribute to them, to Trevor Pearman, my local borough commander who recently moved on, and to Rod Jarman, the current borough commander. They have made the case for more officers at every opportunity.
Demand is such that provision is stretched. For obvious reasons, there are many more pressures on policing in London than that in other parts of the country. Events such as the anti-globalisation protest focus on London, because it is the capital city. Normally, it has national sporting events. I say "normally" because, although Twickenham carries on and Millwall football club is even more pre-eminent than before—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton does not agree, even though Millwall has just been promoted, winning its final match on Saturday 5-0. We have lost Wembley temporarily, although perhaps for slightly longer than we had bargained for. None the less, there are huge extra demands on London, and we pay tribute to the police for dealing with them.
Yesterday, there was a big protest outside the Home Office. People were protesting, rightly, about antiterrorism legislation that the Government got wrong. It is not wrong to have such legislation, but they got the detail wrong. Sadly, the police were also required at some cost for two National Front marches in my constituency on recent weekends, and there will be a third this weekend. The good news is that the marches attract little support. The bad news is that they are extremely demanding of police resources, manpower and time. I wish that the National Front would realise that its prejudiced view is not nearly as appealing as it thinks.
Although such demands exist, we should not say that marches and protests should not take place. They are in the nature of political life in any democracy, so we must bear their cost. The public understand that there must be policing of the May day activities on one hand and of the National Front on the other. I dissent from the view floated the other day by Lord Harris of Haringey, the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, that the National Front should be a proscribed organisation. 108WH I am keen for us to re-examine the public order legislation, but once we start to ban people from expressing views completely, we get into trouble.
§ Mr. Charles Clarke
Let me say for the record that Lord Harris was speaking for himself on that occasion, not for the Labour party.
§ Mr. Hughes
I understand that. I did not mean to misrepresent the position and I hope that I did not. My understanding is that the Home Secretary's view is similar to mine and shared by Ministers. There are powers to ban marches in certain cases, but they require the police to come to the view that they cannot manage the public order implications.
My party believes that there should be an increase in overall numbers and that there should be minimum numbers. We have put a proposal to the Government, to which they have not yet signed up, that there should be a standing conference on policing to keep both sets of numbers under review and to make objective recommendations on what they should be. My hon. Friends and I approach the debate in the belief that there is a case for London to have police numbers comparable, in proportion to population, with those of New York and Paris. That would mean a significant number of extra officers, which the public want and are willing to pay for.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and others that the problem is not a shortage of interest. Yesterday, I went with our party leader to English Martyrs Roman Catholic primary school in my constituency to start our election campaign. When we asked the youngsters what they wanted to do in the future, a little lad of 11—he happened to be a black lad—said, "I want to be a police officer." Many people spot that career option, but we are not very good at responding to it. Will the Minister say whether the Government are urging the MPA and London police authorities to consider two different ideas: a cadet system and a sponsorship system? A police cadet system would get people interested and police authorities that opted into a sponsorship system, rolled out nationally or in London, would be able to tell potential recruits, "If you are aged 16 or 17 and willing to join the police, we will pay for you to go through college. If you sign on for five or 10 years we will look after you in the early years, as the armed forces do and as many City firms have done in the past." That would increase recruitment and I am keen for the Government to support it.
Secondly, I want to underline the points that have been made about housing needs. Many more people would be police officers in London if they had local housing; they do not all want to travel for 50 or 100 miles to work. There is a case to be made for what used to be called section houses for police officers when they join the force, usually at an age when they are not yet married. It is like going to college or university the new officers are with their peer group and are usually happy to be housed in student-type accommodation and to be with their mates. It is a good experience before settling down and living in their own place. I want section housing to be brought back and key worker housing to be developed.
109WH Can the Minister say whether any police force has carried out a needs assessment of the kind of housing that the police want so that that profile can be matched to what is provided? We should consider making part of the salary, or perhaps a bonus, portable and able to be transferred from one property to another.
Thirdly, I support the proposition mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton that we should break with the idea of police signing on automatically for 30 years. Police officers should be allowed to sign on for 10, 20 or 30 years, starting at the age of 18, 28 or 38, and then be allowed to carry on beyond the age of 48 or at the end of a 30-year period if they wish to do so. A more flexible system would attract many more people, some of whom, at about the age of 40, may be fed up with their job and want a life change. They would be happy to do police and community service. I cannot understand why it has taken so long to respond to such suggestions.
Fifthly, may we please have part-time police officers? That would allow many people with family commitments to join the police force. We should also get rid of the nonsense that prevents people becoming specials; for example, in order to be the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate in Hampstead and Highgate, Jonathan Simpson has had to resign his special commission. There may be few people in that category, but no one should be precluded from doing public service because he or she has a political career. A Member of Parliament should be able to be a special constable.
Sixthly, may we have a community safety force to supplement the police? Seventhly, may we encourage the police to recruit more volunteers? Front desks do not need to be staffed by uniformed police officers. It is frustrating to have to wait in a queue because no officer is available; someone has to be there when people ask at the desk for police assistance, and a volunteer would perform that job adequately.
My penultimate question to the Minister is please can we stop tying up so much police time in replicating work done by others? Every police sector does its own crime statistics. Surely, a few people in the service could compile the crime statistics for the whole of the Metropolitan police and relieve officers on the beat of that task.
Lastly, there is a danger that police are now into partnership policing and that is all very good, Mr. Winterton—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
I hesitate to intervene on an hon. Member who is so experienced in this place, but the one thing that I have gained in 30 years here is the title additional Deputy Speaker. At this stage in a Parliament I would love to be so called.
§ Mr. Hughes
I bow deferentially to your status, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are one of the few people who have been here even longer than I have.
The police are keen that they do not have to attend more and more meetings that replicate the same work.
110WH I end on a key point. The funding formula needs to be altered because unless we recognise and reward success, we penalise it. The Minister has told me two or three times in debates that the Government are examining how to do that. It is difficult, and I do not know whether talks have taken place to reach an agreement. It must be a priority for whoever is at the Home Office after the election that police success—not just in London, but everywhere—does not result in a financial penalty to the service. I hope that we have made a strong and practical case for ways in which we can increase police numbers; we need more and the public want us to provide more. This was the last opportunity to make that case in this place before the general election.
§ 12.5 pm
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Yesterday, the Prime Minister visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who came here today with a red box. I wondered whether that was a sign that the third way was back on track.
We have had a good debate, and it is pleasing to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the officers of the Metropolitan police—and the City police, because we are debating policing in London. The police do a magnificent job, often in difficult circumstances. I also congratulate Sir John Stevens on his leadership of the Metropolitan police. The London public were dreading May day this year because last year's scenes were dreadful. Some of our most important national monuments were desecrated and there was widespread violence, but police planning and performance kept us safe this year.
If the Minister is prepared to comment, what does he think about some of the protestors' comments that they may now complain under the Human Rights Act 1998 and seek damages for the way in which the protest was policed? It is the job of the police to secure the peace. Does the Minister not agree that that Act should not deflect the police from that duty? Does he accept that it is odd for protestors to complain after the peace has been kept and, if he feels that the Act, which his party introduced, will lead to such nonsense, should he not put forward proposals to change the situation?
§ Mr. Charles Clarke
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether his party intends to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 if it is elected at the next general election?
§ Mr. Heald
It is no secret that we have not suggested repealing the Act, but we would be grateful if the Minister, with all the advice, assistance and legal help that he receives, told us the legal position on the protestors' complaints. The Government introduced the legislation and, if there is a problem, all parties will want to examine it.
Between March 1979 and March 1997, police strength in the Metropolitan police increased by 4,500. This Government came to power promising to put more officers back on the beat but, almost from the start, their 111WH philosophy was that increasing police numbers was not vital and a sterile argument. Indeed, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) said on 4 February 1999 that
we must move way from sterile and simplistic arguments about police numbers."—[Official Report, 4 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 1099.]As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, Opposition Members, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who was shadow Home Secretary at the time, argued that we must keep police numbers up and continue recruiting. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he did too. We are constantly told, "Oh no, we are not debating that today; we must assess efficiency." The Government have badly lost their way.
The Conservative years witnessed rising police numbers, with more constables appointed every year. The number of civilians employed was also increased by 50,000, releasing many officers to work on the front line. No one would say that it was perfect, but rising police numbers and their greater presence on the streets was better than what followed under the Labour Government. Police numbers declined rapidly against a background of retention problems, so crime rose. It is inexplicable why the Government took that line.
In London, police numbers fell from 26,677 in March 1997 to the latest figure of 24.861—a fall of 1,816 officers. As a result of boundary changes, it might be fairer to reduce the figure to about 1,500. The City of London police have experienced a fall of 148 officers. Overall in London, 1,600 or more officers—3 per cent.—are no longer policing our streets. At the same time, the number of special constables—volunteers who give their time to police our streets—fell nationally by a third.
What has been the effect of the decline in police numbers? Sir Paul Condon, the highly respected former Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, said:It means that we cannot devote the resources to murder inquiries that other forces do. It means we have fewer bobbies on the beat that we, or the public would like… The time for fudge and prevarication is over.Others followed up the same theme of rising crime. In the year to September 2000, 6,000 more violent crimes were committed in London than in the previous 12 months—a rise of 3 per cent. We have thus seen a fall of 3 per cent. in police numbers and a 3 per cent. rise in crime over the past year. It is no coincidence or surprise: fewer officers doing the job will lead to a rise in street crime, so the Government should take responsibility for it.
In December last year, Sir John Stevens announced that the Metropolitan police was in crisis. He spoke about the ability to fight crime being "stretched" and pointed to rises in street robbery and violence and increased use of guns. He also emphasised the difficulties of recruitment:People are saying, 'Do we want to join the service'A few weeks ago, the Home Secretary announced that the number of police recruits was increasing, with a 27 per cent. rise in the numbers sent to Hendon, but in the last financial year, the Metropolitan police lost 199 officers.
112WH It is instructive to hear the comments of the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Glenn Smyth. The Minister laughs, of course, because he will not like the following quote:It may be good news for other parts of the country, but it is certainly not good news for the Met… Only 3 per cent. of application forms sent result in a recruit at training school.That certainly does not constitute a success. He continued:The Met is a ticking time bomb… unless there is a huge upturn in recruitment and more importantly retention the Met will be a third smaller in 2005-06. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel it certainly hasn't been turned on yet!I recognise the truth in that.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) referred to the bulge in imminent retirements. We may have had a one-off boost in recruitment, but at the cost of a huge national advertising campaign and the Metropolitan police deciding that people whom they had previously rejected for various reasons could join the force after all. It is not a sustained improvement for the future. If the Minister is serious about the police service, he will have to tackle some of the serious morale problems that it faces.
The fact that police stations in London are closing is of concern to London residents. The force is being stretched out, with 1,600 fewer officers and no special constables to fill the gaps; police stations cannot be manned. The Minister will confirm that around 40 police stations have closed during the Labour years. Chief Superintendent Jarrett, talking last year about the closure of Pinner, Edgware and Wealdstone stations, said:I share people's concern. I'm a resident here. I know what it's like not to have a police station nearby when, for example, you want to report you'll be away from your house for a few weeks. It's very difficult.Morale in London is hit when the ordinary officer on the beat who wants to do a good job, as the public want him to do, has to say, "Well, I'm sorry, your police station is closed. We do not have the men or the women to police your area in the way that we would like." It is sad that on a day such as May day we have officers everywhere and see what a fantastic job the police can do; they can have high visibility and provide us with policing in the capital of the sort that people want—yet that is not the case year round.
The Government say that when we were in government we had years of putting extra money into the police and rising police numbers, but still did not get on top of crime—however, that shows how long it takes and what a sustained effort is needed to reduce crime and change the culture so that people believe that police officers will catch them if they commit crime. Once we let the situation slip—as the Government have done—and start saying that police numbers do not matter, that the debate is sterile and let numbers fall, youngsters thinking of committing crime start doing so because they can get away with it. The word goes round that the police are not out there. One ends up with a culture in which violence on the street is more prevalent.
The country will pay the penalty for those years of neglect under Labour. It is no good saying just before an election, "Oh well, we've realised we were wrong and have put extra resources in and got a few police officers. We are sorry—give us a second chance." Damage will be done to London for many years. I hope that all the
113WH proposed new recruits come forward and I welcome the fact that there are more, as do all Conservative Members. However, a young officer on the beat for the first time is no substitute for those seasoned officers who have left the force. All officers of experience say that it is officers who have been doing the job for a period who do the best work for the police. I welcome the volunteers.
In conclusion, we need to restore police numbers and morale. We must be fair and not over-criticise. We must get rid of red tape and review police functions so that police officers do the job that they should do. It is about ending the insult of the early release scheme whereby officers who have been assaulted see the early release of the more than 200 criminals who carried out the assaults. It is about cadet schemes, part-time police officers, and specials and retirees working for a few more years and allowing officers to work for less than 30 years. Above all, we must restore police morale, which requires a change of Government.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)
We have heard some excellent speeches during the debate—they did not all consist of political tub-thumping—and a wide range of important points were made. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr.Cable) for initiating the debate. The tone with which he and his Liberal Democrat colleagues spoke was correct. They tried to identify the problems, but suggested that there had been progress in some areas and identified that straightforwardly. I appreciate that, because when such matters are reported in the media, it is important that they are dealt with soberly. I acknowledge that some matters still need to be rectified and I shall speak about those, but the story is more positive than it has been for a long time.
I want to emphasise this momentous period for the Metropolitan police. The Metropolitan Police Authority was established last April and many people had campaigned for that important development for a long time. It changes many of the relationships significantly. The relatively new leadership of Sir John Stevens and the deputy commissioner, Ian Blair, is driving through a major and important programme of reform in the Met. The boundaries of the Met have been redrawn so that they are coterminous around Greater London and, even more significantly, within Greater London the establishment of borough commands, which are coterminous with the local authorities, gives a massive drive to all the work that needs to be done on development of crime reduction partnerships.
I pay tribute to the work being done by borough commanders throughout London. I have visited many parts of London during the past six to nine months, for a variety of reasons, and the quality of the borough commanders whom I met has been outstanding. The work being done by the force to decentralise decisions to the borough commands to enable that partnership to develop is important, but difficult for reasons that we know.
We have made changes in numbers and resources and I want to make a couple of party political points. It is important to record that police numbers in London 114WH were in decline from 1990 onwards. When we came to power in 1997, there were fewer police officers in London than at any time during the 15 years since 1985. We decided to accept the Conservative spending limits for the first two years and there was plenty of argument about that and our decisions on how to deal with our appalling economic inheritance, particularly public spending, which we had to get under control. We took that decision first and we have seen the result in low interest rates, high employment and strong growth. There are party political arguments among Liberal Democrats and in my party on whether those decisions were right, but they were taken and the proof of the pudding has been in the eating because they allowed the strong increase in funding that we have seen in the past couple of years, which has been projected through the comprehensive spending review to the future.
From 30 September 2000 to 31 January 2001, there has been an increase of 160 officers in the Met, which is the first significant increase for more than a decade. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) referred to police stations and it is worth bearing it in mind that during the past year, 2000-2001, for the first time in 10 years, no police stations were closed and four were opened. There was an increase in the number of police stations in London last year.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the difficulty of attracting recruits, but interest in joining the Met is currently at unprecedented levels, with more than 250 inquiries every day and more than 6,000 information packs being sent out to prospective applicants during March. That is not a picture of a force finding difficulty in recruiting people. I shall not go through the arithmetic of the extra resources that we have put into London, including the important increases in pay and the establishment of the rail companies operating system with the welcome assistance of my hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Indeed, I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Hill), in his place to commend that tremendous and important achievement.
I shall not go in detail through the figures on the increase in spending on the Metropolitan police grant because there is insufficient time. At this time of change, we have extra numbers and resources going into the police and the situation is starting to move forward, which is something that it is important to place on record. At the same time, as part of that substantial process of change, we have a renewed commitment by the leadership of the police in London to high-visibility policing, because the issues raised by the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Twickenham about the fear and importance of crime—even in their relatively crime-free constituencies—are correct. It is right to say that we must establish a presence because people are concerned about crime. It is necessary to deal with it in a direct way, which is why the police are taking many initiatives in that area.
There was publicity in today's papers about a decision, of which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will be aware, in the London borough of Southwark to locate police officers in schools in that part of the city. It has been advertised as the first such scheme in Britain, although it is not 115WH actually the first. Last week I was in Clapton, where the police have opened an office in a secondary school in the middle of a low-crime area, which means that they will be circulating around that school. A series of similar initiatives are being developed up and down the country, but I pay tribute to what the Metropolitan force is doing in that area.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I thoroughly support that initiative. It is hugely important that young people going to, and at, school can feel that it is a place of safety and that they are not under threat from other pupils or those outside. If we have to do it; we have to do it—for as long as is necessary.
§ Mr. Clarke
That is absolutely right. It is not only schools; police are being located in libraries, housing offices and so on because we acknowledge that to have police located around the community is an important means of building strength and support for the kind of partnerships we need.
Not least in the litany of change, which includes the establishment of the MPA, the new leadership of the deputy commissioner, the change of boundaries, the establishment of borough commands, the increased resources and the development of the focus on visibility, is the diversity agenda, to which the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton and for Twickenham referred. It is important and it is beginning to change the situation. Specials are being recruited and we have set a target to increase their numbers significantly because I agree with the important criticisms that have been made in that area, not least those that concern the need to seek recruits from ethnic minority communities.
There is an enormous agenda with a difficult history. The important task of reforming the human resources and finance functions of the Met in order to establish basic information about what is happening will not be easy. However, the leadership of the force is driving such changes through, which is something that I welcome and congratulate. The recruitment standards issue and form 116WH filling for expenses are classic examples of their kind, where things that have gone on for years are now being steadily changed. Indeed, the tenure system is another excellent example and it is being reviewed for the exact reasons that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) mentioned in her interventions. We must get community-experienced police officers staying in posts so that they can influence and strengthen communities. Changing that enormous service is not easy. It requires a great deal of commitment by both the police and Government, but it is something that we are offering and seeking to implement.
Manpower, the specific subject of this debate, is an important element, but it is not the only element because nobody believes that the issue is sterile. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is a colleague of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, told me in discussion on national television—he probably was not watching because it would have been boring for him as he knows the subject so well—that she concedes that the policing issue involves not simply numbers but the quality of policing and how it operates.
I shall conclude by correcting the hon. Gentleman on crime. The Commissioner has made it clear that the total number of notifiable offences in the 12 months to 31 March 2000 decreased by 2.2 per cent. Crime in London has fallen. Burglary is down by 9.5 per cent. Vehicle crime is down by 0.2 per cent. and in Richmond, I gather that it is down by 9.9 per cent. Street crime has increased, and we are focusing on that in the various initiatives that we are introducing, but crime is going down. That is the way in which our policies have been working. They are making a difference. I am the first to acknowledge that there is a great deal more to be done, but we will do it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I congratulate hon. Members on a well-informed and constructive debate, but we must now move to the next debate, on an alternative route for crossrail.