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Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. Straw: We are going to hear a promise, are we?

Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman just tell the House this? Three years ago, we were funding 3,000 more police officers on a lower budget. What on earth has the right hon. Gentleman done with the money, given that he cannot afford them now?

Mr. Straw: What happened was this. It explains why, in January 1997, the right hon. Lady told the House that the budget she was presenting for 1997-98 would provide for 5,000 more officers, when in fact it provided for fewer officers. The budgets that were set did not properly take account of cost pressures on the police service. It is not a question of any kind of magic. In particular, those budgets did not take account of the increased pressures of pension payments.

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I should add that, under a Bill for which the right hon. Lady's party was responsible, the police service was relieved of requirements to follow any direction from the Home Secretary involving overall police numbers, which then became a matter for individual chief constables. Some chief constables decided to use the limited resources available to them to maintain police numbers, but many decided to spend their resources for other purposes, such as civilianisation--those numbers have remained stable--and information technology.

Miss Widdecombe: But the Government have reduced the number of civilians as well.

Mr. Straw: No; the number of civilians has increased marginally since 1997.

The right hon. Lady may be interested to learn that I have had various analyses carried out to find out whether there is any correlation between forces whose total budgets have been increased or reduced, forces whose total officer and civilian numbers have been increased or reduced, and forces that have experienced an increase or a decrease in crime. The answer is that there is no correlation between those three variables, which is very interesting. The right hon. Lady must understand. She asks what I have done with the money. I have done absolutely nothing with it because it is spent not by me, but by the police authorities.

Mr. Blunt: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No.

If the right hon. Lady bothered to ask the police authorities, they would tell her that the money had been spent. If she wants to increase police numbers even further than we are proposing, she will have to increase the money even further. There is not a voter in the country who does not understand that.

Mr. Heald: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No. I am sorry, but I wish to make some progress.

In addition to the other problems that I have specified, the police have no general right of access to the motor insurers' database, which would allow them to identify uninsured drivers as they drive past. The Bill will tackle those problems.

The Bill will make vehicle crime less attractive by reducing opportunities for professional car thieves to profit. The estimate is that it could prevent up to 39,000 car thefts and 6,000 fraudulent insurance theft claims each year.

Mr. Heald: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to make some progress first.

The Bill will extend the time limit for prosecuting car thieves or those who take a car without the consent of the owner. It will make it easier for the police to detect uninsured driving. It will enable magistrates courts'

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receipts from fixed penalties for speeding and for jumping red lights to be directly applied to the funding of more safety cameras.

Mr. Heald: Does the Home Secretary agree with the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain, which deals with salvage, which has said that, to meet his target of preventing 39,000 thefts, there must be effective enforcement of the laws? If so, how will he do that with no extra police officers? If he is to achieve that with the same police officers, what jobs will they not be able to do?

Mr. Straw: What the hon. Gentleman has to grasp is that, to enforce such a measure, additional police officers are not necessarily required. When they were in government, we heard Conservative Members talk time and again about the need to make all public services more effective. I do not exclude the police service from that, even though there is a tiny minority of police officers who do not like the fact that we are trying to make the system more effective.

We are trying to deal, for example, with unnecessary sickness absence. We have already cut the paperwork, but there are a few police officers who do not mind paperwork because it keeps them out of action on the street--not very many, but a few. That needs to be borne in mind, too.

The police service is no different from other organisations. The quality of what that service delivers depends on the quality of the individuals employed by it, which can vary, and the quality of the management and the leadership.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No.

We know clearly that even within London the level of crime recorded--robbery, burglary, vehicle theft and many other offences--in different boroughs varies a lot. It is dependent not on the number of officers in those areas, but on the quality of the leadership and of the officers on the streets. It is one of the matters about which I have asked the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to raise performance--he has fully embraced that. We need to identify the boroughs that are not performing well and to raise their performance to the level of the best. It is in that way, as well as through our huge additional investment in the police service, that we will be able to make this country safer, after the appalling 18 years when crime doubled.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at what we do in Plymouth to cut down on car crime and, in particular, the joint approach that is taken through environmental health, taxation and the police? The law is difficult to enforce at the moment. The Bill should make things much easier. The detection of vehicle crime will take up not only less police time, but that of other departments' staff.

Mr. Straw: I am indeed aware of what is going on in Plymouth because I was told about it by Sir John Evans, who was the chief constable. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. There are many examples--Plymouth is one, Milton Keynes is another--where police

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using similar resources per head are able to do significant things. There are lessons there for other boroughs, whether they are represented by Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Members, that are not doing as well. They can make progress with more imagination. Often, greater imagination by the police service and better partnerships with local authorities and others can ensure that fewer resources are used more effectively.

Mr. Blunt: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No; I shall take the House through the Bill.

Part I introduces regulation of motor salvage dealers. Most salvage dealers already operate to high standards and fully within the law; however, as all hon. Members know, some do not. Almost one third of stolen cars are never recovered, and the motor salvage industry offers opportunities for the identities of stolen cars to be disguised and for stolen cars to be broken up and resold as parts.

There is also a link between salvage dealers and insurance fraud. Some cars that are reported stolen are sold to motor salvage dealers and broken up for their parts, or they are given the identity of written-off cars and resold. Therefore, clauses 1 to 6 establish a registration system, and clauses 7 to 11 will allow us to ensure that registered dealers keep appropriate records, including a note of the destruction of vehicles.

Part II regulates the supply and issue of number plates. I cannot believe that there will be any argument at all in the House about that scheme, except perhaps about whether it goes far enough.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Straw: No; I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

As all hon. Members know, the effects of the number plate problem go beyond vehicle crime. Burglars may use false number plates to cover their traces when making a getaway, and terrorists also may use them. Many other people may use false plates simply to avoid penalties from safety cameras.

Clauses 16 to 22 require number plate suppliers to register with the Secretary of State--which, in this case, in practice, means with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Number plate suppliers will have to allow police to enter and inspect their premises without a warrant. It will also be an offence for a wholesaler to supply an unregistered supplier and to sell fake plates. The prospect that details of the transaction will be recorded should deter prospective purchasers of number plates who require them for criminal purposes. Record keeping will provide police with the means of tracing the source of plates used in criminal activities.

There will be a power in clause 33 to make regulations prescribing additional information to be held on number plates and the way in which it should be contained or displayed. Therefore, it will not be easy to forge plates. The information on the number plate will link it to the vehicle for which it is intended, making it difficult to swap vehicle identities.

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