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Police Numbers

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.23 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

I quote:

Those are striking words, and Labour Members should remember them well. They are printed on page 22 of the Labour party manifesto for the 1997 general election.

The Home Secretary told the Police Federation in May 1997 that

However, as with so many manifesto promises, it has been all spin and no delivery. No one doubts that policing in this country is in a state of crisis. The chairman of the Police Federation has said that there is

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, talked only last month of a crisis in the policing of London. As long ago as June, he warned the Home Secretary:

Figures given this week by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), show that 29 of the 32 divisions in London are below budgeted strength. The chief constable of Lincolnshire has said:

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the problem exists in parts of the country other than Norwich and London? The office of the chief constable of Staffordshire has told me that, on Friday and Saturday nights, there are just three police

18 Jan 2001 : Column 576

officers, backed up by a small band of special constables, to police the entire Lichfield area. Does she consider that adequate?

Miss Widdecombe: No; it is entirely disgraceful. Even more regrettable is the fact that it is by no means untypical. Many police forces are telling their Members of Parliament about exactly the same sort of unacceptable policing levels, which prevail not just on Friday and Saturday nights, but on other nights as well.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I spoke to police officers in my constituency last Friday, and they told me that the biggest disincentive to recruitment in the south-east was the removal of the housing allowance in 1994. I seem to remember that a Conservative Government were in power at that time. Will she say why that Government took away that allowance?

Miss Widdecombe: Police numbers rose after that date, which suggests that removal of the allowance was not the disincentive that the hon. Gentleman claims.

This month, the magazine Public Finance reported:

The chief constable of Cumbria has said that his force

No one in his right mind can doubt that policing is in a state of crisis.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I will shortly, but I want to make some progress. Only the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary cling to the notion that policing is not in crisis. The Home Secretary told the House on 12 December that he did not believe that policing was in crisis. On 17 May last year, the House was treated to the spectacle of the Prime Minister trying to defend his Government's indefensible record by declaring that he did not believe that policing was "in crisis". On the same day, the Home Secretary addressed the Police Federation conference in front of letters 3 ft high that spelled out the conference theme, which was "Policing in Crisis". Beyond doubt, this Government have brought about that crisis in policing.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will be aware of a recent Audit Commission report that measured public confidence in the police, force by force. It found that, in Norfolk, public confidence in police on the beat stood at only 8 per cent., the second lowest level in the country. Does she agree that that lack of confidence results not from the performance of the police who, given their resources, do well, but from the fact that Norfolk has lost 44 officers since the 1997 election? The Government have also failed to take notice of the advice that they commissioned with regard to the problems of policing in sparsely populated rural areas. What would my right hon. Friend do about the problem?

Miss Widdecombe: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. By coincidence, I have here a few more figures

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on Norfolk. Not only has there been a decline of 44 regular officers since the election, but while 23 special constables have joined, 70 have left. That is a double whammy for the Norfolk police.

My right hon. Friend asks, quite reasonably, what I would do. We have said that we will do several things. First, we will get police numbers back to at least what they were when we left office.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I shall continue answering my right hon. Friend first. After that I am indebted to the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) for an intervention, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, getting police numbers back to what they were when we left office should not be so impossible, given that we were maintaining and funding those numbers only three and a half years ago. Furthermore, we have said that it is not enough simply to get the numbers up. It is crucial to make sure that policemen spend their time policing, not pen-pushing in stations. Therefore, in co-operation with the police, we shall carry out a comprehensive review of all their functions, with the aim of removing inessential and unnecessary tasks and giving them to other bodies to perform. In that way, the police may do what they joined up to do and what the public expect them to do--that is, to be in the front line against crime.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: No, I am still answering my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I have been asked what we would do and the list is quite long.

We have said that we will take specific measures to increase visibility in rural areas, such as having police spend some time doing necessary paperwork in public places rather than just whizzing through villages and going back to the police station. We have said that we will consider a national police cadet force. We have said that we will consider better use of part-timers. We have said that we will consider reusing the skills of those who have retired and whose skills are lost to the force. We have said that we might even look at retained policemen in rural areas in the same way as we look at retained firemen. We have further said that we will free up parish councils where necessary, to make their own policing arrangements. That is a comprehensive package, and I urge the Home Secretary to be big enough to learn from it and adopt some of its measures.

Ms Blears: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. If policing is in such crisis--and she paints a terrible picture--why, in December last year, did Greater Manchester police recruit 65 new officers to the force, the largest number it has ever recruited? Why does it have £6 million extra, through a generous budget settlement, to distribute to forces for front-line policing? That is not the kind of crisis that I recognise from the right hon. Lady's comments.

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