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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Minister of State, Home Office sent me a helpful written answer today, informing me that even with the crimefighting fund, by the end of the next financial year--2002-03--there will be fewer police officers than there were at the end of March 1997.

Miss Widdecombe: One wonders how many more examples hon. Members will have to produce before the

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Home Secretary will actually believe that he is presiding over one of the biggest crises in police recruitment and in police numbers that has ever been known.

As we know from the aftermath of the right hon. Gentleman's 1999 conference speech, overall police numbers are determined not only by recruitment, but by the number of officers who leave. Yesterday, we learned that the Metropolitan police had revised their projected wastage figures upwards by more than a quarter since April. At the halfway point in this financial year, other forces had lost far more officers than projected; for example, Bedfordshire's projected wastage for the whole year to March was 45, but by 30 September the force had already lost 37 officers. Perhaps the Minister of State will also comment on those figures.

The chairman of the Police Federation says that morale is now the worst that he has ever seen. In late 1999, a national survey of 6,000 serving officers showed that more than two thirds would leave the force if they were offered another job. In Suffolk, the recent Police Federation survey showed that half the officers felt morale was low--just one in 10 thought that it was high.

If the Home Secretary will not take the word of the Police Federation and that of thousands of serving police officers, perhaps he will take the word of his own deputy, the Minister of State. After I asked the Minister to make a statement about police morale, he told the House in a written answer on 11 December that the numbers leaving the police force were an indicator of morale, and then proceeded to reveal that voluntary resignations from the police had gone up by 60 per cent. under the Labour Government.

It is no wonder that police morale is so low, when they are completely hamstrung by new Labour bureaucracy--so much so that the chief constable of Lincolnshire says:

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I want to make some progress and then I shall give way.

Chief Inspector Ray Shepherd of West Yorkshire police says:

No wonder police morale is so low when officers see thousands of the criminals whom they have put so much effort into detaining, being given the "get out of jail free" card by the Home Secretary on his special early release scheme, and when they face the type of crisis that only the Prime Minister denies exists. No wonder morale is low when the Prime Minister's crony and confidant, Lord Falconer, condemns the police for being "riddled with racism".

No wonder morale is low when an article in this month's Police Federation magazine is entitled, "Behind Closed Doors: Federation Vice Chair Jan Berry sets out

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the reasons for withdrawal from Home Office secret talks." So the Home Secretary has, after all, and contrary to what he told the House on 20 November 2000 about being "perfectly open", been holding secret talks about the "new agenda for reform" that the Prime Minister said last year risked

Mr. Straw: Is the right hon. Lady not aware that, far from those talks being secret, the Police Federation has been invited fully to participate in them?

Miss Widdecombe: Indeed, and Jan Berry has withdrawn from what she describes as secret talks, so presumably the talks that she was invited to participate in were behind the closed doors of the Home Office. It is she who says that they were secret. It is she who believed that she was summoned in secret. Anyway, as a result of the article, they certainly are not secret now.

Where is the Government's support for the police when, under the Home Secretary's own special early release policy, more than 200 criminals convicted of assaulting police officers have been released before serving even half their sentence? What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say to the men and women of the police service, when prisoners released on his early release scheme have committed 25 further assaults on police officers when, but for his scheme, they would still have been in jail? It is yet another kick in the teeth for the police from the Government.

What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say to the police officers who were the victims of those assaults? Will the right hon. Gentleman, even now, apologise to them, despite previous refusals to do so? Will he, even now, undertake to stop the release of these criminals, despite his previous refusals to do so? The Home Secretary's refusal to apologise and his voting record on that issue, which is plain for all to see, provides the clearest possible indicator of the worth of his promises to support the police.

Before I move on to the crime statistics, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) is waiting for, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies)--if he still wants to intervene. It seems that he does not.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Is it not the case that in the Met, reductions in sickness, which are an indication of morale, have led to an effective increase in the force of an extra 500 police? Is it not also the case that wastage rates, in terms of retirement and resignation, are half the average of those for civil servants? [Laughter.] It is no use laughing; those are facts.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman would have done better not to intervene, because we have demonstrated from the Government's own statistics, from the Home Office bulletin, not that there has been an effective increase in police but that there has been a massive decrease, not only in numbers but in effective policing, because of the amount of time that they have to spend in the police station instead of out on the beat.

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Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The right hon. Lady has made many criticisms with which, as she knows, I agree, but she made a commitment, and it is important that I ask her a question about it. The commitment was that a Tory Government would restore numbers to their level at the last general election--

Miss Widdecombe: At least that.

Mr. Hughes: They would restore numbers to at least that level, from which they have declined. Given that, under pressure, the Labour party has now committed itself to going above that figure in the next Parliament, what is the number of police officers to which the Tory party is now committed to go, and how much money has the Conservative shadow Chancellor allocated for that police number growth?

Miss Widdecombe: In response to the last question, I remind the hon. Gentleman--he was in the House at the time--of what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said. He said that if Labour Members seriously expect that we will go into the election promising to cut their police budget, they must be crazy. Indeed, I think that there is some considerable evidence of craziness on the Labour Benches. If the Home Secretary can claim that the amount that he will spend will produce, in the end, jam tomorrow--more than the numbers that we left behind--why is it so impossible for us to be able to fund at least the numbers that he left behind? The difference is that we will do it and he will talk about it.

Is it any coincidence that the latest crime statistics show assaults on police up by 12 per cent., when the criminal knows that if he hits a policeman or policewoman, and gets a maximum sentence of six months, he will be given the "get out of jail free" card by the Home Secretary in six weeks?

Just after the last general election, the Home Secretary told the Police Federation:

Since the right hon. Gentleman uttered those words, there has been a decline of more than 1,900 in the number of police constables. It has happened on his watch. The chief constable of Hampshire, whom I mentioned, and whom my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) mentioned, has written:

For "constituents", read "the British public as a whole".

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