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Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady chose to talk about advertising, which is being spent on police recruitment. She also talked about bureaucracy, but we have yet to see what she is talking about. It is easy to talk about £2 billion for bureaucrats but, in the Home Office, she is talking

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about people in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, people running the crime reduction programme and the civilians whose numbers have increased by 1,000 since the general election to release more police officers for front-line duties. That is what she is talking about. She chose to talk about press officers in the same breath as those other matters.

There is an answer to the right hon. Lady's question. There is a reason why police numbers have fallen even though budgets have risen under this Government. It is partly because chief officers have used the powers that they were given by the previous Administration to switch resources to civilian staff and new equipment, and partly because of the rising costs of police pay, especially pensions. Pension costs have risen from 9.1 per cent. of police spending in 1995-96 to 12 per cent. in 1999-2000.

The projections given in the last public spending plans published by the Conservative Government in March 1997 give the lie to the right hon. Lady's promises and her claim in January 1997 that there would be an extra 5,000 officers. I remember that I was sitting on the Opposition Benches when she said that. Those plans spoke grandly of an increase of 5,000 police officers.

Let me tell the right hon. Lady, because I am sure that she has forgotten, what was to happen under the Conservatives' plans to the money to pay for those officers. In 1996-97, there was to be £3,462 million of central Government support for the police service. By 1999-2000, when the number of police officers was to have risen by 4,000, from 127,901 to 131,901, spending on the police service would not have risen to pay for those extra officers, but would have fallen to £3,453 million. Those were the Conservatives' spending plans. They knew as they were making their claims that they were planning not to increase spending on police numbers, but to cut it. That was why they were not believed at the previous general election and it is why they will never be believed again.

By contrast with the Conservatives' record, we are turning round the decline in police numbers which has occurred since 1993. The right hon. Lady has asked me what happened to my promise at the Labour party conference in October 1999 to increase the number of recruits first by 5,000 over the number that was planned and then, following the allocation of additional money, by 9,000. The answer, as I made clear at the time, is that the money became available last March. The figures that we published earlier this week show that the money kicked in straight away, and the number of recruits rose by almost 500 between March, when the money was first paid, and September. The numbers are rising again, and recruiting centres have 75 per cent. more recruits than ever before.

We have also dealt with the problem of recruitment in London by increasing by £3,300 the pay of London officers who were recruited after 1994. Yesterday, I announced that there would be free rail travel for all Metropolitan police officers within a 70-mile radius of London. That has been hugely welcomed by the Metropolitan police service.

I see my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) looking at me quizzically, so I shall turn now to home counties forces. In the police negotiating board, we have made an offer to increase by £2,000 the

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pay of home counties officers within a 30-mile radius of London and by £1,000 the pay of those within a 40-mile radius. We believe that to be a generous offer, although we are of course open to other suggestions. We want the Police Federation and others to agree to that offer. All I can say is that if I were an officer in the Thames Valley or Hampshire, I would rather have £1,000 or £2,000 than deadlock in the police negotiating board.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I intend to make a speech later, if there is time, but I have a question on that point. Does the Home Secretary's concession relate also to the housing problems facing police officers in the areas surrounding the Metropolitan police?

Mr. Straw: The areas with the most serious recruitment problems are in central London, and we are dealing with those effectively. We are trying to deal with other areas with less serious problems. Some time ago I made it clear to chief constables and to hon. Members of all parties that we were open to suggestions about what needed to be done, and we have come up with proposals that we think will help.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I need to make progress.

We have encouraged the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to modernise recruitment processes. Another problem for the Met was that the force was taking nine months to process application forms; the Commissioner has brought that down to three months. I have heard the Leader of the Opposition dismissing the huge increase in recruitment. The previous Government reduced total numbers in the Metropolitan police by almost 2,000, and at long last, after 10 years, the numbers are rising. However, the Leader of the Opposition has insinuated that because the Met has changed some of the restrictions on recruitment, the only people being recruited are those who would previously have failed the tests.

I can tell Conservative Members that the basic regulations on police recruitment and Home Office guidance have not changed. Only two things have changed. First, the Met has brought itself into line with other forces on the question of criminal convictions, so a minor criminal conviction is no longer an absolute bar to recruitment, nor should it be. Of course a conviction that goes to character should be a bar, and it remains so.

The second change demonstrates that the Leader of the Opposition is, as ever, ill-briefed. The Commissioner has abolished a series of archaic, simply inexplicable restrictions on recruitment. All tattoos, anywhere on the body, even those relating to a lady to whom one was still married, were a complete bar to recruitment. There was an absolute restriction on recruiting people with varicose veins, receding gums or too many crowns in their teeth.

Irritable bowel syndrome, even if cured, was a total bar to recruitment if disclosed beforehand, even though it was not a condition for compulsory resignation for serving officers. I looked down that list of restrictions; they were bonkers and needed to be removed. I commend the Commissioner for doing so. It is fortunate that there are no such restrictions on entry to the House, or we would have fewer than 60 Members, not more than 600.

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I am the first to acknowledge that, other things being equal, police effectiveness is improved by more police officers, backed by good equipment. However, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made clear, effectiveness is about much more than head counting. That is why our investment in the police is directed at technology. We are providing £143 million to expand the DNA database. A further £500 million is being invested to establish a new national digital radio system. We are putting additional money into the police force at every level. There will be a 7 per cent. increase in real terms in funding for the police service next year, and a 3.5 per cent. increase over the three years of the settlement, compared with a measly 0.5 per cent. in real terms in the last few years of the previous Administration.

We are dealing with some of the inherent inefficiencies in the service. It was completely unacceptable that 77 per cent. of all officers in Merseyside retired early through alleged sickness. We have reduced that number throughout the country. The Opposition motion mentions wastage. Overall, that has come down. We must consider the number of resignations along with the number of those retiring. As long as early retirement on medical grounds was available as a route out of the service, people would of course seek to take that route rather than resigning because they got more money. Now that the route has been closed off, there has been a increase in the number of resignations. It is tiny compared with the total, but the total of retirements and resignations, far from going up, has gone down from 5.1 per cent. to 4.7 per cent. in the past four years. That is the lowest figure for years. That is a good indicator of morale. It is not true that there is flight from the service. Apart from London, where there have been recruitment problems, that is palpably true. Sickness rates have also been tackled.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: Yes. This will be the last intervention.

Fiona Mactaggart: My right hon. Friend is right to identify London as being different from elsewhere. However, there are some places close to London that share London's problems, one of which is Slough. I am meeting my local police federation to ask the National Police Federation to stop standing in the way of extra money for Slough. Will my right hon. Friend perhaps include Slough's part of the Thames valley in some of the initiatives that he is taking to improve recruitment in the Metropolitan area?

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