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Mr. Hughes: Yes, I do. It is important that we improve the quality and effectiveness of the Prison Service, the probation and social services and all the other agencies. The youth offender regime that the Government have introduced is a good one. There are many good initiatives designed to make sure that the pattern of criminality among youngsters is arrested.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, to whose speech I am listening with interest and respect. In the light of what he said about the need to reform prisoners so that when they go out into community they lead constructive lives, will he join me in regretting the fact that there has been a serious decline in the level of

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purposeful activity in prisons over the past couple of years? In particular, will he join the Conservative Opposition in calling for prisoners to undertake a full, normal working day during their incarceration?

Mr. Hughes: I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), who looks after prison matters in our party, a concern about the reduction in profitable activity. I can also tell the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that, like his party, we have a policy commitment that there should be a full working week regime in prison--working or education or training, except for those who are unable on health grounds to fulfil that.

I was extremely frustrated to discover, when I visited Leeds prison last year, that the opportunity for work existed, but the prison regime insisted that prisoners spend two hours in cells in the middle of the day instead of being in the gym or the workshop or somewhere where they could train. We must get away from that old-fashioned regime. The new governor, to her credit, wanted to do that in Leeds, as do many other senior managers in the Prison Service.

The last obvious point that falls to be made at the beginning of a general debate about police numbers, which has also been a debate about crime figures, must, I hope, be an honest admission by all of us that there is no direct link between police numbers and crime figures. Of course, the more police that there are, providing that they do their job properly, the more effective they are likely to be in deterring and detecting crime. No one has ever argued to me that fewer police make that more likely. Reductions in police numbers reduce the chance of deterring and detecting crime, but there is no simple link between the one and the other.

I concede that, there having been huge increases in crime during the first three Tory Administrations, there was then a reduction during the last Tory Administration in all but one year, and, since then, crime figures have gone up and down. Violent crime went up all the time under the Tories and has gone up and down under the Labour Government, and it is sadly going up again now. Therefore, I hope that we all realise that it is difficult to establish the link between policing and crime, and that it is simplistic to think that crime figures are significantly and hugely affected by policing when so many other factors are at play in society.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I declare an interest, in that my wife is a prospective member of the probation board. Does my hon. Friend accept that resources put into the probation service and reoffending are much more closely identified?

Mr. Hughes: That certainly appears to be the case. Because many more people are treated outside prison, even though they may have offended, logically, resources--as my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and others know from their constituencies--are better directed to all the people outside. If people outside were treated more effectively, we would not be worried about so many people being

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inside. Liberal Democrats take the view that we are sending far too many people to prison, which is expensive and often cost-inefficient in terms of reducing crime.

Dr. Stoate: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes: No, I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I should be grateful if he allowed me to continue as this is an Opposition day and Conservative Members must be allowed the majority of Opposition time.

I share the respect for the police and I understand their sense of pressure. They have many new pressures now which they never had before, such as the internationalisation of crime, making their work much more complex than before. Many more people move around and communities are less settled. There is much more pressure on society, so people suffer more mental illness and strain and criminal tendencies are as a result more likely. Technology is much more complicated, and the police are expected to deal with that when used by criminals and to use it themselves. There are more diverse communities with many more languages, cultures and traditions. There is much more legislation, and that places a huge burden on the police, resulting in much more paperwork than they have ever had before, which has a huge implication for the police. There are fewer civilians to pick up the pieces and do the work which need not be done by people in uniform at all.

Special constables tell me that there are fewer of them principally because fewer people volunteer, owing to their other commitments at work and home. Numbers have dropped significantly because people are unwilling and unable to make the commitment, often because their work pressure is too great. The reality is that the police are under the same pressures as all the other areas of public life, and our job is to respond appropriately.

Sadly, the Government have not helped. They have done many good things, and I hope that the Home Secretary will accept that I will acknowledge publicly when the Government get something right, but be strong, with my colleagues, when they get it wrong. During the previous Parliament, Labour Members were critical of the Tory party's record on these matters and made all sorts of commitments. Their two great commitments were to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, and to cut by half the period taken to deal with regular young offenders from arrest to sentence. If the election is this year, it does not look as though the second commitment will be met. I do not say that, if the Parliament lasted for five years, it would not be met, but it does not look as though it will be. In addition, the perception of the public and the police is that the Government have also failed to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime and that after four years it is a bit late to start to remedy that.

The recently published Audit Commission report confirmed that the Government's further manifesto pledge, to put more bobbies on the beat, has also not been realised. The number of police officers per person has gone down, not up. Those are not my figures or Liberal Democrat figures, but figures from the Audit Commission, which is respected as independent.

For many, there is a sad conclusion to draw. This past week, the BBC news website carried the headline, "Public losing confidence in police". Even worse is the fact that

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many police officers are losing confidence in the police. Our duty is to deal with both matters: the public need to have confidence in the police again but, above all, the police need to have confidence in the police again.

May I now make my substantive, principal and, I hope, portmanteau criticism of the Home Office? I do not understand why the Home Office and the Government made one fundamental mistake above all else. When all the evidence points towards a need to do something, when the public say that it needs to be done, when members of the Labour party and other parties say that it needs to be done, why does it take so long to do it? When the Government came to power, there was a backlog of asylum seekers to be dealt with. It took a long time for the Home Office to get on top of that. The passport problem arose, and that was not dealt with until there was a crisis.

In relation to the police, there was a saga in which the Home Secretary, adopting the Tory position, first said that the number of police officers was nothing to do with the Home Secretary, it was a matter entirely for chief constables; but then suddenly realised that that was not a satisfactory answer to give the public, so he made the famous Bournemouth speech and said that the Government would allocate the extra money to put in 5,000 extra officers. There was a slight problem, however, as those officers were not extras, so that had to be revised--[Interruption.] Well, they were not extra in the sense of a net total of 5,000 more. There were 5,000 more officers, and then one had to deduct all those who were leaving via the back door.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): They were extra.

Mr. Hughes: If the Minister thinks that they were extra, he is the only person who still believes that what was said to be extra was extra. That is not what was discovered by everybody else on the day in question.

The Government then said that they accepted that they had to have more police. Eventually, last year, in the comprehensive spending review, having ring-fenced the so-called 5,000 extra police officers--after originally saying that that was nothing to do with the Home Secretary--and after the establishment of the crimefighting fund, there was a generous allocation. More police officers were identified in the settlement, which will produce more like 9,000 more police officers--9,000 in total or 3,000 a year. Hopefully, in the next Parliament, although not in this one by any means, there will be a rise in police numbers. The Government have, at last, agreed to get there, but why, as in so many other areas of policy, has it taken them so long to do what they said and implied they were going to do? Everyone else, including the public, wanted them to do that, and everyone else is disappointed that they did not do it earlier.

One of the problems now is that the police are expected to do so much that they are saying, "Please do not give us any more". I gather that, the week after next, we will have the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. We have had such Bills in every Session of this Parliament and pretty well every Session of the previous Parliament, all producing more obligations for the police. The Bill will include fixed penalty notice systems for dealing with people on the streets and

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curfews. All that I hear from the police is that they do not want any more obligations and they will not have the officers available to do additional jobs such as policing curfews, trying to work out who is--or is not--a 16-year-old, and stopping everyone under that age, whether law-abiding or not, walking around the streets. As a last minute appeal, I urge the Government to drop the nonsensical bits of their proposed legislation and allow the police to get on with the things that they want to do, deal with the troublemakers and not worry about the rest.

There is a big morale problem, which we have a duty to address. It is partly addressed by the Government's decision to improve pay and travel arrangements for the Metropolitan police, which I welcome. I am glad that the Government have also realised that police in other parts of the country need additional resources. However, it is nonsense to have a system in which those Essex, Surrey or Thames Valley police who live in an area of their county closest to London will get paid more, while police officers who live in other parts of the county, more than 50 miles from London, will not. Will the Government be pragmatic and put on the table a proposal that there ought to be additional payment for the police in places such as Hampshire--which is not a home county--where the cost of living is more? We have to give the police the ability to buy homes, settle and stay; they should not feel that they cannot afford to live in any particular area in question.

That brings me to one final morale question. The motion condemns the early release scheme for those who have assaulted police officers. Ministers are right to point out that the scheme had the all-party support of a Select Committee. Indeed, my party gave its support, but we now believe that there is a significant problem in respect of early release for people who are guilty of assaulting public servants. We have concluded outside the House--and we seek today to reflect that conclusion here--that we now share the Conservative view on that aspect of the early release scheme. I call on Ministers to review the scheme in relation to assaults on public servants, as it does nothing to help their morale and does a significant amount to undermine it.

My unanswered questions to the Government about their policy for improving the police are not new. First, what is happening about police pensions? The Home Secretary said that they take an increasing amount of the budget, which is correct. Indeed, that explains why we do not have as much money for the police. A year ago, on 7 February, I was told in a written reply from Ministers that we would be given an indication of Government policy in spring 2000, but we have arrived at spring 2001 and silence has reigned. It would help every police authority in the land to know the answer on pensions and to be assured that they will not continue to be such a big burden and to account for such a percentage of their costs.

My second question, which I put to the Home Secretary, concerns the resolution of the great Home Office conundrum in respect of ensuring that police forces which are efficient, reduce crime and do all the right things do not end up being penalised in their budgets. Thirdly, the Liberal Democrats have proposed the immediate production of a package to retain for another five years officers who are reaching retirement age, to deal with the immediate shortage. I did not hear the Minister of State on the radio the other morning, but I

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gather that he was generous and said that the Government were considering the proposal. I hope that there will be a speedy response. We also proposed to bring back good officers who have just retired and are not in full-time work. People retire from the police force at 48, 49 or 50 and are young enough to go on doing a good job. They have experience and capability and are, by definition, of far more value individually than somebody can be at 18 or 19. It would be a very good thing to bring back such officers.

Fourthly, why did the generous comprehensive spending review, which gave a 6.4 per cent. Home Office budget increase, award the police an increase of only 3.8 per cent.? That is another question to which we have not yet received an answer. Why did the police get a much smaller growth figure than the Home Office in general?

Finally, will progress now be made on sorting out the statistics? A great flurry of activity occurred about a year ago, when it was said that a committee would be established to try to ensure that statistics were correlated. The Liberal Democrats were asked to nominate a member of the committee and we did so. A year passed--at least, it is getting on for a year--and nothing happened.

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