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6.22 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I shall follow the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) in one respect. I too shall be brief, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) that there is very little time for Back-Bench speeches. That is a pity. If I may say so, as a recidivist from the Front Bench, I do not think that parliamentary debates are just debates between the two Front Benches.

If I were to engage in two reflections, they would be on what the Home Secretary said. He made much of public spending and police numbers, as the hon. Member for

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Salford said. During the 11 years I was a member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, we were attacked by Labour Members--including, to a large degree, the present Home Secretary--for restraining public spending. I note, however, that police strengths increased dramatically during that period.

The Government continually quote figures relating to the period between 1993 and 1997, but for some reason they do not mention the figures relating to the full 18-year period of Conservative Governments. Over that period, the strength of the police service in England and Wales increased by more than 15,000, and spending increased in real terms by some 72 per cent. By any standards, that compares well with what has been achieved by the present Government, who will go to the election reporting a decline in police numbers since they came to power.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I have observed the change in the language of Home Office Ministers in the months since I was shadow Home Secretary. We were told then that police numbers did not matter; that there had never been an age in which there was a policeman on every street corner--not that anyone had ever claimed that there had been; and, when the rest had failed, that police strength had nothing to do with Ministers, and was down to individual chief constables.

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

Sir Norman Fowler: The hon. Gentleman must be joking.

As I was saying, we were told that police strength was entirely down to individual chief constables, even when--as in the case of the Metropolitan police--the Home Secretary was the police authority. We have seen--to put it at its mildest--a dramatic U-turn in Home Office policy. Ministers now accept after all that police strength is vital and does have something to do with them; for why otherwise would they be promising the money and resources that they have promised? There can be no other conclusion. However, the basic point that I should like to make is more fundamental than a comparison of records.

This week, an opinion survey in Birmingham was published, conducted by MORI for the current, Labour-controlled council. It showed that only 24 per cent. of the population thought of Birmingham as a safe city. Those who were surveyed liked Birmingham and were proud of it, but they were concerned about their personal safety. I suspect that if a similar survey were conducted in the other major cities of this country--such as Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle--there would be similar results. The public are genuinely concerned. Consequently, it was quite right of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to raise the issue as a matter of public and political debate.

Of the whole range of problems of crime, I intend to concentrate, but only briefly, on the major problems facing our cities. I am intrigued to see that the new Mayor of London is in New York, studying how its police deal with crime. He is not the first to have paid that visit--the Home Secretary has gone, as have I and my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary--but he is right to go. The policies that have been so successfully applied in

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New York have real relevance in London, especially given that the populations with which we are dealing are very similar.

There is one cautionary note to sound, however, as the description "zero tolerance policy" gives the impression of a police force that is prepared to intervene on the slightest pretext. It gives the impression of an over-officious force. That is why William Bratton, the former police head in New York and author of the scheme, is wary of the tag. What the police force in New York really do is apply modern management methods to the detection of crime.

The New York force is proactive, keeps up pressure on criminals, gathers intelligence on crime patterns, targets suspected criminals, deploys extra officers to areas of particular difficulty, and perhaps above all, it holds to account the different police commanders across the whole city. It also has early-morning meetings, tracks crime in each precinct and holds to account each precinct commander.

So the real difference in the New York approach to policing is that the police there regard crime as something that can be directly fought and defeated. It is a rejection of the passive policy whereby officers simply wait to respond to telephone calls from the public. Just as surely, the approach is a rejection of the defensive theory that nothing can be done until we understand the real causes of crime--an approach that would condemn tens of thousands of people to living in misery until sensible policies were introduced.

There is no question but that the New York approach to policing has been spectacularly successful. Anyone who visited New York seven or eight years ago would see the difference on returning. Crime has been reduced by about 50 per cent. and the annual murder rate is down to a quarter of what it once was. However, the most important measure is not the official statistics, but the response of the ordinary citizen. That response is the crucial measure, just as the response of the ordinary citizen in Birmingham is the crucial measure.

When I was in New York, an opinion poll in The New York Times showed that 60 per cent. of the public believed that life in the city had improved because of police action. So why have we not been able to emulate the success of New York and of other United States cities? The reason is clear. When Mr. Bratton introduced his new method, one important step was taken: New York recruited 7,000 new police officers. The result is that, today, the force has a strength of almost 40,000. A similar story can be found across the United States.

Compare that with London's Metropolitan police force--which serves about the same population size as New York--and one finds a force that has to make do with a strength of fewer than 25,000. Frankly, however, there is no way in which the New York policies can be applied here. Even in what we would regard as a generously provided for police force such as New York's, policemen still note and sometimes complain of the pressure that they are under. However, that pressure is as nothing compared with the pressure that policemen are under in this country's big city forces.

Finally, I do not say that police strength is the only factor in crime, but it is one of the most important. There is a real danger that this country is under-policed, and that there are not enough police to fulfil the duties that we

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give them--to which we continue to add. An example of that is the non-enforcement of the traffic laws. That may seem minor, but it leads to countless deaths and injuries.

Over the past three or four years, the Government have relied on the excellence of policemen and policewomen and allowed them to take the strain. In that way, they have hoped that the gaps in the service could be disguised. However, there comes a time when that becomes impossible.

My criticism is that the Government have taken almost four years to realise what their priorities should be. It is all very well to promise that things will be better in the future, but we have heard that once or twice before. The truth is that, since they came to office, the Government have presided over a decline in police strength, at a time when cities overseas have increased it. That was a crass error and there is no reason for the British public to forgive them for it.

6.31 pm

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): The debate is not only about talking down the Government, but about talking down the effectiveness of the police. I want there to be more police officers, and I know that Ministers and all hon. Members do. The difference between the parties is that the Government are doing something about police numbers, whereas the Conservative party's plans to cut public spending have committed it to reducing police numbers.

Crime in this country is falling. That change has happened not by accident but as a result of deliberate policy. The Government have brought together the police, new legislation, smarter techniques, local partnerships and resources. That combination has been encouraged and developed by the Government, and it has taken effect in a changing culture where there is a greater regard and respect for building up both the sense and the reality of community; and the Government's approach is producing results.

This week's British crime survey showed that recorded crime in my county, Lincolnshire, has fallen by one fifth since the general election. It is not surprising that the chief constable of the Lincolnshire force, Mr. Richard Childs, should acknowledge that Lincolnshire is one of the safest places in the country to live.

I want to give the House some facts about police numbers. In Lincolnshire, we are looking forward to reaching, by April, an officer-strength target of 1,240 officers. Lincolnshire police have said that that will be the highest number of police officers ever achieved in the county.

All hon. Members know that the question is not one of police numbers alone, but of how they are deployed. In Lincolnshire, the police have launched a number of tremendous initiatives. They include mobile rural task forces, the Staying Alive road safety campaign, a reorganisation to release more police officers to the front line, and a positive and creative recruitment campaign. All those initiatives are making a big difference to policing and crime fighting, in Lincoln and across the county.

An interesting article appeared in last Friday's Lincolnshire Echo, entitled "Will More Bobbies Prevent Crime?" It concluded, first, that we should all keep a sense of proportion--a thought that I offer especially to

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Opposition Members. Secondly, it concluded that new technology--such as closed-circuit television and improved security--were great contributors to the reduction in crime.

The article's third main conclusion was that a police officer on every corner would not stop most crimes. I believe that the partnership approach that includes police officers is what brings results.

I shall list, briefly, a few examples of the support that the Government have provided in my constituency--in addition to extra police officers--to help in the fight against crime. That support is also aimed at reducing the fear of crime, which is what people really want. We have just seen a recent additional development in the Monks road and Stamp End area of Lincoln, where CCTV has completed its first month in a residential area. It has helped the police to make 14 arrests, which I consider a significant contribution, through a programme developed by a partnership of the Government, Lincoln city council--which is to be congratulated on embracing its role in fighting crime--local people and the police. They are all working together to get real results in Lincoln.

Of 750 bids submitted to the Home Office for extra Government money for the CCTV programme, the Monks road and Stamp End bid was fast-tracked into the top 30. I thank Ministers for seeing the benefits for my constituency. Sandra Donnor, secretary of the Monks road initiative, has been impressed by the scheme so far. She was quoted in the local paper as saying that crime--particularly drug-related crime--in the Monks Road area was quite high, and that a lot of elderly people were frightened to go out after dark. Since CCTV has been introduced, people have said that they feel safer. Sandra Donnor said that she feels better, knowing that cameras are monitoring the area. I think that she speaks for many people in Lincoln and across the country.

The second piece of Government support for Lincoln is the anti-burglary initiative on the St. Giles estate. I was pleased to welcome the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), there not too long ago, to see the results for himself. The St. Giles anti-burglary initiative money has been spent on alarms, locks, security shutters and improved fencing, and there has been a 30 per cent. reduction in burglaries in the area.

My hon. Friend and I were invited into the home of Tracey Kelly and George Thompson, on Robert Tressell walk in the St. Giles area. We heard and saw for ourselves just how pleased they were with the security and how the area was being transformed into a community where safety was higher up the agenda.

I have a challenge for the Conservative party. What will it do, should it win the election? Its proposed £16 billion worth of cuts in public services represents cuts of some £240,000 in each constituency. The Conservatives have not committed themselves to matching our spending on the police. To meet their cuts programme in Lincoln, the Tories would be looking at cutting some 60 police officers in the city.

What else would be at risk? Projects such as the St. Giles anti-burglary initiative; Birchwood's sure start, which gives children under four the best start in life; and CCTV, welcomed by city centre businesses and by the people in Shuttleworth house in Monks road, would all be threatened. Not one person in Lincoln would be unaffected, because crime, and fear of crime, affects us all.

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There is much more to do, but I hope that the House will give credit where it is due and not be misled by the Tories' constant talking down of the Government and our police officers.

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