Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.38 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I do not have time to indulge in the slap and tickle of debate that the Front Benches are engaged in on national statistics. I want to look at some of the problems in Surrey, and I have two minutes in which to do so. That does not do justice to the problems in the county of Surrey.

One of the problems of a successful police force, as was pointed out earlier, is that for a reward its grant is cut. In real terms, Surrey has, in effect, had a 2.8 per cent. cut in central Government grants. That is simply unacceptable. It means that over the next two years we will be down about 165 officers, unless drastic changes are made, and 250 officers over the next three years. That means a real change in policing, and the Surrey police force is one of the most efficient in the country. I have absolute confidence in Denis O'Connor, the chief constable. He says:

That is a further challenge added to the fact that, at present, about 60 per cent. of the recruits commute for long distances and sleep on floors during the week in order to maintain the Surrey force. We do not do badly with recruitment in Surrey, but there is a problem of bleeding to other forces--especially to the Met, because of the differential value of the housing allowance. It is difficult to maintain a force in Surrey when the cost of living in my county is as high as in most parts of London.

I have been brief. I hope that the Minister of State, Home Office is listening. I could offer him many more statistics. Please will he change the policy for counties such as Surrey and begin to be a bit more generous?

6.40 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have had a good debate, although I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) who had to restrict his remarks. I feel for hon. Members who were unable to have the full debate that they wanted.

I had intended to spend a little time on the fact that this is the first time that I have debated against the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), since he was tipped for the top. I had planned to read a little extract from the article in The Guardian, but I shall not have time to do so--what a pity.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his restraint.

Mr. Heald: I shall not tell the hon. Gentleman the bit I liked best.

We heard some excellent contributions to the debate. I shall highlight first the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who

18 Jan 2001 : Column 614

really gave the lie to the line peddled by the Home Secretary on the history of the matter. My right hon. Friend made the point that, during our period in office, the Conservatives put up police numbers by more than 15,000. He also pointed out that that dramatic increase had been achieved against the sorry background of the previous time that Labour had been in power.

I do not want to go back to the 1970s, but many of us can remember the slide in police numbers, the damage to pay and conditions and the rise in crime. That was the Labour legacy in the 1970s. In the 1980s--

Mr. Straw: Why did police numbers rise by almost 10,000 during the period of the previous Labour Government?

Mr. Heald: The Home Secretary makes his point, but I wanted to make the point that--[Hon. Members: "Answer!"] It is true that one can take particular dates and arrive at particular figures, but the point I wanted to make is that it took a long time to turn around the effect of those years of Labour Government--the rise in crime. The Conservatives turned that around by increasing police numbers. Every year in the 1990s, police numbers went up--

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

Mr. Heald: I do not have time.

The numbers of police constables and special constables rose and by the time of the 1997 general election--the Home Secretary should listen to this--crime was falling and the number of police constables and of police officers in general was rising. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had had the best start as Home Secretary of anyone in many years--how right he is. That start was given to him by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What a pathetic Opposition.

Mr. Heald: It is not pathetic opposition to say that we had a record to be proud of; we gave the Labour Government a good start and, by goodness, they have squandered it.

It is easy to get into statistics and talk about a fall in police numbers, but what that means on the ground is an overstretch, so when a force needs to police an incident in the town, there are no officers in the villages. If we want special initiatives to target burglars or car crime--as we do and as the Government have said we will--that is at the expense of visible policing in town centres. There is less time for police officers to talk to the public. There are fewer police stations because they cannot be manned. The police are unable to do the job that they want to do. The public do not receive the service that they deserve and that the police want to give them.

It is not merely a question of statistics. It is right of the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) to say that we should have a positive attitude; no one comes out with more policies than the Conservative party. It was the Conservative party that said that we should get retired police officers back to work. We suggested part-time police officers and retained officers. It was the

18 Jan 2001 : Column 615

Conservative party that suggested cops in shops and a new cadet service. We have ideas, but the Government must be blamed for what they have done--and what they have done is disastrous in terms of policing.

Mr. Beard: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heald: No, I will not. I do not have time.

The specials have a fine history of voluntary service. Special officers have made it possible to have an additional officer in the market square on a Friday night, or to double-man a rural police car so that there can be an extra night patrol. The specials mean that when there is a police incident in one place, there is cover for the gaps. When we talk about a collapse in the morale of the police service as a whole, it is often said that it is about pay and conditions, but the fact that the number of volunteer special officers has fallen by a third under the present Government gives the lie to that. It is about morale.

When the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and others say that we must increase the number of police officers, of course they are right, but it is a positive policy of the Conservative party to restore police numbers to the level that they were at when we left office. It is that sort of positive approach that we take, and take rightly.

The Home Secretary cannot get away with saying that police morale has not been fractured by his policies. The numbers are down, which means that it is much more difficult for officers to do their job. The early release scheme has meant that 200 police officers who have been assaulted have seen the people who assaulted them released early. We have won one recruit. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who opposed our policy that the early release scheme should not apply to people who have assaulted police officers, has decided that it is right that it should not apply in those circumstances--and he voted consistently against that proposal.

Come on, it is time for the Minister to change, too, so we want to hear from him tonight that he will protect police officers, and we would like him to apologise for what has happened--apologise to the 25 police who have been injured as a result of the actions of those who have been released.

We want a system where wastage does not run at record levels and does not increase out of control. Voluntary resignations are up 60 per cent. Just this year, the Met has revised its figures on wastage and increased them by 25 per cent. for this year. We have seen the original estimates for forces such as the Greater Manchester police, which the hon. Member for Salford mentioned. What has happened to wastage there? At the half-year point, it was running at a far higher level than was predicted earlier in the year.

We want to see recruitment levels rising, so that we can get the police that we want. There is an improvement at the moment, but we wonder whether it is a one-off caused by the change in policy by police forces to take some recruits that they previously refused. As the Home Secretary says, it is right that people who have tattoos should be able to join the Metropolitan police; but to review the backlog of officer recruits who have been refused is a one-off exercise. Over the coming months and

18 Jan 2001 : Column 616

years, recruitment will reach a cliff-edge. It will fall, while wastage continues to rise. The Home Secretary has seen a one-off boost, about which he can boast in the general election campaign, but the underlying position is not nearly as good as he likes to claim.

Violent crime is rising, perhaps because police officers have been focusing not on patrolling the streets but on other things, because there are not enough of them to pursue all the Government initiatives and to fight robbery, street crime and violence. There is a rise in violent crime, yet the Government are trumpeting their success. Police wastage numbers are up, yet the Government are parading their success. Public confidence is down, as the Audit Commission report shows, yet the Government are trumpeting their success.

One has to wonder what sort of success it is to achieve such results, because the Government had a golden legacy--[Laughter.] They had a golden legacy from the previous Conservative Government, from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Crime was falling fast--it was down by 18 per cent.--and police numbers were rising. Now we have the exact opposite. If that is success, Labour has invented a new language, and it is no wonder that the Prime Minister will not hold a debate with the Leader of the Opposition, given the arguments available to him on this issue.

Next Section

IndexHome Page