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Mr. Charles Clarke rose--

Mr. Heald: I want to finish the point, and then the Minister can answer all my questions at the same time.

During Jonathan Dimbleby's programme on ITV on Sunday, the Home Secretary kept saying that the Government

He said that they had

When the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), used to do the Minister's job, he used to say that talking about police numbers was "sterile and simplistic" and that that was not

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the issue. Will the Minister tell us how committed the Government are to the question of the total number of police officers?

Mr. Clarke: I am very committed to it, which is why I said in response to an earlier intervention that I was confident that, five years after the Government were elected, we would have more police officers across the country than we inherited. A third of police authorities in Britain already have more of them.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about violent crime and wonder whether he will join me in congratulating, for example, the Merseyside police. They have used the extra money that we have given them to deal with robbery and to raise their profile in the city centre--for example, with mounted police--precisely to inhibit the alcohol-related violent crime to which he refers.

Mr. Heald: Nobody is more prepared than I am to pay tribute to the work of officers who tackle crimes such as robbery. It is difficult to deal with such crimes effectively, and it is right that we should pay such a tribute. Anti-robbery initiatives and high-visibility policing in places such as Hillingdon have had a good effect. However, the Minister should consider whether it is good enough to have the high-visibility policing that we need only in certain areas. Should not such policing take place everywhere when it is needed? The problem is that there are just not the officers to do the job.

The Labour party pledged in its manifesto that it would

The Home Secretary now seems to be saying that there was never a promise or a pledge about an increase in police numbers. However, the Prime Minister should know and, in response to a challenge by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, he said that

That is completely wrong. His words prove that there was a promise, but it will be broken just like the promise on youth justice.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend paints a correct and gloomy picture, but the position is worse than perhaps he realises. In Surrey, the grant is being cut in real terms after allowing for inflation. The chief constable tells us that, if something is not done over the next three years, he will have 250 fewer officers. It is not a question of a promise of more police officers being broken, because Government policy is forcing one force to cut police numbers.

Mr. Heald: The Surrey chief constable's comments no doubt apply to other forces and show that the Home Secretary and the Minister need to tackle particular problems.

Mr. Clarke: I did not intend to intervene often, but the hon. Gentleman refers to other forces. Has he had a chance to see last Friday's statement by the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the chair of his police

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authority, who said that, in March 2002, they will have more police officers than there have ever been in North Yorkshire? I refer to that force, because it covers the constituency of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Mr. Heald: The Minister must accept that taking one isolated example does not mean that one has won the argument. I know that he has not had updated projections from many forces, but the projections for wastage that were made earlier this year show that, by halfway through the year, many forces had much more than half the wastage that had been projected. We know that the Metropolitan police has had to revise its figures upwards by 25 per cent, and that resignations have increased by 60 per cent. since the general election. There is nothing to be complacent about.

My point about the Prime Minister was that he admitted both that there had been a promise to get officers back on the beat and that his promise was to increase police numbers. By the time of the next general election--assuming that it is this year, as everyone expects--there will not only be 2,500 fewer officers, but 6,300 fewer specials. This is an example of the spin that the public are getting sick of--all spin, no delivery.

On the details of the settlement, there is certainly more money this year than there was last year in terms of the rate of increase. Last year, the Opposition voted against the increase, because it simply was not enough. It is true that we also made that criticism in earlier years. The position is a bit better this year--

Mr. Wilshire: Not in Surrey.

Mr. Heald: But not in Surrey, as my hon. Friend says. Although the position is a bit better this year, it is sad that the year in which the increase comes is an election year. What happens after that? The real-terms increases are 3.5 per cent. for next year and 0.6 per cent. for the following year. The Minister must put this year's settlement in context.

Mr. Blunt: Bearing in mind that the largest increase has been made in an election year, my hon. Friend might want to note that the three police forces whose areas are represented entirely by Conservative Members--the City of London, Surrey and Dorset forces--have, for some reason, received the lowest increase in the country.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which reminds me of another issue. The Minister speaks a great deal about the crime fighting fund, but he fails to remember that many forces have found it impossible to recruit more officers. If a force does not recruit, it does not get the money. In respect of the forces in Hertfordshire, the City of London and another area, not one single crime fighting fund officer has been recruited, although 118 places were allocated.

Mr. Edward Davey: I am disturbed that Conservative Front Benchers are happy with the Government's grant for the police. Will the hon. Gentleman support the police grant report on that basis? The Metropolitan police have had to recruit and train 2,000 officers in order to recruit a net increase of 1,050 officers next year. That will require a 16 per cent. increase in the precept from the Greater

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London Authority. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why his Conservative colleagues on the GLA proposed a 4 per cent. precept? Are the Conservatives in favour of police cuts in London?

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I was thinking of the circumstances in London. He suggested that it was as easy as anything to recruit, but the crime fighting fund allocated some 115 places that remain unfilled. In the past two or three years, the Government's impact on police morale has made recruitment very difficult. The ability to recruit police will not be regained until morale is improved, which means having the will to support the police and not to take the easy options.

The Minister referred to a 7.4 per cent. overall settlement. However, in terms of actual police allocation, the budgets are set to increase by about 5 per cent. Public Finance magazine states:

It points out that

He mentioned Northumbria, but the chief constable of Cumbria says that his force will face cuts again this year.

Will the Minister comment on the likely rise in police authority council tax precepts, which is a matter of concern to the Association of Police Authorities? He mentioned best value, but is not that concept creating huge bureaucracy? The chief constable of Lincolnshire makes this complaint:

How does the Minister intend to reform best value so that it is not merely a charter for bureaucracy and red tape?

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) referred to the three forces--Essex, Hertfordshire and the City of London--that will not receive one single officer as a result of the crime fighting fund. Will the Minister give some assurances about the ability of those forces and others to meet the continuation criteria that will allow them to access the funding next year? Have all forces met those criteria?

The Association of Police Authorities refers to the

What does the Minister have to say about that? The APA also expresses concern about the mounting pensions bill. Just now, the Minister said a few words about addressing that issue. Last year, he said:

He went on to say that

At the Police Federation conference, the Home Secretary said that the Government were

and that

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