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Mr. Kidney: Staffordshire has the money for recruits and the applicants to recruit, but the big obstacle is the huge proportion of the base budget that is spent on pensions. The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Government have any proposals; is he suggesting that the Conservatives would remove some of that burden from authorities such as Staffordshire?
Mr. Heald: Clearly, pensions are an ever larger part of the budget. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that pensions took up about 7 per cent. of the budget in 1990, and now take up about 14 per cent. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the Minister's indication that I am about right. Those figures are for the national average; the proportion may be higher in Staffordshire.
One of the reasons for that trend is falling police numbers. In a "pay as you go" scheme, the effect of having fewer contributors--we have 2,500 fewer--is that less money goes into the scheme and less comes out. There is a case for seeing what the effect would be if police numbers were restored and if police officers wanted to continue their careers for longer. That could contribute to a solution. I agree that we must consider those issues. The Government have access to actuaries and other experts who could tease out more detail. It is about time that the Government took action or explained their thinking in more detail.
Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) made a powerful speech on rural policing and the difficulties that Cumbria faces. I have referred to the remarks of the chief constable of Cumbria. It is time that the Minister gave a more detailed answer about what he will do to help rural areas such as Cumbria.
The Government have promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but instead they have been tough on the crime fighters. The test for the Government is whether the funding settlement will better enable the police forces of England and Wales to fight crime. The key to that is whether the Minister can tell us that there will be less bureaucracy and red tape and a more positive approach. There must be a serious effort to achieve the visible policing that we all want.
Many people would say that, so far, the Government have been complacent and have not taken the right approach to law and order. It is no surprise that the Prime Minister is not prepared to have a television debate during a general election campaign in which these issues could be teased out and in which he would be seriously challenged to explain why, when he promised that there would be rising police numbers, those numbers have not risen: he is frit.
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I want to be brief because I know that other Members want to speak. I thought that the contribution of my hon. Friend the Minister of State in opening this important debate was, as usual, of a very high standard. He outlined some of the difficulties and challenges that face the Government, as well as some of the measures that they are taking to solve problems.
I want to pay tribute to the work of Nottinghamshire police and the police authority chairman, Councillor John Clarke. The police authority, along with Nottinghamshire police, were pleased to receive a grant increase this year of 4.7 per cent., which will enable them to continue the work that they have been doing to tackle crime in the county.
Since 1997, recorded crime in Nottinghamshire has decreased by 9.9 per cent. It is worth emphasising that figure. Although there are problems, as we have heard, with violent crime and other crimes that we all deplore, real successes are being achieved through our crime- fighting initiatives.
We know that police morale may sometimes be under strain. As well as confronting the police with problems that they must deal with, we ought to congratulate them on their success in tackling certain types of crime. Considerable success has been achieved in respect of domestic burglary and car crime, and through changes to police practices and procedures for dealing with domestic violence. If we spoke about such successes, as well as the challenges that still face the police, there would be fewer problems of low morale and feelings of not being valued.
There has been a problem with police numbers. No one is disguising the fact that police numbers have fallen. In my constituency and in Nottinghamshire generally, they have fallen, but with the money that the Government have made available, particularly through the crime fighting fund, we can see that that is changing. The latest figures that I have show that in the six months from 31 March 2000 to 30 September 2000, Nottinghamshire police numbers increased by the full-time equivalent of 28.
A report to Gedling borough council's crime prevention committee showed that up to March 2002, in the divisions that cover my constituency, there will be an increase of some 60 officers. My constituents will be pleased because, as my hon. Friend the Minister and others have said, people want to see police on the street to tackle some of the problems that they see.
Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He takes a serious interest in these matters, as I know from debates in Westminster Hall. Does he recognise that chief constables throughout the country are telling his Government's Ministers that it is ridiculous for an organisation to have 58 performance targets? Any serious business organisation would have no more than three targets, and preferably only one. How can the hon. Gentleman urge the House to support chief constables, when his Government are not listening to chief constables asking them to scrap the monstrous 58 performance targets?
Mr. Coaker: My interpretation of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister is that he is listening to chief constables and doing what he can to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. My point was that chief constables often have a difficult task in persuading members of the public that having a policeman or policewoman walking down the street may not be the most effective use of police time, and that the best way of tackling crime is often through police intelligence.
There is a conflict between the need to have police officers walking down the street, thereby reducing the fear of crime, and the more effective use of resources to bring crime statistics down. That is a difficult choice for our chief constables and local area commanders.
Painting a gloomy picture of the situation does not help police There are problems with police numbers, as the Government have acknowledged through establishing the crime fighting fund to increase the number of recruits and get more police on the street.
Violent crime presents challenges. No one wants violent crime, and we acknowledge that it has increased. However, we should recognise successes in tackling other forms of crime. Targeted policing, work on improving police morale and tackling the fear of crime will lead to a reduction in violent crime. Although I do not have the latest figures, I understand that they show that violent crime has decreased in some parts of the country.
Of course, police numbers, prison sentences and locking more people up are important. However, those measures alone will not reduce crime. Several hon. Members have mentioned the need to tackle the causes of crime. We should also take account of the police grant. If we do not tackle social exclusion, poor housing and other general problems in society, it will be difficult to win the battle against crime.
Mr. Coaker: That is a good point. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the public do not perceive community penalties as a soft option, which is the current view. However, they are a genuine alternative to prison. We lock up more people now than ever, but do we feel safer on the streets? The answer is probably no.