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5.41 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) spoke a lot of sense. I join him and others in paying tribute to the police. We must talk up the police and their work, and we must talk up policing as a career and as a job that the country needs doing.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that there is no simple connection between police numbers and crime clear-up rates. However, I want to begin by giving an example that is linked to the debate. I have come to the House almost directly from the funeral of someone who was hacked to death nearly 14 months ago by three people--now convicted--in a flat in my constituency. He left a widow and six children; the youngest was under five. At the funeral service in Bermondsey, the widow and the family paid tribute to the police, whose dedication meant that, although they were unable to prevent the crime--it was probably immediately unpreventable because the perpetrators were so evil--they ultimately also found the pieces of the body, which had been buried. That at least allowed a funeral to take place and the family to start the next process in their lives.

Such debates are not just about numbers and budgets but about ensuring that there are adequate forces in our society to deter people more from committing crimes--and that when crimes are committed, we catch the perpetrators. That is where the police come in. Our clear-up rate for the crimes listed in the British crime survey is only 3 per cent. Our electors want us to do much better, so our police service must be adequate to the task.

I welcomed the statement on the comprehensive spending review made some months ago and the considerably greater allocation to the police for next year than for the past three years. It is a definite improvement. However, when my colleagues and I vote on the budget grant that has been proposed today, we must consider whether it is enough for the coming year.

Mr. Charles Clarke: It is never enough.

Mr. Hughes: I accept also that the Government would like to do more. However, as an opposition party, we must decide whether the allocation is enough for next year in the light of the evidence of the past three years. We have formed the view that it is not. That is not simply a subjective, party-political view; it also reflects advice from the Association of Police Authorities and others. That is why we will vote against the motion. If it is defeated, the Government will have to present a proposal for more money. That will not mean that there is no money for the police; it will mean that the police settlement has not found favour with the House. That is the way in which Opposition parties have to register their concern about the service.

I find it surprising that, when it comes to voting on the proposed budget that pays for the coppers to go out on the beat, the Conservative party--which, most of the week, is full of sound and fury about the issue--is going to vote in a way which says that it is happy with what the

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Government have proposed. If the Conservatives were logical, from today on, they would stop their ranting and raving and realise that they are taking an inconsistent position. I am sad that they have bottled out just when they were expected to put their votes where their voices so loudly were.

Mr. Wilshire: Some may do so.

Mr. Hughes: To his credit, the hon. Gentleman said earlier that some Conservatives might have to register their discontent with the settlement for their counties--Surrey, in the hon. Gentleman's case--by not supporting the motion. I pay tribute to those hon. Members who do that.

Like the Minister, my colleagues and I are angry and frustrated that, through no fault of the Government or the Liberal Democrats, we have only one and a half hours for this debate. The person who objected and caused that to happen is not even here to take part. That is particularly galling. I shall be as quick as I can: I just want to make a few points on the issues that the Minister properly put before the House.

First, some parts of the country still have a very low number of police officers per head of the population. There are 43 police forces in England and Wales, some of which have fewer than 180 officers per 100,000 people. The two forces with the lowest ratios are West Mercia and Suffolk. They have little else in common: one is a partly built-up area, the other is very rural. Police numbers in the forces in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Thames Valley and Warwickshire are all below the ratio of 180 officers per 100,000 people. People in those areas have always said to me that they want an increased police presence. One of the tests, for us, is whether there are enough police on the ground across the country. In many parts of the country, the answer is no, there are not.

Mr. Edward Davey: While my hon. Friend is dealing with per capita comparisons, is he aware that comparable capital cities such as Paris and New York have far higher numbers--calculated on a per capita basis--of police officers than London? Paris has twice as many officers as London, although its population is a similar size. Does my hon. Friend not regret that, under successive Conservative and Labour Governments over the past 10 years, the numbers in the Metropolitan police have fallen?

Mr. Hughes: I do regret that. My hon. Friend--who now speaks on London matters for the Liberal Democrats, having taken over from me--has exactly the same concern in his outer London borough and constituency as I have in my inner London borough and constituency. The police in my constituency, currently coping with cases such as the Damilola Taylor murder inquiry, tell me that their numbers are down. The new Commissioner, like his predecessor, makes that case, and wants to speak to the Greater London Authority, to make the point that the police need more resources so that he can deliver what the public expect of the Metropolitan police.

There have been significant reductions in police numbers. I shall not elaborate on this in great detail, but I want to illustrate the point. In London, the figures for

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the Metropolitan police have fallen from a little more than 26,500 in March 1997 to a little more than 24,500 in September 2000--the last date for which figures are available. That decrease in numbers will not deliver the policing that the public want.

The lists of police numbers have been published, and I have selected these statistics from ministerial answers, each for five police forces which have had a fall in numbers during the period that I mention. Sixteen forces have experienced falls in police numbers during the last six months for which figures are available, including Cumbria, Essex, the Metropolitan police, Suffolk and North Wales. There are 23 forces that have had a fall in the last year for which we have figures. They include Avon and Somerset--my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) intervened earlier on that subject--Dyfed-Powys, Greater Manchester, Sussex and Thames Valley. Twenty-eight forces out of the 43 have had a fall in numbers since the previous election. In addition to others I have mentioned, they include Cleveland, Derbyshire, Merseyside, Norfolk and Hampshire.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman place on record his acknowledgement that, over the six months to September last year, there was an increase of 444 officers across the country? I accept the ups and downs that he has described, but does he accept that police numbers are now going up?

Mr. Hughes: Of course I do, and the Minister knows it. He will remember that the figures were corrected on about 23 December. They at last begin to show that, from a very low base represented by a drop of thousands, numbers are beginning to climb.

There is another general point about numbers. I asked a direct question and the Home Secretary gave me an answer, which was that a reduction was expected in four forces next year--Humberside, Merseyside, the Met and West Yorkshire. Is a reduction in those forces still expected? [Interruption.] The Minister, in all honesty and perfectly acceptably, says that he does not know the answer. One reason why my hon. Friends and I will vote against the proposed settlement is that it does not even guarantee that in every force there will be an increase in the coming year. We have a duty to ensure that there is growth--not only in our constituencies, but in all places in England and Wales.

Mr. Clarke: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what he means by guarantee in that context? Is he saying that we should take back the power for the Home Secretary to determine police numbers in every force in the country?

Mr. Hughes: The Minister and I have had that debate before. The Government came to office saying that it was up to police forces to decide police numbers, but changed that view by allocating ring-fenced money so that more officers could be recruited. I keep asking whether there will be more officers at the next election--nationally or locally in each police force area--than there were at the previous one. That now seems highly unlikely, which is another reason why we shall vote against the allocation. This budget grant is unlikely to change that. The Government came to office saying that there would be

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more bobbies on the beat. That failure represents a failure to meet the promise that they made not to me alone, but to all our electors who want crime to fall and the number of police to increase.

It is obvious that not enough money has been provided, if we consider the figures for precepts likely to be levied by police authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has given me the projected figures for the south-west. The increase for Avon and Somerset is likely to be 7.5 per cent., with 5 per cent. for Devon and Cornwall, 9.7 per cent. for Dorset, 6 per cent. for Gloucestershire and 9.6 per cent. for Wiltshire. Those police authorities are having to add to the money that the Government give.

In London, the Mayor wanted a precept of 31 per cent. My colleagues wanted between 16 and 21 per cent. The Commissioner seems to want a similar figure. Bizarrely, the Tories seem to think that we can get away with 5 per cent., which no one else has been able to justify. Such a figure is entirely inconsistent with all their ranting and raving.

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