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7.19 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): It is a genuine privilege to participate in this debate, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. It is important to focus attention, as she has done, on the state of affairs in the Metropolitan police service.

I take the opportunity that my hon. Friend gives me to pay a public tribute to the officers of the service. She mentioned officers working in her constituency and officers whom she knew, and described their outstanding personal commitment in times of great difficulty and tension. Communities are strengthened and people given confidence by such commitment. It is important to place that on record.

Let me add to that my appreciation of the tremendous and committed work of all ranks--from the Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and his deputy, Ian Blair, down through the whole force. There is a major drive in the force at present to ensure that we can deliver right across the range of its services.

Because of the responsibility that I hold, it saddens me that many people form their view of policing from descriptions in some of the media programmes, rather than from the police work that they know about. At the beginning of this week, I visited outer London boroughs to the east of the city, where police officers told me that the characterisation of policing in some fictional programmes does not give a fair picture of the life, commitment, experience and solidarity of working police officers. That is true. The Government will do what we can to address the issues in the ways mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The important issues raised by my hon. Friend stem from many of the recruitment difficulties experienced by the MPS in recent years. We have tried to tackle those issues, through initiatives such as the national recruitment campaign--to which my hon. Friend referred--the crime fighting fund and the starter homes scheme. That scheme attempts to address the massive problem that has arisen for all public services and many private industries throughout London as the economy grows and succeeds.

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There is great tension between the rents or mortgages that people have to pay and their salaries. That is why we have increased the London allowance for new recruits, and for officers recruited since 1 September 1994 who do not receive housing emoluments. We have also provided funding for free rail travel for Metropolitan police officers within a 70-mile radius of Charing Cross; that includes my hon. Friend's constituency.

I remind the House that all matters concerning police officers' hours of duty, leave, pay, allowances and pensions must be considered by the Police Negotiating Board, the statutory body set up to make recommendations to the Home Secretary. Sections 61 and 62 of the Police Act 1996 provide for the constitution of the PNB and for the procedure for reaching agreement on recommendations made by the PNB. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consider any recommendations that the PNB makes before amendments to police regulations are made.

Related to the terms and conditions of service are the standards with which recruits have to comply in order to be accepted. We are developing national recruitment standards that will remove unnecessary barriers, provide clarity for applicants and ensure that recruitment standards are clearly job related and non-discriminatory. All aspects of the recruitment process are being reviewed, including entry criteria and medical standards for recruitment.

In the light of some of the ill-informed comments in the media about the attempts of the MPS to address recruitment standards, I make it clear that the Met have been correct in their handling of the matter. The service has tried to remove some of the more outdated restrictions and is determined to do whatever is possible to remove artificial barriers to recruitment, which have been raised in the past in some cases. There has been media controversy about some aspects of that initiative, but the MPS is right to take those actions. I hope, moreover, that the national recruitment standards development programme that I described will help to create a national framework for that work.

Police pay is based on national pay scales, which do not vary from force to force. Starting pay for police officers compares favourably with other public service occupations and professions. A police officer will earn £17,133 on recruitment, rising to £19,170 on the completion of initial training and £20,304 after two years. That reflects the serious responsibilities that police officers undertake and the dangers in which they are sometimes placed. However, it has long been recognised that the cost of living in London is high and London officers receive a London weighting, which is pensionable, and a London allowance, which is not pensionable.

In June 2000, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary accepted the PNB's recommendation for an increase in London allowance from 1 July 2000 for new recruits and for those officers recruited on or after 1 September 1994--the post-Sheehy officers, to use the vernacular to which my hon. Friend referred--who are not in receipt of housing allowance.

Metropolitan police officers recruited before 1 September 1994, who are in receipt of either rent or housing allowance, which ranges from £5,126.70 to £9,153--significant sums--also receive a London

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weighting of £1,713 and a London allowance of £1,011, totalling £2,724. Metropolitan police officers recruited on, or after, 1 September 1994, and not in receipt of housing allowance, receive a total London weighting and London allowance of £6,051, which is comprised of £1,713 London weighting and £4,338 London allowance.

The PNB has also recently recommended an allowance of £1,000 to be paid to those officers recruited before 1 September 1994 who are in receipt of half-rate housing allowance or flat-rate transitional rent allowance, and the Home Secretary will make an announcement on that soon. I am glad that my hon. Friend has been able to secure this debate to highlight the importance of such issues.

The Home Office also funds free rail travel for Metropolitan police officers at a cost of about £2.45 million in the coming financial year.

The Metropolitan police service's arrangement with the Association of Train Operating Companies allows police officers free rail travel within a 70-mile radius of London on production of their warrant card, on or off duty. That came into effect only recently, on 14 February this year, and extends the current arrangements whereby Metropolitan police officers travel free on London Transport buses and the London underground. Police officers will have to buy tickets to cover any rail travel outside the 70-mile limit and the arrangements will not extend to civil staff, the special constabulary or family members.

Free rail travel will provide an additional incentive to new recruits and will help to retain serving officers. I am sure that it will also encourage more officers to use the railways with the result that our trains will be safer for everyone to use--a very important consideration.

Funding for the current financial year will come from central provision. The sum for 2001-02 has been made available from the total provision for policing-- £8.495 billion--agreed at the outcome of the spending review. The £2.45 million cost of free Metropolitan police rail travel will not reduce the amounts already announced as being allocated to the police authorities through the police grant and the standard spending assessment. The money for the coming financial year will be met from the £91 million announced in the March 2000 Budget for police modernisation.

The starter homes initiative represents an important Government effort, across all public services, to address issues relating to housing costs. The initiative is expected to help about 10,000 key workers to buy their own homes in areas of high-cost housing. Some £250 million will be made available for that over the next three years. Priority will be given to police officers, teachers and nurses--my hon. Friend's former profession.

Bids in the first bidding round have now been received from those organisations, including registered social landlords, local authorities and employers, that wish to run a scheme under that initiative. Bids have been submitted in respect of 14 police force areas, including several bids that cover the Metropolitan police area. The bids have yet to be assessed and funds will be made available in the summer to successful applicants. A second bidding round will take place in the autumn.

My hon. Friend mentioned the national recruitment advertising campaign. To support forces in meeting their recruitment needs, the national recruitment campaign was launched on 30 August last year. The campaign has two

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main aims. First, it is designed to provide forces with high-quality potential recruits, which is its obvious focus. However, I give at least as much importance--perhaps, in some ways, even more--to raising perceptions of the status and professionalism of the police at large. It is important that the community as a whole understands what it is to be a modern police officer. The police's responsibilities and how they carry them out are the types of points that my hon. Friend mentioned.

A campaign website carries information on joining the police and allows individuals to respond online for more information. Calls are handled by a professional call centre. Basic details are taken and an information pack is sent out with an outline of the role of a police officer, along with details of how to take an interest further. Potential applicants complete an expression of interest and the call centre forwards those expressions of interest to forces to progress.

The campaign has been extremely successful. By 4 February, more than 100,000 inquiries had been received through the website and call centre, resulting in more than 22,000 formal expressions of interest. That is a significant proportion and a tribute to the way in which the campaign has been able to convey what the responsibilities of a modern police officer are. The Metropolitan police have received 1,946 expressions of interest and a further 1,115 inquiries have been redirected to the Met's own call centre.

The Metropolitan police recently carried out a full-scale review of their recruiting standards and the resulting changes have been made to ensure that the Met are socially inclusive, non-discriminatory and fair. As I said earlier, the changes have brought the Met's recruitment standards into line with those of other police forces in the United Kingdom.

The Met have been allocated a total of 2,044 recruits from the crime fighting fund. These recruits are over and above the force's existing recruitment plans. More than 500 of the crime fighting fund officers will be recruited this financial year. As my hon. Friend said, there is already evidence that police numbers are rising as a result. Police recruitment numbers are increasing as she stated, and we have every reason to believe that we are finally beginning to make an impact after years of declining police numbers in the Met. We are beginning to turn the curve upwards, which is an important step both for its effectiveness and for the morale and confidence of the force.

In Hounslow, at the end of January 2001, police strength was 398 against a budgeted work force total of 411, which means that the borough was 13 officers--or 3.08 per cent.--down on its budgeted total. Civilian strength was 115, compared to a budgeted work force total of 111, so the figure was above budget on the civilian side.

I am advised that the Metropolitan police service has already recruited 1,130 officers this year and expects to be only 100 officers below its budgeted work force target

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of 25,600 by the end of March this year. This is very good news. I commend the service on all the work that it has done to deal with its recruitment difficulties.

My hon. Friend mentioned morale. Total wastage in the police force compared with other organisations is very low. The figures for wastage are 5.2 per cent., 4.8 per cent. and 4.7 per cent. in the past three years. The survey of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development for labour turnover in 2000 reported a wastage rate of 18.3 per cent. for all employees in 1999, compared with the figure of about 5 per cent. that I have just given for the police.

Most police service wastage consists of retirements; the number of resignations--at 1 per cent. or less in the past three years--remains very small. I want to place those figures on the record because people sometimes glibly accept the argument that there is a serious morale problem in the force. If we compare it with other aspects of the public service and life, the figures for the force are very good. Of course, the police face greater challenges than most other occupations and that makes things difficult. They also face a challenging media environment. That can be problematic, too. However, the position is good, and I pay tribute to the force for its contribution to morale.

My hon. Friend also mentioned pensions. We have three initiatives on that, and I hope that they will bear fruit shortly. First, in the next few months, we shall publish a consultation document on ill health, medical retirements and pensions. That will have important implications for how we deal with the issues. Secondly, we are considering how pension costs are distributed across police forces. That is rather unfair at the moment.

Thirdly, we are looking at the possibility of establishing a funded pension scheme for new recruits, which would transform the budget structure in that relationship. We have been working closely with the Treasury on that. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I are meeting to discuss the proposal and to try to deal with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised. Her point about people's desire to commit in a flexible way at the end of their normal working lives is absolutely true. Many police officers want to find a way of doing that and we are actively looking into the possibilities.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am glad that she has given me the opportunity to be as positive as I think the whole country should be about the work of the Metropolitan police.

In the absence of any Opposition Members, it is appropriate to mention that some of them have been very aggressive and have despaired of what is happening in a way that is dishonest and untrue. I am exceptionally glad to have had the opportunity to try to set the record straight.

Question put and agreed to.

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