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6.32 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I shall shorten my remarks and concentrate purely on the position in the Thames valley, as my constituency is in that police area.

Funding for the Thames Valley force is being increased by just 2.6 per cent. That is one of the lowest increases in the country, but I suppose we should be grateful that it is an increase at all. I want to set that figure against the particular situation that we face. We heard a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who told us how he had been bashed over the head by a policeman when he was on the Grunwick picket line. It seems to have done little harm to his thinking, because he got the point absolutely right: a cold look at the figures shows that the Thames Valley is hard done by.

Figures on the Home Office website show that there are, on average, 183.9 constables per 100,000 of the population. The Thames Valley force has the third lowest number in the country—just 135 constables per 100,000 of the population. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the reason for that when he winds up the debate. It is certainly not because of the crime rate in the Thames valley, where the number of offences per 100,000 of the population is 8,883. That is much higher than the national average and higher than the average for the south-east or the south-west.

The position seems to have worsened. The figures for police strength show that in the 12 months to September 2001, police numbers fell by 1.1 per cent. in the Thames valley, whereas they are increasing in other areas. The Minister said that he was turning the tide; in the Thames valley, the tide seems to be ebbing rather than flowing. The problem is not helped by the fact that last year Thames Valley police recruited an extra 50 special constables but lost 114 through wastage.

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Part of the problem is revealed when we look at the situation on the ground, rather than at the figures in the blue book. Oxfordshire in the Thames valley has some of the highest house prices and the highest cost of living in the United Kingdom—perhaps that is why some of our officers find their way on the road to Nottingham. The Thames Valley police area abuts the Metropolitan police area. As the hon. Member for Reading, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, Met officers receive a cost-of-living allowance totalling some £6,000 a year, whereas the maximum available to Thames Valley officers is just £2,000.

House prices in Oxfordshire are close to the average for Greater London and much higher than in many London boroughs. Figures from the Library show that in 2001 the average price of a house in Oxfordshire was £180,000, compared with £94,000 in Barking—to choose one London borough at random. Is it any wonder that officers are leaving to go to the Met for more money, or to go to the south-west or the north for lower living costs? The Government are going in the wrong direction by not addressing the problem of police numbers in the Thames Valley force.

On Friday night, I went on the beat with the police in Witney. It brought home to me the fact that, whatever money they get next year, we must ensure that it addresses the real problems that they face. An officer took me through a common assault case with which he had been dealing. The paperwork, which I have in my hand, consists of 18 sheets of paper on which the defendant's name had to be written over and again. Even at a cursory glance, many of the forms appear to be duplicated.

When we went out on the beat, the officer showed me the radios, which are truly local: if a problem arises in Oxford or Banbury, police officers cannot radio other officers in Witney or talk to their base because the radio waves are clocked. If somebody is arrested, there are not enough custody sergeants—I assume that some of them have gone to Nottingham—so the cells in Witney police station are often shut.

Thus the problem is a lack of officers—that problem is getting worse—and not enough specials to support those officers; poor local communications for making arrests; and far too much paperwork when an arrest is made. If an arrest is made, the suspect must be taken all the way to Banbury when the cells in Witney are shut.

It is a sorry tale and a poor way to treat public servants who do a magnificent job. They deserve more than they are getting at the moment.

6.37 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I am a Member of a Metropolitan police family, so not surprisingly I rise to speak in support of them and their need for increased manpower. I would suggest targets far in excess of the modest ones that the Government have set.

When Gilbert and Sullivan said that a policeman's lot is not a happy one, they were right and they are still right. At a time of increased pressure from the rise in certain types of crime, particularly drug-related violent crime, robberies and vandalism, the Metropolitan police are 600 men down on their 1997 figure.

The public perception is that criminals are getting away with it and that there is no point in reporting crime. Nobody knows the real crime levels because of

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that unreported element, but the public perception is universally that we need more policemen. In London, one is five times more likely to become a victim of crime than somebody who lives in New York.

Morale is pivotal to recruitment and retention. The recent recruitment through training centres is extremely welcome, but we must also retain experienced officers. The proposal to offer a £1,000 incentive to delay the retirement of experienced officers is welcome. It is also a very good deal for the police because that £1,000 will be repaid many times over by the unpaid pension payments. The high level of early retirement on health grounds is an indication of poor morale within the police force.

Mr. Denham: If the hon. Lady believes that that is an indication of poor morale in the police service, does she agree that police morale was much worse five years ago, when the level of ill health retirement was much higher?

Angela Watkinson: That is not my experience, and it is not what the people I have spoken to tell me.

Will the Minister clarify a response that I received to a written question about the Metropolitan police training schools? I understand that there is now an almost 100 per cent. pass rate. Indeed, that is necessary if the targets on police resources are to be met. Will he compare that with the 1960s, when there was an almost 50 per cent. pass rate? I hope that the improved figures are due to a higher standard of recruit and not a lowering of entry requirements.

The London borough of Havering is a low crime area by London standards. It has nine fewer officers than in 1997, and the overall crime rate has increased by 23.7 per cent. The council tax is rocketing, and the Mayor of London has levied a precept of an additional 35 per cent. He claims that the extra money is required to fund the 1,050 additional police constables needed in the metropolitan area, but only £17 million of the £166 million raised will be used for that purpose. The lion's share of the funding for those 1,050 will come from the crime fighting fund. We can only speculate on what Mayor Livingstone intends to use the rest of that money for.

Havering, as an outer-London borough, often has to provide additional support for security in the capital, and it needs extra police for that, because it often leaves Havering's numbers depleted. In the borough, Romford has the highest concentration of night-time leisure and entertainment centres and nightclubs outside the west end of London, and 13,000 people converge on those nightclubs every night. That puts enormous strain on Havering police, who do a good job but are stretched to the limit. The other parts of the borough are often left virtually unpoliced because of the demands of the nightclubs in Romford.

I have lost count of the number of constituents who have said to me that they want visible policing. They want to see police on the beat. I know that that is not the modern method of policing, and it is considered to be ineffective and inefficient, but that is what the general public want. An enormous increase in manpower would be needed to enable Havering police to beat police the entire borough with three shifts. Modest increases are not enough. If we are to satisfy public demand for beat policing, we need huge increases in manpower. That is

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what the public want. What the police want is the backing of senior officers, the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service.

6.43 pm

Mr. Paice: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a few comments in response to the debate. I know that the Minister wants to respond more fully, and I do not intend to take long.

Few hon. Members, other than one or two Government lackeys, have been entirely satisfied with the totality of the police grant. In particular, many hon. Members—not just Conservative Members, but Liberal Democrat and Labour Members—have expressed concern about the trend towards centralisation, to which I referred in my speech. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) took that view, followed by, among others, the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley).

The Minister rather disingenuously suggested in an intervention on the hon. Member for Lewes that by expressing concern we were against any form of centralised funds. Of course some centralised funds will be required, such as that for the DNA database. The concern that I and others have expressed is about the huge increase in centralised funds year on year.

The rural fund is only £30 million, which is small as a proportion. One can make a case for it being centralised at the moment until the Government change the distribution formula, but there is no justification for the crime fighting fund being centralised. There is no reason why that could not have been disbursed to authorities for their own purposes. The only defence of centralisation came from the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). I accept his argument about local accountability, but if he wants to defend the Government, I suggest he read clause 7 of the Police Reform Bill, which shows just how far they want to go in controlling what the police do, and it is quite frightening to most people.

A number of Members raised the issue of wastage. The latest figures show that wastage rose by some 5 per cent. in the year to September. That is not a large figure, but it is of some concern. If we strip out the retirements, deaths, transfers and dismissals, we discover that straightforward resignations rose by 18 per cent. in that year. That shows the widespread loss of morale in the police service. Police officers do not like the way that they are being treated.

Many hon. Members have referred to the Thames valley and the cost of living allowance. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has come back into the Chamber. I maintain my view that getting rid of the housing allowance was the right way forward. If there is a problem—I am happy to accept her word and those of other hon. Members—I suggest that it can be dealt with through the cost of living allowance.

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