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Mr. Boateng indicated dissent.

Sir Norman Fowler: The hon. Gentleman denies that. Why, then, did the shadow Home Secretary make those statements in the debate four years ago? It does not make sense. Why did the shadow Home Secretary lead his party into the Division Lobby to oppose a settlement more generous than the one that he is making today? Of course

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the public took Labour's actions into account. They did not believe that when the Labour Opposition said that, in government, they would be

    "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime",

they were setting the scene for the biggest reduction in police numbers for 20 years, but let us be in no doubt that that is precisely what is happening today and that it will happen for the next three years.

When the then shadow Home Secretary was asked about his own plans by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), to whom I have spoken about this matter, he replied:

My hon. Friend is back, and very welcome he is too, but that is the end of the good news. We all listened to the Chancellor's first Budget and his comprehensive spending review and we have all seen the results.

There is to be the toughest squeeze on police spending for over a decade. There is no question about that whatsoever. The financial commitment of the previous Conservative Government will not be increased as Labour suggested--it will be cut drastically. That is the essence of the charge against the Government. They have broken their promises. They knew perfectly well that if they went to the country saying, "We shall reduce spending on the police and cut police numbers", they would lose votes and they would lose seats, so they did not say that. They hid behind generalised slogans. There is no question but that this settlement marks the worst news for the police since the Labour party was last in government.

Let me remind the House of the record since 1979. Between 1979-80 and 1996-97, there was a cash increase for the police of 354 per cent. In real terms, that is above inflation. Indeed, there was a real terms increase of 72 per cent. during the lifetime of the previous Conservative Government. Under this Government--if they last for five years, as the comprehensive spending review assumes--there will certainly be a cash increase. Not even this Government would reduce the cash, but the real terms increase over five years will be less than 1 per cent. However one does the sums, the Government's financial commitment has been reduced.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can assist me on a point that I have always found slightly puzzling. When in government, his party always demanded, and rightly so, greater efficiency from all areas of public service--with the single exception of the police. The Conservatives have always been willing to overlook, at least in public but not always in private, the scams and rackets that have gone on in the police force and which, in many areas, led to very poor service. Those are now being dealt with.

Sir Norman Fowler: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter because I was about to make that point.

We accept the need for efficiency savings. Let us be under no illusion: efficiency savings in the police took place under the previous Conservative Government; they have not suddenly been invented. One need only talk to

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the Metropolitan Commissioner, the chief constable of West Midlands or the chief constable of West Yorkshire to realise that efficiency savings were not suddenly introduced in 1997. They had been making those savings for years, and rightly so.

In the same way, the Audit Commission is entirely valuable in guiding the police and setting performance targets. We back that process and it is one of the factors that needs to be taken into account.

The question is whether the amount of cash and the efficiency savings will meet the costs of the police, including the unavoidable cost of pay and pensions. We believe that, given the Government's settlement, they will not.

Under previous Conservatives Governments--this cannot be denied--the strength of the police service in England and Wales increased by more than 15,000. No one in his wildest dreams thinks that we shall see an increase of that size under Labour. Indeed, no one thinks that we shall see an increase at all.

Angela Smith (Basildon): I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman. He is arguing, quite commendably, for far more money to be put into the police force. Has he checked that with his shadow Treasury Front-Bench team, which described Labour's spending plans as reckless and said that the Government should spend less?

Sir Norman Fowler: I will if the hon. Lady or the Minister concedes that we spent more money on the police service than this Labour Government are spending. I give way to the hon. Lady.

Angela Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to intervene on him; it is most unusual. No, I will not concede that.

Sir Norman Fowler: In that case, the question does not make a great deal of sense. If she will not concede that we spent more, I cannot entirely understand her point.

Angela Smith: I shall assist the right hon. Gentleman. He is constantly arguing for more money for the police force, yet his Treasury spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), described Labour's spending plans as reckless. Has the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) checked his proposal for extra spending on the police service with his shadow Treasury Front-Bench team?

Sir Norman Fowler: The hon. Lady is struggling, but I shall give her a reply.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): I bet the right hon. Gentleman does not answer the question.

Sir Norman Fowler: Even the Government Whip has broken into verse. I shall reply to him as well. I shall do so by adapting the reply that the then shadow home affairs spokesman, the present Secretary of State for the Home Department, gave in January 1995. I say to the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith): "I share the hon. Lady's confidence that the Conservative party will win the next election. If she retains her seat, I invite her to sit

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on this side of the House and listen to my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) announcing in his first Budget the details of our spending plans." I would add that, under the Conservatives, the police will have the priority that they have always had under Conservative Governments. That is something that the Minister cannot say.

Mr. Boateng: I can say this: the right hon. Gentleman really must not be disingenuous. He went into the 1992 general election on a promise to increase numbers. We made no such promise in 1997. However, between March 1992 and March 1997, police numbers fell by 500. How does that square with the paeon of self praise in which the right hon. Gentleman has just engaged?

Sir Norman Fowler: The hon. Gentleman is arguing against himself. He talks of a fall of 500, but that is against a net increase in the police service under previous Conservative Governments of 15,300. There is no question about that.

Mr. Boateng indicated dissent.

Sir Norman Fowler: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to get to his feet again. He has already taken 45 minutes of the House's time, which is far too long in a debate of this length. He has the nerve to say that Labour did not make any pledges on police numbers. What on earth does he think the 1995 debate was about? Why did he oppose the police grant then? Why did his party vote against it? Why did the then shadow Home Secretary say that police numbers were going down? Of course pledges on police numbers and resources were made. The Government are wriggling. They know that they have cut the police force and police services.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): My right hon. Friend probably heard the intervention on the Minister of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), in which he described a 15.7 per cent. reduction in police numbers over three years--it is, in fact, over two years. He omitted to say that the Hillingdon division is now facing a reduction of 11 front-line officers. If the people of Hillingdon were told that at the election, the expression that Uxbridge or Hillingdon deserves better would have rang hollow.

Sir Norman Fowler: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

It is not only Conservative politicians who are saying that police numbers and police resources are going down. So is every organisation in the police service: that of the chief constables, that of the superintendents and, of course, the Police Federation.

Ms Lawrence: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I will not give way again.

Under Labour, police numbers are going down. In the first 18 months of this Government, there has already been a fall of almost 800 in the police service. Among the forces that have been affected are the Metropolitan police in London, Sussex, West Yorkshire, City of London,

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Kent, Essex, Nottinghamshire and Hertfordshire. I know from experience and from letters that I have received that many others, such as Bedfordshire, are feeling the strain.

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