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3.33 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): In last year's police grant debate--in which I was, I think, the only Front Bencher now in the Chamber to participate--I warned that the Government's failure to provide adequate resources for our police service would result in fewer officers. We are now beginning to see the full realisation of that prediction.

Since 1 May 1997, there are 780 fewer police officers. The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) seemed to think that police numbers declined under the Tories. The fact is that the Greater Manchester force gained 500 more police officers during the Tory's 18 years in office. Now--already, since the general election--it has 30 fewer officers.

The number of police officers leaving the police service grows daily, and those officers are not being replaced. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) reminded us in his speech of the problems in the Metropolitan police.

The settlement will make matters significantly worse. Clearly, a 2.7 per cent. increase is nowhere near enough to maintain the police service. Moreover, all police organisations are making the same gloomy forecast. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) reminded us, two months ago, the Association of Chief Police Officers warned that a 6.1 per cent. funding increase was necessary for police forces simply to maintain current services. I should remind the hon. Gentleman of how well his own police force, in South Yorkshire, did during the Conservatives' years in government, when that force increased by 600 officers.

Chief constables have rightly questioned the basis for the Government's demand for 2 per cent. efficiency savings, whereas the independent Audit Commission--which the Minister prayed in aid--found scope for savings of only 0.25 per cent. Police superintendents are predicting significant manpower reductions--of

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thousands, not hundreds of officers. Across the country, one has only to tot up the manpower levels that police forces predict they will have in a year's time to realise that we are talking about manpower reductions of thousands, not hundreds, of officers.

It is predicted that, by the end of this year, North Yorkshire will have 50 fewer police officers. North Yorkshire police comprise 1 per cent. of the police service. If its cuts were repeated across the country, there would indeed be 5,000 fewer officers nationally.

It is predicted that there will be 100 fewer officers at Thames Valley police, which comprise just under 3 per cent. of the police service. A similar cut made nationally would entail 3,000 fewer officers.

Police superintendents have branded the settlement as

The grant shows a complete lack of political commitment to the police and demonstrates that police are not one of the Government's priorities. Ministers have the cheek to challenge us about providing resources to police. Special advisers, focus groups and lavish parties for pop stars at No. 10 Downing street are the Government's priorities, as are the more than 180 new task forces that the Government have established. Ministerial office refurbishments are the Government's priority, as is so much overseas travel by Ministers that some Ministers are refusing to answer questions about it, as we saw today. But the Government do not include the police service among their priorities.

The Government are running down the police service--but why? What is the plan? Will beat officers be replaced, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) asked earlier, by neighbourhood wardens? Will unemployed people be recruited to patrol local estates, with powers to intervene and arrest? The police service is predicting that that may happen.

Mr. Boateng: Nonsense.

Mr. Greenway: The police service is making such predictions to Opposition Members. It is what we have been told by Surrey's chief constable, the other Mr. Blair.

Did the public vote for such changes? They were never asked about any such proposals. In her reply, perhaps the Minister will tell us the Government's hidden agenda. Surely Ministers cannot fail to notice the effects of their policies and mismanagement on the numbers of serving police officers.

The Association of Police Authorities questioned how a cash increase of £186 million can pay for spending commitments of £438 million. Pay and pension costs alone will rise by £250 million. The fact is that the resources of 10 police authorities will grow by less than 2 per cent., and that they will face a stark choice between cuts in police numbers or a massive hike in council tax precepts--or both: fewer police at greater cost.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) reminded us of the plight of one of our smallest police forces, in Dyfed Powys, in west Wales, which has barely more than 1,000 police officers.

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The police authorities that will be worst affected by the settlement will be those that have already had a shake-out and made savings. How are they supposed to make further savings?

The cuts will not be painless for anyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, police stations will close across south-east London. Cumbria--which is another of our smallest police forces--will close 10 stations. People may say, "Those will be mostly rural beat houses, which went in North Yorkshire more than 10 years ago." The Minister may think that that is the right approach, but it is not popular and results in a serious diminution of service.

Some forces have already stripped out large numbers of senior ranks. There has been a reduction of approximately one in four ACPO ranks across the country, with 700 fewer superintendents in the past six or seven years. I am glad that the Minister agrees with that. As he told us earlier, a flattening out of the rank structure in the police service is needed. However, he should read the report of last year's debate. When I pointed that out to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), he bluntly disagreed.

The Government are trying to have it both ways. It is on the record in Hansard that there was an increase of 2,300 in the number of constables between 1992 and 1997, but the Government and the Liberal Democrats trot out the statistic that the number of officers fell by 500. Of course that is the case, because 2,700 senior ranks were stripped out. Any further pressure for efficiency savings will result in fewer officers.

Much of the restructuring that happened in the 1990s was a direct consequence of giving greater freedom to chief constables to manage their resources. The Minister could not tell us whether he agreed with that. Chief constables were enabled to do what was best for their force and their local needs. The Government have triggered off a frantic scramble to meet the straitjacket imposed by the requirement for 2 per cent. efficiency savings year on year, regardless of circumstances. The scope for saving varies from force to force, yet all must meet the same 2 per cent. target regardless.

How will delivery of the 2 per cent. efficiency savings be judged? If it is not manpower-related, how else? Some 80 per cent. of police funding is spent on staff costs, most of which funds police activity. With very few exceptions, the police are unable to measure policing activity. How will years two and three be measured? How will the financial sanctions threatened by the Home Secretary work? They will be a double blow for already hard-pressed local communities, whose police force will be penalised. Given how much police spending goes on paying officers, is it any wonder that staff associations are questioning the Government's intentions on pay? Rumours are rife throughout the police service that the Government are set to renege on the pay formula that has lasted for 20 years. Will the Minister take the opportunity of this debate to give them some reassurance and deny the rumour?

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Memories of the collapse of police morale under the Labour Governments of the late 1960s and 1970s have been rekindled by the Government's obvious lack of commitment to the police service.

Mr. Boateng: Get real.

Mr. Greenway: The Minister should go and talk to the police service. I did so yesterday and was told--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The Minister should not speak from a sedentary position.

Mr. Greenway: Summing up the feelings of the police service, a serving officer told me that morale was at rock bottom and spiralling downwards. The House should take seriously the real danger of a demoralised police force. The only gainers from that will be the criminals, while the general public will be the losers--the people who were taken in by the language of the Prime Minister when he was shadow Home Secretary. They are beginning to see that "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was a slogan for opposition, but not a policy for government.

Being tough on crime under Labour means releasing prisoners early to reoffend within 24 hours. We have warned for 18 months that that would happen. The Minister shakes his head, but it is happening. A prisoner released under tagging has reoffended within 24 hours. It is clear that he should never have been released.

What about being tough on the causes of crime? The settlement shows that that has turned into being tough on the people who fight crime. The Government's comprehensive spending review, which lies behind the settlement, has resulted in a comprehensive betrayal of the police. By voting against the motion, we shall be urging the Government to think again.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield reminded us, four years ago, when the Home Secretary was the shadow Home Secretary, he sought to justify voting against the police grant settlement because he said that some police forces would have to cut numbers. That year the Government gave an increase in grant of nearly £295 million--50 per cent. more than the current Government say is acceptable. The Home Secretary's words should haunt him when we vote against the settlement. We shall do so, not just to register the deep-seated concerns of the police service, but because we believe that the people of this country do not want the police service to be cut to the bone.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the former Prime Minister, said just two afternoons ago that the Prime Minister was a prisoner of the mob mentality. The public have yet to realise the damage that the Government are doing to our police service. When they do, they will hold the Prime Minister responsible. Perhaps then Ministers may come to the House to announce a better settlement for our police.

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