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Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): On the subject of police expenditure, I am curious to know whether the right hon. Lady agrees with the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who criticised the Government's spending plans for policing--and everything else--as "reckless". Does the right hon. Lady agree with that assessment?

Miss Widdecombe: We have said consistently--as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham(Mr. Maude), the shadow Chancellor--that it is somewhat surprising that the Government should trumpet a 3 per cent. increase in police funding while demanding efficiency savings of 2 per cent., which means that some police forces are managing on a funding increase of less than 0.5 per cent.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): We cannot have evasion on an issue that is absolutely central to the Opposition's credibility. Will the right hon. Lady now answer the question? The shadow Chancellor has criticised the Government's spending increases, including our £1.24 billion increase, as "reckless". Does the right hon. Lady share that view?

Miss Widdecombe: I will answer that question directly. However, I observe in passing that for the Home Secretary to accuse anyone on either side of the House of evasion is somewhat rich--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] I shall come to the point that the Home Secretary raised. He asked about the shadow Chancellor's attitude to police spending. My right hon. Friend has promised me that, when we return to Government, we will reverse the decline in police numbers. We will do that without smoke and mirrors, without blaming officials and without hiding behind chief constables. We will reverse the decline--that pledge from the future Chancellor of the Exchequer is absolutely specific. [Interruption.] I understand the agitation that is apparent on the Government Benches: it stems from embarrassment. They are the Government who came to office promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. They have delivered that

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promise by reducing police numbers by more than 1,000 since 1997. The Home Secretary is not tough on crime; he is tough on the fighters of crime.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The right hon. Lady has made what may or may not be an important statement. Can she give a clear answer to this question: if she has authority to say that the Tories would reverse the decline in police numbers were they returned to office, what number of police are they committed to and what figure has the shadow Chancellor committed to pay for them?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman says that my statement might or might not be important--how typical of the Liberals. Let us assume that it is important and I shall answer him directly: the commitment is that whatever overall number of police--no recruits, no this and that--remain to us when the Government leave office, we will make that up to the number that there were when we left office. That could hardly be clearer.

Returning to the radio project, I was asking the Home Secretary for his estimate of the cost. He tried to distract me from that point, but I will not be distracted. Is the project compulsory? How much will he give police forces? [Interruption.] We are back on the radio project; the right hon. Gentleman did not hear. Will he give police forces the sum of the cost? If not, does he accept that making up the shortfall must have an impact on recruitment? When I asked him the other day why he had not answered some of my questions, he said that I asked them too quickly. I do not intend to weary the House by repeating them, but I shall give them to him in writing during the succeeding debate so that he may be in no doubt at all about what I have asked him and so that we might get proper answers.

Before dealing with the other issues that we want to discuss, I have to comment on an aspect of policing that has caused widespread concern throughout the country and across the political spectrum: the scenes that we witnessed of policing during the visit of the President of China. The last time we witnessed such scenes was 1978, when Ceausescu visited this country. I have not seen such scenes since and, according to my research, there have not been any.

Were any suggestions--I shall not even call them instructions--made, either by the Home Office or the Foreign Office, in respect of keeping the Tibetan flag out of the sight of the Chinese President, or any other matters relating to the policing of demonstrations during the President's visit? As we have joined-up government, I am sure that the Home Secretary can answer. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) tabled such questions for answer yesterday. He received a denial from the right hon. Gentleman that his Department was involved in contacts with the police, but when I walked into the Chamber we had yet to receive any answer from the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend. This morning, the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that he could not say whether his Department's officials had been involved, but he was kind enough to tell us that it was his view that there had been contacts between Foreign Office officials, Chinese embassy staff and the Metropolitan police. Is not

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it rather curious that the Department for which he is responsible should not have had any involvement, although the Foreign Office did?

Miss Widdecombe: "Curious" is just too kind a word.

What we need from the right hon. Gentleman is a clear, unequivocal statement on whether the Government were involved in suggesting the nature of the policing which shocked the nation during the Chinese President's visit. I attach no blame whatever to the police, who have told me that many of their officers felt resentment at being required to police a demonstration in that way. Ordinary police officers are decent people, who want to uphold democracy and spend their time fighting crime, not suppressing peaceful demonstrations.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The Home Secretary may be able to help us even more than we have just been given to understand. Does my right hon. Friend recall a statement in The Sunday Times, in which a senior member of the Metropolitan police was quoted as saying:


Can my right hon. Friend see any reason why the Home Secretary should not put this matter to rest now by publishing the minutes of those meetings?

Miss Widdecombe: I am happy to second the call for the Home Secretary to do so.

Several hon. Members rose--

Miss Widdecombe: No, I should like to make some progress. I understand that Madam Speaker wants Back Benchers to have due time to speak in this debate.

I now come to the asylum issue. In this area, probably more than in any other, the Home Secretary is directly responsible for the shambles that has resulted. When he is challenged, he makes two excuses: first, that he inherited a deepening problem from us; and secondly, that it is all to do with international upheavals. On inheriting the problem from us, let us ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees with the Government's figures--that in 1995 there were 43,965 asylum applications, and in 1996 there were 29,640. That fall was due to our asylum and immigration legislation and the fact that we were willing to take tough measures, on which he accused us of playing the race card--a shameful accusation. Does he now agree that, according to his own figures, he inherited a falling number of asylum applications?

What did the Home Secretary do then? I pay tribute to him for being consistent. Before he took office, he said that when Labour came to power it would abolish the list of safe countries of origin, and it did. That list enabled us to fast track unfounded asylum applications. He said that he would not implement our measures against illegal working, and he kept that up for two years before admitting, very quietly, that he was wrong.

Mr. Straw: The white list has not yet been replaced, but it will be replaced by a more effective procedure under the Asylum and Immigration Bill. Meanwhile, the list has

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remained in place. If the right hon. Lady now objects to our replacing it, why was it that, in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House on proceedings of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, no Opposition Member spoke against our proposal to remove the white list--still less moved an amendment or voted against it?

Miss Widdecombe: More smoke and more mirrors. The position is straightforward. We introduced and put into statute what the Home Secretary misnames "the white list"--we never called it that. It was a list of safe countries of origin. He said that he would not implement it, and he made that statement not only in opposition but as soon as he came to office, thereby sending out a clear signal that he would not operate the list of safe countries of origin. That sent a signal to people coming from those countries that their applications would not be fast tracked and that they could once again play the system. It is as simple as that. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand that, it perhaps explains why the asylum system has been in such an unholy mess.

At the same time as the Home Secretary announced that he would not implement measures against illegal working and the list of safe countries of origin, he reversed several high profile deportation decisions that we had taken, proclaimed an amnesty for 20,000 applicants and removed the primary purpose rule elsewhere in the immigration system. The sum of those actions was to send out a clear message to the rest of the world that Britain was once again a soft touch on asylum. The right hon. Gentleman then turned round and tried to blame the record rises that he inflicted on this country on an Administration that had actually brought about a fall. Why cannot he admit responsibility, or will he now tell us that officials were to blame?


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