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Mr. Straw: That point was raised also by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The average wastage in the past three years has been about 17,000, excluding transfers between forces. Our estimate--it is only an estimate, but it has been independently verified--is that the police were planning to recruit 15,000 additional officers before taking any account of the additional new money that we are providing next year and

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for the two years thereafter. Adding the 5,000 to the 15,000 gives 20,000 recruits, if the original baseline estimate of 15,000 is correct over three years.

If wastage rates stay as they are--and, for the reasons I have explained, no one can be certain of that--there should be a higher number of police officers in post in total at the end of the period of three years than there are at the moment. That is not only my wish, but my hope and my expectation. That is what I want to achieve.

We said in our manifesto that we wanted an increase in the number of officers released for operational duties, and that is what we are achieving--not least by major efficiency improvements within the police, including the Narey changes which are transforming the way in which the courts operate and the efficiency and speed with which the police can get people into court.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has come to this House to criticise our spending on the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) asked how she squared that with statements made by the shadow Chancellor--and repeated by the Leader of the Opposition--on spending which, even before we announced the £34 million on DNA, the £50 million on the police radio and the £35 million on new recruits, they had damned as reckless.

We listened as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald sought to evade the answer--not once, not twice, but three times. We were left with a pledge about what the Conservatives might spend if and when they finally came back to power. However, the question was not whether spending at some distant point in the future was reckless. The criticism made by the shadow Chancellor was of our spending now of £1.24 billion on the police.

Miss Widdecombe: We were talking about welfare spending.

Mr. Straw: I heard the shadow Chancellor at the time and he did not say that; he was talking about all our spending. The right hon. Lady is proposing substantial increases in spending. Where is she expecting to make cuts? Would she cut the 50 per cent. increase in funding for victim support? Would she cut the £150 million extra that we are spending on closed circuit television? Would she cut our £60 million on burglary prevention or the money that we are investing to help protect the most vulnerable pensioners? Is she intending to cut numbers in prisons? We know for certain that she is not intending to cut the asylum budget, because an amendment for which the Conservatives voted in another place would increase the asylum budget by £500 million in a year.

Miss Widdecombe: Is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is asking me--he has not yet shed the habits of Opposition--how I would spend enough money to have the same number of police officers as we left him an admission that he intends to cut those numbers?

Mr. Straw: Time and again, we have put to the right hon. Lady the inconsistency between what she is saying and what the shadow Chancellor is saying and, time and again, she has refused to answer. I have already answered

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a question about my expectation on police numbers from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

There is a reason why no one can predict with absolute certainty the overall number of police officers in three years: the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. That Act, which we voted against and the Conservatives voted for, was not a Conservative oversight. It was a key part of the programme of a Government of whom the right hon. Lady was a member. It removed the legal power of Ministers to set police force establishments. Bringing forward the measures, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), said:

That ever wonderful source of embarrassing quotations that the Conservative party wishes to forget, the campaign guide--this one is for 1994--says that the Act would remove

    "perverse incentives to recruit police officers instead of civilians".

It is partly for that reason--the right hon. Lady is looking round as though she had not spotted the Act--that police numbers fell when the previous Administration said that they were going to rise. There was no mechanism to deliver her promise. That is why her promises to restore levels to a certain figure are worth as much as her statements as a Minister.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The House will note the extraordinarily complacent statement in the Government's amendment to today's motion, applauding the Government

Will the Home Secretary tell the House and my constituents categorically--not expressing a hope, as he did when answering the question of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--from his consultation with chief constables, when the number of police officers is going to rise, when the asylum situation is going to stabilise, when the backlog of immigration and Nationality Directorate cases in my constituency is going to be sorted out and when the shambles in the Passport Agency is going to be sorted out? When those problems have been solved, he may be applauded for his achievements.

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman bears with me he will hear the answers to two of his three questions. I have already answered his question about police numbers. We are putting in new money that the previous Government never provided. We are also setting up a mechanism for the delivery of those numbers. However, without a change to the 1994 Act, which the hon. Gentleman supported, we cannot guarantee police numbers in three years. I have given the House the full figures on our best estimates so far and I have also said that I hope and expect that after those three years, numbers will be above the level when we came to office.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): In many previous debates on this subject, the Home Secretary has cited the Police and Magistrates' Court Act and said that he has no power to dictate numbers. That is a safer line

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than the one that he took at the conference; perhaps he should have stuck to it. Will he now tell us whether he intends to amend that Act, and if not, whether he agrees that establishments should be set locally? Is he not concerned that as only three years' funding is given at a time, and police officers' careers are much longer than that, many chief constables will not recruit extra officers when they get the extra money?

Mr. Straw: We have introduced longer horizons for public spending than the previous Administration did--but with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have to tell him that no Government could sign up to the proposition that they should give firm levels of funding for more than three years at a time. As for his other points, it is precisely because the 1994 Act removed the Home Secretary's power to set establishment levels that we have established separately, under the Appropriation Acts, a system for ring-fencing the additional money. What I said at the Labour party conference was exactly accurate: that money will be used for new police recruits. We shall also have detailed discussions with chief constables, and do a lot of work with them, to ensure that the additional money is used for additional new recruits whom they would not otherwise have employed.

Mr. Geraint Davies: How does my right hon. Friend think that the Opposition's pledge to increase numbers squares with their "commonsense revolution", which commits them to reducing taxation year after year, and must therefore mean privatisation or cuts?

Mr. Straw: The reason why the Conservative party, for all its bluster, remains mired in opposition with far less support than any Opposition since the war, is the incoherence of its position. The Conservatives do not only say one thing and do another; they say one thing, say another, and then say a third thing. People outside listen to what they say, and know that there is no coherence behind their approach.

Mr. Maclean rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall make some progress, and then I shall give way.

As she asserted a few minutes ago, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald piloted the Asylum and Immigration Act through the House in 1996. Its effect, despite the words that she used at the time, was to cause chaos and confusion.

In case hon. Members have forgotten, or did not hear it, I remind the House of what David Mellor said on 29 August about the Conservatives' asylum record:

Looking back on the Tory years, it is difficult to select the most incompetent public policy decision, because there are so many to choose from. We saw "The Major Years" last night, and it offered a cornucopia of incompetence which defies belief, and sometimes memory. None the less, I ask my hon. Friends to try to choose the single most incompetent set of policies. There was the poll tax, the Child Support Agency and, sadly, the privatisation of the railways--[Interruption.]

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The Conservatives do not think that the privatisation of the railways, and the way in which it was done, have been a disaster. No wonder they lost office and will stay out of office; they do not understand.

Let me explain why the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is down among the worst of those policies, with the poll tax and the Child Support Agency. It had as its centrepiece the plan that those who claimed asylum in the United Kingdom--at Dover, Heathrow, or any of our other ports and airports--would continue to be entitled to claim social security cash benefits, whereas the other half of asylum seekers, who applied in-country, would receive nothing.

We asked at the time what would happen to those people and where they would go, who would be responsible for them, and who would pick up the tab. We kept asking those questions, but we never got a proper answer. The answer, as the constituents of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, and the people of Kent and many London boroughs know to their cost, was that the overwhelming burden of supporting those in-country applicants was transferred to the people and councils of London and Kent. They had not voted for it, nor had they asked for it. It was a present from the Conservative Government.

Like so much else under the previous Administration, the burden was not imposed as a consequence of any clearly thought-out policy but in the absence of one. The simple truth is that we were left, as David Mellor so generously admitted, with an asylum system in disarray. It is racked with delays, encourages abuse and evasion, and fails the taxpayer and the genuine refugee alike.

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