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5.4 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We as a party and I personally welcome this debate on home affairs early after the summer recess. I welcome the opportunity that has been given us by the Conservative Opposition to take stock on the eve of the two-and-a-half year anniversary of Labour's taking over the Administration. My hon. Friends and I have tabled an amendment.

Whatever debates we may have, and we shall have many about police numbers, immigration and asylum, prisons and the rest, we have sought to flag up in our amendment the fact that the Home Secretary as custodian of these matters and the Government of whom he is a member have one overriding duty, which is to balance the obligation to sustain a society of good law and order with the defence and support at all stages of the liberties of the individual. Whether one is talking about prisoners or asylum seekers, the civil liberties of all people on these shores are important. My first point relates to this; it is not included specifically in the motion, but the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) alluded to it.

Last week, in the view of many hon. Members and many of our constituents, the way in which the perfectly proper law and order duty of the police was fulfilled in relation to the state visit of the President of China trespassed on the wrong side of the line of defending people's civil liberties--wherever the instructions came from, if there were any, and wherever the discussions took place, because we know that there were some. It is wholly understandable and acceptable that people should be prevented from scaling barriers, running in front of state

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carriages and so on. However, it is not acceptable that people should not be allowed to stand, to shout and hold flags along the route of, and in sight of, a visiting Head of State.

It is not the job of the Home Office, nor of any police officer, to spare the Labour Government or other Governments embarrassment. It is their job to ensure that law and order are protected, but that people of all views can express their views. It was sad for many of us, who remember with vivid accuracy those horrible pictures of the events in Tiananmen square, that there are now on file pictures showing what looks like a repression of civil liberties in this country, which is meant to be the mother of democracies.

Whatever I do as the successor to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in the post of Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs, I shall, above all, try to ensure that the civil liberties of all our peoples are upheld, and shall hold the Government to account in that regard.

The Tory Government were not a model Administration in their tenure of the Home Office. Under the Tories, police numbers were not a great success. Asylum and immigration policy was not one of their golden successes. Accountability for the Prison Service was not a glorious moment in the career of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The Tories did not flag up as one of their great triumphs their record of compliance with the European convention on human rights. Given the number of Tory failings, there is something unlikely in the attack being made today from their Benches.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): That is a bit of an understatement.

Mr. Hughes: I am trying to be gentle at the beginning of my remarks.

One of the biggest failings related to the subject on which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald chose to attack the Government first--police numbers. In 1992, it was neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour who said that there would be 1,000 more police officers, yet, in the following year, there were fewer officers. In 1995, it was neither our party nor the Labour party, which pledged--in the words of the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)--5,000 more police officers, yet by the end of the Tory Administration, there were fewer officers.

The truth is that, during the Tory Administration of 1992 to 1997, as the promises went up, police numbers went down. [Interruption.] The Conservatives deny that, but it is a fact--[Hon. Members: "It is not."] Whatever figures one takes between 1992 and 1997, although there are disputes as to the figures--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Happily, today, some figures were produced for the Select Committee, although they go back only three years. Under the most common figures, between 1992 and 1997, neither pledge--of 5,000 or of 1,000 more officers--was fulfilled. At most, there were about 100 more officers. That was not what the electorate were told; the Tory party did not deliver.

Miss Widdecombe: According to those figures, is it not true that we left 16,000 more police officers than we inherited, and, that during the last five years of our

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Government, the number of constables--actual policemen on the beat--rose by more than 2,000? Will the hon. Gentleman admit that?

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. Lady is right to say that, when the Tories left office in 1997, the number of police officers in England and Wales was considerably higher than when they took office in 1979; they had had 18 years in office, so we should hope that the numbers were up. It is also true that, at the end of that period, there was an increase in the number of constables, for which people had argued. I am trying to make the point that, if the right hon. Lady sets out to attack the Labour Government for failing to honour their promises--which I too am perfectly happy to do--she should remember that her Government also failed to honour their promises on police numbers.

I remember the 1997 debate in this place when the then Government spokesman, who is now First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, complained that, while capital investment and council tax had increased, police numbers had decreased. Within a week or two, the Labour party had promised in its manifesto to provide more officers on the beat. I recall that the theme music for the Labour election campaign was "Things can only get better". Yet we are having this debate today because, disappointingly, many things in the Home Office appear to have got worse.

The past two and a half years of Labour Government have not been an unmitigated success. The Home Secretary pleaded guilty to things not always going as he expected, but even he could not have predicted the catalogue of mistakes and/or disasters that that two and a half years have brought. Resources may have been won for the police, but there are no extra officers on the beat. I do not recall the Home Office's management of the evidence before the Lawrence inquiry as being a particularly golden moment, and it is a tragedy that the matter was not handled better.

According to Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, prison conditions are not improving generally and prison overcrowding is not lessening. Asylum and immigration applications--and I deal with as many as any other hon. Member--are being dealt with less and less effectively despite the good work of many civil servants. People seeking passport applications had a summer to remember and, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald pointed out, legislation on terrorism had to be amended, and the prosecution processes for spies are clearly not working.

I have one comment for the Home Secretary about the events of the past month. We could take issue with the words that he used to describe the number of newpolice recruits and with the misinformation--or misapprehension--in his conference speech that was not corrected. The Home Secretary said at the end of September that there would be a baseline figure of 11,000 recruits. He then revealed last Thursday in an answer to me that that 11,000 baseline figure was subject to revision and announced this morning that it will be 15,000. That suggests, if not malice or ill will, at least an inadequate degree of competence--which is not what the public expect of the Home Office.

I am the chairman of governors at a primary school in my constituency where five, six and seven-year-old pupils must attend numeracy hours. I think we should send the

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Secretary of State for Education and Employment down the road to the Home Office; perhaps Treasury officers should also attend in order to help add up the figures. The Government's record on statistics is not a proud one.

I have some specific questions for the Home Secretary about his speech and what he said this morning on police numbers and funding. I am grateful for the Home Secretary's answer to me about police numbers. I understand what happened under the 1994 legislation: it is not for him to determine the number of officers in each force. The right hon. Gentleman has said for the past five years--and certainly for the past two and a half years while in government--that it is not the Government's responsibility when police numbers decline. So his announcement at the Labour party conference of an increase in police numbers was a bit rich. The Home Secretary cannot have it both ways: either he can acquire more money, ring-fence it and provide more police recruits--or he cannot. I understand the difference. However, refusing to take responsibility when police numbers decline and then claiming the glory when they increase is not consistent politics.

The Home Secretary did not answer my specific question to which the public require an answer. I asked whether there will be more police officers at the end of this Administration than at its beginning. Is that the Government's objective and commitment? Is that their pledge? The Home Secretary said that, over the next three years, he expects and hopes that police numbers will not decrease. I repeat: will there be more or fewer police officers at the end of this Labour Administration? That is a simple question to which I hope we will receive a simple answer--the Minister may reply in his winding-up speech.

My second question is important. Even though I was not previously doing this job for our party, I listened to the debates, which often concerned not police officers in general, but constables. The public do not want to discuss senior or administrative officers, but they often ask, "Will there be more officers on the beat?" That was the Labour manifesto pledge, so will there be more constables at the end of this Administration's term of office than there were at the beginning?

My third question is about money. In his Bournemouth speech, the Home Secretary made the announcement, which I welcome, that there would be extra money--a crime reduction fund--and a kick-start cash injection for it of £35 million. How much will that fund receive in total over the next three years? If it costs £25,000 to recruit a police officer--it does, according to a parliamentary answer from the right hon. Gentleman to one of my colleagues last year--by our calculation £35 million for each of the three years will not buy 5,000 extra recruits. The figures do not add up.

If the Home Secretary says that that is correct, that will be helpful, but in that case the figures will not make sense to us, unless all the crime reduction fund is to be ring-fenced for recruits and will increase in future years in real terms to pay for the extra 5,000 recruits. Perhaps the Minister will give us the answer. If there are to be the 5,000 extra recruits for which forces around the country have asked, which is the plan of the Government, and if

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those forces are to be given £35 million in the first year, they will need considerably more in the following two years.

The crime reduction fund was not signalled as being entirely dedicated to extra recruits, and in his Bournemouth speech the Home Secretary specifically referred to the other claims to be made on it. One was the DNA database, price tag £34 million; the second was the new police radio station, price tag £50 million. Is it correct, therefore, that there is extra money--the crime-fighting fund--above the comprehensive spending review money and the £400 million made available through the crime reduction programme, not only for police recruitment over three years aiming at 5,000 recruits, but for DNA testing and the new police radio station? It would be helpful to have clarification of that.


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