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6.4 pm

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): When I returned to the House following the summer recess, one of the first things I noticed was the splendid new green annunciator

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screens that now hang half way across the Chamber on each side. I wondered what they were for, but now I know: they are large enough to cope with the titles of Opposition day motions. The subject of the debate was rather more succinctly expressed by Madam Speaker, who simply introduced it as "general Home Office matters".

I realised that the Tories could not describe the subject in those words because if they said that the debate was about general Home Office matters, that would put the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), in a difficult position. Because of the actions of the Leader of the Opposition, she is not allowed to speak on all Home Office matters. Now I understand why our debates have such long titles, and why we need such large screens.

I intend to speak only about police numbers, but first I must say briefly what a delight it is to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle). I worked for a short time for a Member of the previous Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman was an immigration Minister. He was an extremely effective and good one, and we always thought that he was fair. All Members should take seriously the comments that he makes on such matters in the House--I am sure that they will.

I want to speak about police numbers because I am one of the two Members--the other is a Liberal Democrat Member, whose constituency escapes me for the moment--who chaired police authorities before we entered the House.

Mr. Allan: Somerton and Frome.

Mr. Cawsey: Yes, I meant the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

I chaired the Humberside police authority from 1993 to 1997, which was a key time in the history of police authorities. When I first became the chair, our authority was an integral part of local government. Then came the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, and I was chair for the transitional period. The authority finally brokeinto full independence as the 1997 general election approached.

Listening to some of the comments in the debate, it strikes me that although police authorities, local authorities and police services are well aware of the effect of the changes, and their impact on powers and responsibilities, despite the fact that the Act originated from this building the House seems full of Members who have no understanding, or little understanding, of what has changed. Perhaps they do not want to understand.

I was not always a complete and utter fan of the 1994 Act when it was first drafted, but, due to many efforts in this House and in the other place, it turned out to be a fairly good and robust piece of legislation. For many years before it was enacted, I, and many other chairs of police authorities, had argued strongly that we wanted greater independence for police authorities and chief constables to decide establishments and police numbers for themselves, taking into account what they believed were the priorities for their areas, and the other things that they could spend money on, such as greater civilianisation, more training or more equipment. We were therefore pleased when the Act was passed. However, it had a knock-on effect, in that the ability of any Home Secretary--it does not matter any more of what political colour--to predict police numbers

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is now not simply limited, but non-existent. Home Secretaries no longer have that power. It would be much better if we at least started from that point, and accepted that fact.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who now speaks for the Liberals on such matters, said that he did not think that the Home Secretary could have it both ways, by saying that he was not responsible when police authorities employed fewer officers, but that he was responsible when numbers went up. On the contrary, not only can my right hon. Friend have it both ways, that is the only way to explain the present position. He has no control over decisions that police authorities and chief constables make about their own establishments. If he wants to increase police numbers, all that he can do is to ring fence a sum of money and say, "I am willing to give you this money only if you spend it for that purpose." Whether we think that that is a good or a bad thing, that is the reality; that is the law.

I believe that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said that he hoped that we were not going to go back to the time when establishments were all centralised and decided in Westminster and Whitehall. That would be a retrograde step. For instance, in Humberside during my chairmanship we decided to buy a police helicopter. We covered a large rural area as well as the cities of Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby, and a helicopter would, in our opinion, be a good way of fighting crime and giving us fast access, especially to the rural parts of the county, in all kinds of circumstances. The helicopter has proved a great success, but let us not kid ourselves--it is extremely expensive to buy and run, and the money that we spend on it has had an impact on the number of officers that we can recruit.

We acquired the helicopter as part of a deal offered by the previous Government, whereby half the cost would be paid if we made an application. That was a generous offer--we took it and we got our helicopter. However, by doing that and following the policies of the Government of the day, there was an impact on the number of officers that we could recruit.

The idea that somehow the Home Secretary can be personally responsible for all such decisions is not credible, and it is not true. Furthermore, that would not even be desirable. Having funded the police authorities, we should allow them and their chief constables to write their own policing plans, set their priorities and decide for themselves how many officers, how many civilians, what equipment and what training would be right for their areas.

Conservative Members have claimed that when they were in power there were more constables. That is true, because within the freedom and flexibility that police authorities now have they have taken a decision to push down the rank structure. There are now many fewer superintendents and more constables. That is right and proper, because more constables can perform more active duties on the beat.

Civilianisation has also had an impact. Scenes of crime officers used to have to be police officers, but there is no reason why that should be the case, and many forces now have civilian scenes of crime officers and many other jobs have passed to civilians. In the end, whether the Government keep their promises of more officers on the

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beat cannot be judged only by how many police officers there are--the issue is the rank of those officers, what they do and what infrastructure is provided around them.

Special officers have been mentioned, and it is right to say that they make a tremendous addition to the resources of a local police force. However, I urge caution in judging how well a force is doing on the bare numbers. Specials are volunteers and they work the hours that they wish to work. In other words, a small number of special constables may make a bigger contribution to a police force because they are able to put in more hours. Therefore, I warn the House against some of the simplistic judgments that we have heard today.

The shadow Home Secretary spoke about reversing the decline and said that however many police officers were left, she would return the numbers to what they were when we came to power. I have mentioned the impotence of Home Secretaries under the legislation, so that promise is not deliverable. Even if the Home Secretary wanted to increase recruitment by a certain amount, he has no control over the decisions that police authorities and chief constables make about replacing officers who leave. Unless that power is re-centralised, the promise is unachievable. It may be that the shadow Home Secretary intended to announce by the back door that she would re-centralise that power, but I hope not because that would be a retrograde step.

Across the country, local authorities are dealing with community safety and crime reduction with great success on the back of the Morgan report, which was provided for the previous Government but never implemented. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 means that the report is being implemented and partnerships are being formed between the police, local authorities, the business sector and the voluntary sector. That is making a big difference. We need to have proper debates about how to achieve community safety and crime reduction--the real issues--instead of point scoring.

I have had the great honour of working with hundreds of police officers with Humberside police, and the one thing that really cheeses off police officers is debates like this, in which their work is undervalued and we do not consider what should be done to support them. The solution is not as simple as the numbers: it involves money, resources, priorities--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

6.14 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): As always in Home Office debates, I declare an interest as an acting recorder of the Crown court, a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and a founder and first chairman of the Immigration Advisory Service. I wish to address the issue of asylum and immigration, and in doing so it is important to use language that is not emotive. I shall try to be constructive and courteous while, at the same time, trying to identify the problem that faces the country and the Government.

The newspapers today contained reports of record numbers of people seeking asylum in this country. Total asylum seeker numbers for 1999 have already exceeded applications for the whole of the previous year. It is anticipated that by the end of this year there may be 70,000 applications for asylum, plus dependants. August and September both had record numbers--more

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than 7,000--of applications. That creates a tremendous strain on the adjudication and courts service which has to hear the applications.

The Home Office faces a crisis in the backlog of asylum and immigration cases that still await decision. In March, the backlog stood at 125,000; by June, it had risen to 140,000--today, it is just over 150,000, and by the end of the year, on present trends, it will reach more than 160,000. That is a huge burden on the Home Office and the resources of this country.


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