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Mr. Chope: Can the Minister explain why he is able to assert that some medical retirements are unnecessary?

Mr. Clarke: As I tried to explain earlier, I have discussed the issues with a range of forces and individuals, and have concluded that some of the arrangements--I only say "some"--may not be operated with the fullest rigour in certain areas of the public service. I simply say that; the hon. Gentleman probably understands what I mean.

I also received representations about the costs of security from a number of forces whose members were concerned about the costs of specific matters in their police authority areas. Representations were made to me by, for instance, the Gloucestershire and Norfolk forces. I considered them to be fair and well made, and we will examine the position.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. He will not be surprised by my intervening at this point. Does he accept that the problem is not just the overall sum--my chief constable in Gloucestershire says that the allocation there is down on that of the previous year--but the fact that it leads to perceptible difficulties when local communities allege that they are losing out because of the amount that must go into the security budget?

Mr. Clarke: I agree that this is a question of perception. When the delegation in which my hon. Friend participated discussed the matter with me, we talked about the various homes in Gloucestershire of members of the royal family, and I was reminded of similar issues relating to royal family homes in Norfolk. I find that people welcome the idea that members of the royal family are living in the community, but we must try to deal with questions of perception such as this.

The amending report laid before the House corrects the effect of an error that has come to light in the distribution of grant as set out in the 1998-99 report. The distribution of grant under the pensions component of the funding formula is based on projections of expenditure on police pensions by the Government Actuary's Department. Unfortunately, data relating to Derbyshire police was processed incorrectly. The Derbyshire police authority expressed concern about the data at the time, but, despite investigations by the Government Actuary's Department and the Home Office, it was only some time later that the processing error was identified.

The amending report rectifies the error by allocating a further £800,000 to Derbyshire and clawing that sum back from the other authorities. We consulted chief constables and police authorities on the amending report. No representations were received.

The Government are determined to do all they can to reduce crime and the fear of crime. We also want to see more police officers back on the beat. We have a series of measures to address those policy goals. Those measures

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and the additional resources that are being provided will help the police to play their key part in tackling crime and disorder, in conjunction with other authorities.

Our aim is to make people feel safer and to ensure that the chance of their becoming a victim of crime is reduced. We have started work on that aim. The funding settlement for the police that has been announced today, along with the other initiatives that are being put in place by the Home Secretary, are providing the police in England and Wales with extra resources to carry out their excellent work in tackling crime and disorder. We are providing a well resourced, well equipped police service, and I commend the reports to the House.

2.10 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Again, I thank the Minister for his kind words of welcome and I echo his tribute to the professionalism and hard work of the men and women of the police service. Their dedication and commitment mean that they do an invaluable job for our communities throughout the land, in rural and urban areas alike.

I was amused when the Minister talked about the amending report following the error on Derbyshire police pensions. I wondered whether it was another example of problems with the Home Office fax machine. Was it another example of a document going AWOL between the Government Actuary and the Minister's office?

We should not just do what the Minister has just done--talk about serious issues, discussions and meeting people, making the points that Ministers always make--but should look at the background to the debate. A year ago, the position was different: with the Government's having come into office saying how tough they would be on crime, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), said at the Dispatch Box that it was "sterile and simplistic" to talk about police numbers. He told us that there was no link between detection of crime and police numbers.

A year later, the job of the police has become even more difficult; the number of police officers in England and Wales has gone down yet again--it is 1,000 below the number at the general election--more experienced officers have been leaving the force; it is more and more difficult to attract high-calibre recruits; and the police feel that they have been misled over the 5,000 new officers.

The Home Secretary offered the police the enticing prospect of new officers and reinforcements to fight the battle against crime, but his speech was torn up before the ink was dry on it. The fact is that those are not new officers. Morale in the police service is crumbling, and one can understand why. For six years, crime was falling--and particularly violent crime, which is precisely the sort of crime about which people, and in particular elderly people, worry. Now, violent crime is up by 6.3 per cent., and robberies--one of the most worrying forms of crime--are up by 19 per cent. It was all so predictable: it is common sense.

Mr. Greenway: We predicted it.

Mr. Heald: We did indeed. My hon. Friend, who did such a noble job in the shadow Home Office team before

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moving to the world of sport, is assisting me today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said that it was nonsense to pretend that police numbers did not make a difference.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said that what was important was not just the size of the police force but efficiency in every area. No one would disagree that efficiency is important, but more efficient officers means more crimes detected.

Ms Keeble: On the overall crime figures, I understand that, although there have been substantial increases in places such as the Metropolitan police area and some other big cities, in other areas---for example, Northampton--the trends have been different. The graphs are there; the hon. Gentleman is welcome to examine them. Does he not agree that, if we are to beat crime, which is what the public want--they do not want semantics--we will have to understand what is happening and then address the situation? That is exactly what the Government's targeted approach is intended to do. It has shown results.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Lady not accept that it is obvious what will happen? If we increase the number of bobbies on the beat, crime will fall. More crime will be detected and the police service will be more effective. To give an example, over the Conservative years, 15,000 more police were employed. In the previous Parliament--1992 to 1997--which is often cited by Labour Members as a period when police numbers fell, the number of bobbies on the beat increased by 2,200. What happened to crime? It fell, year after year after year.

The present Government came into office talking about being tough on crime, but they have not delivered because the number of front-line beat officers has fallen by 900 since they came into office. What has happened? We have had a 19 per cent. increase in robberies, and violent crime is up. It is time for a common-sense revolution.

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to agree with that, but I am grateful to him for giving way. Of course, if we had extra, more efficient people, extra work would be done. That goes without saying, but does he not accept that, if we did that, we would also have to put up taxes, which his party opposes? My constituents want a fine balance between the tax burden and effective, efficient public services. Does he not accept that the Government's proposed plans balance the two, look at effective ways in which to target the type of crime that hurts people most and address those needs?

Mr. Heald: Should not the hon. Lady--I ask her rhetorically--direct her question to Ministers? The Opposition are saying that they would find the resources to build the number of police officers back up to the level at which it stood when we left office. That is not something that the Government are saying. That is our guarantee of security to the public.

Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady has had two goes. I think I will move on.

Police morale is at an all-time low. A recent survey showed that 70 per cent. of officers would leave the service if they could find a job with the same pay. Why

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is that? It is because crime is rising again, criminals are being let out early to reoffend and police numbers have been slashed. That is the background against which we debate the settlement for the coming year.

The Minister mentioned the crime fighting fund. It is right that, in year one, £35 million is available, but the hon. Gentleman has already had bids for £96 million for the first year from hard-pressed police authorities throughout the country. They are asking for double the number of officers that he is prepared to provide in the first year. For the three years as a whole, 8,200 officers have been requested, against a maximum of 5,000.

The Government have to ask themselves this: is it not time to move from the talk phase to the delivery phase? Although it is easy to make the odd joke in these debates--as we have--the fact is that policing is a very serious matter for the public; the fear of crime is one of the most important issues for people throughout the country. It is a tragedy that what was a falling crime rate has been reversed so soon after the general election.


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