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Mr. Charles Clarke: On the hon. Gentleman's point about the delivery phase, does he accept that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the extra 5,000 officers in September? We then went to get bids. We have those bids and will announce a decision shortly, which will mean that more people will start to be recruited from 1 April. That will deliver the numbers to which we referred.

Mr. Heald: I shall simply quote what the Police Federation said--[Interruption.] The Minister laughs at the body that represents the interests of police constables across the country--

Mr. Clarke: It is a trade union.

Mr. Heald: The Minister may recall that a Conservative Government introduced the first laws to protect the rights of association. Although we have had our differences about unions over the years, I certainly would not be so disparaging about an important body representing police officers.

In November, the Police Federation said:

In January 2000, in Police Review, the Police Federation went further, stating that it believes that there will another 1,000 fewer officers. In all, that is 2,000 fewer officers. The Minister will not persuade me that that will not make a difference in the fight against crime or that it will help to reverse the trend of crime increasing. As I was saying when he intervened, that is a tragedy.

Police are being asked to accept a Government spending programme that is mean and that leads to cuts in police numbers, withdrawal of specialist services and the closure of police stations--and more of the same is predicted in the year ahead.

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It is wrong to set funding levels that are inadequate to maintain authorities' budgets. Let me give an example relevant to someone close to where I am standing--my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who until last night had responsibility for police matters. In North Yorkshire, the increase will be £2.1 million. However, the force needs £3.9 million simply to pay for pensions. In 1999, North Yorkshire lost 50 officers. This year, there will be no recruitment. Next year, only 15 officers will be recruited. There will therefore be a net loss.

Mr. Drew: I am always intrigued by the pensions issue, which has been known about for a long time. I just wonder why Conservative Members, when in government, did not try to do something about it.

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Gentleman will know, we did do something about it, and the result under the Conservative Government was six years of crime reduction. If he compares that with his own Government's miserable record, he will see that--two years after those Conservative plans ended--we now have a tragic situation in which crime is rising again. The Conservative Government were addressing those issues, whereas the current Government are all talk and no delivery.

Last year, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South predicted that future increases would be "modest". Indeed they are: this year, there is barely a real-terms increase at all. The Association of Police Authorities has said:

whereas authorities need £300 million just to stand still.

The Minister mentioned the new radio system, with which huge costs will be associated. The Association of Police Authorities has said:

Today, all we have received from the Government is an indication that that new money may be considered in the June spending review. There is no promise of any new money. However, Councillor Neil Taggart, the Labour chairman of West Yorkshire police authority, has described the Government's current funding as a mere "drop in the ocean" compared with the costs of the project. Does the Minister agree with the chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, Roger Benn, who said that the costs of the radio scheme would "decimate the force"? Would the costs decimate the force?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I should like to take the hon. Gentleman back to the pensions issue. In the latter years of the previous, Conservative Government, I was the chairman of a police authority and represented police authorities in their negotiations with the then Conservative Government. Year after year, Home Office Ministers assured us that they would address the pensions issue. I received a categorical assurance from the right

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hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) that he would produce the answer to the pensions problem in January 1996. We are still waiting.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman has obviously forgotten that we changed the formula to address the issue--[Laughter.] It is easy to laugh, but the facts sometimes hurt.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): Bring back Greenway.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing such confidence in the new Conservative sports spokesman.

The Government could be excused if it was only the Opposition who were attacking the settlement, but it is not. The settlement has been attacked, as I said, by the Association of Police Authorities, which now describes the Government as "tough on police budgets". The chairman of the Police Federation has accused the Government of shortchanging the service. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation recently called for the Home Secretary's resignation.

When I asked the Minister whether it is right to say that, by March 2000, the Metropolitan police will be 400 under strength, he was unable to reply. We should be concerned if it will be 400 under strength.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it really is time that the Government dealt with the problem of police pensions. It is no good Ministers sitting on a report for two years, doing nothing about it. The problem needs to be sorted out, and the Government are the ones who are in power--or at least that is the rumour.

The Metropolitan police is at a crossroads. We all wish Sir John Stevens well, but he will need more than the good wishes of people in this place, including the Government. If he is to fight against crime in the capital, he will need our active support and help. I hope that the Government will give him all the support that they possibly can.

We should ask ourselves what will be the effect of the settlement on the Metropolitan police and recruitment. Is it right, as the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said, that at current levels, the Metropolitan police stands no chance of recruiting to fill current vacancies, never mind to increase its strength?

What does the Minister think about Sir Paul Condon's comments last year:

In 1996, the Home Secretary told the Labour party conference:

    "The police deserve and receive our support and gratitude."

The Labour manifesto said that

    "the police have our full support".

Is it not time for the talk to be turned into action? Is not this police grant settlement a sad event, and an opportunity missed to tackle rising crime and the problem of police numbers and morale? Should this not have been

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an opportunity to perform the first duty of Government--to safeguard citizens, to stop the fear of crime stalking our streets, and to stop the thin blue line from getting thinner?

The next Conservative Government will provide the resources to reverse cuts in police numbers. I look forward to sitting on the Treasury Bench listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)--who made such a glittering start today--make that announcement.

2.29 pm

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I welcome the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) to the Front Bench. We shall miss the Ryedale wriggler.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that the introduction of the radio communications system was contentious. The problem is not just the funding, but the nature of the system, which needs careful attention. Several of us have received representations from companies in our constituencies about how the decisions on the commissioning of the system have been arrived at. I should welcome close ministerial attention on that issue.

This is a particularly relevant debate for some of us. I say that not only because I was burgled two days ago--I am sure that it was not one of my constituents; it must have been someone passing through--

Mr. Drew: From a rural area.

Mr. McDonnell: Yes, probably from a rural area. The debate is also pertinent because this morning a delegation from the London borough of Hillingdon--including the hon. Members for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and me--met my noble Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss the issues facing our area. The problems of some areas that are sometimes described as leafy suburbs are neglected, even though they contain pockets of considerable deprivation. Inner-city areas have had access to substantial resources allocated by successive Governments under special schemes and rural areas are getting significant attention from the Government. Areas such as mine fall between those two stools and our problems have not received enough attention.

Over the past few years we have also been penalised as a result of our success in policing. The London borough of Hillingdon, like other areas, has had a significant fall in crime of about 5 per cent. Worryingly, there has recently been a slight increase in violent crime, motor vehicle crime and burglary--as I have experienced to my cost. The fear of crime has been top of the agenda in the local residents' survey for five years. It has outstripped all other issues, largely as a result of perceptions, but also as a result of the reality of crime becoming personalised, particularly with social disorder in public areas. We have done everything possible locally to work together to combat crime and raise community safety issues. We have established community safety as a priority. We have an active police consultative group representing 50 local organisations. We were among the first to set up a crime and disorder audit under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. That helped us to tackle our priorities of reducing crime involving young people, tackling drugs, dealing with disorder in public places and combating the high statistics for crimes such as burglary.

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However, our ability to deal with those priorities depends heavily on the police being proactive and responsive on the ground. That brings me to the concerns that we expressed to my noble Friend Lord Bassam this morning. We are concerned about the reduction in the number of police officers. It would be wrong of me not to draw that to the attention of the House. The figures for recent years are startling. The briefing that was courageously provided by our local divisional commander shows that we have gone down from 440 police officers to 354, and from 107 civilians to 84. The overall reduction is from 547 to 438. That is a reduction of 20 per cent.--more than 100 people. At the same time our constituents have had a 34 per cent. increase in their precept.

Our worry is that unless suburban area receive attention on two levels we shall be faced with another dramatic round of cuts. The new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis needs to recognise our problems and adjust his regional formulae for distributing policing resources and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary needs to consider the bids for resources from police authorities. I shall outline what those cuts could mean for Hillingdon.

We are about to lose our entire permanent beat officer force. They will be withdrawn. There is also the prospect of an end to all school involvement, our junior citizenship scheme and the involvement of the police in youth activities. The first time that a young person in my constituency comes into contact with a police officer could be when they are arrested or given a caution. At the moment, police come into schools and are constructively involved in youth activities. We are concerned about the reduction in community policing and neighbourhood watch support. I have already lost opening times at two of my local police stations. I am now faced with the possible closure of Hayes police station and the sale of the site. Those are just some examples of what faces us unless the Metropolitan police's budgetary decisions and the overall settlement direction are reversed as a result of today's announcement.

I acknowledge that this is special pleading. We require a longer-term strategy that tackles the issues of suburban areas. We are being penalised for our success. We have reduced crime as a result of community partnership schemes in line with what the Government have asked of us. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who came to my constituency before the general election and explained what was required of us and then came again several times after the election to help us to set up the new schemes. We have done that and reduced crime as a result.

We have had some superb divisional commanders who have created an efficiency agenda in line with what the Government have asked for. We have reduced sickness levels dramatically. However, we are being penalised as a result of those successes in efficiency and reducing crime, because the formulaic approach used by the Commissioner and, at times, the Government in their regional distribution results in resources being withdrawn when crime is reduced. That is a short-sighted approach to crime and policing across all three Hillingdon constituencies. We need a longer-term programme that addresses the issues of suburban areas, recognising that investment, particularly in preventive work among young people, will reap rewards in future by stabilising crime levels and reducing them in the long term. I am grateful for the support that the borough has been given in

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developing the recent closed circuit television scheme in Hayes and St. Dunstan's close. Our problem is that, although the CCTV schemes will help us to identify crimes being perpetrated in the area, we shall not have the police resources to respond quickly enough if the reductions go through.

I am pleased that the additional resources that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced have been translated into reality in today's settlement. That enables us to bid for those resources. Suburban areas such as mine must not be penalised for the successful work that we have undertaken. Our serious problems--immediate and long-term--need to be acknowledged through adequate Government support.

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