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3.12 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): It will come as no surprise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that I shall concentrate my remarks on the Metropolitan police in general and the Barnet borough division in particular. The remarks of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) mirror the problems that we, in a similar borough, face--although all boroughs have significant differences--in that, although Barnet is generally regarded as a leafy suburb, it has areas of great deprivation.

We can argue about figures until the cows come home. I have done my best to be independent on this. I know that the incidence of recorded crime fell for six consecutive years until recently. The last Metropolitan police service report stated that street crimes went down in the area by 2.3 per cent. and burglary by 8.3 per cent. to a 20-year low. That is good news. Assaults on police officers and incidents of police officers suffering injuries on duty went down significantly in 1998-99, and I hope that that trend continues. However, I remind the House that, in the year to September 1999, recorded crime was up by 8.7 per cent. in the Metropolitan police area. I hope that that is only a temporary trend, but it is nevertheless very worrying.

Twenty years ago, there were only about 22,000 Metropolitan police officers. By the early 1990s, the figure had reached its peak at 28,000. It has been fluctuating since, dropping slightly in general, but a recent fall brought the figure to 26,500. I am concerned that there is every prospect that the figure will tend to fall and not rise. Incidentally, I am also concerned that, in the last year, the number of special constables in the Metropolitan constabulary decreased by 5 per cent.

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Another problem faced in the Metropolitan police area is the wastage in early retirements and transfers. In the past year, the figure increased by nearly 13 per cent. to 1,750. The Metropolitan police have recruiting problems in that so many who train and begin their career in London are seduced, as it were, to go to other police forces or, because of their experiences in London, they seek other jobs. We must think radically about how to deal with that problem because morale, sadly, is very low.

The income and expenditure of the Metropolitan police force is about £1.75 billion. That figure has increased by 100 per cent. over the past 20 years. The Minister's colleague in the other place confirmed in a letter to me that it is planned to increase the grant this next year by only 1.7 per cent. That, I understand, is also dependent on efficiency savings of 2 per cent.

I accept that the way in which the grants are calculated are necessarily complex, because they are comprehensive. The more I try to understand them--I have not broken through the knowledge barrier yet--the more they seem to be a byzantine labyrinth that would make the Ottomans drool with envy. Despite the previous Government's protestations that they were increasing the budget for the police year on year, resources seemed to be diminishing, on the ground and on the beat, at least partly--and not a little significantly--due to the escalating cost of pensions, which are unfunded. The present Government are also witnessing that problem. Although I want to see bigger and better pensions for everybody--something that I will say more frequently as the next election approaches--I am horrified that the figure for pensions in the Metropolitan police force is £335 million, including those for the civil staff. That represents 17 per cent. of total expenditure. We must find a better way of funding those pensions. My plea is popular and simple, but terribly difficult to realise. Can we devise a system in which the pension increase is taken out of the reckoning of the other vital parts of the service?

I have three brief points to make. First, I am deeply concerned about the number of emergency calls that are not genuine. The total annual figure in the Metropolitan police area is about 2 million--there were 200,000 emergency calls last November alone--80 per cent of which were not genuine. People may say that they accidentally touch the wrong numbers on their mobile phones, or whatever. I do not know much about this new-fangled technology, but surely it is not beyond the wit of these technologists to find some way of dealing with that problem.

Secondly, nearly 3,000 demonstrations and other public order events have to be policed in the Metropolitan area. I hope that some consideration is given to that in the budget.

Thirdly, Barnet borough is in a crisis with regard to policing. A very senior officer in my borough said to me that he finds the Metropolitan police service, in particular in the borough of Barnet, to be in a crisis situation.

Three weeks ago, my council--it is not, I regret, Conservative controlled, but I make that party political point only to show that the following criticism does not come only from Conservatives--wrote me a letter. I shall summarise and paraphrase it, but I assure the House

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that I am not misleading anyone or placing the wrong emphasis on what was said. The letter said:

    "The Council notes with dismay that the number of police officers and civilian support personnel in Barnet continues to fall . . . there is a crisis in policing in our Borough."

It noted that

    "the number of notifiable offences committed in the Borough has increased in the past twelve months."

It added:

    "The Council expresses grave concern about the insufficient financial support given to the Metropolitan Police by HM Government in the form of this year's Local Government Settlement."

The council also recognises that that problem is Londonwide, and that it

    "will result in the probability of Barnet Council Taxpayers being forced to pay above inflation increases in the form of the Police precept in order to finance the Metropolitan Police."

Those remarks are echoed by the chairman of Barnet borough watch--our network of neighbourhood watch schemes, to which I pay tribute. With 15 years of experience, she says that Barnet's manpower has been cut yet again and that there has been a near 50 per cent. reduction on the level of four years ago. The figure may reflect the fact that some officers are being taken out of the borough to serve in Hertsmere, but the minimum manpower per shift is 22 officers, while the recognised minimum shift strength should be 32. Those 22 officers must cover a population of 320,000.

We must address these real problems responsibly. We owe that both to our constituents and to those who serve us in the Metropolitan police, and who do a difficult, dangerous and sometimes dirty job. We must make sure that they have the resources to carry out that job and decent conditions in which to do it.

3.22 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman). Although my angle on the police is slightly different, I can agree with some of what he said.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for meeting a delegation from Gloucestershire early in the new year. It was a useful meeting. One member of the delegation was the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), and I am sure that the whole House will wish him a speedy recovery. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, events in Cheltenham have brought home to us the unpleasurable role that the police carry out with ultimate efficiency and sensitivity. The police have already visited my constituency office to review security arrangements and to make some recommendations.

I do not wish to go over old ground, having spoken in the same debate last year, when the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) replied. I do not apologise for re-emphasising some themes. Policing is of acute interest in Gloucestershire, which has received the lowest increase. It would be easy for me to criticise the Government for that, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said about his area, I feel that a slightly rum figure has been used to calculate the amount for Gloucestershire.

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I hope that the Minister will keep his door ajar, because I am convinced that the figure is a rogue. That has nothing to do with the Home Office, but results from peculiarities in the way in which the Office for National Statistics has judged the population of Gloucestershire to be falling over the past year. I cannot repeat the phrases used by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, but I feel that the ONS must be the only people in the country who believe that. The statistics used make a huge amount of difference to our grant allocation, which is 1.8 per cent. below average. My hon. Friend the Minister may await some serious calculations from the county council and others before we make further representations.

The matters on which I wish to touch have already been covered, so I shall merely put a local spin on them. We welcome the sparsity report, and I hope that its recommendations will come into play. It would make a welcome difference of about 1.3 per cent. to Gloucestershire. The problem is that most counties are not dissimilar to Gloucestershire in being rural with an urban core. We must strike the proper balance between policing the urban core of Gloucester and Cheltenham and the more sparse surrounding areas. In Stroud, we would argue that people are sucked into urban areas, particularly at weekends, which makes a dramatic difference to the number available. Shift patterns also make a difference.

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