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Miss Widdecombe: As the right hon. Gentleman is complaining about not getting answers to questions, will he please answer the very clear question that I put to him some time ago? He may have thought that he had escaped it. Is it not a fact that slopping out is back? Is it not a fact that suicide rates are up? Is it not a fact that self-harm in prisons has increased? Is it not a fact that assaults and long-term staff sickness have increased? Is it not a fact that purposeful activity has decreased? Is it not a fact that the Home Secretary has made a total mess of his prison system? Will he now answer those questions? As he is calling for answers, let him do some answering.

Mr. Straw: God save us! Let me out of here, please, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It gets worse and worse.

I regard it as reprehensible of the right hon. Lady to make party political capital out of the number of suicides in prison. She understands the circumstances in which prisoners take their lives. She knows that we are working with the Prison Service as hard as, if not harder than, her Administration did to deal with this problem. The idea that she should try to trade insults about it is utterly beneath contempt.

I return to the issue of police numbers. As a result of our crime fighting fund, the number of officers joining the police service now exceeds the number leaving it. Wastage in the police service, despite all the myths that one reads in the newspapers, is about half the level in the public services generally, and way below the levels in the private sector. On overall wastage in the police service, as the answer given by the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has shown, retirements and resignations have decreased in recent years to less than 5 per cent.

The police training colleges are full, and extra money has been provided to boost the pay of post-1994 officers in the Metropolitan police. We have set aside funds to ensure that forces recruit up to 9,000 more officers than they had previously planned to recruit, to bring overall numbers to record levels by 2003-04. The police service is not in crisis. Were it in crisis, crime and disorder levels would not have come down in the way that they have done over the past three years.

A sensible Opposition would recognise that the issue is not only about overall numbers--although I want to see those numbers going up--but about how effectively existing police numbers are used. The shift in police numbers has been marginal: about 2 per cent. There are 125,000 police officers, and nearly 60,000 civilians working in support of them. An even more crucial issue than whether there are 125,000 or 126,000 officers is that of how effectively each of those of officers is used, led and managed. That is what we have been doing.

We have provided the police with the powers to deal with inefficiency--which needs to be exposed in the police service--with unacceptable levels of early

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retirement and sickness. As a result of our bearing down on sickness, the equivalent of 700 officers have been added back to operational ranks. We are cutting by one third the number of forms that officers have to process, as we said that we would when we were in opposition. While the Conservative party waffles about red tape, we are getting on with cutting it.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a second.

Another way in which we are making the police service more effective is by ensuring that it serves the whole of our community: black and Asian people as well as white. The police are fully engaged in implementing the recommendations of the Lawrence inquiry. When that report was published, all parties in the House welcomed its recommendations. However, in his speech on the police last Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition accused us not only of having

but of

I listened to that with great interest. I have dealt with the issue of red tape, but what can the right hon. Gentleman have been talking about when he used that grubby euphemism, "political correctness", unless he was talking about the joint efforts of the police and the communities, backed by the Government, to ensure that the police work in partnership with all communities? I think that he had that in mind, but he did not have the guts to say it. The police working in partnership with all communities is at the heart of what we are doing.

Mr. Howarth: I should like to take the Home Secretary back to the point about police numbers. He made the extraordinary claim that the number of police will go up by about 9,000 by 2003, yet he told me at a meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs the other day that the latest figures showed that there were 2,700 fewer police officers, up to March this year. He told me that, since March, the numbers had fallen by a further 200. Is he now telling the House that the turnaround in recruitment and retention is such that the numbers have dramatically increased since he gave us the figures in September?

Mr. Straw: I should like to think that the hon. Gentleman is too intelligent for that question. He knows the answer--9,000 additional recruits. I gave the figures, but the happy news is that, when I was at the Home Affairs Committee three weeks ago, I gave provisional figures that the numbers in September were down by 200. In fact, they are down by only seven. The best estimates for the latest weeks is that the numbers are now starting to rise.

Our crucial idea of partnership, and getting everyone involved in reducing crime, lies at the heart of the five Bills that we announced last week. They will give greater powers to the police, extend the modernisation of our criminal justice system, and bear down on those who threaten society, including those who use anti-social

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behaviour. We introduced five Bills and a draft Bill. They include the Private Security Industry Bill, which will, at last, provide for the regulation of the private security industry in England and Wales--again, something that the previous Government could have done but failed to do.

The Vehicles (Crime) Bill will ensure that we are able to meet our target of cutting vehicle crime by one third over a five-year period, and build on the great success of the police and local authorities in reducing vehicle crime over the past four years. It will also ensure that much of the income from speed camera fines can be reinvested to improve road safety.

We come to the issue of targeting the profits of crime. Too often, when criminals are caught, they hang on to their ill-gotten gains and emerge from prison to enjoy their fast cars and large houses. That defeats justice and presents a damaging role model for young people. The draft Bill on the proceeds of crime will set out proposals for levelling the playing field. Measures were introduced in the previous Parliament, but they have not worked as effectively as they should have done, or as effectively as similar measures in the United States and Ireland. That is why we are introducing the proposals.

The police and the courts cannot operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Too often, they have been unable to deal properly with disorder and other criminal behaviour. Too often, they have been prevented from hitting back at the criminals who make life a misery for so many. The legislation that I have outlined today will give the police and the courts the powers that they need to ensure that justice is done. We have achieved a great deal in the past three and a half years, but crime and disorder levels are still too high. There remains a great deal to be done. The measures in the Gracious Speech continue our programme to make the country safer and more secure, and I commend them and the Gracious Speech to the House.

6.9 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Between 9 o'clock and midnight last night, I was out with a crew from the London ambulance service. The first call was to a cardiac arrest of a three-year-old in Walworth, which is in my borough of Southwark. Thanks to the skill and extreme professionalism of the crew, they managed to get to the child in time--by a matter of minutes--to prevent him from dying, which he was at a high risk of doing, and to take him to St. Thomas's hospital, where he soon recovered. I spent the rest of the evening with the crew and they explained to me that the ambulance service is often so overstretched that they cannot even get to people who are at high health risk.

People who work on our behalf to protect law and order have the same problem but with victims of crime. Yesterday morning, I was in the office of the borough commander in Southwark, whose police officers the Home Secretary has rightly particularly commended for their work in the past few weeks. The commander made the point that although he and his colleagues are absolutely committed to what they do--they have allocated 50 officers to try to find out who killed Damilola Taylor--they have staffing problems. They are 48 officers short of the establishment of 807 officers, and 23 people

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short of the civilian establishment of 220. Officers are owed 3,800 days leave that they have not been able to take because they have been working to do the job that is required of them.

None the less, the force has charged people for 17 of the 19 murders in Southwark in the past three years. Only a recent killing and that of Damilola Taylor have not so far resulted in an arrest. The police force is in some ways highly successful, but it has no more than the capacity, with difficulty, to respond to immediate pressures. It cannot do the job that it would like to do to protect people, and to provide the law and order strategy and support that the community needs.

The Home Secretary is right to focus on the first Home Office aim:

We want a more orderly society for the good of everyone. In Southwark this morning, we were shown an extremely good initiative to achieve that end. The Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis were present. The intention was to target hate crimes in Southwark by fully involving young people, the local authority and the relevant partners and agencies.

The launch made it clear, as did the borough commander in Southwark yesterday and every police officer to whom I have spoken, that there are no simple causes of crime and no simple solutions. As the Minister of State said this morning, we need sustainable, long-term strategies. The hate crime initiative is such a strategy. If there are no easy explanations and solutions, the Queen's Speech needs to contain policies that are proven to work effectively and have a sound base. We do not need measures that are appealing baubles to be put in a political shop window but which, although superficially attractive, are not worth much when one looks at them closely.

The great feeling that there is particular evil and malaise in our society is in some ways misguided. Of course there is a huge amount of crime, but there is nothing new about crimes with knives and weapons. The streets were just as unsafe 100 years ago in that respect. When I first started work with youngsters in Southwark, kids often carried knives. [Hon. Members: "A 100 years ago?"] That was not 100 years ago, but in the 1970s. Kids have not started to carry knives just in the past few years. Alcohol has also caused crime throughout the last century, and there is probably no great difference between its impact today and its impact 100 years ago.

Having said all that, there is one difference today, and that is drugs, which are now more likely to motivate people to commit crime and to make them unaware of the harmful consequences of their behaviour. I agree with Ministers: the escalation and spread of harmful drugs in our communities need to be tackled. Drugs cause a huge amount of crime and misery, and create many more victims. They not only make victims of the people who take them, but affect many more people through drug- related crime.

We often hear a litany in debates such as these in which we compare the records of the Tories 18 years in government and Labour's three and a half years in government. We would expect attacks on the Tories and their credibility to be obvious. However, it is difficult for a party to attack with credibility another Government's

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record on crime when that party was in government for 18 years and crime doubled, when violent crime increased every year during those 18 years, and when convictions fell so greatly during the same period.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has a duty, as I have, to provide an opposition, but she has to remember to be humble about the failures of her party, too. Up until 1992--before she was a Minister--the number of police officers increased, but they decreased in the following five years, when she was in government. The two pledges by the then Prime Minister to recruit 5,000 extra police were not delivered. Indeed, over that period, there were nearly 500 fewer police. A little gentle humility, which the right hon. Lady's faith and mine enjoin us to adopt, would be welcome.

As for the Government, we are three and a half years into their term and there is a rumour in the air that this Parliament might last for only four years. The Queen's Speech is so thin that, even with the five Home Office Bills, it does not look as though the Session could last much beyond May even if we tried hard to prolong it. According to the figures, crime fell in the first period of the Government's term, although it now seems to be rising. Violent crime has unarguably increased. [Interruption.] I shall be happy to let the Home Secretary respond in a moment, but the figures are not straightforward. It is not clear that crime is decreasing. Offences of violence increased by 16 per cent. in the past year according to British crime survey and other independent figures.

However, where the Government stand most indicted--no matter how much they try to hide it--is on the issue of police numbers. I tabled a question as quickly as I could when the House resumed after the Queen's speech:

It was interesting, to put it neutrally, to see the answer. The Minister of State replied:

I gather that it will be published this week. It might even show that the number has increased by one or two over the past six months, but even if it has gone up by a few, it has decreased by nearly 3,000 since the general election. There are fewer officers doing the job that the commander in Southwark and the chief constable of Cumbria, to whom I spoke a couple of weeks ago, want them to do. However much people might argue that we do not get better law and order with more police officers, I have never heard anyone argue that we get better law and order with fewer.

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