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Mr. Beard: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. Is it not a strange time to cry crisis, when the right hon. Lady knows full well that police numbers have been in decline since 1993, and that this is the first time recruitment has turned around? Is it also not strange to claim that there is a crisis when the number of recruits in training has gone up by 74 per cent.? Is not this part of a stunt to create gloom and despondency and a climate of fear, in the hope that something might be gained electorally for her party?
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman should read less party political propaganda from Millbank and rather more facts from the Home Office statistical bulletins, to which I will now turn. He will find that just about every one of his points is either completely wrong as fact or has been taken out of context and does not stand up when considered against other factors.
Miss Widdecombe: That is to misquote the shadow Chancellor. For the moment--not for much longer--the right hon. Gentleman represents the Government, and it is their record that I am about to examine, whether he likes it or not. I do not think that he will like the following examination very much.
The Government's manifesto promised to get more police back on the beat. However, since 1997, overall police numbers have fallen by more than 2,500. That figure includes a drop of more than 1,900 in the number of constables. In May 1997, the Home Secretary told the Police Federation that constables were central to the success of the police:
The standard defence of ill-informed Labour Members is that police numbers have been falling steadily since 1993. However, that defence fails to acknowledge that numbers rose in the year before the Government came to power and, crucially, that the number of constables rose year on year throughout that period. Furthermore, the number of special constables was rising when the Government came to power. Labour Members need not take my word for it. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South, revealed yesterday in a written answer that in March 1993 there were 95,501 constables in England and Wales. That figure rose year on year until the election, until in March 1997 there were 96,914 constables. I am sure that even the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford can work out that that was an increase of 1,413 since 1993.
Under this Government, the visible presence of the police on our streets has suffered. There are more than 1,900 fewer constables, nearly 400 fewer sergeants, more than 250 fewer inspectors--all round, there are fewer front-line crime fighters.
What does the Home Secretary have to say to the 62-year-old resident of the Warwick estate at Knottingley, near Pontefract? He is terrorised in his own home by gangs of youths, and has put the local police station number on his list in his British Telecom friends and family discount scheme because he has to make daily calls for help. He says:
As the new Audit Commission figures show, 57 per cent. of people are unhappy with the number of police on our streets. We saw on Tuesday the announcement of what was billed by the Home Secretary's spin doctors as a massive 74 per cent. increase in police recruitment, a figure repeated in today's Government amendment. The right hon. Gentleman neglects to point out, however, that that is, of course, a 74 per cent. increase compared to last year, which saw the lowest numbers recruited for many years.
He does not draw attention to the fact that, last year, the number of police recruits was just over 4,000, whereas the year before the previous general election the number was 6,500. That very much puts into perspective what he bills as a massive increase.
Rather than increasing under the Labour Government, police recruitment is only now returning to the numbers inherited by the Government after it had been allowed to fall by nearly a third. On Tuesday, the chairman of the Police Federation hit that particular nail right on the head, when he said:
Maria Eagle: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. I am listening carefully to her speech. During the 18 minutes of the first part of her speech, she has not once mentioned crime rates. Is that because they have fallen by 7 per cent?
Maria Eagle: Does the right hon. Lady believe that there is a direct correlation between the number of officers in post, recruited and working--I approve of the increase in numbers--and falling crime rates?
Miss Widdecombe: I certainly believe that there is a direct correlation between the number of police on the street, the overall level of crime and particular types of crime. The hon. Lady has a treat in store because I am indeed going to turn to the crime figures fairly soon--
Mr. Linton: I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy. Does she agree that in the period that she chooses to cite--March 1993 to March 1997--the total number of police fell from 128,290 to 127,158? Who is spinning now?
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman really is clutching at straws. He ignores the fact that the only reason my comments are based on those years is because they are a direct response to a comment from the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, who chose that particular period. Furthermore, police numbers rose by 16,000 during our time in office and, in the last year of that period--before we handed over to his incompetent lot--police numbers were rising.
Mr. Howarth: I am conscious that my right hon. Friend is going to leave the question of recruitment, but before she does so, will she address the difficult situation that prevails in Hampshire? The chief constable points out that although the crimefighting fund has funded another 82 police officers, he cannot recruit them. He has to defer 62 appointments until next year. In his letter to Members of Parliament, he states:
The Home Secretary always produces figures that are either fiddled or muddled, such as the ethnic minority recruitment statistics. Last month, his Department trumpeted a rise of 218 officers in the Metropolitan police, but this month the statistics were "revised" to show an increase of just four. That completes the hat trick of muddled figures published by his Department--after the 248 Met officers seconded to central services in March, who were double-counted, and the 451 seconded to neighbouring forces, who were deducted twice from the overall total for September. Perhaps he would like me to give him an abacus for Christmas--then he might do better.
Even recent increases in recruitment do not appear to be solving the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) rightly says, the chief constable of Hampshire recently wrote to local MPs and council leaders, revealing that, by the end of this financial year, he expects to recruit 95 fewer officers than his target figure. That is not good news for the people of Hampshire, and if the situation is replicated in other forces it is even worse news for the rest of the country.
According to the Minister of State, Home Office, three forces--Hertfordshire, Essex and City of London--have so far failed to recruit a single person through the crimefighting fund, despite their combined allocation of 118 for this financial year. They have not found one recruit between them. In other areas, such as Gloucestershire and Doncaster, forces are unable to recruit to their target numbers because of a lack of training facilities.