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Mr. Straw: Well--

Miss Widdecombe: Answer.

Mr. Straw: I am going to answer. It is always my pleasure to answer the right hon. Lady's questions. I was

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inextricably caught up by promises, all of which could not be delivered together, made by the Labour party in the 1980s, so I understand her predicament. However, in the 1980s, the electorate rightly punished us because we were insinuating one thing, while knowing that we could not deliver it. That is exactly the bind that the right hon. Lady has got into with her shadow Cabinet. She and almost all--I exempt one or two--Conservative Members complain about spending and ask for more, more, more. Yet she now accepts that the shadow Chancellor has committed the Conservative party not to more, more, more, but to less, less, less. That is why she is not believed today, and she will not be believed at the general election.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I want to make progress, and then, of course, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do.

At the previous election, we did not promise to increase the total number of police officers, because we were aware that the money would not be there for reasons that I shall explain later. We were also aware that the Conservative party had promised an extra 1,000 officers in the 1992 election, whereas, as we all know, numbers declined during the following five years.

The House needs to examine the Conservative party's recent history on policing. That would be illuminating because that history is the best yardstick of its commitment to the police service and is essential in understanding some of the problems that the service faces today. About the time that the right hon. Lady joined the ministerial ranks of the previous Government in 1990, her then colleagues in the Home Office and Treasury were secretly sharpening their knives for use against the police service.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I wish to complete this point before I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Numbers rose in the 1980s as, indeed, they did under Labour in the 1970s. However, in an illuminating comment in his autobiography, Kenneth Baker, writing of his time as Home Secretary, let slip what was going on, which was secret at the time. He said:

Once the 1992 election was out of the way, the Conservative Government got to work. They still mouthed the "more bobbies on the beat" line in public, but their intent was very different. They appointed Sir Patrick Sheehy, chairman of British American Tobacco, to mount an inquiry into the police service. His report whipped the police into a sense of collective anger not witnessed since their strikes in 1918 and 1919. The right hon. Lady may today talk about low morale, but she has an extraordinarily short memory.

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The Police Federation recently commented on morale--that topic is its hardy annual--but those remarks are as nothing to the anger that the federation voiced under the Conservatives. The anger was so intense that thousands of police officers attended a protest rally against the Conservative Government at Wembley arena to protest against the Sheehy agenda. Such a protest had not happened before and has not happened since.

The legacy of the decisions taken at that time remains with us today. Investment was cut, recruitment scaled down and incentives to join the service were removed.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): On the subject of investment in the police force, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the £1 million that he announced yesterday as extra funding for the Cambridgeshire police force? Will he commend that force for achieving a 2.9 per cent. reduction in recorded crime since the election, despite its considerable difficulties in policing the protests against Huntingdon Life Sciences?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. I do, indeed, commend the Cambridgeshire constabulary and its chief constable, Ben Gunn, for their efforts. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I greatly regret that it has been necessary to allocate £1 million to that force to deal with the outrageous intimidatory and, in some cases, violent attacks that have been made by so-called animal rights protesters against the perfectly lawful and important activities of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Given the pressures on the police in Cambridgeshire, I think that their record is very good, and I look forward to it improving. I hope that the money makes a difference.

Mr. Howarth: I wanted to raise another matter, but as the Home Secretary has mentioned the appalling sabotage in the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, can he say why he and the authorities do not use the conspiracy laws to tackle the people who plan such attacks? I am not talking merely of the people who are engaged in the actual sabotage, but of those who plan it, because such activities are taking place across the country. As I recall, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 was introduced for protection against watching and besetting. If it is not still on the statute book, the Home Secretary might think about bringing it back.

Mr. Straw: The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are determined to use all the powers and charges that are available to ensure that such outrageous activities are deterred and effectively addressed. If there is evidence that would add up to a conspiracy charge, such a charge would be laid. I have received representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), the right hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in whose constituency Huntingdon Life Sciences lies, and for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), in whose constituency many of the people who work at HLS live, about whether we could strengthen the powers that are available. I made it clear yesterday that I was considering that and I intend to consult other parties on whether those could be included in a Bill that is being published tomorrow. I hope to be able to proceed on an agreed basis.

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Some thoroughly misguided people might believe that although the methods of the violent, disruptive and intimidatory protesters are wrong, their ends are acceptable. That is wholly erroneous. None of us likes the idea of testing on animals, and successive Governments have sought to reduce unnecessary testing, for example, on cosmetics. However, we all have to accept that if we wish to see improvements in drug therapy and other advances in medical science, we need to ensure that the drugs or procedures are safe, which means that some have to be tested on animals.

The lives of millions of people around the world have been lengthened and their health has been significantly improved as a result of drug therapy that depends on animal research. It is for that reason and because of the huge issue of public order that we must support the staff at Huntingdon Life Sciences and other people, including many distinguished academics, who have been the subjects of the most outrageous intimidation in recent years.

Mr. Heald: I preface my remarks by saying that those on the Opposition Front Bench of course endorse the Home Secretary's approach to Huntingdon Life Sciences. What is going on is completely unacceptable and must be stopped.

The Home Secretary said that he had not promised in the general election campaign to get more officers back on the beat, but in the manifesto, he said:

If he is denying that, can he give one example in that general election campaign of when he said what was actually going to happen? When did he say that he was going to slash police numbers, both of regular officers and specials? Did he say that once?

Mr. Straw: In the manifesto, we criticised the Conservatives for breaking their 1992 general election pledge to provide an extra 1,000 police officers. I made no promise about the direction that officer numbers might take. I said that we would relieve the police of unnecessary bureaucratic burdens to get more officers back on the beat, and that is exactly what we have done. By doing that, by introducing the Narey reforms--albeit endorsed by the previous Administration--by cutting the number of forms that are necessary for prosecutions by a third, by tackling issues such as sickness, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends, and by ensuring that there is a greater degree of efficiency, to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) referred, and that chief constables and forces have to apply themselves to those matters, we have got more operational officers back on the beat.

Let me give one example. When the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was involved with what is now called the Police Authority for the Metropolis, everyone knew that the administration of that great police force was top heavy. Its headquarters were in Scotland Yard, but its bureaucratic work was replicated in five separate areas. With my full support, one of the many changes that the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis introduced was to cut out that layer of bureaucracy. That alone has led to more than 120 officers going back on the beat.

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