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Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Sir David Phillips and

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the Kent police on achieving a 23 per cent. reduction in recorded crime since the last general election? That is largely due to improved police efficiency. Does he agree that the only real way to make a big difference to public services is to invest in them, unlike the Conservatives who want to cut them?

Mr. Straw: I most certainly do congratulate Sir David Phillips and his force. Although his resources are tight--they have been since 1993, but they are now improving--he has shown that he has been able broadly to maintain police numbers in Kent. They have declined by 21 out of a total force of 3,239. I regret that decline, but it is very small and the number will now rise. Sir David has also shown that, because of the methods that he has used, he has been able to target particularly prolific and persistent offenders. As a result, he has the best crime record in the south-east and one of the best crime records in the country.

Mr. Simon Hughes: On the matter of efficiency and resources, has the Home Secretary made progress on the conundrum that has been wrestled with by his Department? How does one reward a police force's efficiency? If a police force does very well, it is recognised as doing very well--Kent may be an example--and crime figures come down, there is no natural correlation at all at the moment between its record and the resources that it receives. Indeed, it is likely to receive fewer resources because there is apparently less crime. That is not an incentive to the police to do well. What is the answer to the question of how police forces are rewarded for good policing?

Mr. Straw: At any time, the system of grant for distributing money to police forces needs to be improved; it is not a perfect science and it cannot be. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the drive for efficiency is important and that forces that are successful should not be penalised for their success. This is a particularly important issue for the police service, because if a force were absolutely efficient, there would be no crime. The police service is different from any other service, because it is working to a negative--a reduction in the number of offences. Other public services--for example, in education--work to a positive, such as the raising of standards.

We have to take account of that point and we seek to do so. For example in the case of rural policing, the £30 million that we have allocated to rural forces per year is not remotely based on crime levels; it is based on sparsity and that is as it should be. We also have a whole range of special programmes under the reducing crime initiative to target help to forces that need it and that can show improvements. However, if suggestions are made about how things can be improved, we are of course available to accept them.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): How is the morale of the police force improved by the early release, over the past two years, of no fewer than 218 people who were imprisoned for assaulting police officers? While the Home Secretary attempts to answer that, will he also explain how respect for the law is increased by the release, under the home detention curfew scheme, of people who have

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escaped lawful custody, been recaptured and imprisoned but who are then given the sweet of being let out of jail early?

Mr. Straw: The sentences that prisoners receive are a matter for the courts. When they impose a sentence, they take full account of the release arrangements. Since 1997-98, those arrangements include the possibility, where there is a risk assessment, of a home detention curfew. I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that, when the home detention curfew scheme was included in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, it was endorsed by a unanimous report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1997-98. One of the Committee's members--he has just left the Front Bench--is an Opposition spokesman on home affairs, none other than the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

I have taken a number of interventions and I want to return to the issue of police service funding. It is important to reflect for a moment on what happened in the mid-1990s. Many of the problems with which I have had to deal--I take responsibility for what has happened since 1997--have their roots in that period. There was sustained under-investment in the police service, and spending rose by only 0.5 per cent. in real terms in the last three years of the Conservative Administration and their Budgets. The housing allowance was removed from all new recruits. Of course, the service could recruit at almost any level when there was a recession but, as particularly London and the south-east came out of recession and employment prospects improved, the removal of the allowance made it particularly difficult to recruit officers in London and the south-east. Central controls over police numbers were also removed.

The Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 explicitly removed the power of Ministers to set the numbers of officers in post. On the Bill's Second Reading, the former boss of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, could barely wait to be rid of that responsibility. Standing at this Dispatch Box, he said:

To reinforce the point, and in a phrase typifying his overall approach to his office, he added:

Just in case there is any doubt as to what the Conservatives were up to in implementing their agenda set by Sheehy, we can examine the 1994 Conservative research guide. It criticised the old system under which establishments were set by the Home Secretary and praised the new system in which numbers would be a matter for chief constables. It said that the old system provided

There we have it. The removal of those

had the effect that Conservative Ministers privately intended. Police numbers went down. They started falling in 1993 and, under the Conservative's published spending plans, they were bound to go on falling.

We have been in government since May 1997 and we accept our responsibility, but the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald cannot evade her responsibility.

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Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I may give way shortly.

The right hon. Lady cannot evade responsibility for her own part in what happened. As a Minister in the Home Office, she came to the House in January 1997 to recommend a financial settlement to the police that could provide only a reduction in the number of officers. Yet she boasted of the then Prime Minister's commitment

That funding came into effect a few weeks before the previous general election and was for the 1997-98 financial year. As a result, under that budget and the previous four, numbers fell by 1,500 across the country and by 1,800 in the Metropolitan police.

Faced with the hard truth that police numbers were declining and would have carried on declining--as I shall show in a second--what does the right hon. Lady say? She comes up with an explanation that is so crass that it either raises questions about her intellect that I do not accept or suggests--this was well illustrated earlier--that she has decided to resort to waffle and bluff as a smokescreen to cover the manacles that the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has attached to her on police spending.

The right hon. Lady has said:

That question was returned to her by an incredulous Jim Naughtie, who asked her where she thought all the money had gone, and she said that we were wasting it on bureaucracy, we were wasting it on press officers and we were wasting it on advertising.

We are not wasting the money on bureaucracy because overall staffing at the Home Office has gone down. Our advertising spending is on police recruitment, which I happen to think is quite important. The right hon. Lady chose to refer to press officers, but the number of press officers in the Home Office--I have already admitted to this in parliamentary answers; it is not a secret--has risen. It has risen from 19 to 27; the number has risen by eight. However, she seems to think that, for the audience in the House and across the country, going on about an increase of eight in the number of press officers is somehow an answer to where the money will come from to pay millions and billions of pounds for promises that she could never keep.

Miss Widdecombe: Why does the Home Secretary not actually say what I said? I did not confine my remarks just to the Home Office. I talked about this Government and the increase of £2 billion on Whitehall bureaucracy and today I have quoted a figure of getting on for £500,000 for bureaucracy alone in just one force. If he is seriously saying that there are no savings to be found from bureaucracy, his intellect is in question.

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