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Mr. Charles Clarke: A year has not passed; it was July.

Mr. Hughes: I apologise for saying it was longer if the proposal was made in July. However, it was certainly made some months ago. After it was made, a flurry of urgent activity occurred and then there was silence.

Yesterday, an example arose of the need for proper statistics. It appears that the Metropolitan police changed its ethnic recruitment statistics on its own to make it appear that it was doing better. That is nonsense. We must have common statistics so that we can see what is happening throughout the country.

The proposals in the Liberal Democrat amendment to the motion are those that we believe would most helpfully deal with current problems. I shall not repeat the suggestions that I have dealt with, but I shall add the rest.

Mr. Heald: One is always pleased to see a sinner that repenteth, but I seek some clarification. The Conservatives twice tabled amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Bill that would have ensured that people who assault the police--just the category of people to which the hon. Gentleman referred--are not released early. Will he acknowledge that he voted against those amendments? He has completely changed his mind.

Mr. Hughes: I concede that point; we have changed our minds, having taken the view that morale among police officers and public servants is now so poor that it means that the scheme needs amendment. I concede openly that we have changed our position. We have done so because we hear from people in public service that they regard the scheme as unhelpful in giving them the respect that they need as public servants. That is why I join the Conservative party in asking Ministers to change their policy on the matter. I hope that they will do so.

I want to make a few final proposals in addition to those that I hope I have already made absolutely and expressly clear. First, there should be a regular place where these debates can take place other than between

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politicians. The Police Federation asked for a royal commission. That has the weakness of being a one-off exercise. Matters move too quickly for a royal commission to be able to look into the future. I hope that the Government will respond positively to our proposal for a permanent standing conference involving all ranks and representatives of the police, politicians and the public to advise on police numbers and police efficiency. It could discuss what is needed to give us a better police force.

Such a conference could also consider whether we need so many different police forces. The regional forces should be reviewed, although I do not have a final view on that, as well as the different types of forces. Is it logical to have the British Transport police looking after railway station car parks if they are rarely present? That responsibility could be taken on by the local police, who police the area around a station car park and go past it all the time.

Secondly, there needs to be a huge, immediate increase in police officers. For five years, the Liberal Democrats have been saying that we need a minimum of 130,000 officers in England and Wales. That is still our view. That is 6,000 more than there were last April. We have asked the Government to do everything they can to bring about such an increase as quickly as possible--it is above what both the other main parties propose. If that needs more money, now is the time to spend it on public services, because, for a combination of reasons, the coffers are full of money that the Chancellor has available to spend.

Thirdly, will the Government consider attracting more police recruits by sponsoring them through college and university? Fourthly, can there be a category of retained officers, such as the fire service has, who do paid, part-time work? Fifthly, will the Government set up, in conjunction with local government, community safety forces to police estates, the streets and parks--the low-level crime policing? That would hugely reassure people.

Lastly, is it possible to ensure that every community, rural and urban, has named police assigned to it, so that all people know who their police officers are and how to get hold of them, and that they will respond speedily on the non-999 number?

The police deserve our support. The public ask us to support the police. The Government have had some success, but they have not delivered until far too late. I hope that they have got the message at last. I am, however, sad that they have failed so lamentably for so long to deliver so much of what they promised before they became the Government at the last election.

Mr. Ian Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate has been going for two hours, and there have been three speeches by Members on the Front Benches. Back Benchers have been squeezed out of the debate. Can you give any ruling on this matter?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that there is no ruling that I can give on this matter. The Chair cannot control the shape of a Opposition day--whether there is one subject or two--and has no control over speeches by Members on the Front Benches. The hon. Member

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highlights one of the disadvantages for Back Benchers of split Opposition days when Front Benchers take a great many interventions and make long speeches.

6.13 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I shall try to be brief, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) is anxious to make a contribution.

I share some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about the tenor of the debate. An undue emphasis has been placed on figures, statistics and numbers of police, when we should be discussing winning the fight against crime by preventing and reducing crime, which is what people in our communities look to us to do.

The debate, however, has sharpened the choices that the British people have. They can take the Tory line as shown in the Opposition motion, which is full of cynicism, hopelessness, doom and gloom and demoralisation--as if nothing can be done. The debate in their terms is about statistics, not about people and humanity. On the other hand, they can take the Labour approach, which is about more investment, trying to tackle and reduce crime by working with local communities, and trying to give people confidence, a sense of hope and a sense that they really can make a difference. That is not easy, as it takes time to reduce crime, but I know which approach I prefer. It is the positive one that involves practical action, taking steps, and working with communities, rather than simply running things down and making it seem as though we live in a land of hopelessness in which nothing can be done.

We have seen that Opposition Members do not like to be reminded of their record, because they think that that is boring and dull. However, it is important to place in front of the British people the fact that crime doubled under the Tories. The number of crimes involved is shocking. In 1979, 2.5 million crimes were committed--still far too high a figure--but that figure rose to 5.5 million under the Tories. That is an astounding statistic, and most of the people who bore the brunt of that crime lived in poorer communities. Ten per cent. of the poorest people in Britain were the victims of 42 per cent. of crime. They were people who lived in communities such as mine, where crime was allowed to reach almost epidemic proportions, destroying families and communities, and allowed to run riot.

Dr. Stoate: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Blears: No. I have very little time, and I know that other hon. Members want to speak.

I am heartened that the general reduction in crime figures, particularly for domestic burglary and vehicle crime, is mirrored in my constituency. Domestic burglaries are down by 20 per cent. in Seedley and Langworthy--one of the hardest inner city areas in Salford--and vehicle crime is down by nearly 20 per cent. That tells me that, for once, the poorest communities are catching up with the rest. Our crime rates are coming down at the same rate as in other areas, and poorer people are no longer being singled out as repeat victims of the crime epidemic that we experienced in this country.

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Of course there is a problem with violent crime. All hon. Members feel strongly about that, which is why the measures in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill to tackle alcohol-related crime will be so crucial. The challenge will be to try to prevent that kind of crime from happening in the first place. We have to make it clear that certain kinds of behaviour are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, and that there will be swift and serious punishment for people who indulge in anti-social behaviour and disorder in our communities. At the same time, we must try to determine why they engage in such behaviour, and how we can divert them from so doing and give them more constructive things to do.

Last year, there were 50,000 incidents in which young men and women were horribly disfigured by being cut on the face by broken glasses and bottles, usually in alcohol-related crimes. A fantastic campaign has been mounted involving the Manchester Evening News; the Greater Manchester police have been involved in confiscating alcohol on the streets; and a successful byelaw has been passed. As a result, the figures for injuries in such crimes have slumped dramatically. The Home Secretary has given his personal commitment to the scheme, and hopes to roll it out nation wide. That is the kind of practical action that we can take to ensure that crime is reduced and prevented. We must be imaginative and creative in tackling crime, but the Tory motion contains a simplistic analysis. Talking up crisis and fear among members of the public is not the way to make people feel confident that they can make a difference.

Of course we need police officers to enforce the new powers that we are going to give them, and the numbers are beginning to rise after a long period of decline. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said that she wanted to civilianise and make police forces more effective. For goodness' sake, we have been doing that for years and years. In Greater Manchester, overall police staff numbers have fallen by 42 in the past 12 years. However, the number of operational police officers has risen by 1,075 because we have adopted civilianisation and found efficiency savings and better ways of using resources. There are now more than 1,000 extra police on the front line helping our communities to succeed.

The crimefighting fund will give the Greater Manchester police a further 588 police officers over the next three years, and in December it had the highest recruitment figures ever. Those are grounds for cautious optimism. This is not a brave new world; we are not going to solve all the problems overnight. However, the fact that recruitment figures are going up means that young people are regarding the police as a career in which they can make a contribution and become involved with their communities.

Police numbers are not the only issue. How the police are used is also important. The Tory analysis is simplistic, crude and unimaginative. I do not know why I am surprised at that; I am certainly disappointed by their approach. Greater Manchester police are to receive an extra £14 million, which includes £5 million for youth justice measures; £2 million for closed-circuit television; £2 for burglary reduction by helping elderly people to make their homes safer; £500,000 for tackling gun and gang crime; and £500,000 for tackling domestic violence.

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The homelink scheme is to be introduced, which will use information technology to give people who have been the victims of crime or who are particularly vulnerable a portable alarm. In that way, they will be able to contact the police and obtain an immediate response in an effort to reduce crime. We have the schools liaison programme, aimed at diverting people aged between 10 and 18 from crime. The programme, which involves 12,000 young people in our area, is a real success story. We also have the drug arrest referral initiative.

I think all Members will acknowledge that a huge amount of crime is connected with drugs. We have established a partnership involving the police, drug action teams, health authorities and social services departments. There is a drugs referral worker in every custody suite in greater Manchester, and in the last six months those referral workers have screened 3,500 people, offering them advice and referral for treatment. One thousand people have been referred for treatment. Some 80 per cent. of those referred were offending to fund their drug use; 70 per cent. were on heroin, and 94 per cent. were unemployed. Those are sad statistics, which is why practical schemes such as this are so vital.

We are taking steps to prevent and reduce crime. We have invested an extra £3.2 million in Operation Hawk. The object is to bear down on the serious problem of street robbery, targeting those who are likely to be repeat offenders, looking for local intelligence, working with local people and using information technology to make efforts to reduce the number of robberies much more effective. We have set ourselves a tough target--to reduce the number by 20 per cent. over the next five years--but I am confident that we will achieve it, because there is real commitment.

It is hard to tackle crime, but I believe that if we are serious about it the last thing we will do is what the Tories have tried to do today. Talking of crisis and raising the spectre of violent attack lurking around every street corner demoralises our communities and demoralises the police.

The choice is clear. Do people want a Labour programme involving practical action, building self- confidence and extra investment in the police force--there will be 9,000 additional officers over the next three years--or do they want to accept the Tory option? That means talk of crisis and demoralisation, hopelessness and cynicism. It also means a cut of £24 million in every constituency in Britain. How many police officers does that involve? How many drug referral officers does it involve? How many police officers working with young people does it involve?

That is the Tory option: cuts, demoralisation and cynicism. I prefer the Labour option of hope and confidence for the future.

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