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Mr. Bercow indicated assent.

Mr. Luff: I see that my hon. Friend is pleased to hear that.

I am afraid that I am a bit cynical about this because police numbers are down, and in my area, very sharply down. The very useful document "Police Service Strength", produced by the Library, shows that under each and every Conservative Government, police numbers in West Mercia rose, sometimes by--

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): Does the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that--

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lammy: I am sorry. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that between 1979 and 1997--for me, formative years--in constituencies such as Tottenham, crime increased by 166 per cent., and that the partnership approach that the Labour Government have put forward is what has begun to tackle that?

Mr. Luff: I am reluctant to be drawn too far into this argument, because I suspect that you would rule me out

28 Mar 2001 : Column 1010

of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, but let me say this. Crime was falling at the end of the last Conservative Government, as a result of the measures that we introduced, and in recent years crime--especially violent crime--has been rising again, causing great distress to my constituents, so that kind of Millbank argument cuts no ice in Worcestershire. It is hardly surprising because in Worcestershire, police numbers have been falling for the first time in more than 20 years.

If the hon. Gentleman wants the figures for police numbers under the various Administrations, they increased by 9.9 per cent. in the first--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman was quite correct when he said that if he went too far down that path, I would call him to order.

Mr. Luff: I certainly have no intention of going down a primrose path that leads to being out of order, but there is an important point here. The Government plan to make increased use of the private security industry in partnership with the police, and my contention is that they are doing so because police numbers are falling and the Government need to cover up for that loss of numbers. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, looks puzzled. I have no wish to make you unduly anxious about the orderliness of our proceedings, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will simply say that police numbers in Worcestershire increased under every Conservative Government and have fallen by 7 per cent. under the present Government. That is the fact that I cannot get on to the public record because there is a conspiracy of silence--

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Luff: With pleasure.

Mrs. Roche: I shall be extremely brief. The figures do not bear out what the hon. Gentleman says. If he looks at them, he will see that, during the Conservative years, police numbers were falling, and that it is only now, as a result of the resources that we have put in, that that picture is changing. That is the truth.

Mr. Luff: I am drawn into considerable difficulties here. I am glad to provoke the Minister, but she is simply wrong--as far as my constituency is concerned, at least.

In Lady Thatcher's first term, in West Mercia there was an increase of 9.9 per cent. In her second term, there was an increase of only 0.7 per cent. In the third term, under Lady Thatcher and my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), there was an increase of 5.4 per cent., and in the final term, under my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, there was an increase of 0.3 per cent. There was an increase--sometimes big, sometimes modest--in each and every Parliament. However, under the present Administration, police numbers have fallen by nearly 7 per cent.

Those are figures from the document produced by the Library, confirmed by Home Office figures published last week. I am not surprised that the Minister does not like to be confronted with the truth, but it is the truth. I am afraid that is why I am so cynical about provisions designed to increase the role of the private security industry.

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I find it difficult to get this subject debated because, when I make these allegations, the BBC--not unreasonably--wishes to find someone to counter them, and there is a conspiracy of silence on the other side. No one will answer for those figures. They are a matter of fact and I am afraid that the Minister will have to accept it. I will happily give her a copy of this document after the debate. It is excellent; I commend it to her.

The use of the private security industry is a matter of some concern to the Police Federation. Fred Broughton, chairman of the staff association, has expressed his concerns. In a press release in 1998, he said:

not the comments of the Prime Minister but those of the chief constable of Surrey--

the proposals by the chief constable of Surrey to make greater use of the private security industry three years ago

In a statement of the Police Federation's view on the proposal to use the private security industry more, which appears on its website at present, the federation says:

I am not sure that I go all the way with the Police Federation, but its concerns need to be addressed.

The security industry already has an important role--that is why the licensing proposed in the Bill is so important--in shopping malls, in prison escorts and in privately funded public patrols. In Group 4's own village of Broadway, in my constituency, there is a privately funded public patrol, which brings great comfort to the residents.

As the Government are obviously trying to privatise the police through the back door and to use the private sector more intensively than before, it is entirely proper that the industry should be more effectively regulated. More opportunity for Group 4 and the other operators, provided by the Government, should be accompanied by more responsibility, and that is essential if the services provided by these companies are to be acceptable to the communities and organisations that they serve.

I suggest one thought to the Minister. I understand that the Government have shown considerable reluctance to commit themselves only to employing registered companies. Obviously, when the Bill becomes law and is put into effect, all individuals will be licensed, but companies will not. There may be something to be said for the Government at least considering sending a message that they will use only companies that register, and will not just rely on those that comply with the literal terms of the Act and have their individual members licensed.

I shall try not to make my final point too long, but it is important. It follows on from the comments by the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central about wheelclamping.

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She is right to say that there can be reputable wheelclamping: it does happen. I would like to have a wheelclamp for the cars that regularly park outside my flat, where they should not be. I have a notice that I run off from my word processor, which is fairly offensive and normally gets them moved, but it is nevertheless a problem.

The horror stories about wheelclamping are legion. Clampers in Doncaster threatened to hold a mother's three-year-old daughter to ransom until £60 was collected from a bank. Clampers in Sheffield demanded a woman's gold tooth as payment. One woman was asked for sex unless she came up with the release payment immediately. A hearse with a body in the back was clamped outside a church. Sixty-one year-old Marina Vine was clamped when, driving home from hospital following a chemotherapy session, she pulled over to be sick. This is the type of problem that we must deal with. There are real cowboys in the wheelclamping industry.

The British Parking Association, to its credit, has done its best to deal with this menace, but it has no powers. The code of conduct that it has drawn up contains some very welcome provisions. It says that

and that

and that

It is difficult to reconcile all these good intentions with the activities of the cowboys. I have a constituent who wishes to remain anonymous because he is fearful of recriminations from the parking company. I had a representation from him in January. What happened was as follows:

My constituent admits that there were signs, although they were not very visible. He was actually doing something wrong.

From what I have heard from the hon. Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Doncaster, Central, £240 to £250 seems to be the cowboy going rate at the moment. My constituent continues:

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The company involved is Parking Solutions (U.K.) Ltd, PO Box 7765, Halesowen, B64 6AY. My constituent and his father have phoned Parking Solutions and the police, who said that it was a civil matter and there was nothing that they could do.

My constituent continued:

I have the receipt here. He goes on:

All that work was done to try to deal with a cowboy contractor.

My constituent

I understand my constituent's concerns about disclosing his home address. He continued:

I hope that the hon. Lady will commend that course of action to her other hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench.

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