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House of Commons

Monday 2 July 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Members Sworn

The following Members took and subscribed the Oath, or made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:

Bill Etherington, Sunderland, North Robert Jackson, Wantage

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Manpower

1. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): How many police officers were serving on 7 June 2001; and how many there were on 1 May 1997. [610]

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9. Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): If he will call for a report on police numbers in Greater Manchester. [619]

12. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): If he will make a statement about police manpower in London. [622]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I last announced the figures on28 June. There were 125,519 officers in post and, as I announced in the Queen's Speech debate last Wednesday, there were 127,158 officers at the same time in 1997. Numbers nationally have increased by 1,349 in the past 12 months—the largest annual increase for 13 years.

Greater Manchester police has 6,909 officers—an increase of 115 officers on this time last year. In London, comparisons are distorted by boundary changes with Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey; as a result, the figure of 24,878 is 607 down on a year ago, but up by 183 in the past six months.

Mr. Gray: In the run-up to the 1997 general election, the Labour party promised thousands more officers on the beat, but, as we have just heard from the Secretary of State, the reality is that the number has fallen by 1,639 while it has been in office and resignations have increased. Resignations are running at 81 per cent. across the police. [Interruption.] Labour Members are not all that good at statistics. Resignations have risen by81 per cent. That is exactly correct; those are the figures.

In a spirit of helpfulness, may I suggest one way in which the Secretary of State could stop that haemorrhage in the police force? The police in North Wiltshire—a relatively prosperous area—are 30 people undermanned simply because police pay and conditions have not kept up with other pay and conditions in the area, as they are set nationally with the sole exception of those for the Metropolitan police. Will the Secretary of State consider allowing the chief constable of Wiltshire to set pay and

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conditions separately for Wiltshire and other chief constables throughout the country to do the same for their forces?

Mr. Blunkett: I am very pleased indeed that, despite the tale of woe, the crime figures show a 9.5 per cent. drop on the previous set of statistics—for which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is deeply grateful. As hon. Members know, we are embarking on a reform package, which will, of course, have to be considered by the police negotiating body in the usual way. I hope that we can consider how to recruit more effectively because the 76 additional officers allocated to Wiltshire in the crime fighting fund review would then be more easily attainable.

Mr. Lloyd: My right hon. Friend's comments about increased police numbers for Greater Manchester will be very welcome, but crime has gone up in the city of Manchester and the issue is right at the top of the agenda.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the case of my 84-year-old constituent, Florrie Birch? She was mugged last week by a young thug, who broke her hip. It took20 minutes for a glazier to turn up to repair broken glass and it took 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. However, it took two and a quarter hours for the police to respond. My constituents tell me all the time that police responses are not adequate. Although we want more policing, we want better-managed policing so that the public receive the service to which they are entitled. Will my right hon. Friend help me and my constituents by responding to that legitimate plea?

Mr. Blunkett: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is right that we should increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the police. The fact that police numbers in Greater Manchester will rise by next spring to 7,100 will assist, but the management and effective deployment of the force will be crucial.

I am personally sorry for Florrie Birch, and I am sure that the chief constable is also sorry, given the juxtaposition that my hon. Friend described in terms of the service received.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I sincerely congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new appointment, but may I remind him that there is no doubt that the number of police officers in the borough of Barnet has declined sharply while the level of crime has gone up? Does he recognise that, apart from the problems caused by early retirement, the Metropolitan police force faces the specific difficulty that it is unable to stop police officers being transferred of their own will to police forces in other parts of the country? Will he assure me that he is tackling the problem and that he will provide incentives so that police officers do not transfer to other police forces?

Mr. Blunkett: My predecessor as Home Secretary addressed strongly the issue of providing incentives to police officers. An uplift in special payments was made, and that is one reason why the Metropolitan police force is optimistic that it will be able to recruit more than 2,000 extra officers in the forthcoming period. The hon.

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Gentleman will know from his discussions with Commander Sue Akers that we face a real challenge, and it is one that we must face together.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) spoke about the recruitment difficulties faced by the Met. I represent a constituency that is five miles outside that area, but it has the same crime levels. In contrast to the hon. Gentleman's area, police officers in my area do not receive the extra benefits in terms of pay and costs of travel that Met officers receive. There is a recruitment crisis in areas around London—particularly in areas such as Slough that have high crime levels—and my judgment is that the police negotiating board has not addressed the problem sufficiently seriously. In coming new to this responsibility, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will take steps to make sure that the board will consider such issues when it discusses police pay shortly?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend knows that I am very familiar with the problems of areas just outside that covered by the Met. I spent four years dealing with similar problems facing teachers.

There is a problem that must be addressed, but it must be considered in the context of the 77 per cent. increase in recruitment and the substantial targets that we have set for retaining and recruiting officers. I spoke about this issue in the debate last Wednesday, when I referred to a target of 130,000 by 2004. I hope that we will be able to exceed that, and I hope that we shall be able to do so evenly, and so ensure that people, wherever they live, receive the policing that they deserve.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Since taking up his new responsibilities, on which I warmly congratulate him, has the Home Secretary asked his Department to make up-to-date comparisons with other countries in north America or on the continent of Europe on the number of police officers per head of population? Even at this early stage, does he have any thoughts on whether the numbers that he is talking about rather optimistically will come anywhere near meeting the requirements and expectations of our hard-pressed city and rural communities?

Mr. Blunkett: We are always interested to learn what is taking place in north America. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), met a senior police commissioner at the beginning of last week, and it seems to us that effective policing and effective management of policing are as important as the critical issue of raising numbers.

Not only have I made a comparison with north America, but I have compared police numbers in South Yorkshire with other areas of the country. Given its numbers, the force in South Yorkshire is doing a phenomenal job.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in addition to the 83 extra police officers in Suffolk who are being provided by the Government's crime fighting fund, Suffolk police authority is funding a further 100 officers from the council tax, having asked local people whether they wanted to pay a little more to get them? The fruits of that policy can be seen in the

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Lowestoft sector of my constituency, where 500 fewer crimes occurred last year than in the previous year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Suffolk police authority, the chief constable of Suffolk and the Lowestoft sector commander, John Everett, for deciding to do that, and will he commend the policy to other police authorities?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the considerable progress that has been made in London recruitment has been entirely negated by the high number of retirements and resignations, which amounted to 1,100 in the last financial year? What measures is he proposing to improve retention, and is he seriously considering retaining retired officers on a part-time basis?

Mr. Blunkett: I have the facility as an incoming Home Secretary to consider any measures to retain and improve occupational health and prevent seepage from the police force. I am prepared to receive suggestions from hon. Members on both sides of the House and will discuss those with the Police Federation, as I am doing later this week.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): As the Home Secretary told my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that the number of regular officers is now 1,639 fewer than at the same time in 1997, will he give the comparative figures for specials?

Mr. Blunkett: No, because I do not have them with me. However, I shall happily refer to the right hon. Lady's previous questions to the former Home Secretary so that I can remind her of his answers.

Miss Widdecombe: Perhaps I can assist the Home Secretary. There are 7,500 fewer special constables than in May 1997. Given that there are more than 1,600 fewer regulars and more than 7,000 fewer specials, what comfort can he give to people who suffer from menacing activities? I have in mind the reports in today's newspapers of someone who was harassed literally to death. That person, to whom I referred in the Queen's Speech debate last week, was harassed so often that he put the police number on his "Friends and Family" list with BT. Such harassment occurs daily and makes people's lives a living hell, in particular—although not exclusively—on big estates. As this is likely to be the last question that I ask him from the Dispatch Box, can he give a straightforward explanation of what he will do for people who live in those conditions?

Mr. Blunkett: I am deeply sorry that this is likely to be the last question that the right hon. Lady asks me from the Dispatch Box and I wish her well in whatever guise she takes on in the House.

There is no party political divide on the desire to protect people from the circumstances that were described in this morning's papers. We all want to do that and give people the support that they deserve quickly and effectively. That is why last Wednesday I gave a clear commitment to provide a rapid improvement in the recruitment and retention of police and why, in addition to uniformed

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police, there are 1,577 additional non-uniformed staff in the police service compared with last year. Those people matter because they improve the management and effectiveness of the delivery of the uniformed service.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that Gloucestershire has more police than in 1997, but we need a proper debate on the visibility of the police and the effectiveness of the way in which they operate, which is no less relevant to rural areas. More than anything, we need a proper reform of the way in which we fund policing, especially in the light of the previous Tory Government's failure to fund police authorities properly.

Mr. Blunkett: That is absolutely true. It is why the additional money from the spending review, £500 million in the coming year and £300 million the year after, will be good news for everyone who wants us to tackle head-on the disorder, antisocial behaviour and thuggery that make people's lives a misery.

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