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Police Recruitment (Hampshire)

7. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement about police recruitment in Hampshire. [617]

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): Recruitment by Hampshire police has increased in each of the past two years. The force took on 192 new officers in 2000–01, compared with 152 in 1999–2000, and 117 in 1998–99. Hampshire has been allocated 243 recruits from the crime fighting fund over the three years to March 2003. The force recruited 19 CFF

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officers in 2000–01. The force's latest forecast is that it will take on 121 officers through the CFF in the current year.

Mr. Swayne: The Minister will be aware that crime in Hampshire is rising—it is up by 7 per cent. Notwithstanding what he said, there are fewer police officers in Hampshire than there were at the time of the 1997 election: we are running faster just to stand still. The Minister knows that the recruitment of officers under the crime fighting fund last year had to be deferred to this year because officers of the right calibre could not be found. Does that surprise him, given that a trainee manager at a McDonald's restaurant can earn more than a Hampshire police recruit?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman and I share a common interest in ensuring that Hampshire is successful in recruiting police officers, as we both represent Hampshire constituencies. The Hampshire constabulary was the first that I was able to visit and see at close hand after my appointment to my present job. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this year, which is the first year in which the impact of the new allowances agreed earlier this year will be felt, we will see the increase in recruitment to the Hampshire constabulary that everyone wants. Right across the country, police numbers are going up as a result of the ring-fenced funding—the crime fighting fund—that is going to the police force. Because those numbers are going up, we can be confident that we will achieve record numbers of police officers in England and Wales in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I wish I could share the Minister's optimism, but unfortunately in Romsey we are only too acutely aware of the decrease in police numbers, as we have lost seven officers recently. Bearing in mind the fact that many young police men and women in Hampshire cannot contribute to the police pension fund because they simply cannot manage on the money, and that the chief constable asked for £2,000 a year extra as the Hampshire weighting and that was not given, how will the Minister redress the problems that are not being resolved? Will he take notice of the chief constable of Hampshire?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady is also a Hampshire Member of Parliament, and it does not do a great deal for police recruitment in Hampshire to overstate its problems, as she has been doing. The wastage from the Hampshire police service is lower than in any of the other seven forces covered by the new allowance agreed by the police negotiating body. However, I assure the hon. Lady that I am not in any way complacent. Despite those figures, I hear stories and concerns, and I assure her that I will consider carefully whether there are any trends in recruitment or people leaving the force that we should be concerned about, so that we can make sure that we have the best practice in recruitment and retention in place in every police service.

I hope, for example, that in the not too distant future, Hampshire may be one of the areas that benefits from the new starter home initiative aimed at key public sector workers, although that decision and announcement are yet

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to be made. We are continually examining ways of addressing the real issues that arise, but let us not overstate the current situation.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. Does he agree that police morale is at the heart of the recruitment and retention problems both in Hampshire and across the country? Is he aware that there has been a very large increase every year in the number of officers who voluntarily resign from the regular police service and that the number of special constables—which is down by one third since 1997—has collapsed?

Does the Minister not understand why police are demoralised? Does he understand that they are demoralised when they see criminals who have been convicted and sentenced to months of imprisonment released in just weeks? Does he understand that they are demoralised when it takes them a whole shift to do the paperwork for one arrest? Does he understand that the time-wasting bureaucracy of the best value system as it currently operates is wasting police officers' time behind desks when they could be out on the streets doing their jobs?

Mr. Denham: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about police morale. Whenever I meet front-line officers, I am struck by their commitment to the job that they are doing and by their love for the job. However, the hon. Gentleman was right on one point: front-line police officers express frustration about aspects of their job that prevent them from doing the job of policing as they would like. The hon. Gentleman mentioned bureaucracy. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have already instituted a study of the daily diary of police officers on the front line to identify how that issue can be tackled.

Parts of the criminal justice system need overhauling. Changes to the sentencing regime, for example, were being discussed earlier in this Question Time, and we recognise that that issue needs to be tackled. It is also true that front-line officers often feel frustrated with the quality of support that they receive, including the equipment that is made available to them. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that the commitment is there. We must support police officers. When there are real problems, we will tackle them.

Drug Abuse

10. Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): If he will set up a royal commission on drug abuse. [620]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I am not in favour of royal commissions and never have been. They are a way of putting off decisions that should be taken by those who carry responsibility for them. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) said in answering Question 6, we are of course prepared to update and respond to information and advice, including that from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, in developing the 10-year drug strategy.

Mr. Kirkwood: I thank the Home Secretary for that reply. Does he not think that, halfway through the 10-year

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strategy, this is an appropriate time to stand back and examine the effectiveness of the current drug policy? The most recent independent inquiry was conducted18 months ago by the Police Foundation, and some of the proposals that are now being implemented in Lambeth were recommended in that report by Ruth Runciman. Those recommendations have only now been accepted by the Government.

The circumstances surrounding the issue are changing almost daily. Last month, for example, The Guardian published a compelling series of articles by Nick Davies on the ineffectiveness of the Government's strategy. The Secretary of State may not be prepared to have a royal commission, but does he accept the need for an adult and open forum for discussion so that we can consider some of the consequences of this terrible scourge, including drug/crime links and better treatment for addicts?

Mr. Blunkett: I accept that there is room for an adult and sensible debate that has, as a common cause, the need to deal with the misuse of class A drugs, which bring misery to individuals, families and the wider community. The fact is that 30 per cent. of those who are arrested are found to have taken heroin or crack cocaine. In some parts of the country, the situation is desperate for the families involved. We all need to discuss the issues openly and sensibly, without blunt questions such as "yes or no: are you or are you not?", so that we can have sensible answers that respond to the public need.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): The trials for the medicinal use of cannabis have now entered their third phase, which suggests to me that it is highly likely that evidence will be available shortly that cannabis has medicinal properties. If that is proved to be the case later this year, will it lead to a reclassification of the substance?

Mr. Blunkett: There is a difference between the classification of the substance and the use of the residue in terms of medical application. I shall be interested to see the evidence as soon as possible on the latter point, and to deal with it accordingly.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I agree with the Home Secretary that royal commissions are just a way of playing issues into the long grass—appropriate, perhaps, for cannabis. Does the Home Secretary accept that the issue is becoming urgent? When statutes and penalties that are on the statute book are not being applied on the streets, that brings the law, the police force and, ultimately, this place into disrepute. Should not these matters be brought into line sooner rather than later?

Mr. Blunkett: I liked the joke. I noticed in an article in a newspaper for which I normally have a great deal of time that what is an experiment has been dubbed "chaotic policy". We need to monitor, and we need the police to use discretion without there being a feeling that the whole policy is unravelling. That is part of a sane and sensible debate. Credibility in terms of prioritisation of the use of police time and resources has to be applied on the ground, and it is, day in, day out; not just in terms of wider substance abuse, but in the way in which local communities are policed. Since taking office, I have heard

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cries that, on the one hand, we should allow the police discretion and, on the other, that any discretion would somehow dismantle the overall policy.

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