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Police Numbers (Essex)

6. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What recent discussions he has had with Essex police about police numbers in Essex. [5142]

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): I am told by the chief constable that, in September, Essex police had 2,953 officers, which is 66 more than in March, and 1,582 civilian staff, which is 135 more than in March. The crime fighting fund is delivering more police officers to Essex police and information supplied by the force shows that Essex expects to take on 247 new recruits in 2001-02.

Bob Spink: Does the Minister accept that Essex police numbers are far lower than when I was previously an Essex MP and does he consider that to be deplorable? Does he accept that that figure is one factor that is driving down police morale in Essex, as elsewhere in the country where morale is at an all-time low? Does he agree that it

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is an unprecedented insult for the Government to refuse to grant the police the golden jubilee medal? I call on him to review his policy and grant that medal.

Mr. Denham: We are on course for a record, highest-ever number of police officers in England and Wales, and Essex, like other forces, is benefiting—[Hon. Members: "When?"] In the lifetime of this Parliament. [Interruption.] Opposition Members laugh, but it is good news that there will be more police officers than ever before in England and Wales. That is being achieved by this Government, and the figure will exceed any previous level. I do not accept that morale is low. Wastage from the police service is low.

On the question of the jubilee medal, a decision was announced earlier this year that members of the armed forces only would receive it, but representations have been made from various parts of the police service and we are reviewing the position.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the problem is not the welcome resources that he has described, but the chief constable's priorities and the way in which he distributes those resources? I represent some of the poorest areas in Essex and we are simply not getting our share of the cake. Bearing in mind that those are operational decisions of the chief constable, can my right hon. Friend have a word with him about setting the right priorities? We are talking about redistributing resources in favour of the most disadvantaged people who suffer the most crime and are least protected and supported by other mechanisms such as insurance. There is a real problem in Essex. It is not of my right hon. Friend's making, but those scarce resources must be redistributed.

Mr. Denham: As my hon. Friend rightly says, the deployment of officers is a matter for chief constables, but we intend to ensure that we drive up standards in the police service across England and Wales by identifying best practice and the ways in which forces are achieving it. The new standards unit that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced and the inspections of basic command units that are now taking place will enable us to identify any areas in which the service is not up to the standard that my hon. Friend would expect and will allow measures to be taken to tackle that.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Police in Essex will be interested to know that, by the end of this Parliament, there will be more officers than ever before, but they are fully aware that there are 1,600 fewer nationally than when the Government took office. They would be delighted to know when we shall get back to where we were when the Government started, let alone when that can be built on.

Does the Minister agree that Essex police will not accept that it is satisfactory still to be reviewing the issue of the Queen's jubilee medal? There has been a widespread outcry from the police force in Essex and elsewhere and his Government are breaking the tradition of 120 years, because jubilee medals have always been granted not just to the armed forces but to the police. Will the right hon. Gentleman state categorically that the Government will reintroduce that linkage, recognise

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police officers as equivalent to members of the armed services and give them the jubilee medal next year, which they deserve?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman should have the wit to adjust his question if it has already been answered earlier—but he ploughed on regardless and had nothing of any value to say to the House. I am proud of the fact that the Government have reversed the long-term trend of reducing police numbers that was established under the Conservative Government. Last year, police numbers increased by 1,349, the largest annual increase for well over a decade.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

7. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What proposals he has to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. [5144]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State forthe Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Government keep the misuse of drugs legislation under continual review.

Paul Flynn: After 30 years of the harshest prohibition of drugs in Europe, this country has the worst drugs problem in the continent and the position continues to deteriorate. Other countries have reduced harm by policies of regulated, licensed decriminalisation.

Will my hon. Friend kill the myth that the present conflict will reduce the flow of heroin into this country? Does he agree with the United Nations that the Taliban have replaced almost all of their drugs crops with wheat, and that 80 per cent. of the heroin produced in Afghanistan is now made by our partners in the Northern Alliance? When one source dries up another fills its place.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend will know that the overwhelming majority of heroin coming into this country comes from Afghanistan. It does not come from the area controlled by the Northern Alliance: it comes from the entire area of Afghanistan. The cultivation ofthose crops increased considerably when the Taliban Government came to power. Despite the fact that they took the decision not to produce heroin, there are massive stockpiles in Afghanistan, and there is no discernible impact on the supply to this country of any temporary disruption of cultivation. Therefore one wonders what their motivation was for that policy.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Bearing in mind that more than half of our young people have experimented with drugs at some point, and that the police have responded by not enforcing the law in all its severity, is there not scope for a wide-ranging inquiry, perhaps on the lines of a royal commission?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has called for an adult debate, and has rightly emphasised the need to consider carefully all the implications of any change in our drugs law. The potential for increasing usage is one

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of the issues that would have to be picked up in that debate. It is a challenge for those who advocate legalisation—one to which they rarely rise.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the comments made at the conference of probation officers last week. In the light of those remarks, of what is happening in other countries throughout Europe and of the recommendations in Lady Runciman's report, and bearing in mind what the Metropolitan police are doing in Brixton, why are the Government so resistant to reconsidering the law regarding cannabis?

Mr. Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend had listened to my previous answer, he would have heard me say that my right hon. Friend wants an adult debate. If he properly examines the policies in many other countries, he will discover that the apparent discrepancies are often not as wide as they are believed to be. In many countries there is a convergence that involves the disruption of the supply of drugs and measures—such as harm reduction and education—to try to tackle these issues.

Special Constables

9. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If he will make a statement on the number of special constables available for duty in England and Wales. [5146]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): The number of serving specials was 12,738 at 31 March 2001. The Government are committed to increasing the special constabulary, and we are currently carefully considering improvements in support services and the recruitment and retention of specials.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his answer. As he will know from the response to Question 6, there are more than 1,600 fewer police officers than there were in 1997—but is it not also the case that there are 7,136 fewer special constables now than there were then? Does he recall the Prime Minister's pledge to put

That clearly has not happened. Is not the pledge—like all pledges given by the Prime Minister on matters domestic—just a load of hot air?

Mr. Blunkett: There is no hot air in the commitment that we have given to raise 130,000 full-time equivalent officers over the next two years. By next summer, we will have a record number of officers, and we will complement that with a recruitment and retention drive for specials. That will form part of our development of the role of the community and of active citizenship in tackling crime and disorder and, in particular, antisocial behaviour.

Yes, I am aware of the figures relating to specials. They were given to me, specially and privately, by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), then the main Conservative party spokesman, at the last Home Office Question Time just before the summer recess.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about the increase in the number

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of special constables. Does he agree that it would be a great advantage if specially trained special constables worked with community groups on such issues as antisocial behaviour orders and matters dealt with by Crimewatch groups? Might that not help to reduce crime and bring some satisfaction to our communities?

Mr. Blunkett: I entirely agree. That would be an excellent way not just to mobilise the community to tackle crime and disorder, but to ensure that members of the community constitute an in-depth part of the solution and can reach out, having been trained, authorised and regulated by the police service. It would also be an excellent way of using the time and talent of people who may have retired early, and of making the community feel that it is indeed part of the solution. We are currently having constructive dialogue about resources, and I hope that we shall be able to recruit a large number of specials who will fulfil exactly the role that my hon. Friend has outlined.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I know how much specials are appreciated throughout the country, just as full-time officers are. At times of increased tension such as this, the more visible policing that can be provided through the use of both specials and regular officers is hugely appreciated, not least in areas where there could be a threat to minority communities, or where there are very mixed communities.

How does the Home Secretary plan to respond to the suggestion by police authorities and chief constables that extra policing requires additional resources from the Government? Given that the extra cost of policing in the Metropolitan police area is estimated to be £1 million a week, what will the Government do for this year's budget? How will they ensure that we continue to recruit both full-time and special constables in greater numbers, and are able to pay for them?

Mr. Blunkett: I, too, have read the figures that keep emerging from either the Metropolitan police or the Metropolitan Police Authority showing how much costs are escalating. I would never wish to intervene in the operational freedom of a chief constable or commissioner, but we must retain some sort of balance in what is spent by the Metropolitan police and the 43 authorities across England and Wales.

I am discussing with colleagues the amount that can be allocated not just to police forces but to security generally, including provision for civil contingencies. We will ensure that resources are made available both to do that job and to ensure that alternatives, such as specials or their equivalent, are available. That will enable us better to provide facilities as well as guaranteeing the safety and security of people in their own homes and streets, which remain an absolute priority.

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