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Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): My right hon. Friend talks of reducing crime, and I am sure that he is conscious of the fact that police numbers are rising and crime is falling in Nottinghamshire, but on any statistical comparison with like authorities, he will find that the Nottinghamshire police appear to be under-resourced. Will he give a commitment that, in the new formula in 2003–04, he will look very carefully at the position in Nottinghamshire? I accept what he says: all cannot be winners; there will be losers, too.

Mr. Denham: I have visited Nottinghamshire, and I am aware that the view in the city of Nottingham in particular is that the Nottinghamshire force faces the typical crime patterns of a major city under what is seen as a shire county funding formula. I cannot tell my hon. Friend what the outcome of the formula review will be, but I hope—this may be fatal optimism—that we will be able to approach the matter in such a way that he and other Nottinghamshire Members will be able to see that their concerns have been considered and addressed. That is an ambitious aim for any review—it will not leave everybody satisfied—but I hope that I can at least say that I listened to people when I made such visits. After many years of such issues not being considered, we are now prepared to consider them afresh.

I have taken considerably longer than I had hoped, but I hope that I have given way to all hon. Members who wished to intervene and that I have been able to respond to many of their points.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back Benchers' speeches. Given the fact that a number of hon. Members have risen, they may wish to make their contributions even shorter.

4.21 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I shall do my best to enable as many hon. Members as possible, from all parties, to contribute to the debate.

I recognise the courteous way in which the Minister introduced the debate. He has given way, as has been a tradition in this debate over many years, to every hon. Member who wished to put the case for their police force. He and I are the only two hon. Members who have been prevented from doing that, but I assure him that I shall do my best to do so when I come to the appropriate moment in my speech.

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I welcome the Minister's announcement, towards the end of his remarks, about extra resources for those forces who had to deal with riots, unrest and disturbances in some parts of the country last year. It is right that such extraordinary costs should be recognised, as should the extra costs—I will not enter into the dispute about how much they will be—that Manchester will incur because of the Commonwealth games. I would refer to Cambridgeshire inasmuch as, last year, the then Home Secretary recognised the extra costs faced by the police force in policing the Huntingdon Life Sciences protests, which are a permanent thorn in the side of Cambridgeshire constabulary. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that issue again.

The debate takes place against a dismal background of acute demoralisation in the police force. Before I consider the settlement, it is right to examine that background. Since the Home Secretary took on his new role just eight months ago, he has used every opportunity to criticise and undermine the police force. He has criticised their sickness rates, wastage rates and clear-up rates, and has generally presented the police force as a bunch of lazy, ill layabouts.

Even before that, however, the police were faced with ever-increasing bureaucracy and paperwork. As the Minister rightly said, that was manifested in the diary of a police officer, which showed how little time the police spend doing what most people regard as the most important part of policing—being out there visibly carrying out their duties.

As I said in my intervention, I welcome the fact that the Minister believes that the computerised custody system will come on stream in the course of next year. I am sorry that he was not able to provide a more definitive date as to when it will be extended to the whole country, as it will not be fully beneficial until then. However, the study entitled "Diary of a Police Officer" showed that it takes about three and a half hours on average to process each arrest. Therefore, any savings that can be made through the use of a computerised system would release a considerable amount of officer time.

Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is precisely the sort of role with which civilians could help, especially retired police officers who know how to process arrests? That would be a good use of their time and would help the police overall.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point, but he misses the crucial issue, which is the vast amount of paperwork that needs to be done before we address the problem of who does it. I welcome the fact that the Police Negotiating Board has tentatively found a way to encourage police officers who have done their 30 years to stay on in the force and use their experience to deal with custody cases or some other policing activity. That is a considerable step forward, but other things have caused the police to wonder why they bother.

The courts continue to release on bail people who the police know full well will reoffend. Chief police officers have expressed their concern to me about that. The Government introduced the early release scheme, which allowed 200 people who had attacked police officers out of prison early. In addition, the Home Secretary's proposals to make a dramatic change to pay and terms of

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employment were pushed through the Police Negotiating Board just before Christmas, under the heads of agreement. The rank and file are due to vote next week. The expectation in all levels of the police force is that it will be a no vote and that the concessions on overtime which the Home Secretary made on Monday will be insufficient to alter the result. As one police officer said to me yesterday, they have been knocked about. They feel bruised and battered and just when they needed encouragement, they are kicked again. Anyone with experience of managing people knows that it is necessary to bolster the morale of staff and the work force before setting about asking them to face change.

Let me be clear on this: we wholly support the need for change and increased flexibility in the police force. That is necessary, but the Government's bully-boy tactics are not conducive to making the police force adapt and face up to that change constructively, which is what we need if we are to achieve the necessary results.

The Minister referred to figures. Only two years ago, the Prime Minister said:

We know that that did not happen and the promise was broken. It appears that the Government have at last got police numbers back to the level that they inherited, but instead of showing remorse or apologising for four wasted years, the Minister wants credit for getting us back to square one.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: In a moment.

The Minister used the phrase "We have turned the tide." The question has to be asked: who set the tide in that direction in the first place? It was the present Government.

Mr. Denham: The direction of the tide was set by the previous Government who began cutting police numbers in 1993 and they continued to fall steadily. Not only did crime double, but the country was left in such a bad economic state that we had to sort out the public finances, which were in such a mess in 1997, and introduce economic stability to provide the platform for the increase in police numbers. The hon. Gentleman's Government set the tide in that direction when they allowed crime to double.

Mr. Paice: The Minister is absolutely wrong. According to the Government's figures—it is staggering how often they belie what the Government say—between March 1996 and March 1997, the last year of the Conservative Government, the number of police officers rose by 250 in a single year. I do not know where he gets the idea that we set the tide in that direction because the numbers rose to 127,158. I remind the House that by 31 March 2000 the number of police officers had dropped from 127,158 to 124,170—a drop of almost 3,000 in the first three years of a Labour Government.

Norman Baker (Lewes): The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the drop in police numbers when the

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Labour Government came to power. Is not the problem the fact that the Government followed Tory spending plans?

Mr. Paice: That is a typical Liberal intervention. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Government say that they have followed Conservative plans when it suits them to do so, as an excuse for a lack of effective and efficient economic management. However, when they want to boast about extra expenditure, of course that has nothing to do with the previous Government's spending plans; they claim the credit for themselves.

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