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Fiona Mactaggart rose

Mr. Paice: I shall not give way, if the hon. Lady does not mind. I want to give the Minister time to respond.

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Addressing the cost of living allowance is exactly the course of action suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and others. My hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire, for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) referred to the importance of visible policing. There is no doubt that that has suffered seriously during the past few years. Police numbers fell dramatically in the Government's first three years in office. Of course we welcome the fact that we are now back to where we were—73 above to be precise—and in response to the accusation that I am being churlish, I welcome the extra police officers in Cambridgeshire. However, we have only got back to where we were, and have not made significant progress.

Several of my hon. Friends referred to the special constabulary. Under the Government, there has been a cataclysmic decline in the number of specials of some 40 per cent. It would be wholly wrong to lay the blame for that entirely at the Government's door. People's lifestyles have changed and they may be less willing to undertake voluntary work. However, a decline of 40 per cent. cannot be completely attributed to a gradual change in people's lifestyles in the past few years. I am disappointed that in the White Paper, which has raised its head several times in the debate, the Government did not set out any strong proposals substantially to revitalise the specials, other than making nice warm noises about the need to increase the special constabulary.

The principal issue remains that of the shift towards the council tax, and it was raised by a number of hon. Members. I wish the Minister would be straightforward with the House and say whether it is the Government's intention to shift the bulk of the cost of policing towards the council tax payer. That is what is happening. I gave figures, which hon. Members supported with figures from their own constabularies. It looks as though many authorities will be raising their council tax precept by 20 or 30 per cent. just to stand still. Others may decide not to raise it by that amount, and to face up to having to make cuts.

I come back to the Government's targets for the number of police officers. If some forces are not able to access the crime fighting fund this year because they have had to cut their recruitment and do not meet the gateway criteria, does the Minister realistically expect to meet his target of 130,000 officers by next year? If he does, will he tell the House what he expects the rise in council tax precepts to be on average for police authorities across the country? He cannot have it both ways: either council taxes will have to rise dramatically or he will not get the police officers he and all of us want by this time next year.

6.49 pm

Mr. Denham: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply. I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for leaving me 10 minutes or so. I hope to deal with the main themes of the debate in that time, although I shall not be able to respond in detail to each point. I am sure that hon. Members will understand.

This has, in general, been a helpful debate, although inevitably there has been a degree of special pleading and some presentation of creatively argued cases from police authority treasurers determined to show the situation in the worst possible light.

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A number of speakers from, I think, both sides of the House drew a contrast between the average grant increase of 2.8 per cent. and the overall spending increase of 6.1 per cent. That, as a number of other speakers made clear, is not the point. The missing amount has not been whipped away for nefarious central purposes. A substantial extra amount, over and above the grant increase, will be spent by police forces in local areas on delivering policing to communities. The crime fighting fund, the rural policing fund and the capital fund—which, as I have said, is being increased by more than 30 per cent.—will be spent in local police force areas. That alone amounts to an increase of 4.34 per cent. in England and Wales.

Mr. Cameron rose

Mr. Denham: May I make a little progress? I gave way to every intervention earlier, and I have not much time. I will give way later if I can.

Thames Valley police have featured many times today. If we take account of the increases in the crime fighting fund, the rural policing fund and capital, they are receiving 5.18 per cent. When set against an average increase of 6.1 per cent. across the country, that is not at all bad. There is a good case for some of the central funds and central initiatives to which some Members have objected.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) rightly said that the public wanted more police, and wanted to see more police on the beat. I have chided the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for the decline in police numbers set in train by the last Government in 1993, and he has chided me for the fact that it took us a couple of years to sort out the economy and enable the numbers to start rising again. The fact is, however, that without a mechanism like the crime fighting fund, which ring-fenced resources for the recruitment and salaries of additional officers, the numbers would not be going up now.

If Ministers are to be accountable for the overall number of police officers, I shall want to ensure—as will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—that there is a mechanism to translate the money we are investing into the officers that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friends want to see patrolling the streets, and providing intelligence-led policing in communities.

Mr. Paice: Is the Minister saying that if he gave the money to police authorities they could not be trusted to spend it on policemen?

Mr. Denham: I certainly believe that if we had not ring-fenced it, we would not have seen such a rapid increase in the number of police officers. I will defend that judgment, although it required a degree of central direction. As we would be held to account if the public did not benefit from seeing us head for record police numbers this spring and 130,000 officers next spring, I think we have a right to take the measures that are necessary to ensure that that happens.

The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke of going out with the police and observing that they could not communicate properly because their radios did not work. That is the reason for the Airwave initiative. Our

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police service has a history of failure to implement coherent approaches to information technology and the development of communications technologies because of a series of 43 separate, unco-ordinated decisions made by 43 separate police forces in 43 separate police authorities.

It is all very well defending, as I will, the key role of police authorities in the tripartite partnership, but if the police service in England and Wales is undermined by the inability of forces to talk to each other—if, to preserve their own safety, they cannot communicate in the event of a motorway crash on the border of two counties, or an armed incident, because their radios do not work—there must be a central national initiative, and that is what Airwave is all about. Similarly, there is no point in having a database enabling scene-of-crime samples to be checked against DNA records if half the country's police forces cannot take advantage of it.

We are talking not about some overbearing centralisation, but about an arrangement that is supported by the vast majority of chief constables and others who recognise that, while we take tremendous pride in the identity of local and community policing and policing by consent, tackling modern criminality involves issues that must be dealt with on a coherent national basis. I believe that we have the balance right in the settlement, and in the overall approach set out in a police Bill for whose Second Reading we have heard some rehearsals today.

Most Members also mentioned recruitment and retention in the south-east. Let me repeat some of what I said earlier. We realise that that is important, which is why—unlike the last Government, who abolished the housing allowance—we have presented proposals for low-cost home ownership and low-cost loan schemes. As we said in our White Paper, we want to establish a link with the NHS low-cost housing co-ordinator. I think there is scope for more partnership schemes involving housing associations and others.

As well as introducing regional allowances, we want to address such important issues. We must, however, ensure that we are doing the right things in the most effective way. We need a much better understanding of why some forces in the south-east have a much lower wastage rate than others, and why some have a much more effective recruitment rate. We must see what is good, and build on the best. I do not rule out any approach beyond that, but before saying "Here is an obvious simple solution" let us do what we are doing now. Let us work with the forces that are doing extremely well and also with those that appear to have a problem, and see what we can do.

I do not understand the reasons for this, but 60 per cent. of Thames Valley recruits come from outside the Thames valley area. The force can attract recruits, but there is a built-in tendency for people to return to their home areas. It would be interesting to know why such a high proportion are from outside; home-grown recruits would be less likely to drift away. We are determined to tackle all the issues, but I want to do that on the basis of an understanding of what is really going on.

The last Conservative Administration set in train a decline in the number of police officers that we have had to reverse. Crime doubled under that regime. The Conservatives introduced huge delays in youth courts, preventing young offenders from being brought to justice quickly. The level of resources that we are discussing now was undreamt of under that Government.

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We have presided over a period in which crime has fallen. According to the British crime survey, last year's fall was the biggest in the survey's history, and the chance of being a victim of crime was the lowest since it began in 1981. I am in no way complacent, however. Crime levels are still too high, and there are serious problems—such as street robbery, which has been mentioned a number of times—that we are determined to tackle. Although I am pleased with what we have achieved so far, I realise that there is a great deal more to do.

Police forces and officers do a tremendous job, which is why we were happy to negotiate heads of agreement with the Police Federation that would make the vast majority of officers better off, benefiting from a fairer pay system. They deserve and will receive our support. We will reform the police service to free its time. Former chief inspector Sir David O'Dowd is leading the battle against red tape and bureaucracy. We need to give more support to police officers by investing in capital. That is why part of the capital we have announced this week will be spent on improving working conditions for police officers and visiting conditions for the public in police stations.

We want to free officers' time so they can be out in the community—not wandering the streets, but patrolling in an intelligent, targeted way to tackle antisocial behaviour and persistent offenders. We are determined to support the police better in the job that they do so well for us already. The resources that we have discussed today will enable them to do just that.

Question put and agreed to.


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