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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Oh! I am very disappointed.

Mr. Pickles: My right hon. Friend is a hard man.

We believe that some consensus needs to exist on London so that everyone—the Government, local authorities, the Mayor and the Assembly—can work together. However, the odd word of criticism of the Government may creep into the debate, but it will be uttered in the spirit of friendship and comradeship.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) rose

Mr. Pickles: On that basis, I give way.

Mr. Salter: In the spirit of what is clearly going to be a touchy-feely consensual debate, I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to apologise in public to the House and the British people for the decision of the Government whom he supported in 1996 to do away with the police housing allowance, triggering one of the worst recruitment and retention crises in police forces in London and the south-east. Was that wrong? Will the hon. Gentleman apologise?

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry that the consensus has broken down so early. Police officers are to come to the House to lobby tomorrow, when we will see what they think of the hon. Gentleman and the Government he supports.

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London is traditionally a vibrant and exciting city—a capital of commerce and business, of culture and the arts, and of many different and diverse cultures which have made it an attractive place. However, the question is now being asked, is London a good place to live and to bring up a family? In recent weeks, the capital has had two wake-up calls: we discovered, much to our shock, that a person is five times as likely to be a victim of crime in London as in New York; and the Mercer report on quality of life puts London 11th among all the European Union capitals.

On pollution alone, the Mercer report puts London behind Los Angeles, Istanbul and Lusaka; in the EU, only Athens scores worse then London. More important, on quality of life overall, which takes account of socio-economic factors, crime, transport, the environment and various other measures of whether a city is a pleasant place to live, London has dropped one place since last year and six since 2000. We are now ranked 41st in the world and 11th in the EU behind Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Brussels, Luxembourg, Berlin, Paris and Dublin. By measuring factors such as personal safety and comfort, transportation and congestion, the Mercer report has picked up early the deterioration in our nation's capital.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Speaking of deterioration, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that throughout the 18 years of Conservative Government there was mass unemployment in London and massive cuts in the number of hospital beds, and that people fled the city because things were getting so bad? Will he confirm also that under Labour the population of London is increasing as people realise that there are more jobs and greater prosperity in the city?

Mr. Pickles: I do not confirm that. The hon. Gentleman should be careful or I will not follow the instructions he gave me a couple of days ago to lay into the Government on congestion charging and the public-private partnership. He cannot say one thing in private and something quite different on the Floor of the House. I hope that I have betrayed no confidences.

Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman has not betrayed a confidence; he has simply got something completely wrong. He knows, because it is on the record, that I oppose the madcap congestion charging scheme introduced by the—independent—Mayor of London, Mr. Livingstone. There might in principle be a scheme that works, but that scheme is not it.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman would have done better to remain seated. We have seen the flame flicker and a sinner retract.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for smoking out the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). Did not the hon.

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Gentleman vote for the Bill that allows the independent Mayor to levy those charges? Labour Members complain, but they voted for it.

Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is right. I had already been so beastly to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) that I decided to leave out that point, but my hon. Friend is less compassionate.

Mike Gapes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: No. I suggest that it is in the hon. Gentleman's own interests that he remain seated.

The crime figures tell us that in November last year there were almost 13,000 offences of violence against the person, 5,000 offences of robbery and 14 murders. That is roughly the equivalent of 2.5 offences per 1,000 people. When we compare those figures with those for the same offences in New York over the same period, we find that a Londoner was five times as likely as a New Yorker to become a victim of violent crime. It is a sad day for this country when a member of the Soprano crime family might be reluctant to take tea at the Ritz for fear of being mugged in Piccadilly—[Interruption.] I stand corrected; the Sopranos are from New Jersey, but they visit New York. Latest figures show that street crime shot up by 40 per cent. last year and mobile phone theft by 366 per cent. Most shocking of all, the victims and perpetrators of those crimes are likely to be under 18.

Mobile phone thefts are not in themselves the cause of the sudden rise in robberies. We are grateful for Home Office research which shows that if mobile phone thefts were excluded, the upward trend in robberies would barely be blunted—small wonder, when the number of police officers has plummeted by 600 under this Government. As a result of the failure to retain experienced officers, recruitment does not keep pace with losses. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Glen Smyth, said:

Mr. Smyth went on to say:

With fewer police on the street and a reduction in stop and search, it is little surprise that street crime is rising.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why Conservative members of the Greater London Authority proposed a cut in the police budget, which Sir John Stevens told the Metropolitan police authority would have meant fewer police officers on the beat on the streets in London?

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong; Conservative members of the GLA proposed that there should be 1,400 officers, which is 200 more than the Mayor proposed. The hon. Gentleman is confused; Conservative members of the GLA suggested a cut in the number of press officers. I know that for Labour Members press officers and policemen are virtually indistinguishable, but it is clear that had the Conservative budget been accepted and had the Liberal Democrat party not cosied up with Labour, there would now be the prospect of more police officers on the beat, not fewer.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): As the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue of press officers in the

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south-east, why did Conservative-controlled Kent county council employ 27 press officers in the year in which it made 27 care managers redundant?

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman should realise that Kent county council is at the forefront of reducing dependency, with the full approval of the Government. He should also realise that it is taking a lead in employing wardens to offer additional help to the police. It has been highly praised and its officers have been invited to No. 10 for discussions, which is more than the hon. Gentleman has been.

Following the reduction in stop and search by the police, it is interesting that Mr. Mike Best, the editor of The Voice, recently called for it to be increased. He told the BBC that he was concerned about the number of black youths killed in shootings; he believed that the police had moved away from unprofessional standards and would use the tactic of stop and search more sensibly. He went on to say:

The Home Secretary's response to that is surprising. In summary, his approach to stop and search is three- pronged; first, officers must provide an on-the-spot record of stop and search which has taken place; secondly, officers will receive a clear explanation, both of the principles of stop and search and the importance of exercising them fairly and effective; thirdly, a supervising officer will monitor ways in which officers stop and search people and look for trends which give cause for concern.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Home Secretary's proposals on stop and search highlight yet another Government failure—the creation of more bureaucracy and paperwork? One way to get more police on the streets is to reduce the three or four hours that they spend filling in Labour Government paperwork before they can get back out on the streets again.

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