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2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): As I am the Minister with responsibility for active communities, I undertake to check what is going on with the organisation that was mentioned by the hon. Member for South–West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and write to him.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate on policing in Bedfordshire. It is a useful opportunity to air current concerns about the police in Bedfordshire, including the pressing issue of the outstanding insurance claim made against the police authority following the disturbance at Yarl's Wood. I echo the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the men and women of Bedfordshire police service and to the fire authority. I commend their courage and dedication during the night of the disturbance. They all did a magnificent job under very difficult circumstances.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear the Government's position on the insurance claim on 25 February in his statement about the fire at Yarl's Wood and the insurer's claim against Bedfordshire police. I know that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire was present in the Chamber at the time and asked a question. We will take whatever advice is necessary and work with the police, who are operationally independent, to protect their interests and those of the people whom they serve in Bedfordshire.

The disturbance is the subject of separate investigations by Bedfordshire police, Bedfordshire fire and rescue service and Group 4 Amey Immigration Ltd., as well as the subject of an overarching inquiry conducted by Stephen Moore. I would not wish to pre-empt those findings. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Office is not directly involved in the claim made by the insurers of Group 4 Amey Immigration Ltd., as it is a matter for the Bedfordshire police authority. However, we are being kept informed of developments. For legal reasons, I cannot comment further, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are vigorously pursuing the contractor's obligations to us under the contract to run Yarl's Wood, and I hope that he will be reassured by that.

I turn to more general issues, including police officer numbers and particularly recruitment and retention. Police numbers are an important part of a comprehensive package of measures to ensure a modern and efficient police service that can fight crime in the most effective way. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are well on course to achieve their target of 130,000 police officers in post—the highest number ever. It is equally important, though, that police officer time is used efficiently. There are measures in the Police Reform Bill to assist in the most effective use of officers' time and professional expertise.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for police authority and the chief constable to determine the precise make-up of the force and its distribution across the force area. That is part of my answer to the hon. Gentleman's comments on Leighton Buzzard police station. Those are operational matters for the chief constable, not for Ministers. Those on the Conservative Front Bench in the Lords removed clause 5 from the Police Reform Bill, which would have helped a Home Secretary deal with failing forces. I am

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sure that the hon. Gentleman will have made all the comments that he has just put on record on the Floor of the House to the chief constable of Bedfordshire police, particularly about staffing in Leighton Buzzard.

Bedfordshire had 1,077 police officers on 31 January. That is 41 more than in March 2001. I understand that the force expects to increase further to 1,117 in 2002–03. Civilian staff numbers have increased by 28, which is a 6 per cent. increase, since March 1997 to 512 on 30 September 2001. I understand that the force has introduced a number of measures to make better use of officers' time, not only to increase police visibility on the streets, which is an important reassurance to the public, but to ensure that officers spend their time more effectively.

I commend the force on those initiatives, which include a prisoner handling unit to help save officers' time. The force is considering the feasibility of extending the scheme throughout the force area. It employs civilians for case preparation, prisoner handling and custody work. For rural policing, there are two mobile police stations to provide visibility and reassurance to those communities.

The force has introduced the Operation Scorpion website, which gives the public access to crime reduction initiatives, and Ringmaster, which is a computerised system to pass on intelligence among local communities. That is particularly useful in rural areas, but it is also effective in areas with a high concentration of retail premises, so that people can be informed about the presence of known troublemakers, their whereabouts and their activities.

In addition to its specials, the force has 60 volunteers who are members of the public who give up their time to assist the force with office duties and open days so that officers can remain on the beat. That is the sort of initiative that I like to see.

The crime fighting fund, which the Government established to boost police numbers, has been central to the recent growth in police strength nationally. The CFF is enabling forces to recruit 9,000 officers over and above their previous plans in the three years to March 2003. In 2000–01, forces took on some 2,800 officers through the fund and a further 3,200 were recruited by the end of 2001–02. We expect a further 3,000 to be recruited this year, and that will make up the target of a 130,000 nationally that I mentioned earlier.

In 2000–01, the first year of the scheme, the Bedfordshire force appointed 80 recruits, including its total allocation of 28 funded by the CFF. The latest information provided by the force shows that it took on 132 new recruits in 2001-02, including all of its allocation from the CFF. Subject to the force meeting the CFF criteria, it will be able to take on a further 26 recruits in 2002–03.

Partnership and crime reduction programmes in Bedfordshire have an extra £3 million of funding. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of some of the projects in his constituency, including £197,000 for CCTV in Leighton Buzzard; £46,000 for partnership development in 2001–02; £110,000 for the communities against drugs initiative in 2001-02; and £42,000 for the safer communities initiative scheduled for 2002-03. That

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is a significant investment of extra resources, which will help the police to reduce crime and improve the quality of life for his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point about officers leaving the force on transfer. Transfers of officers from Bedfordshire to other forces have increased sharply from 21 in 2000-01 to 45 in 2001-02. None the less, recruitment continues to outstrip the number of officers leaving the force. Recruitment has increased from 37 officers in 1999-2000 to 82 in 2000-01 and to 132 in the current financial year.

It is healthy for there to be an interchange of experience between police forces, but I recognise that a net outflow of experienced officers can cause great difficulty. As part of the research presently being undertaken on voluntary resignations, a sample of officers who have transferred between forces will also be interviewed. The information that that provides on the reasons for transfer will help to identify measures that forces can take to reduce the number of transfers.

I understand that in Bedfordshire exit interviews conducted by the force show that some officers left to join London forces for financial reasons, but others went to other forces for affordable housing and quality of life.

Higher than average early retirements may be expected in a service such as the police for understandable reasons, but medical retirements in Bedfordshire have been significantly higher than average in recent years—a huge 58.1 per cent. in 2000–01 compared with the England and Wales average of 31.4 per cent. The Government target is for medical retirements to represent no more than 33 per cent. That is an issue on which the Bedfordshire police will have to focus in order to discover what is happening.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, following a recommendation by the police negotiating board, the previous Home Secretary approved a new allowance for officers in eight forces surrounding London who were appointed on or after 1 September 1994 and are not in receipt of housing allowance. That was awarded in recognition of the recruitment and retention problems associated with the higher cost of living in the south-east. For qualifying officers in Bedfordshire, the allowance is £1,000 a year from 1 April 2001.

Some may contend that the £1,000 allowance for qualifying officers in Bedfordshire is inadequate. The force would have had the opportunity to make that case to the police negotiating board through its representation in the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities. It would be for the police negotiating board in the first instance to consider any case for revisiting the amount awarded to qualifying officers in Bedfordshire. The Home Office is paying 75 per cent. of the cost of the south-east allowance and in 2001–02 we paid the force £200,000.

Through the starter home initiative, which also aims to assist in this area, 21 Bedfordshire police staff are expected to benefit from a £10,000 equity loan to help them buy their first home. I hope that that will give the hon. Gentleman some assurance, but I recognise that complex issues are involved.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues with respect to the travelling community.

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