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10.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate, and on the measured way in which he presented his case. This will be a useful opportunity to air some of the concerns that have been raised about policing on Merseyside. As he will recognise, the Government are improving police resources so that they can play their key part in tackling crime and disorder and improving community safety. Resources for policing overall have increased by 6.1 per cent. in 2002–03, building on a 10 per cent. increase in 2001–02. We are currently considering the provisions made under the 2002 spending review, so I cannot tonight go into the detail that he requests.

Under the funding settlement for 2002–03, Merseyside police authority has been allocated grant of £229.1 million, an increase of £5.2 million, which is broadly in line with the average increase in the year in grant for forces in England and Wales.

Merseyside also receives £7.5 million through the crime fighting fund and £5.6 million in capital allocations. The overall increase in funding over 2001–02, including those elements, is £9.4 million. In addition, Merseyside will benefit from money for DNA profiling and extra money for Airwave, the new radio communications system. It can expect up to £9.1 million for Airwave this year.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the funding formula. He knows that the Government's consultation document covering reform of the system used to distribute grant to English local authorities was published on 8 July. The system covers all the key local government services, including education, personal social services, police, fire and a wide range of other responsibilities. The consultation paper draws together potential changes for

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funding for all local government services. There is a 12-week consultation period before decisions will be taken. The aim is to provide a fairer, simpler and more stable formula as a basis on which to allocate grants. I am certain that the hon. Gentleman will make representations as an individual, and I will be interested to see his party's representations about any changes that should be made to the allocation formula.

With the help of the recruitment funded by the crime fighting fund, police strength is well on track for the Government's target of 130,000 police officers by spring 2003, which will be an all-time record for police numbers in England and Wales.

I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says about areas with falling populations and the particular problems that that can cause for all local government services. However, I should point out that, excluding the Greater London area, Merseyside has the highest ratio of officers to population. In September 2001, there were 292 officers per 100,000 population, compared with the figure for England and Wales of 236. Police numbers in Merseyside fell by 484 between 1990 and 1997, and numbers continued to fall by a further 149 between 1997 and 2001. The position has been stabilised with the help of money from the crime fighting fund. Between March 2001 and January 2002, numbers rose by 28, to 4,113.

The CFF has helped to halt the decline in police strength in Merseyside. The force has been allocated 332 CFF recruits, over and above previous recruitment plans for the three years to March 2003. Merseyside police recruited 125 officers through the CFF, and in 2002–03 it recruited 94 officers through the CFF. It will be able to take on a further 114 recruits in 2002–03.

We sometimes felt that the contributions of the hon. Gentleman's party were a little stifling, but they were not entirely negative in respect of the Police Reform Bill's proposals. I hear what he says about numbers on the streets and the need for officers. By next year, there will be 130,000 officers on our streets—an all-time record—but there remains a need for reassurance. The measures in the Police Reform Bill have the potential to provide such reassurance through community safety officers—the extended police family.

The hon. Gentleman talked of Merseyside's contribution to the national crime squad as if it were entirely outgoing. For obvious reasons, we cannot discuss the detail of the squad's work with Merseyside police, but I should point out that extensive work is being undertaken in that regard. As he knows, in June a major drug supply network, based on Merseyside and with contacts throughout the world, was busted with the help of the national crime squad. So when we talk about the contribution being made, we should remember that Merseyside receives considerable support from the national crime squad. I hope that that point is appreciated.

In making his plea to me, the hon. Gentleman knows that the substantial organised crime that exists in Merseyside also exists in other big cities throughout the length and breadth of our country. Will he please consider his party's position on the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is going through the House? That legislation has the potential to make a substantial hit against the profitability of organised crime in this country. With the greatest of

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respect, I should point out that his party is supporting amendments in another place that could do serious damage to that proposal. They could limit our ability to take the profit out of crime, and to dismantle the gangs that cause him and his constituents on Merseyside a potentially disproportionate problem, compared with some other places.

My research shows that, since 1986, we have been talking about adopting effective measures to take the proceeds of crime away from serious organised criminals. We have held out that possibility to the British people, and it is about time that we delivered effective legislation that makes a serious hit on the profitability of crime. If we are going to hedge our bets every time, we will, in effect, present people with a difficult tool to work with. It will not be operated effectively, and will not dismantle the sort of criminality on Merseyside that the hon. Gentleman described. The Merseyside police, with the help of the national crime squad, have put a great deal of effort into the fight against that criminality.

We are aware of some of the problems. We know that crime on Merseyside rose by 5.6 per cent. in the year ending March 2002, and that violent crime increased by 1.1 per cent. in that time. Vehicle crime fell by 1.3 per cent. in the period, but there remain two areas of particular concern—domestic burglary and robbery.

The rate of domestic burglary on Merseyside rose by 14.6 per cent. compared with the previous year. That is well out of line with the national figures, and we should be happy to hear any information that the hon. Gentleman may have about that problem. The number of robbery offences rose by 31.1 per cent. in the year to March 2002. That broadly reflects the national situation. It has been well reported that there has been an increase in the numbers of robberies, and that is why we have introduced the street crime initiative.

The street crime initiative represents a step change in cross-Government action to tackle street crime with a focused programme of action, in the 10 police force areas with the highest level of robbery and street crime. The street crime initiative money announced for the Merseyside force after the Budget amounts to £1.7 million. With the aid of that additional money, the Merseyside force are making a concerted effort to reduce street crime. We are beginning to see some results, as police and other criminal justice agencies—such as local authority health and education departments, and the drug action team—adopt a strong multi-agency approach.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the problem of drugs and their impact on crime. I hope that I have made it clear that we are fully aware of the difficulties facing Merseyside, and that he will make a personal contribution to the consultation on the funding formula—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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