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2 Dec 2002 : Column 598continued
6. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What recent discussions he has had with the chief constable of Thames Valley police about recruitment and retention of police officers; and if he will make a statement. 
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): I have discussed the chief constable's concern about retention in the Thames Valley area on a number of occasions in the past year, most recently in the past few weeks. Thames Valley police has been recruiting strongly in recent years, but the force has recently experienced retention difficulties, including a net outflow of transfers. We are working
Mr. Cameron : I am grateful for that answer and I am glad that the Minister has spoken to the chief constable of Thames Valley police, to whom I spoke this morning. I have to tell the Minister that the retention situation is still dire. Is he aware that, in parts of the Thames Valley area, over 60 per cent. of front-line officers are probationers? Will he consider increasing the extra allowance for Thames Valley officers in the south-east of England and giving the chief constable more flexibility over his budget, particularly in respect of overtime and the special priority payments? We must try to keep some of those officers in the Thames Valley force rather than see them go all over the country.
Mr. Denham: There are a number of things that we need to consider, including how the additional special priority posts money will be implemented in Thames Valley and other forces in the new year. Thames Valley officers already receive an additional allowance compared with the norm of £2,000 a year, and we are helping in other waysfor example, 171 of the starter homes under the starter homes initiative will be for the benefit of Thames Valley officers. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we take the issues facing a few of the south-east forces very seriously and we are considering what measures we can take to assist.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 22 officers have left the Chiltern Vale force since April, which is some 10 per cent. of the total? I was told by a senior officer this morning that that will have grave consequences if something is not done quickly; so will he please, this afternoon, commit himself to extra allowances, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) requested?
Mr. Denham: As I have said, additional resources are on the way as a result of the pay deal with the Police Federation and the employers earlier this year. We need to discuss how they can be used. We are considering, among other things, giving the forces help with housing. I am due to meet the forces in the south-east before Christmas to look at a range of options.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): As I think my hon. and learned Friend knows, we believe that the active involvement of local people in their communities is essential to achieving safe, cohesive communities and can make a real difference to the quality of life in an area. We want to increase voluntary activity and promote active citizenship, and the active community unit is leading that work across Government.
Beverley Hughes: My hon. and learned Friend is right. If we are to involve the voluntary and community sector more in the delivery of public services, which is what we want to do, local people must be involved in both defining and shaping the way in which services are delivered. They must become involved in the voluntary and community organisations that we want to engage in public service delivery.
My hon. and learned Friend will know from his experience in Dudley, which is one of the 88 most deprived areas and has received substantial regeneration money, that as well as producing better services such arrangements often have a marked effect on local people who become involved. Like me, he has met many for whom that involvement has constituted a personal turning point, showing them that they have the capacity for more extensive involvement.
Bob Russell (Colchester): The Minister rightly spoke of the important role that the voluntary sector can play in our deprived communities in particular. It now costs some £22,000 a year to keep a young person locked up in a young offenders unit. Would it not be better to invest that money in our young people through the recognised youth organisations, perhaps helping them to hire school halls; and would not our communities be a lot better for it?
Beverley Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman will know from the policy we have published, we consider community-based solutions appropriate for many young people, and the voluntary sector has a key role to play in that.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): When an active citizen who has witnessed a serious crime is scared off from giving evidence at a criminal trial, does that not underline the need to strengthen the law so that some of the thugs on our streets who are getting away with serious assault and worse are brought to justice? If people are to be active citizens and support their communities, they too need support from the law of the land.
Beverley Hughes: I agree that the concept of active citizenship is not only about involvement in voluntary activity. It also means being able to play a proper role as a participant in the criminal justice system. Our White
Mr. Osborne : Those figures reveal the total collapse in the number of special constables employed in this country. In my county, the number has fallen by more than 50 per cent. The Government say they are committed to increasing the number of specials, and regularly organise recruitment campaigns. Why have they failed so spectacularly?
Mr. Wills: We of course agree that the special constabulary has a very important part to play[Interruption.] If Opposition Members want to hear the answer to the question, I suggest that they listen. If they go on making noise, they will not hear the answer[Interruption.] There you go, Mr. Speaker.
We agree with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) that special constables have an important role to play, and that we need more of them. As a result, we are investing a lot of money£300,000in the champion's initiative, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community announced 10 days ago. We need to improve the engagement of employers, and to see what else we have to do. The reason for the fall in numbers is a long-standing one, which began many years ago. In many ways, it can be traced back to 1945, and there are many complex reasons[Laughter.] Opposition Members find this very amusing, but we have to deal with the problem.
The point that hon. Member for Tatton is, I hope, getting at is that we have to deal with crime and with reassuring the public about crime. That is the role of special constables, but it is only part of the picture. In looking at this issue, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remember that police numbers as a whole have risen to 188,512, and that we now have the largest ever number[Interruption.]
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): Does my hon. Friend recognise the demise in the number of special police officersa development that starkly highlights the drop in the number of people in our society who do voluntary work and who make a voluntary commitment? That is happening across the youth sector, and it certainly worries me. Has any work been done on that, and is it happening because too many people now lead hectic
Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend is right, and he draws attention to a very valuable point. There are many reasons why the numbers are falling, a key one of which is that we are having difficulty in retaining special constables. Recruitment is not a problem: last year, we recruited 1,700 new special constables, which is a significant achievement. The problem is that we are losing more of them, and a key reason why is exactly as my hon. Friend describes. More than 50 per cent. of special constables leave because of family commitments, and work and study commitments. Significantly, one in five leave to join the regular police force, which shows our success in transforming the state of policing in this country. Anecdotal evidence shows that, in many areas, as many as 40 per cent. leave the specials to join the regular police force, which we should all welcome.
Mr. Wills: I assume that that was a debating point, rather than a serious question. The responsibility falls not to any Prime Minister, but to long-standing changes in society. It is a measure of the failure of the Conservatives that they do not realise that some things have to be tackled systematically, coherently and with proper funding, and that is what we are doing.