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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): The Government have delivered record police numbers. I am pleased to say that there are now nearly 140,000 police officers, which is an increase of more than 12,500 since 1997. In addition, there are 4,600 community support officers, who all contribute to increasing police visibility in our communities. We intend that number to rise to 5,500 by the end of March. It is clear that the Government have delivered an increase in policing of historic proportions.
I welcome the national increase in the number of police officers, which is indeed impressive, but I remind the Minister that when that is broken down into command areas, it does not mean that a lot of extra police are on the beat. May I urge her to increase her effortsI know that she is making a strong effort in the Home Officeto raise the numbers of police on the beat and community officers, to reduce bureaucracy in police stations, and to encourage initiatives such as the 24-hour hotline in South Tyneside for reporting antisocial behaviour?
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Caroline Flint: That last point is a good idea. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about how police forces must play a role in restructuring their policing to meet local needs. I am pleased that the divisional commander in his area has done exactly that by restructuring staffing so that the number of community-based police officers in Jarrow has increased. We will ensure that we examine performance to find out whether police are spending their time behind a desk or out in the community doing what they are trained to do: catching criminals and reassuring the community that they are doing just that.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): But is not the Minister aware that it is not just how many officers the chief constable has but how they are used that matters? In Bedfordshire, seven years ago, there were two ring-fenced grants in the police budget; this year there are 29. Does not she appreciate how that ties the hands of chief constables so that they cannot deploy their officers in the way that local communities want? That is at the heart of the problem, and unless that question is addressed we shall still see rising crime.
Caroline Flint: We need to remember that one of the reasons why some of those funds are ring-fenced is that communities have asked for that to be done. That is partly because people think that some issues, such as the rural crime fighting fund, are important. Let us look at that against a real-terms increase of 21 per cent. in police funding since 1997, and an increase in the number of police officersnot forgetting the community support officers, opposed by the hon. Gentleman's party. At the end of the day, we can provide more resources from central Government, as we have done. We have given more attention to the crimes that are of most concern to the community. We have looked at ways of ensuring that we reduce bureaucracy, and we have given opportunities to civilian staff to do some of the jobs that police officers clearly should not be doing because they should be out there catching criminals.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right. There are more police, but the problem is that people want more visibility, especially in urban and rural areas such as Chorley. Will she talk to police constables to ensure that there is less paperwork and more visibility, to fight crime?
Caroline Flint: I agree, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. We welcome the support of MPs on both sides of the House to make that point to their chief constables. Let us not forget that under the Tories there was no ring-fencing and police numbers went down.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
(Con): But can the Minister explain the statement she issued to the House last week on 27 January? She told the House that in Derbyshire the number of operations for which firearms were issued rose from 167 in 200001 to last year's figure of 369 firearms incidents, yet at the same time the number of police officers authorised to use firearms fell from 81 to 70?
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Caroline Flint: As the hon. Gentleman is fully aware, we are currently looking at a review of firearms legislation and taking soundings on firearms licensing. The process is ongoing. The review has closed and we are considering the responses. I am happy to look at the points that the hon. Gentleman raises, but the key issue is that there are more police officers than ever before and also more people working with the policepeople doing drug testing at our police stations, and civilian staff involved in detention and custody suites. More and more, we are enabling our police officers to do the job that they should be doing, equipped with full powers, while ensuring that there is a family of law enforcement so that we can meet all the different pressures on the police service today.
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): Successful call handling is central not only for the satisfaction of the public, but also for the effective investigation of crime and management of intelligence. As part of a national strategy to improve call handling across all forces, the police reform White Paper set out a number of projects that the Government are bringing together.
Barbara Follett: Is my hon. Friend aware that Hertfordshire constabulary, normally excellent in every way, has experienced severe problems with its new call centre at Welwyn Garden City for the past 18 months? Constituents have had to wait 10 minutes for their 999 calls to be answered, and in some regrettable cases no action was taken afterwards. Will my hon. Friend do all that she can to ensure that the lack of adequately trained staff, which apparently caused those problems, is rectified?
Ms Blears: This is an extremely important issue. Whenever I visit forces and communities, the issue that is constantly raised is call handling and responsiveness, and I am aware of the difficulties in my hon. Friend's force area. I understand that Hertfordshire has made that a priority, in response to complaints from the community, and has set up a single non-emergency number which is beginning to take some 999 calls and that is helping to draw demand on the service. There are 1.3 million calls to her local force, so the volume is huge, but she is right to say that we need properly trained, high-quality staff in the call centres to ensure that the service to the public is of a proper standard. I shall certainly do everything I can to impress the importance of that on her local forceand indeed nationally.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
(LD): Does the Minister accept that there is a distinction between 999 calls, where the service is usually good, and non-emergency calls, where it is often abysmal, to the extent that large numbers of criminal offences are never reported or recorded? Will she investigate in particular the position in London, where we are told that in large
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parts of the capital it may be two years before anything can be done to have an even half-decent reporting system for non-emergency calls?
Ms Blears: This is an important area. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are now working on plans for a single national non-emergency service. It is apparent that many of the calls that go to the police would be better dealt with by local authoritiescommunity psychiatric nurses, for example, if there is a problem in the community. We want to try to ensure that calls to the non-emergency number are channelled to the right people at the right time, so that there can be a much quicker response. We are making significant progress on that national non-emergency number. Responsiveness and call handling are an absolute top priority for the public, and that is why we are working on national standards, which will be in place everywhere in the country by the end of 2006. Every force, including London, will be expected to comply with those standards.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): The year of the volunteer 2005 was launched by the Chancellor and the Home Secretary on 10 January. Three key aims of the year are to recognise volunteers and celebrate their contribution, to demonstrate the impact and benefits of volunteering, and to increase the availability of volunteering opportunities throughout this year and beyond. In order to provide a lasting and worthwhile legacy of the year, we are taking the opportunity to invest in increasing capacity in the voluntary and community sector through investment programmes such as ChangeUp and Futurebuilders.
Tom Levitt: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and very much welcome the national year of the volunteer. Does she agree that volunteers have very much to offer and that we are far from tapping the capacity that they have to help our communities? Will she ensure that during the year we look not just at conventional volunteering opportunities but at new areas? I think in particular of the way in which groups of young people, such as those in Glossop in my constituency, are actively involved in volunteer groups that are fighting antisocial behaviour.
I thank my hon. Friend for that supplementary question. I recognise his wide range of activities as vice-chairman of the all-party group on deafness and as chair of the Community Development Foundation. Of course volunteers have a huge amount to offer in improving the quality of all kinds of services. Members on both sides of the House are involved in volunteering and voluntary organisations in their constituencies, and there is a fantastic opportunity this year to use the energy of volunteers to solve social
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problems and to find new ways of tackling them. I believe that Members can provide some real leadership in their communities.
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