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Ms Blears: We have had an extremely interesting debate with some very good contributions that have given me a great deal to think about. I will do my best to answer as many questions as I can. There may be one or two technical issues on which I shall need to write to Members, and I undertake to do so.
I welcome the thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who raised specific issues relating to Greater Manchester police, which is of course my own police force, and talked about gun crime. That is an indication of how wide-ranging the debate has been. We have dealt not only with the purely financial aspects but with some of the serious challenges facing our police services and the ways in which they operate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central responded to comments by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) by discussing the serious problem of gun crime, particularly in his constituency. It is true that gun crime is concentrated in the major conurbations of Liverpool, Manchester, London, Birmingham and Nottingham. It is also true that it increased quite dramatically a couple of years ago, but I am pleased to be able to tell the House that that increase has slowed down equally dramatically as a result of some very effective policing in the shape of Operation Trident in London and Operation Stealth in the west midlands and our introduction of the mandatory five-year sentence for anybody caught carrying a gun. As my hon. Friend pointed out, this is not simply a matter of policing but of working with communities to challenge the culture that says it is cool for young people to carry guns and that it is an appropriate way of dealing with
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conflict in our communities. Clearly, it is not. Our work with Mothers Against Guns and other groups across the country is helping to bring gun crime down.
My hon. Friend talked about pensions. Like many other forces, Greater Manchester faces more pressures in that regard this year than in previous years. He welcomed the Government's proposals to smooth out volatility as well as the extra contribution that we have put in to meet pension requirements this year.
My hon. Friend mentioned the crime fighting fund and suggested that Greater Manchester police force will be penalised as a result of the recruitment that it has undertaken. I should point out that police numbers in Greater Manchester have increased massivelywe have 1,139 more police officers than we had in March 1997, and I can say from personal experience that they are very much on the front line and reassuring people in communities. The performance of Greater Manchester police, especially since the appointment of the new chief constable, Mike Todd, has improved significantly and I am delighted that they do such a good job.
However, it is important that the record numbers of police officers remain in place and able to police on behalf of our communities. Several hon. Members said that they believe that the local precept has supported the increase in police numbers. It is important to put the record straight. Police officer numbers have increased by 12,570 since March 1997. Of those, 9,650 are funded through the crime fighting fundspecific investment by the Governmentand approximately 3,000 are funded locally. Local people have made a contribution towards the number of police officers because they view that as a priority for their communities, but I stress that 9,650 have been funded through the crime fighting fund and we should acknowledge that the Government's policy decision that we needed more police officers on our streets led to the record numbers.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made an interesting contribution. His party wants to do away with the council tax and allow local authorities to tax people's incomes. Doubtless that will be the subject of much debate, to which we greatly look forward. Local people will have a view about that, especially about those who might end up paying little and others who would be significant losers under Liberal Democrat proposals.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement of the Government's investment in policing and his welcome for increased police officer numbers. He complained about the lack of police in rural areas and made an interesting proposition. I am not sure whether he meant that people who could pay a little more through their rates should have more police. I was worried that, in that case, people in poorer areas might have fewer police on their streets. We need to have that position clarified.
The hon. Gentleman used a word that could mean all things to all people when he said that he intended to have "equalisation." I wonder how directing resources together with equalisation would work out. The arithmetic would be fascinating.
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Mr. Heath: I do not propose to give the Minister a seminar on our proposals. However, people would like a minimum policing guarantee for every borough or district council area, whereby they are assured of a minimum police presence on their streets and that those police officers will not be taken away on the whim of a chief constable or a Home Secretary.
Ms Blears: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman said that in his speech but I welcome his comments because he knows that we have already made a commitment that, by 2008, every neighbourhood in the country will have a policing team, comprising police officers, community support officers and wardens. People will have the mobile telephone numbers of their police officers and know how to contact them. I therefore fear that the hon. Gentleman is a little behind our proposals but I am delighted that he supports them.
He also mentioned the capping criteria. I confirm that I shall work closely with my colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to consider how they might apply to police authority positions. He also welcomed the possibility of three-year funding settlements and our prolific and priority offender schemes, which he believed could make a significant contribution to continuing to drive down crime.
The hon. Gentleman asked about capital investment and I am pleased to confirm the figure of £358 million. That is a general grant allocation, directly to forces, of £210 millionan increase of 13 per cent., which is £24 million of additional money. The rest of the £358 million will be used for criminal justice information technology and Airwave, and the Metropolitan police will get £40 million to continue to support the command, control, communication and informationC3isystem, which is revolutionising their command and control mechanisms.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) made an interesting contribution, which was clearly rooted in local experience of his community. He welcomed the record settlement for the west midlands. We seem to have had an extraordinary number of west midlands contributions, which, I am sure, reflects its good settlement.
My hon. Friend also challenged the Opposition about their policy for a block grant with no control from the centre and raised the important need for equity between communities and the need to ensure that we could drive specific programmes through some of our grants. He also praised the Together campaign against antisocial behaviour, and I am delighted that the police in his area are working with the council and the local people to tackle antisocial behaviour. We will not tolerate it, and we are making a real difference on the ground.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) has contributed to several debates on policing in the past few months, and he raised similar issues today. I am pleased to be able to reassure him that call handling, response times and standards of service are at the forefront of our minds. He will know from the White Paper that we have initiated a huge project to ensure that we have national service standards right across the police service; they will be in place by the end of 2006. They will deal not only with the speed of responseimportant though that is to our constituentsbut with
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the quality of response. It is clear from early work that has taken place in Staffordshire and Lancashire that when the police respond properly to local people, the satisfaction in the services offered goes up enormously. That is not simply about turning up within a set number of minutes. Often, the police say, "We can't come now, but we will come between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock this afternoon." They then actually turn up and do what they have said that they will do, which helps to build trust and confidence. I am delighted that we have work ongoing on that issue.
The hon. Gentleman also asked for more police officers in his area. The allocation formula within the Met is a matter for the commissioner to sort out, but if Conservative Members are asking for more police funding, they will have to do some pretty hard and frank talking to the shadow Chancellor if they want further resources to be allocated under his proposals.
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