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House of Lords

Monday, 22nd July 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Police Force: Recruitment

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they have taken to fulfil the pledge given at the last Conservative Party Conference to increase the police force by 5,000.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the Government are providing an additional £180 million in funding to enable chief constables in England and Wales to recruit 5,000 more constables over the next three years.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, as always, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for standing like Casabianca on the burning deck, when five of her Conservative predecessors have fled quite recently from the debate. I once again commend her gallantry. Is the noble Baroness aware that in the past statistical year there was a decrease in the total police population of over 300? I spoke to the Police Federation this morning and I was told that there is much concern as to whether the Government will live up to their promises.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Government will definitely live up to their promises. The sum of £180 million is a 100 per cent. specific grant so it is over and above the capping rules that operate for police authorities. The money will be given over three years. We have given chief constables the freedom to choose how they spend that money. Last year 845 new constables were recruited, which is not up to the full 1,000. There is the money for the constables and some of that money went on high-tech equipment and more scientific systems for helping the police to detect crime. The money is pledged for next year and the year after and so the money for 5,000 policemen is pledged and will be honoured.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the police of this country are beloved--

Noble Lords: Oh, oh!

Lord Molloy: They are! They may not be to the party opposite, but we on this side of the House believe that our police are beloved. Noble Lords opposite can have their views and say so. Does the noble Baroness agree that their loyalty to all parties, the people and particularly to Parliament are factors of which we can

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be proud? Is the noble Baroness aware that we are pleased to hear that she will be examining any points which the British police submit to the Government?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I believe that I carry all my colleagues with me and, indeed, the whole House when I say that we have the finest police force in the world, which is loyal to the country, to Parliament and the Queen, and long may it be so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister checks her figures very carefully before she gives them. I do not quite understand how the figures she has given square with the recent statistics of Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary in that the number of constables increased by only 544 between March 1995 and March 1996, which I believe is the relevant year. In the letter from the Home Secretary to Sir Michael Shersby of 30th May, he spoke about additional funding of £20 million in 1996-97. Does the noble Baroness agree that that does not appear to square with the figure of 800 police officers which the Minister gave, or indeed with the figure of £180 million for the five-year period?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we can play with statistics as much as we like, but I can say that the money for 1,000 police officers has been made available to the police. The chief constables use that money to the best effect. We now have over 16,000 more police than we had when we came to office in 1979. The chief police officers themselves are predicting that there will be over 1,600 more in this present financial year, 1996-97. If I have got the noble Lord's figure wrong for the precise size of the increase for 1995-96, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, do I understand the noble Baroness to be saying that chief constables may use the money as they think fit and that they need not employ extra constables if they are short of money for other equipment?

Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords. They will make operational decisions about where the money is best spent. They will be held to account for spending that money by the inspectorate, which will be the eyes and ears of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to make sure that the money is going towards front-line policing activities.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, although the noble Baroness tell us never to believe what we read in the newspapers, is she aware of the concern felt by many at a report in tonight's Evening Standard that there are to be substantial cuts in the resources of the Metropolitan Police in the next year? Can she comment on that?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is true that I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers. It is for the Commissioner of Police in London to decide how resources made available to him are best deployed.

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There is nothing in the budget plans for the Metropolitan Police that will cause front-line policing to suffer. The commissioner assures us that operational activity is unaffected. Indeed, I understand that the performance of the Metropolitan Police has improved and continues to do so; and with my right honourable friend's support it will continue to improve. It may well be that there is some restructuring going on in London, which is all part of the operational activity of the chief commissioner. There may well be people within the police force who are not happy about that. The budget for the Metropolitan Police this year has increased.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the fact that it is now the policy of many police forces, and in particular of the Metropolitan Police force, to seek to recruit mature entrants and that as a result of government policy mature recruits to the police service in London, with family responsibilities, now have to apply for housing benefit to be able to live? Are the Government satisfied about putting recruits to the police service in that position?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, recruitment policy is a matter for the police authorities. They will recruit from across the age range. They need young people because policemen and women have to be physically fit to be able to carry out the job. Is the noble Baroness implying by her question that we pay the police so badly in this country that they require housing benefit in order to live? I think that the noble Baroness overstates her case. Is the noble Baroness advocating that the police should have more money?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness can help me. I have been listening to her answers and I am a little puzzled. Last year, while watching the Conservative Party Conference on television, I heard the Home Secretary claim that there would be an additional 5,000 bobbies on the beat. I said, "Hooray, that is just what people want", but now I understand from the answers given to questions that that is not quite the case and that instead of providing the bobbies on the beat, which everyone likes to see, chief constables are using that money for other purposes. Can the Minister explain that?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's confusion. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister pledged the money for 5,000 more policemen. He wanted the policemen to be constables. He wanted the constables to be front-line and on the beat. That was my right honourable friend's priority. However, we have also given chief constables the freedom to deploy their budgets. We shall be looking carefully at how they deploy them, which is why I said that 845 of those 5,000 have been recruited. The chief constables have been asked how many they predict will be employed in this financial year, the first of the years in which the money is available--there will be £20 million this year, £60 million next year and £100 million in the third year--and they predict that a further

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1,600 policemen will be employed. They will be constables and they will be constables on the beat. The money for 5,000 policemen will be made available. We expect the police authorities as far as possible to spend that money on policemen.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Next Question!

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, am I not to have another go? Will the noble Baroness confirm or otherwise my original statement that last year, after 17 years of Conservative rule, the total number of police decreased by 300?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, after 17 years of Conservative rule, we have 16,000 more policemen than when we came to office in 1979.

Display Screen Equipment: Sight Tests

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 are being fully observed by employers; and what steps are being taken to ensure that they are doing so.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, recent research on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive showed that there was adequate compliance with the regulations. Inspectors continue to help employers to comply with the regulations--both during their visits, and on request.

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