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House of Lords

Thursday, 29th July 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to deliver a valedictory address at the Royal Courts of Justice for Sir Stephen Brown, the retiring President of the Family Division of the High Court, on Friday 30th July when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Police Authority Budgets

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What has been the average increase in the budgets and in the number of police officers employed in the police forces of England this year.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords--

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, in 1999-2000 the average increase in police authority budgets in England will be 3 per cent. At the end of March 1999, the latest date for which we have figures, there were 119,450 police officers in England.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I congratulate my noble and learned friend and thank him for that information. Will he comment on the recent criticism of the Government in some areas, as in South Yorkshire, where they are being blamed for a modest reduction in the number of police officers this year? Would it not be appropriate for my noble and learned friend to remind the police service that, where budgetary resources have been increased above the rate of inflation, as they have this year, it would be appropriate for the forces to accept that they bear responsibility for the use of the resources in making proper operational arrangements? Does he agree that they need to defend their priorities rather than sit back and allow the Government to be blamed?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The budget in South Yorkshire, to which he specifically referred, for the coming year is £173.3 million, which is an increase of £5.8 million. I must remind your Lordships that all the operational

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decisions are entirely within the gift of the local chief constable as a result of the 1994 legislation, which was deliberately passed to bring that into effect.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, when the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police addressed the All-Party Group on London a few days ago, he complained that he was 2,000 men short on the beat and that since the Lawrence report street crime had increased by some 35 per cent.

May I ask the noble and learned Lord--and I, too, offer my congratulations--what response the Government have given to the commissioner?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the response we have given to police forces generally is substantially to increase the revenue spending in the coming year. In England and Wales, there will be a spending of £7.4 billion. The Home Secretary has discussed with the commissioner what appear to many to be high levels of sickness, possibly unjustifiable. Every police force under the command of every chief constable has a duty to provide efficiencies and we have no doubt that the means are there for them to do so.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, will the Minister encourage the Government to do something about rural crime, in particular juvenile drinking in pubs and public places, which seems to be increasing? Will he look at North Yorkshire in particular, where the police say that they are below strength?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, part of the answer lies with the powers of local authorities to introduce bylaws in specific areas where these matters are a problem. They are matters for local operational decisions either by the chief constable or decisions made locally and politically by local authorities.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that it is not the total police numbers which is important but the number of uniformed officers employed on visible patrol which reassures members of the public? Does he also agree that additional expenditure on matters such as technology and additional civilian support can often assist in freeing up the time of police and personnel for essential patrol duties?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that people feel reassured by seeing officers on the beat, and that can be brought about by the efficient use of resources, which include modern technology and civilianisation.

Lord McNally: My Lords, is the Attorney-General aware that my noble friend Lord Geraint attributed his promotion to the fact that he comes from a good Cardiganshire family, like his predecessor? However, before leaving Home Office matters, will he note that increasingly warm sentiments are being expressed by the Home Office about the use of private security

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firms? Does he agree that it would be dangerous to go down the road of two-tier policing: one for the general public and one for those who can afford extra policing? That is a dangerous road and I should be interested in the Minister's opinion of the use of private security firms for policing duties.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, private security firms, if properly regulated--I stress that--have their place in public order generally. I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord. It is a fundamental duty of any government to provide adequate policing at public expense.

Lord Plummer of Marylebone: My Lords, will the Minister enlarge on his previous answer and say specifically what budgetary increase there will be for the Metropolitan Police?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot state the increase for the Metropolitan Police. However, I can say generally that there is an extra £1.24 billion in additional government funding over the next three years, and a further £400 million for crime reduction, including £150 million for closed circuit television. Those are quite remarkable figures, substantially in excess of what would have been available had not the Lord favoured us at the last election.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I have heard the result of the last election attributed to various factors but that is interesting! Due to the wonders of modern communication, I had the opportunity last night, in his absence, of congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on being appointed the first Attorney-General in your Lordships' House for 400 years. We wish him well in his new appointment and hope that he will still be available to respond on behalf of the Government, at least on some matters. We offer our congratulations to the new Minister in the Home Office.

Was not the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, right in the emphasis he placed on the relatively junior ranks in the police, so far as public perception is concerned? Can the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General tell us how many constables he expects there to be in the Metropolitan Police in the coming year? Given the high level of retirements, it looks as though there will be a severe reduction.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, for his generous tribute. I shall be available to answer on behalf of the Government, the only difference being that the answers will be much longer and more expensive.

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Pension Costs: EU and UK Projections

3.16 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they accept the recent projection of pension costs in Germany, France and Italy at 16 per cent of gross domestic product in 2000, and, if so, what United Kingdom taxes, if any, are likely to be subject to harmonisation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, I can understand the noble Lord being a little impatient with my constant application to this Question. Perhaps I may ask for his forbearance as opportunities to ask it are diminishing daily.

Does the noble Lord not agree that whether or not taxes are harmonised, pension costs are an integral part of any consideration of the ratio of debt to GDP, and therefore are relevant to convergence between EU countries and ourselves? Can the noble Lord clarify the Government's understanding of these established facts in the light of the description of them by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister in a recent "Question Time" debate as "myths"? Does that not contradict the headline which appeared in The Times which stated,

    "Europe's pensions time bomb would send our taxes sky-high"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my Answer was "no", for two reasons: first, we do not accept the projection of pension costs in the noble Earl's Question. The most recent comparable data from the European Commission puts general government expenditure on pensions at 12.9 per cent of GDP in Italy, 11.3 per cent in Germany and 10.6 per cent in France. It is highly unlikely that it would increase to 16 per cent by next year.

My second reason for saying "no" is that even if there is such an increase in pension costs in other countries at some time in the future, they could not apply to this country. When the Prime Minister said it was a "myth", he stated--I quote from the transcript of the television programme:

    "This idea of the pension fund, this is just part of the myth. There is absolutely no requirement whatever for us to bail out other countries' pension funds".

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