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Police Officers (Beat Patrol Duties)

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

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6.

What proposals he has for increasing the number of police officers allocated to beat patrol duties. [15782]

Ministers have no direct control over police numbers or their deployment. Under legislation passed by the previous Government in 1994, it is for the individual chief constable or chief officer to determine the number of police officers in their force. However, we are working with police to reduce administrative burdens and to enable chief constables to put more officers on the beat and back into the community.

Does the Minister agree with Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who was quoted in a recent article in the New Statesman as saying

"I don't buy your notion that bobbies on the beat are anachronistic. If it reduces the fear of crime, I have to find ways to satisfy that"?
Does the Minister agree that—despite the answer that he has already given—it is the Government's responsibility to try to reassure the public that they will see police officers, and that police officers seen on the beat help to deter criminals and reassure the public, which is a crucial part of policing?

What the public want is to see police officers in their community, getting involved in tackling the problems of crime and disorder that have been allowed to grow in recent years. The Metropolitan police, like other police forces across the country, are suffering from the disadvantage of reduced police numbers and the previous Government's failure to keep their promises.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is required is not greater resources but more effective use of existing resources? May I draw his attention to the success of Northumbria police, for example, in shifting large numbers of police officers out of bureaucracy—there by also ending a few scams—and back on to the streets? May I draw his attention also to the safer cities programme—it was officially launched today in my constituency—which is reintroducing police officers into some of the most crime-ridden parts of Sunderland? In the 1980s, police effectively abandoned those areas.

My hon. Friend raises some important points. Northumbria has shown the way in some of its approaches to dealing with crime, one of which has been getting police officers back into direct police work. Another one is the way in which Northumbria has worked in partnership with local authorities to tackle and prevent crime. Great gains can be made, which is why we are including a requirement in the crime and disorder Bill for a partnership between police and local authorities in ensuring that we mobilise all the strengths of the community to tackle and prevent crime.

Does the Minister agree that tackling crime is a matter of both management and resources? Does he agree that, when budgets are squeezed, patrol duties are the most vulnerable part of police activity? Does he agree that patrol cuts are a result of the previous Government's lamentable failure to match their promises with action by putting policemen back on to forces? Will he give an assurance that, after next year's police settlement, there will be more officers—not less— on the beat?

My only quibble is that the hon. Gentleman should have said "fewer" police officers rather than "less". There was a failure by the previous Government, and it is a matter both of resources and deployment. We want police officers deployed to tackle the problems of crime and disorder experienced by the community. The Audit Commission did draw the conclusion to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention, but it also said that patrolling must be purposeful; it is not just a question of police officers standing at the end of the street or patrolling without purpose—there must be targeted activity aimed at the prevention of crime and disorder.

If this is an exercise in reassuring communities that they can feel safe, why is there not a substantial increase in the number of special constables who have always been supported by the general public and who, I understand, are cheap and effective in comparison to full-time policemen? Is it not the case that they allow us to concentrate our resources during peak periods of the week when crime is rife?

Again, my hon. Friend makes a good point. We want not only to reassure communities but to tackle the crime and disorder that is causing them problems. It is a question of being effective, not only of providing reassurance.

My hon. Friend's question gives me the opportunity to say that we value the work of the special constabulary very highly. Early next year, we shall be actively promoting the recruitment of special constables in the special constables week. I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will support that initiative and encourage people to join the specials.

In spite of what the Minister says, in a written answer to me only three weeks ago, he confirmed that there are now 2,322 more police constables in post than there were in May 1992. Is it not clear that, unless police budgets are protected from the 1 per cent. increase in inflation caused by the Government since May this year, there will be fewer, not more, police constables on the streets? Is not the Government's continuing silence on the question of police funding a clear sign that fighting crime is a low priority for new Labour, just as it was for old Labour?

That was a pathetic attempt. There will be a statement on police finances next week, I believe, which follows the pattern established by the previous Government of when to inform the House of the intended finances for next year.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman cites the number of constables rather than the number of police officers—he is very selective. The number of police officers in England and Wales fell from 127,627 in March 1992 to 127,158 at the end of March 1997. Let me do the arithmetic for the hon. Gentleman: that means a cut of 469 officers, or 1,469 fewer than were promised by the previous Government in the 1992 election—another broken promise.