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Opposition Day

Volume 336: debated on Tuesday 26 October 1999

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Home Office Issues

I have had to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches for Back Benchers throughout debates on the next two motions.

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.42 pm

I beg to move,

That this House notes the Government's incompetent handling and mismanagement of Home Office issues in general; further notes that the number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen by more than 1,000 since the General Election; further notes that the Home Secretary's recent announcement on police recruits will mean another fall in the number of police officers in England and Wales; further notes the chaos caused by the Government in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the record numbers of asylum-seekers, many of them bogus, now arriving in the United Kingdom; further notes the recent revelations arising from the Mitrokhin Archive; and calls on the Government to increase police numbers, to improve the working of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, to reduce the numbers of bogus asylum-seekers arriving in the United Kingdom and to ensure that those who betray the United Kingdom to foreign powers are pursued with the utmost vigour.
The motion in the name of the Opposition calls to the attention of the House and that of a wider audience the long series of mismanagements, incompetence, inaccurate statistics and general mess over which the Home Secretary has presided since he took office in 1997. I have been extremely kind to the right hon. Gentleman in selecting only a few of the things that have gone wrong on which to make comment. There may be more on a later day, but today I simply wish to address four issues. The first is police numbers.

The Home Secretary made a very interesting statement in his Labour party conference speech, which he has since defended on the ground of technical accuracy. There is, of course, an enormous difference between technical accuracy and a picture that would be recognised by the outside world. When he had finished telling us that he was going to supply the money for "more" recruits, or an "additional" or an "extra"—whichever version one wants to take—5,000 police recruits, there was an assumption not only on the part of the press, media and public, but even the Police Federation, which after all understands these things, that that meant that he was pledging an extra 5,000 police officers.

I am sure that if those same bodies had decided that he was pledging 5,000 fewer police officers, the Home Secretary would have rushed to put them right. He would have rushed to say that they had got it all wrong, and that what he really meant was that there would be only 5,000 extra recruits. However, because they put a rather optimistic interpretation on what he said, he kept strangely silent—until today, when he gave an extremely fascinating explanation to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It was not only fascinating to listen to, but to watch, because the Home Secretary set out to rival Houdini.

The right hon. Gentleman said that, after all, he had got it completely wrong, and that, when he talked about 11,000 police recruits, he really meant that police forces were planning to recruit not 11,000, but 15,000. Oddly enough, his representations to his own Treasury Ministers referred to 11,000—I do not know whether they will now ask for the money back, on the ground that they were misled. The Home Secretary and all independent bodies have said consistently that the recruiting plans actually meant 11,000 officers. Today, he said that that was all a mistake, and he blamed his officials for giving him the wrong information.

In the House, we cannot identify officials—but I am inclined to ask who they were. Were they, perhaps, the same officials who clean forgot to renew the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts? Were they the same officials who wrongly briefed the Home Secretary on his own Home Office figures when he gave a press conference on asylum? Were they the same officials who caused him, quite mistakenly, to give the Welsh Assembly powers over Welsh criminals? Were they the same officials who caused him to publish the names and addresses of witnesses in the Macpherson report? We do not know, but what we do know is that every time something goes wrong, this Home Secretary, who in his first speech to the House made a virtue of the fact that he would take responsibility for everything that happened in the Home Office, has, since then, quite consistently blamed his officials for every error that he has come up with.

However, for the sake of argument, let us accept that the figure of 15,000 is right. Will the Home Secretary now set out simply and clearly, and in terms that admit of no misinterpretation, whether his revised figures, given to the Select Committee today mean a net addition to the police force, in the lifetime of the Labour Government, of 5,000 officers? Do they, or do they not? Do they mean a net addition of 5,000 officers, even before 2003? I am being kind to him. Do they, or do they not? Do they even mean that, when the Government leave office, there will be more police officers than there are at present, or will there be extra or additional officers to those who are there at present? Alternatively, will the numbers be the same, or will they be fewer? Can the Home Secretary confirm that, according to the statement that he submitted to the Select Committee, the statisticians say that the new recruiting figures—on which he now relies to extricate himself from the hole that he dug for himself—
"can only be based on fairly crude projections"
and that they do not represent "sophisticated modelling".

The right hon. Gentleman looks puzzled, so I will help him. Will he confirm that that was part of the statement on figures that he submitted today? In case he wants to come up with some technical argument about whether that formed the statement or the appendix, will he just tell us whether those words are true—are they crude projections? If there are to be more police officers by the time the Government leave office, how many more will there be? Will he take May 1997 as his baseline of comparison?

A generous observer of today's Select Committee hearing would have concluded that the Home Secretary was mired in muddle, but a more cynical observer would have noted that he was becoming enmeshed in a web of deceit. We might also ask the Prime Minister whether he wishes to come to the House and correct his statement that the right hon. Gentleman had painted an accurate picture in referring to 5,000 extra officers. I think that it is time for a retraction and probably an apology.

Before I leave the issue of police numbers, I must raise an associated question that will impact on recruiting. The 22 October issue of "Public Finance" reveals the cost of the new radio system that the police are obliged to implement; they have no choice in the matter. In case the Home Secretary is suffering from any confusion, it is called the public safety radiocommunications project. The publication cites the total cost of that project as £1.5 billion. Is that figure accurate? If it is, how far does the Home Secretary think that the mere £50 million that he announced in his conference speech will go towards funding that project?

If the police have to implement the radiocommunications project and must find the funding shortfall between £1.5 billion and £50 million, can the Home Secretary seriously tell the House that recruitment will not suffer? Does he accept the comments made to me by a chief constable and an assistant chief constable that, in light of the requirement to implement the new system, recruitment must suffer?

On the subject of police expenditure, I am curious to know whether the right hon. Lady agrees with the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who criticised the Government's spending plans for policing—and everything else—as "reckless". Does the right hon. Lady agree with that assessment?

We have said consistently—as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the shadow Chancellor—that it is somewhat surprising that the Government should trumpet a 3 per cent. increase in police funding while demanding efficiency savings of 2 per cent., which means that some police forces are managing on a funding increase of less than 0.5 per cent.

We cannot have evasion on an issue that is absolutely central to the Opposition's credibility. Will the right hon. Lady now answer the question? The shadow Chancellor has criticised the Government's spending increases, including our £1.24 billion increase, as "reckless". Does the right hon. Lady share that view?

I will answer that question directly. However, I observe in passing that for the Home Secretary to accuse anyone on either side of the House of evasion is somewhat rich—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I shall come to the point that the Home Secretary raised. He asked about the shadow Chancellor's attitude to police spending. My right hon. Friend has promised me that, when we return to Government, we will reverse the decline in police numbers. We will do that without smoke and mirrors, without blaming officials and without hiding behind chief constables. We will reverse the decline—that pledge from the future Chancellor of the Exchequer is absolutely specific. [Interruption.] I understand the agitation that is apparent on the Government Benches: it stems from embarrassment. They are the Government who came to office promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. They have delivered that promise by reducing police numbers by more than 1,000 since 1997. The Home Secretary is not tough on crime; he is tough on the fighters of crime.

The right hon. Lady has made what may or may not be an important statement. Can she give a clear answer to this question: if she has authority to say that the Tories would reverse the decline in police numbers were they returned to office, what number of police are they committed to and what figure has the shadow Chancellor committed to pay for them?

The hon. Gentleman says that my statement might or might not be important—how typical of the Liberals. Let us assume that it is important and I shall answer him directly: the commitment is that whatever overall number of police—no recruits, no this and that—remain to us when the Government leave office, we will make that up to the number that there were when we left office. That could hardly be clearer.

Returning to the radio project, I was asking the Home Secretary for his estimate of the cost. He tried to distract me from that point, but I will not be distracted. Is the project compulsory? How much will he give police forces? [Interruption.] We are back on the radio project; the right hon. Gentleman did not hear. Will he give police forces the sum of the cost? If not, does he accept that making up the shortfall must have an impact on recruitment? When I asked him the other day why he had not answered some of my questions, he said that I asked them too quickly. I do not intend to weary the House by repeating them, but I shall give them to him in writing during the succeeding debate so that he may be in no doubt at all about what I have asked him and so that we might get proper answers.

Before dealing with the other issues that we want to discuss, I have to comment on an aspect of policing that has caused widespread concern throughout the country and across the political spectrum: the scenes that we witnessed of policing during the visit of the President of China. The last time we witnessed such scenes was 1978, when Ceausescu visited this country. I have not seen such scenes since and, according to my research, there have not been any.

Were any suggestions—I shall not even call them instructions—made, either by the Home Office or the Foreign Office, in respect of keeping the Tibetan flag out of the sight of the Chinese President, or any other matters relating to the policing of demonstrations during the President's visit? As we have joined-up government, I am sure that the Home Secretary can answer. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) tabled such questions for answer yesterday. He received a denial from the right hon. Gentleman that his Department was involved in contacts with the police, but when I walked into the Chamber we had yet to receive any answer from the Foreign Secretary.

Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend. This morning, the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that he could not say whether his Department's officials had been involved, but he was kind enough to tell us that it was his view that there had been contacts between Foreign Office officials, Chinese embassy staff and the Metropolitan police. Is not it rather curious that the Department for which he is responsible should not have had any involvement, although the Foreign Office did?

"Curious" is just too kind a word.

What we need from the right hon. Gentleman is a clear, unequivocal statement on whether the Government were involved in suggesting the nature of the policing which shocked the nation during the Chinese President's visit. I attach no blame whatever to the police, who have told me that many of their officers felt resentment at being required to police a demonstration in that way. Ordinary police officers are decent people, who want to uphold democracy and spend their time fighting crime, not suppressing peaceful demonstrations.

The Home Secretary may be able to help us even more than we have just been given to understand. Does my right hon. Friend recall a statement in The Sunday Times, in which a senior member of the Metropolitan police was quoted as saying:

"If the minutes of meetings between police and Foreign Office officials are made public, the Government is going to have egg on its face."
Can my right hon. Friend see any reason why the Home Secretary should not put this matter to rest now by publishing the minutes of those meetings?

No, I should like to make some progress. I understand that Madam Speaker wants Back Benchers to have due time to speak in this debate.

I now come to the asylum issue. In this area, probably more than in any other, the Home Secretary is directly responsible for the shambles that has resulted. When he is challenged, he makes two excuses: first, that he inherited a deepening problem from us; and secondly, that it is all to do with international upheavals. On inheriting the problem from us, let us ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees with the Government's figures—that in 1995 there were 43,965 asylum applications, and in 1996 there were 29,640. That fall was due to our asylum and immigration legislation and the fact that we were willing to take tough measures, on which he accused us of playing the race card—a shameful accusation. Does he now agree that, according to his own figures, he inherited a falling number of asylum applications?

What did the Home Secretary do then? I pay tribute to him for being consistent. Before he took office, he said that when Labour came to power it would abolish the list of safe countries of origin, and it did. That list enabled us to fast track unfounded asylum applications. He said that he would not implement our measures against illegal working, and he kept that up for two years before admitting, very quietly, that he was wrong.

The white list has not yet been replaced, but it will be replaced by a more effective procedure under the Asylum and Immigration Bill. Meanwhile, the list has remained in place. If the right hon. Lady now objects to our replacing it, why was it that, in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House on proceedings of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, no Opposition Member spoke against our proposal to remove the white list—still less moved an amendment or voted against it?

More smoke and more mirrors. The position is straightforward. We introduced and put into statute what the Home Secretary misnames "the white list"—we never called it that. It was a list of safe countries of origin. He said that he would not implement it, and he made that statement not only in opposition but as soon as he came to office, thereby sending out a clear signal that he would not operate the list of safe countries of origin. That sent a signal to people coming from those countries that their applications would not be fast tracked and that they could once again play the system. It is as simple as that. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand that, it perhaps explains why the asylum system has been in such an unholy mess.

At the same time as the Home Secretary announced that he would not implement measures against illegal working and the list of safe countries of origin, he reversed several high profile deportation decisions that we had taken, proclaimed an amnesty for 20,000 applicants and removed the primary purpose rule elsewhere in the immigration system. The sum of those actions was to send out a clear message to the rest of the world that Britain was once again a soft touch on asylum. The right hon. Gentleman then turned round and tried to blame the record rises that he inflicted on this country on an Administration that had actually brought about a fall. Why cannot he admit responsibility, or will he now tell us that officials were to blame?

If the right hon. Lady wants to refer to soft touches, will she explain why she authorised members of the other place to vote in favour of amendment No. 118 to the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which would have the explicit effect of restoring social security cash benefits to those from whom she withdrew them in 1996, the cost of which in a full year would be £500 million?

Amendment No. 118 was moved by the Bishop of Southwark—on this occasion I pay tribute to him, although I do not always do so—and was supported by us, by the Liberal Democrats and by some of the Home Secretary's colleagues in the upper House. We were trying to assist the right hon. Gentleman, because he said that he would not implement the voucher system until he had the asylum system under control, and that he would turn round applications within six months. We decided to hold him to that promise. We are still in favour of the voucher system, but only when he has established the underlying systems that will make it work. It is as simple as that.

I did not get any enlightenment from the hon. Gentleman the last time I gave way to him, so he can sit down now.

Does the Home Secretary admit that the backlog on asylum applications is now 90,000, which is almost double the figure we left him? That is due to his policies.

Does he acknowledge that even without counting the people who come from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, asylum applications are now running at 70,000 a year at least, whereas we left him with a figure of less than 40,000 a year? Does he admit that that is due to his policies? He alone decided not to implement the safe list and procedures against illegal working. He alone decided to grant an amnesty to 20,000 asylum seekers. He alone decided that—not his officials, not the Opposition, not the international community—so let him have the guts to acknowledge it. [Interruption.]

The right hon. Lady has made it clear that she is not giving way, so hon. Members should not try to intervene.

I shall now come to the second last issue on our list of fiascos: the immigration situation. Over the summer, a great deal of attention was paid to the right hon. Gentleman's mismanagement of the passport system.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your advice. One of my constituents waited eight and a half years for a decision on his asylum status—

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. He is trying to make a political argument through the Chair. It is not a point of order.

If the hon. Gentleman has a constituent in difficulty, he should approach his own Government. I do not know why he feels that he has to approach you, Madam Speaker.

As I was saying, over the summer there was considerable concern about the mismanagement of the UK Passport Agency. Huge queues formed, and people trying to get passports were in considerable distress. Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity to assure the House that he will not pass on the costs of that fiasco to British passport holders in increased fees for passports?

Of course, much of the muddle resulted from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman combined a change in the computer system with a change in the rules governing child passports. One would have thought that he would learn from that, and say, "If new computer systems are being installed, I really should not add anything else." But what did he do? In Croydon, where the Immigration and Nationality Directorate tries manfully to tackle long queues, he added to a new computer system a relocation.

It was no good last time, so I do not want to listen to the hon. Gentleman this time either.

Is the Home Secretary aware of the effect of what he did? Applications for visas and applications in respect of immigration have remained unopened since July. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of that? Is he aware that in one month—

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I cannot find any reference to this matter in the motion.

The Home Secretary added to a new computer system in Croydon a complete relocation. As I have said, although the right hon. Gentleman has tried to cover it up, that resulted in—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman will have to hear this, whether he wants to or not. That resulted in mail remaining unopened since July. In one month, only 1,800 out of 52,000 calls were answered by the office in Croydon. Many foreign investors are complaining because they are unable to obtain visas, and many other people have been put through immense distress.

I have been down to Croydon. I saw what looked like human cattle pens: people crammed in, pressed together, desperately trying to obtain answers to their immigration applications. I talked to some of the people coming out, who told me that this was their third, fourth or fifth visit. That, too, was the Home Secretary's decision. He authorised the relocation, at a time when he knew that a new computer system was being installed.

As the right hon. Lady has pointed out, the number of asylum seekers has risen from 30,000 to nearly 80,000. Does she accept that, when the brief for the new computer system in Croydon was given to Siemens, it assumed a maximum of about 50,000? That could not satisfactorily embrace the needs of people—[Interruption.]

The system did not take account of the crisis in Yugoslavia. [Interruption.] It is all very well for the right hon. Lady to laugh at the plight of asylum seekers, but it was her Government's fault.

The hon. Gentleman has just made out a case against the Government and their handling of the problem. Having increased the number of applications, they imposed a relocation on top of that. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman had thought through what he said—although I had given him a good deal of time to consider it, because I did not immediately allow him to intervene.

Finally, let me deal with the issue of the Mitrokhin archive. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Ministers are weary of the Mitrokhin archive. I am sorry that they find the issue of cold war spies so trivial and laughable. Those who suffered from their treachery will not.

Will the Home Secretary answer two questions that I put to him last week and which he did not answer? As he knew about Melita Norwood in December 1998, and knew that information was coming out and that details would be published, why did he do nothing to inform either Parliament or the Prime Minister? The Home Secretary knows that, when I asked him for a comprehensive list, I meant a list not of every spy going back to the 15th century, but of those likely to be exposed as a result of the Mitrokhin archive. We were getting a-spy-a-day revelations in the press. It would have been more appropriate for the Home Secretary to give the revelations to Parliament. That was the question that I asked. I should like to know what on earth the Home Secretary was doing between December 1998 and September this year in respect of the Mitrokhin archive. Perhaps a few officials kept him in the dark. I do not know; perhaps he will blame them again.

Can the Home Secretary answer the question that I ended with last week and which I expected him to answer with vehement indignation? Instead, he did not answer it either publicly at the time, or privately since. Will he assure the House that, given the links between the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stasi and between Labour Ministers and CND, there is no link whatever between any currently serving Minister and anyone who is named in the Mitrokhin archive? It seems such a simple question, yet, apparently, it cannot be answered.

Before they came to power, the Government promised that they were going to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime. They have reduced police numbers by more than 1,000; encouraged bogus asylum seekers through a long series of measures to soften up the system; failed to handle the issue of asylum seekers who were crowding into Kent, despite continual pleas from Kent, until the issue had flared up in Dover—only then did the Home Secretary act; have added changes in the law to one agency and changes in location to another when they were already hard pressed and could not cope with what they had; and have not keep the House informed of something that would drip through our press over the summer and that concerned issues as serious as treachery.

I could list a host of other things, as you said, Madam Speaker, that the debate was about Home Office affairs in general. I will resist the temptation, but on future occasions we will return to those matters. On the four issues that we have identified, the Home Secretary should take responsibility and apologise properly.

4.17 pm

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"applauds the Government for its achievements on Home Office issues; notes that the previous government left the youth justice system in disarray, left chaos in the immigration and asylum system, in particular as a result of provisions in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and that police numbers fell by 1,500 between 1992–93 and 1997–98; further notes the action that the Government has taken in asking the Intelligence and Security Committee to review the handling of the Mitrokhin Archive, including key decisions taken before 1997; and welcomes the Government's initiatives to provide new money to fund the recruitment of 5,000 police officers over and above the number that would otherwise have been recruited, comprehensively to tackle crime and disorder and to develop a fairer, faster and firmer immigration and asylum system, through the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which will better serve genuine refugees and help reduce the number of abusive claims in the United Kingdom."
The kindest thing that can be said about the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is that it was not up to her usual standard. It was a confused diatribe from a party that failed in government and has done no better in opposition, that talked tough on law and order, but presided over a doubling of crime, that promised to increase police numbers, but allowed numbers to fall by 1,500 over five years—

Later—sit down. Not even I intervened in the first two sentences of the right hon. Lady's speech, but I will give way later.

The Conservative party said that it would get a grip on the asylum system, but it left only chaos and confusion. It shouts about immigration control, but ordered a secret amnesty for asylum seekers. Its record in opposition as well as in government is as incredible as it is incoherent.

Let me deal with each of the points that are raised in the motion. I understand that it is a general omnibus Home Office debate and look forward to any questions that my right hon. and hon. Friends may have about the attitude of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to fox hunting. I deal first—[Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) must contain herself. I am sure that she will be allowed to intervene eventually.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is a fact that he inherited 16,000 more police officers than the previous Government were left by Labour? Will he just acknowledge that? Does he agree that, in our last five years in government, we increased the number of police constables by more than 2,000; that he has reduced that number by 922; and that he has presided over an overall decrease in the number of police officers of more than 1,000? Those are the facts, and he cannot deny them. Will he now cease the rhetoric and start apologising?

The right hon. Lady had 30 minutes in which to make her speech, but evidently felt that she had not made her points properly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I am addressing the issue of police numbers.

If the right hon. Lady wants to go back, the fastest rate of increase in police numbers occurred between 1974 and 1979, when they increased by 2,000 annually. [Interruption.] I am happy to give the House the facts. Between 1979 and 1991, the numbers increased by 1,000 annually.

From 1992 to 1997—the period in which the right hon. Lady was an adornment to the previous Government—the previous Administration promised that police numbers would rise by 5,000. That pledge was given by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), and repeated by the right hon. Lady in January 1997. They promised that police numbers would rise, whereas police numbers declined by 1,500 between April 1993 and March 1998, under budgets decided by Conservative Home Secretaries.

In January 1997, the right hon. Lady announced in the House the police budgets and capping for financial years 1997 and 1998, which began before the general election. The previous Administration decided those budgets.

I shall tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) something else: police numbers did indeed fall by 718 in 1998–99. The only difference between the money that we have spent on police numbers and the money that the previous Administration said that they would spend on police numbers is that, in our Budget, police spending rose by £20 million.

What is clear beyond peradventure is that, when the previous Prime Minister and the right hon. Lady promised 5,000 officers to the House and to the Conservative party conference, they had neither the money nor the mechanism to deliver on that promise. That is why numbers fell.

How does the Home Secretary square that comment with the statement made this year by Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, who said:

"The hard fact is, despite Government reassurances that the fight against crime is still a top priority, the police service has witnessed the largest fall in actual police numbers since the crisis days of the mid-1970s"?

Fred Broughton was entirely right, but he was talking about the decline in police numbers that I have just described. Under Tory Budgets, numbers decreased by 1,500. Moreover, they would have decreased much further in 1998–99 had it not been for our additional money.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have developed this point.

Against the background of falling police numbers, I spoke to my good and close friends in the Treasury—[Interruption.] It is a verity that all Home Secretaries have close and cordial relations with the Treasury. I secured £35 million extra, over and above that allocated in the comprehensive spending review for next year, to recruit 5,000 more police officers than planned. That is what I secured from the Treasury, and that is what we shall do. Next year, there will be £35 million in new money, with more to follow in the succeeding two years. There will be new money to recruit more officers, over and above those already planned. The new money was welcomed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which called it "a significant step forward", and by the Police Superintendents Association, which described it and other announcements we made as a "huge injection of cash".

As I told the Select Committee this morning, revised estimates now indicate that the baseline for recruits over the next three years is not the 11,000 that I gave at the Labour party conference, but 15,000, with the 5,000 as additional new recruits. Together with the extra £34 million that we are investing in extending the DNA database and the extra £50 million going towards the transformation of police communications, our crime fighting fund represents a huge injection of cash.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, because his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was singularly unpersuasive. Is it not a source of concern to the right hon. Gentleman that, so far in 1999, information from 23 of the 43 police authorities in England and Wales reveals that no fewer than 2,324 people have left the police force, and that there has been a reduction in the numbers in Lancashire, incorporating the right hon. Gentleman's own constituency? Does that fact not help to explain why, in the past seven days alone, the chairman of the Police Federation, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have united in condemnation of his inadequate record?

Given my experience with the 11,000 figure, I hesitate to offer a calculation off the top of my head. However, if there is a loss through retirement and resignation of about 2,400 in half the police forces, that is roughly equivalent to the total wastage and retirements—about 5,000 or 6,000—in previous years. The full and detailed projections were set out in the information that I gave to the Select Committee, which is also in the Library.

Given that the Government were elected on a manifesto promise to put more officers back on the beat, and given that the memorandum that the Home Secretary brought to the Select Committee this morning showed a figure at the date Labour took over of 127,158 officers in England and Wales, is it a commitment of the Government that, by the end of this Administration, there will be more officers in total and more constables in particular?

That point was raised also by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The average wastage in the past three years has been about 17,000, excluding transfers between forces. Our estimate—it is only an estimate, but it has been independently verified—is that the police were planning to recruit 15,000 additional officers before taking any account of the additional new money that we are providing next year and for the two years thereafter. Adding the 5,000 to the 15,000 gives 20,000 recruits, if the original baseline estimate of 15,000 is correct over three years.

If wastage rates stay as they are—and, for the reasons I have explained, no one can be certain of that—there should be a higher number of police officers in post in total at the end of the period of three years than there are at the moment. That is not only my wish, but my hope and my expectation. That is what I want to achieve.

We said in our manifesto that we wanted an increase in the number of officers released for operational duties, and that is what we are achieving—not least by major efficiency improvements within the police, including the Narey changes which are transforming the way in which the courts operate and the efficiency and speed with which the police can get people into court.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has come to this House to criticise our spending on the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) asked how she squared that with statements made by the shadow Chancellor—and repeated by the Leader of the Opposition—on spending which, even before we announced the £34 million on DNA, the £50 million on the police radio and the £35 million on new recruits, they had damned as reckless.

We listened as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald sought to evade the answer—not once, not twice, but three times. We were left with a pledge about what the Conservatives might spend if and when they finally came back to power. However, the question was not whether spending at some distant point in the future was reckless. The criticism made by the shadow Chancellor was of our spending now of £1.24 billion on the police.

I heard the shadow Chancellor at the time and he did not say that; he was talking about all our spending. The right hon. Lady is proposing substantial increases in spending. Where is she expecting to make cuts? Would she cut the 50 per cent. increase in funding for victim support? Would she cut the £150 million extra that we are spending on closed circuit television? Would she cut our £60 million on burglary prevention or the money that we are investing to help protect the most vulnerable pensioners? Is she intending to cut numbers in prisons? We know for certain that she is not intending to cut the asylum budget, because an amendment for which the Conservatives voted in another place would increase the asylum budget by £500 million in a year.

Is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is asking me—he has not yet shed the habits of Opposition—how I would spend enough money to have the same number of police officers as we left him an admission that he intends to cut those numbers?

Time and again, we have put to the right hon. Lady the inconsistency between what she is saying and what the shadow Chancellor is saying and, time and again, she has refused to answer. I have already answered a question about my expectation on police numbers from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

There is a reason why no one can predict with absolute certainty the overall number of police officers in three years: the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. That Act, which we voted against and the Conservatives voted for, was not a Conservative oversight. It was a key part of the programme of a Government of whom the right hon. Lady was a member. It removed the legal power of Ministers to set police force establishments. Bringing forward the measures, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), said:
"In future, the number of constables in a force will be a matter for local decision … It is not a matter for me."—[Official Report, 26 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 113.]
That ever wonderful source of embarrassing quotations that the Conservative party wishes to forget, the campaign guide—this one is for 1994—says that the Act would remove
"perverse incentives to recruit police officers instead of civilians".
It is partly for that reason—the right hon. Lady is looking round as though she had not spotted the Act—that police numbers fell when the previous Administration said that they were going to rise. There was no mechanism to deliver her promise. That is why her promises to restore levels to a certain figure are worth as much as her statements as a Minister.

The House will note the extraordinarily complacent statement in the Government's amendment to today's motion, applauding the Government

"for its achievements on Home Office issues".
Will the Home Secretary tell the House and my constituents categorically—not expressing a hope, as he did when answering the question of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—from his consultation with chief constables, when the number of police officers is going to rise, when the asylum situation is going to stabilise, when the backlog of immigration and Nationality Directorate cases in my constituency is going to be sorted out and when the shambles in the Passport Agency is going to be sorted out? When those problems have been solved, he may be applauded for his achievements.

If the hon. Gentleman bears with me he will hear the answers to two of his three questions. I have already answered his question about police numbers. We are putting in new money that the previous Government never provided. We are also setting up a mechanism for the delivery of those numbers. However, without a change to the 1994 Act, which the hon. Gentleman supported, we cannot guarantee police numbers in three years. I have given the House the full figures on our best estimates so far and I have also said that I hope and expect that after those three years, numbers will be above the level when we came to office.

In many previous debates on this subject, the Home Secretary has cited the Police and Magistrates' Court Act and said that he has no power to dictate numbers. That is a safer line than the one that he took at the conference; perhaps he should have stuck to it. Will he now tell us whether he intends to amend that Act, and if not, whether he agrees that establishments should be set locally? Is he not concerned that as only three years' funding is given at a time, and police officers' careers are much longer than that, many chief constables will not recruit extra officers when they get the extra money?

We have introduced longer horizons for public spending than the previous Administration did—but with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have to tell him that no Government could sign up to the proposition that they should give firm levels of funding for more than three years at a time. As for his other points, it is precisely because the 1994 Act removed the Home Secretary's power to set establishment levels that we have established separately, under the Appropriation Acts, a system for ring-fencing the additional money. What I said at the Labour party conference was exactly accurate: that money will be used for new police recruits. We shall also have detailed discussions with chief constables, and do a lot of work with them, to ensure that the additional money is used for additional new recruits whom they would not otherwise have employed.

How does my right hon. Friend think that the Opposition's pledge to increase numbers squares with their "commonsense revolution", which commits them to reducing taxation year after year, and must therefore mean privatisation or cuts?

The reason why the Conservative party, for all its bluster, remains mired in opposition with far less support than any Opposition since the war, is the incoherence of its position. The Conservatives do not only say one thing and do another; they say one thing, say another, and then say a third thing. People outside listen to what they say, and know that there is no coherence behind their approach.

I shall make some progress, and then I shall give way.

As she asserted a few minutes ago, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald piloted the Asylum and Immigration Act through the House in 1996. Its effect, despite the words that she used at the time, was to cause chaos and confusion.

In case hon. Members have forgotten, or did not hear it, I remind the House of what David Mellor said on 29 August about the Conservatives' asylum record:
"The Conservatives have nothing to be proud of. This asylum crisis has been brewing a long time. When I was in the Cabinet it was raised. Two of us expressed concern, but the rest pooh-poohed it or were indifferent".
Looking back on the Tory years, it is difficult to select the most incompetent public policy decision, because there are so many to choose from. We saw "The Major Years" last night, and it offered a cornucopia of incompetence which defies belief, and sometimes memory. None the less, I ask my hon. Friends to try to choose the single most incompetent set of policies. There was the poll tax, the Child Support Agency and, sadly, the privatisation of the railways—[Interruption.] The Conservatives do not think that the privatisation of the railways, and the way in which it was done, have been a disaster. No wonder they lost office and will stay out of office; they do not understand.

Let me explain why the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is down among the worst of those policies, with the poll tax and the Child Support Agency. It had as its centrepiece the plan that those who claimed asylum in the United Kingdom—at Dover, Heathrow, or any of our other ports and airports—would continue to be entitled to claim social security cash benefits, whereas the other half of asylum seekers, who applied in-country, would receive nothing.

We asked at the time what would happen to those people and where they would go, who would be responsible for them, and who would pick up the tab. We kept asking those questions, but we never got a proper answer. The answer, as the constituents of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, and the people of Kent and many London boroughs know to their cost, was that the overwhelming burden of supporting those in-country applicants was transferred to the people and councils of London and Kent. They had not voted for it, nor had they asked for it. It was a present from the Conservative Government.

Like so much else under the previous Administration, the burden was not imposed as a consequence of any clearly thought-out policy but in the absence of one. The simple truth is that we were left, as David Mellor so generously admitted, with an asylum system in disarray. It is racked with delays, encourages abuse and evasion, and fails the taxpayer and the genuine refugee alike.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in 1996–97, as a direct consequence of the Conservative legislation, Kent county council incurred costs of £2 million? When it made representations to Kent Members of Parliament, it was told to clear off. They did not lift a finger to help, which is in complete contrast to the assistance that my right hon. Friend has given under the current Administration.

I am, of course, aware of the situation my hon. Friend has described and I pay tribute to the local authorities in Kent, of whatever political persuasion, and their staff for their bearing of that huge burden. However, the responsibility for that burden rests wholly and exclusively on the shoulders of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her colleagues, who imposed that burden on local authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have mixed feelings about the 1996 legislation, as I have said before in the House. However, should not he tell the House that in-country applicants for asylum are mostly people who have arrived here as visitors and overstayed? When they had their first conversation at the port of entry with the immigration officer, they made it clear that they had the funds to finance their visit. Therefore, they are in a different category.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's comment, but that is why I hope that he shares my astonishment that amendment No. 118 tabled in the other place by the Opposition—I recommend that he read the amendment because the effect it would have is plain—would restore cash benefits for asylum seekers to those from whom we propose to remove them from 1 April next year, the day on which the new system of support is due to come into force, and would also restore cash benefits to all the in-country applicants the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is the most astonishing position for the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her right hon. and hon. Friends to take. She has even described amendment No. 118 as sensible.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has also said that amendment No. 118 was tabled to ensure that we honour a commitment not to implement the new system of asylum support until the limits of two months for initial applicants and four months for appeals had been brought into force. However, if she were to read our White Paper, she would see that it made it clear that there was no link whatever between those two proposals. The two plus four system will come into force from April 2001, and we made clear our determination to bring the new asylum support system into force in April 2000.

I have had many conversations with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) about the asylum and immigration system, but I can tell him that the proposals in amendment No. 118 to restore cash benefits to asylum seekers for at least a year—which his Front-Bench colleagues support and apparently intend to whip every Conservative Member into the Lobby to support when the Bill returns to this Chamber—would cost £500 million and suck in thousands and thousands of opportunist economic migrants. I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald explains her position to her constituents and the other people of Kent.

The Conservatives have raised only two issues with any seriousness on the Immigration and Asylum Bill. I have just dealt with their proposals to restore the payment of £500 million to abusive in-country asylum seekers. What was the second? In all the hours and hours of debate on the Bill, what constructive proposals were made by Conservative Members? Did they say that they were going to reinstate the white list? No, they never discussed it. Did they say that they were going to overturn our removal of the primary purpose rule? No, and when they had the opportunity to vote against in June 1997, they did not take it—they allowed it through without a Division or discussion. Did they propose other ways in which they could tighten control? No.

What makes what the Conservatives are now saying totally hollow is that, of all the issues that they could have selected in Standing Committee, the only one that they chose was to try to undermine the civil penalties on rogue lorry drivers shipping in clandestine immigrants. If the right hon. Lady wants to intervene now, she had better explain why she so pathetically failed to make any proposals to improve immigration controls. The two proposals that she made would undermine those controls.

I did not do so because we had instituted a system that resulted in a 40 per cent. fall. Therefore, we had done what was necessary. The right hon. Gentleman was trying to unpick it and we were opposing that unpicking. Yes, we opposed the fining of lorry drivers who find clandestine entrants in their loads and report it to the police. They deserve to be commended, not fined.

If they are complicit in having clandestine entrants in the backs of their lorries, they deserve not to be commended, but to be fined. That is exactly what we are proposing. As for the numbers, the previous Administration had to make two attempts at improving immigration control in one Parliament, so the right hon. Lady knows that the numbers of asylum applications rise and fall for reasons that have nothing to do with circumstances in this country.

There are pull factors and I fully accept that—that is why we are going to overturn the restoration of social security cash benefits to in-country applicants. The right hon. Lady is claiming clairvoyance among her many attributes if she is saying that it was possible to foresee the conflict in the former Republic of Yugoslavia in the past two years.


The third issue raised by the right hon. Lady is that of Mitrokhin and spies. It was dealt with in great detail in my statement to the House last Thursday. I also gave a full written statement on 13 September, following revelations in the media in the wake of the publication of the Mitrokhin archive. I do not intend to repeat all that I said this time last week, beyond answering the points raised by the right hon. Lady in her speech.

On the back of newspaper stories that were published in early September, the right hon. Lady appeared on the "Today" programme to issue her instant response to the revelations, saying:
"If there are more traitors like this one"—
referring to Mrs. Melita Norwood—
"living freely without being prosecuted then we should be told. Parliament should be told all of the names and the reasons why they were not brought to justice unless there are clear security reasons not to do so."
I ask my hon. Friends to weigh the right hon. Lady's words. The reason that she gave for not denouncing people without trial or conviction was not the rule of natural justice or the rule of law in this country, but simply whether there were "security reasons" for not doing so. Today, she asked why I did not inform Parliament when I was first told of the plans to publish the Mitrokhin archive. As I said, I was told that in December 1998.

The right hon. Lady's implication is that I should have informed Parliament of the plan to publish the book, which was not my responsibility—as she well knows, the decision to publish in that way was initiated by her former right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then the Foreign Secretary, and it was endorsed by the present Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. Alternatively, I can only assume that she was asking me to publicise the fact that the Security Service was considering whether to recommend Mrs. Norwood for prosecution, as I was told in December last year.

I ask right hon. and hon. Members to consider the implications of what the right hon. Lady was inviting me to do. Before the Security Service had decided whether someone should be prosecuted, still less before the Attorney-General and the prosecutors could decide, she was inviting me to announce that consideration of prosecution was in train. That would have amounted to the grossest interference by the Secretary of State in the prosecution process, and would have been wholly improper. I am astonished that the right hon. Lady, who dug herself a pit by proposing that we should support trial by denunciation, should keep on digging.

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, as these are important issues. He now appears to be presenting a picture that is slightly different from the one presented in earlier statements. He may want to clarify what he has just said, but my understanding is that the decision not to prosecute was made in 1992. That is what he has told us hitherto—that that decision had been taken before he was told about the matter in 1998.

Again according to what the Home Secretary said, I understand that the decision to review whether there was a case for prosecution was taken after publicity had been given to the matter, and after a taped confession was broadcast in the press and media. That meant that we then had an admission by Mrs. Norwood that could be added to the former evidence, which did not include that admission. Is the Home Secretary saying that he knew in 1998 that there was such an admission by Mrs. Norwood?

The picture is very confused. The Home Secretary shakes his head, but he has contradicted what he said before.

The right hon. Lady is talking about when Malcolm Rifkind was in charge. He ain't on my side.

What I am saying is exactly the same as what I said in the Home Office statement that I issued on 13 September. The right hon. Lady prides herself that she is properly briefed, so I suggest that she read that statement, as it makes matters clear. In that statement, I said that I had been told for the first time about the plans to publish the Mitrokhin archive in December 1998. I also stated that I was told at that time that the Security Service was considering whether Mrs. Norwood should be recommended for prosecution.

In that statement, I also said that I was told earlier this year that the matter had been referred to the Attorney-General. I said that I was told that the Attorney-General had decided that there was no decision on prosecution for him to take, as he considered that the last date on which it would have been possible to make a proper decision was in 1992–93—when the Security Service decided not to put the relevant papers to the Attorney-General so that he could consider prosecution.

I repeated all that five days ago. As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald knows very well, I also made it clear five days ago that the papers are now back with the Law Officers, as a result of the admission apparently made by Mrs. Norwood in the BBC programme. The right hon. Lady has failed again today to justify her appalling statement in mid-September, just as she failed last week. In that statement, she asked that I should denounce people who had been the subject of neither trial nor conviction.

Vasili Mitrokhin worked for the KGB for more than 30 years, but he was disgusted by what he witnessed. He came to the United Kingdom because he thought that this country was different—that it was based on democracy and the rule of law. It would be a cruel irony indeed if this country were ever to slip into the sort of practices now proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald—practices that Mr. Mitrokhin worked so assiduously to expose.

I turn now to the matter of CND. I am appalled that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has resorted to simple, straightforward smears of that organisation. We became all too used to such smears when the Conservative party was in government. Conservative Members had an appalling record in previous years, but I thought that they had learned something at least about the need to raise the standards of debate in public life.

It has now been revealed beyond all doubt that the Stasi penetrated CND. Will the Home Secretary therefore take this opportunity to confirm that it is legitimate for a security service in a democracy to monitor penetration of so-called peace movements by communist, fascist or other agencies or movements that are allied to any dictatorship with which that service is confronted? Will he say once and for all whether MI5 was right or wrong to monitor communist infiltration of the so-called peace movement in the 1980s? Does he recognise that that penetration was exposed not by Mitrokhin, but in the files of the Stasi, with a quality of information that led to successful prosecutions in Germany and the United States of America? Why is nothing being done about the matter here?

The position regarding the Security Service and subversion is set out in "MI5: The Security Service", a perfectly public booklet. It is currently in its third edition, but I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has read the second and first editions as well as the third. It states:

"It has often been alleged that in the past the Service systematically investigated trade unions and various pressure groups such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament."
It goes on to say that that allegation was not true. It adds:
"To fulfil its function of protecting national security, the Service therefore investigated individual members of bona fide organisations when there were grounds to believe that their actions were intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means."
If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I sign up to that proposition without knowing anything of what happened under the previous Administration, I do sign up to it. I hope that that helps him.

I was referring to the fact that the Conservative party is in Opposition now. I spent 18 years in Opposition, 17 of them on the Opposition Front Bench. I commend that period to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her colleagues. I guess that I know more than most about what is required of a shadow Minister. To make a name in Opposition, one must be ever ready to give a comment or instant quotation. I commend the right hon. Lady for being the most accessible member of the shadow Cabinet. She is ever available to the press with a string of adjectives about the Government's latest iniquity, no matter what the issue may be. There is no question of her going ex-directory.

Just in case the right hon. Lady's phone is engaged when reporters call, however, they can visit her very own website. It is called—and this is absolutely true—the "Widdy Web". When I was told that, I thought that it was a spoof. I thought that Millbank was up to something that I would never have approved, or that some rogue member of the Security Service was doing some private enterprise. So I had the site checked out, and it is entirely authentic, accurate and authorised.

We have no screen on the Front Bench, so I can offer hon. Members only a preview of the site. On page 1, it offers photographs of Ann at conference, Ann at a fringe meeting, Ann after the fringe meeting, Ann during her speech, the conclusion of Ann's speech and Ann signing copies of her new book. It goes on. Indeed, it goes on and on and on.

In her eagerness to please the press, the right hon. Lady forgets the No. 1 rule of rapid response—think before you speak. I have three examples of where she has forgotten that rule. First, just two weeks ago, she described British plans to allow thousands of refugees across Europe to settle in the United Kingdom as "serious" and "perverse". It was indeed a dreadful idea. The only problem was that there are, there were, there never have been any such plans.

Then, she was at it again last Wednesday in The Independent, criticising what she thought were Government plans to allow remand prisoners the vote. Well, it was a terrible idea. The only problem with the proposal and with her criticism is that the proposal to allow remand prisoners the vote was backed fully by the Conservative party and its representatives on the all-party working party on electoral procedures. They signed up to the proposal.

Then—this is dear to my heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker—last Friday, she even popped up as the champion of freedom of information. She criticised me—the champion of freedom of information, as everyone knows—for flawed plans. Yet that is the same Conservative party of BSE and arms to Iraq; the Conservative party which at the last election said that there was
"no need for a Freedom of Information Act",
which it said was of interest only—I have warmed to this idea, by the way—to
"inquisitive, left-wing busy-bodies"—[Interruption.]
In opposition, one can only, sadly, be judged by what one says. In government, we are rightly judged both by what we say and by what we do. It is an eternal verity of government—but especially of life in the Home Office— that, to say the least, not everything works out as intended all the time. It has not under this Government and it did not under the previous one. I am always ready to take advice, but the last person from whom I intend to take advice—

I am coming to the end of my remarks, so I will not give way. I take advice about taxis from the hon. Gentleman, but not about anything else.

The last person from whom I intend to take advice about the conduct of my office is the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, whose record as a Home Office Minister was—I put this delicately—scarcely written up as distinguished. It is as if she and her colleagues at central office now want to airbrush out of history her record and that of the last Conservative Government. It is no wonder that a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer said on television last night of the Conservative party:
"it is a party beyond hope".
By contrast with the Conservative party, this new Labour Government deliver on their promises. [Laughter.] Oh yes. We are on track to deliver our pledge to speed up youth justice. Recorded crime is down. There is new money for the police and we are giving increased powers to them. We are introducing overdue reforms to make our immigration system fairer, faster and firmer. That is the difference between new Labour and a very old, marginalised and divided Conservative party. While they shout, we deliver. I commend the amendment.

5.4 pm

We as a party and I personally welcome this debate on home affairs early after the summer recess. I welcome the opportunity that has been given us by the Conservative Opposition to take stock on the eve of the two-and-a-half year anniversary of Labour's taking over the Administration. My hon. Friends and I have tabled an amendment.

Whatever debates we may have, and we shall have many about police numbers, immigration and asylum, prisons and the rest, we have sought to flag up in our amendment the fact that the Home Secretary as custodian of these matters and the Government of whom he is a member have one overriding duty, which is to balance the obligation to sustain a society of good law and order with the defence and support at all stages of the liberties of the individual. Whether one is talking about prisoners or asylum seekers, the civil liberties of all people on these shores are important. My first point relates to this; it is not included specifically in the motion, but the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) alluded to it.

Last week, in the view of many hon. Members and many of our constituents, the way in which the perfectly proper law and order duty of the police was fulfilled in relation to the state visit of the President of China trespassed on the wrong side of the line of defending people's civil liberties—wherever the instructions came from, if there were any, and wherever the discussions took place, because we know that there were some. It is wholly understandable and acceptable that people should be prevented from scaling barriers, running in front of state carriages and so on. However, it is not acceptable that people should not be allowed to stand, to shout and hold flags along the route of, and in sight of, a visiting Head of State.

It is not the job of the Home Office, nor of any police officer, to spare the Labour Government or other Governments embarrassment. It is their job to ensure that law and order are protected, but that people of all views can express their views. It was sad for many of us, who remember with vivid accuracy those horrible pictures of the events in Tiananmen square, that there are now on file pictures showing what looks like a repression of civil liberties in this country, which is meant to be the mother of democracies.

Whatever I do as the successor to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in the post of Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs, I shall, above all, try to ensure that the civil liberties of all our peoples are upheld, and shall hold the Government to account in that regard.

The Tory Government were not a model Administration in their tenure of the Home Office. Under the Tories, police numbers were not a great success. Asylum and immigration policy was not one of their golden successes. Accountability for the Prison Service was not a glorious moment in the career of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The Tories did not flag up as one of their great triumphs their record of compliance with the European convention on human rights. Given the number of Tory failings, there is something unlikely in the attack being made today from their Benches.

That is a bit of an understatement.

I am trying to be gentle at the beginning of my remarks.

One of the biggest failings related to the subject on which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald chose to attack the Government first—police numbers. In 1992, it was neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour who said that there would be 1,000 more police officers, yet, in the following year, there were fewer officers. In 1995, it was neither our party nor the Labour party, which pledged—in the words of the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—5,000 more police officers, yet by the end of the Tory Administration, there were fewer officers.

The truth is that, during the Tory Administration of 1992 to 1997, as the promises went up, police numbers went down. [Interruption.] The Conservatives deny that, but it is a fact—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is not."] Whatever figures one takes between 1992 and 1997, although there are disputes as to the figures—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Happily, today, some figures were produced for the Select Committee, although they go back only three years. Under the most common figures, between 1992 and 1997, neither pledge—of 5,000 or of 1,000 more officers—was fulfilled. At most, there were about 100 more officers. That was not what the electorate were told; the Tory party did not deliver.

According to those figures, is it not true that we left 16,000 more police officers than we inherited, and, that during the last five years of our Government, the number of constables—actual policemen on the beat—rose by more than 2,000? Will the hon. Gentleman admit that?

The right hon. Lady is right to say that, when the Tories left office in 1997, the number of police officers in England and Wales was considerably higher than when they took office in 1979; they had had 18 years in office, so we should hope that the numbers were up. It is also true that, at the end of that period, there was an increase in the number of constables, for which people had argued. I am trying to make the point that, if the right hon. Lady sets out to attack the Labour Government for failing to honour their promises—which I too am perfectly happy to do—she should remember that her Government also failed to honour their promises on police numbers.

I remember the 1997 debate in this place when the then Government spokesman, who is now First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, complained that, while capital investment and council tax had increased, police numbers had decreased. Within a week or two, the Labour party had promised in its manifesto to provide more officers on the beat. I recall that the theme music for the Labour election campaign was "Things can only get better". Yet we are having this debate today because, disappointingly, many things in the Home Office appear to have got worse.

The past two and a half years of Labour Government have not been an unmitigated success. The Home Secretary pleaded guilty to things not always going as he expected, but even he could not have predicted the catalogue of mistakes and/or disasters that that two and a half years have brought. Resources may have been won for the police, but there are no extra officers on the beat. I do not recall the Home Office's management of the evidence before the Lawrence inquiry as being a particularly golden moment, and it is a tragedy that the matter was not handled better.

According to Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, prison conditions are not improving generally and prison overcrowding is not lessening. Asylum and immigration applications—and I deal with as many as any other hon. Member—are being dealt with less and less effectively despite the good work of many civil servants. People seeking passport applications had a summer to remember and, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald pointed out, legislation on terrorism had to be amended, and the prosecution processes for spies are clearly not working.

I have one comment for the Home Secretary about the events of the past month. We could take issue with the words that he used to describe the number of new police recruits and with the misinformation—or misapprehension—in his conference speech that was not corrected. The Home Secretary said at the end of September that there would be a baseline figure of 11,000 recruits. He then revealed last Thursday in an answer to me that that 11,000 baseline figure was subject to revision and announced this morning that it will be 15,000. That suggests, if not malice or ill will, at least an inadequate degree of competence—which is not what the public expect of the Home Office.

I am the chairman of governors at a primary school in my constituency where five, six and seven-year-old pupils must attend numeracy hours. I think we should send the Secretary of State for Education and Employment down the road to the Home Office; perhaps Treasury officers should also attend in order to help add up the figures. The Government's record on statistics is not a proud one.

I have some specific questions for the Home Secretary about his speech and what he said this morning on police numbers and funding. I am grateful for the Home Secretary's answer to me about police numbers. I understand what happened under the 1994 legislation: it is not for him to determine the number of officers in each force. The right hon. Gentleman has said for the past five years—and certainly for the past two and a half years while in government—that it is not the Government's responsibility when police numbers decline. So his announcement at the Labour party conference of an increase in police numbers was a bit rich. The Home Secretary cannot have it both ways: either he can acquire more money, ring-fence it and provide more police recruits—or he cannot. I understand the difference. However, refusing to take responsibility when police numbers decline and then claiming the glory when they increase is not consistent politics.

The Home Secretary did not answer my specific question to which the public require an answer. I asked whether there will be more police officers at the end of this Administration than at its beginning. Is that the Government's objective and commitment? Is that their pledge? The Home Secretary said that, over the next three years, he expects and hopes that police numbers will not decrease. I repeat: will there be more or fewer police officers at the end of this Labour Administration? That is a simple question to which I hope we will receive a simple answer—the Minister may reply in his winding-up speech.

My second question is important. Even though I was not previously doing this job for our party, I listened to the debates, which often concerned not police officers in general, but constables. The public do not want to discuss senior or administrative officers, but they often ask, "Will there be more officers on the beat?" That was the Labour manifesto pledge, so will there be more constables at the end of this Administration's term of office than there were at the beginning?

My third question is about money. In his Bournemouth speech, the Home Secretary made the announcement, which I welcome, that there would be extra money—a crime reduction fund—and a kick-start cash injection for it of £35 million. How much will that fund receive in total over the next three years? If it costs £25,000 to recruit a police officer—it does, according to a parliamentary answer from the right hon. Gentleman to one of my colleagues last year—by our calculation £35 million for each of the three years will not buy 5,000 extra recruits. The figures do not add up.

If the Home Secretary says that that is correct, that will be helpful, but in that case the figures will not make sense to us, unless all the crime reduction fund is to be ring-fenced for recruits and will increase in future years in real terms to pay for the extra 5,000 recruits. Perhaps the Minister will give us the answer. If there are to be the 5,000 extra recruits for which forces around the country have asked, which is the plan of the Government, and if those forces are to be given £35 million in the first year, they will need considerably more in the following two years.

The crime reduction fund was not signalled as being entirely dedicated to extra recruits, and in his Bournemouth speech the Home Secretary specifically referred to the other claims to be made on it. One was the DNA database, price tag £34 million; the second was the new police radio station, price tag £50 million. Is it correct, therefore, that there is extra money—the crime-fighting fund—above the comprehensive spending review money and the £400 million made available through the crime reduction programme, not only for police recruitment over three years aiming at 5,000 recruits, but for DNA testing and the new police radio station? It would be helpful to have clarification of that.

I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman's questions to the Home Secretary, but I hope that he will not exclude consideration of the important category of special constable. Given that there was a fall in their numbers of almost 10 per cent. between March 1998 and March 1999, will he ask the Home Secretary his intentions in that matter? If we listen intently—with beads of sweat on our brow and bated breath—he may tell us the position of the Liberal Democrats.

Let me deal with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I have always been a strong supporter of special constables and, as a London Member of Parliament, I have consistently lobbied both the Home Secretary, as the police authority for London, and successive Conservative Home Secretaries for more special constables. London has had a lower rate than almost any other force in the country, but I believe that special constables play an important role and it is our view that there ought to be more of them in each area of the country. I can simply pass on the hon. Gentleman's question to the Home Secretary, and I am happy to endorse it. We ask that an announcement be made on the level of support for special constables.

Before I move off police matters, I have a final question on funding: does it come with strings attached? Various publications have suggested that, for the police to get the money from a fund to which they bid, they may be required not only to meet efficiency criteria, but to use certain of the equipment that the Home Office prefers. I have not yet had a chance to go round the country discussing the matter, as I have been in this job for only seven days, but I understand that many police forces are not keen on the equipment and certainly do not want their expenditure to be tied to its use.

One other policing matter has exercised my colleagues and me over the years. As the Home Secretary knows, one of the biggest expenses for the police budget and the budgets of other emergency services is pensions. That is because, unlike most people in society, people in those services cannot be expected to retire at the age of 60 or 65. Will the Home Secretary at least consider consulting his ministerial colleagues in other Departments on whether the pensions commitments for the emergency services could be taken out of the normal budget allocation? I know that there are implications, but if this Administration could get that sorted it would be a great relief to the police and fire authorities around the country, because their increasing pensions burden has a severe effect on other resources.

I am conscious that asylum and other immigration matters will be discussed by the House in a few days when Lords amendments come back to this place, but I will say a word or two now. I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald does not believe that the number of people who come to this country as asylum seekers or immigrants is more determined by the policy of the Government of the day than by events abroad. The large number of people who have come to my constituency from Kosovo or the Horn of Africa have come not because they assessed which was the best place in the world to come, but because European Union countries are expected to be sympathetic to people from countries suffering from poverty and civil war, many of whom have been persecuted or raped and have lost family, friends and homes. That is more likely to determine the numbers.

Of course, there are bogus asylum seekers, but a significant minority of those who apply are accepted on their first application, and a significant number of those whose application is turned down win on appeal. If we ever lose people's right to put their case in an appeal, we shall be in trouble. When will we have the resources, the people and the commitment to catch up and process the cases that are stacking up day after day?

This very morning, my constituency office had a phone call from a solicitor representing a young Kosovan refugee. He was told that the young man must go from his bed and breakfast in south London to Birmingham to collect his papers, because if they were sent to Croydon they would be lost in the post for six months. The refugee then asked whether he would be paid, because he has no money to go to Birmingham, but there was no guarantee of that. The system makes no sense. Asylum seekers and immigrants, whether they are accepted or not, have civil liberties; and we have a duty to ensure that the people who work hard in our immigration and nationality department have a system that works and ensures that justice is done and is seen to be done.

May I say a word about spies? I share the Home Secretary's view on the subject of the specific debate. I do not believe that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, my right hon. and hon. Friends or I are in a position to decide, let alone pronounce, who should be prosecuted for spying against this country.


We need a process in which Security Service officers do not decide either. They should advise, there should be independent adjudication that is free of them and of Ministers and, ultimately, the Home Secretary should decide.

This Government were elected to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime, a phrase that may come back to haunt them. Their policy is often as much about talking tough on crime and the causes of crime as about delivering.

I hope that the second half of this Administration will be caricatured as much by—characterised as much by—

Indeed, both. I hope that it will be characterised by being tough on incompetence and tough on the causes of incompetence. The Home Office has a greater reputation for incompetence than any other Department. As I said a couple of weeks ago when asked to comment on the famous Bournemouth speech, if we cannot trust the Home Secretary or his press releases to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Home Office Ministers cannot expect the rest of the country to behave differently. If we cannot have confidence in the Home Office to ensure people's civil liberties and to provide the best public services on law and order, we cannot have confidence in the Government.

I do not think that people have confidence in the Home Office at the moment. Much in the administration of the Home Office is seriously rotten. Our job is co-operatively, constructively and, when necessary, aggressively to hold the Government to account, so that in their second two and a half years—or in as many months as they still have to go—things will get better, instead of promises of improvement followed by things actually getting worse.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Madam Speaker has put a time limit of 10 minutes on speeches from Back Benchers. That applies from now on.

5.26 pm

In view of what you have just said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not give way during my speech.

I am surprised that the Opposition have drawn the House's attention to the stewardship of cold war spies and the Mitrokhin archive, bearing in mind the fact that this matter relates mostly to their period in office. I regret that I was unable to be in the House last Thursday when the Home Secretary made a statement about the Mitrokhin archive. I was in Russia on parliamentary business, and watched his speech from my hotel bedroom. I was frustrated for two reasons. I have taken a great interest in this matter over the summer, and have corresponded with the Home Secretary.

First, my constituent, Michael John Smith, was imprisoned for 20 years for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. He claims that there was a miscarriage of justice and entrapment by the security services. He was convicted in part on the evidence of defectors. I have no way of knowing whether he was guilty or innocent, and I shall not detain the House on that: I shall try to probe some of the issues raised by his case in an Adjournment debate. However, it is interesting that if the existence of the Mitrokhin archive had been known to his defence counsel at his trial in 1993 and his appeal in 1995, it might have been relevant to the preparation of his case, especially as he is mentioned several times in Professor Christopher Andrew's book about the Mitrokhin archive. I want to flag up my concern about that.

My second interest in this matter is a parliamentary one. Parliament does not oversee the security services. The Intelligence and Security Committee is a fine body of hon. Members, but it is not a parliamentary committee. That is an important point: it is not a nuance or a minor detail.

This whole business has again raised the issue of the need for good freedom of information legislation. As much as I welcome the legislation to be introduced by the Government—it is 300 per cent. better than nothing—it is still inadequate. More importantly—this should interest every hon. Member—it is amazing that it is appropriate for Malcolm Rifkind to hand over papers to Professor Christopher Andrew, but not to make them available to Members of Parliament. How can that be justified? I certainly think that those papers should be in the wider public domain.

I probed the Home Secretary about this matter in correspondence. I asked him why Professor Christopher Andrew has those papers if they are secret. If they are not secret, why cannot we see them? I pressed him on the security classification of the papers. He said that there were of great sensitivity. I replied that I am not aware of the security classification of "great sensitivity." If there is such a classification, we should be told about it. If not, what is the security classification of those papers?

I have still not had a response to that question, so perhaps the Minister can give me one. We should not be glibly told that we cannot see those papers: some justification should be given. I understand that there are categories of security classification, but the Home Secretary has failed to tell us what category the papers are in.

The Home Secretary sent me a letter on 15 October, not answering that question but stating:
"Mr. Mitrokhin came to believe that the covert activities of the KGB should be made public. In 1992, he approached the UK for help in bringing out and publishing his notes."
That is something of an understatement. I have no way of assessing the courage of Mr. Mitrokhin or other defectors, and I do not want to go into that today. I am not qualified to judge. The Home Secretary has said that they were very courageous, and they probably were. In any case, we all have different views on defectors. However, it should not be suggested that Mr. Mitrokhin put up his hand and said, "I should like to publish my notes." Mr. Mitrokhin came here because he had to get out: things were getting a bit hot for him. That should also be borne in mind in relation to Oleg Gordievsky, who also published some papers.

Let me repeat that I am not judging those people's courage; nevertheless, they had a vested interest. They were making an appeal to the security services here, and there were rich possibilities. I think that there was a propensity to exaggerate, especially when there was the possibility of a financial return on the publication of their books. We must tread cautiously when examining the contents of the documents. We must consider what the motives for defection were, and what has been published by those people or on their behalf.

In his letter to me, the Home Secretary said, in effect, "Awfully sorry, Mackinlay, but the ownership of the archive is not with me, but with Mitrokhin." He also said that he had taken legal advice on ownership. I would like to be humble, but I do not accept that advice; and even if I am wrong, I believe that ownership should be with Her Majesty's Government. That takes us back to Malcolm Rifkind's stewardship of the matter. When a person is about to defect, a price is extracted. That person should be told, "What you bring with you in return for safe asylum"—and, no doubt, some remuneration for future life—"is our property." I find it ridiculous that it should now be suggested that the papers are Mitrokhin's property.

Both Malcolm Rifkind and, to some degree, the present Government are ducking and diving. They are saying, "It is all right for Professor Christopher Andrew to have the papers, but it is not all right for Members to have them." They will not tell us the secret classification of the archive. It is all wholly unsatisfactory, and to a large extent an affront to Parliament.

I am not sure whether the Minister is in a position to reply, but I tabled a parliamentary question asking whether comparable conditions had been placed on Gordievsky and Victor Oschenko when they defected, and in relation to the ownership of any material that they might have published. Was Malcolm Rifkind, or any other Conservative Home Secretary, so generous as to abdicate ownership of documents from those defectors on behalf of Her Majesty's Government? It is an important question.

We know that Malcolm Rifkind imposed some conditions, one of which was wholly unsatisfactory, and was not fulfilled. The Home Secretary referred to it in the House last week, when he told us that Malcolm Rifkind had said that any publication of the papers must not traduce anyone who did not agree to reference being made to them or anyone who had not been convicted. That, however, did not safeguard the reputation of people who are deceased, and have been traduced in the press, with no right of reply, since these matters came to light.

Malcolm Rifkind's stewardship of the matter was highly selective. It has damaged the reputation of men and women who cannot reply, and other names have been bandied about when there has been no satisfactory way of obtaining a remedy. Those who have been traduced, living or dead, have no access to the papers, just as we in the House have no access to them. It is time the facts were revealed, and time that a much fuller, comprehensive statement was made. I do not accept that this is a matter for the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not part of the House of Commons.

Who the heck is Professor Christopher Andrew? I know that he is a distinguished academic who does not just read books—he writes them—but why should he have a superior position over hon. Members and everyone else in the land? It is wholly unsatisfactory.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggests that Professor Christopher Andrew was given the archives, so that he could make a proper historical analysis. That is bunkum. We will get a very partial and selective interpretation, so I hope that the Government will think about the matter again. I hope that they will consider the freedom of information point and generally reflect on the matter much further.

Since I have taken an interest in the matter, I must tell the House that, for the first time, the lock on my house in Tilbury has been tampered with—it has been damaged—and my dustbin has been pinched. I am sure that it is a coincidence—but if anyone is looking for documents, they will be on the shelf in the living room, between the Edward VIII coronation mug and the Neil Kinnock general election victory mug of 1992.

5.36 pm

I hope that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will forgive me if I do not follow him and discuss that aspect of the motion.

The background to the debate is clear. It started three years or so ago, when the Labour party, which was then in opposition, said that, if elected, it would be tough on crime and on the causes of crime. That was never believable with old Labour and events are rapidly proving that it is not believable with new Labour either.

The outcome of the argy-bargy over numbers between those on the Front Benches was clear. During our time in government, there were, on average, an extra 900 police officers a year. During the present Government's term in office, there has been a decrease of 500 a year.

I was amazed by the Home Secretary. On 2 May 1997, he and many others were saying, "We are in government now. It is all going to be better. We are going to change and to modernise the country." The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was right—that was what they said. They have been in government for two years and the Home Secretary stands there today and says, "It has nothing to do with me, guv. I was not even here." The Prime Minister knows that he is Home Secretary. The House knows that he is Home Secretary. I wonder when he will wake up to the fact that he is Home Secretary with powers to make changes for the common and national good, if he deems them necessary.

Through the comprehensive spending review, we are experiencing the tightest squeeze on police spending in the past 10 years. The record thus far can be easily summed up. Police numbers are going down, while prisoners are being let out earlier than the courts said that they should be and without any court sanction.

The Home Secretary's much vaunted anti-social behaviour orders are nowhere. Throughout the country, the orders were to be the answer and they are not even off the starting blocks. Labour-controlled Peterborough council tells me that it is worried about the European Court of Human Rights implications of the orders, so it may not take any action until the court has pronounced. The issue is being pushed into the long grass of the Parliament after the Parliament after the next one. Furthermore, I read that the Home Office is being told that crime will rise again next year.

What is the Government's reaction to all that? Is it to do something? No, it is to talk. That was the background to the Home Secretary's highly disputed speech at his party conference. He promised an extra 5,000 police; he has rolled back from that today. I am not as gentle as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I think that that speech was deliberately designed to mislead. We happen to know that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury warned the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister that they should not go down that road. What was their reaction? They spent hours with special advisers to find a form of words that was technically correct, but designed to mislead. I do not charge the Home Secretary with deliberately using words that were a distortion of the truth. I accuse him of knowing what he was saying, and of working to create an impression. I believe that partly because, as we have learned in the past two years, the essence of new Labour is to say one thing, but to do another.

Nevertheless, the police understood the situation. I could quote many police officers on it, but I shall quote only one. The chairman of the Metropolitan branch of the Police Federation said that the Home Secretary's speech was
"a complete betrayal of the people and the police officers of this country".
As the Home Secretary will know, he was not alone in creating that impression, because the Prime Minister shared his view. However, that was a double-edged endorsement. It was given by a man who says that he loves the pound, but is preparing for a single currency; who says that he will fight Britain's corner in Europe, but hands over ever more control to Brussels; who said that he would not increase taxation if elected, but has so far added £50 billion to the tax bill; and who says that national health service waiting lists are decreasing when they are increasing. The support of that calibre of character simply underlines that the Government are happy to say anything that they need to say to persuade people, rather than to do what the people want them to do.

The Home Secretary's policy is having predictable consequences. Rural crime, for example, has increased. As the Home Secretary said today, he spent 18 years in opposition. I had the good fortune of spending the first 18 years of my parliamentary career on the Government Benches. In the past two years, one of the things that I have learned about not being a Minister is that one is more likely to turn from the airy-fairy national discussion and concentrate on what is happening to those whom we represent: our constituents. I should therefore like to speak briefly about Cambridgeshire.

Cambridgeshire has one of the smaller constabularies, which, for operational reasons, is divided into three divisions. I shall tell the Minister about only one of them. It has such a huge funding gap that 15 posts have been frozen. By the end of the financial year, 20 posts in that one division may be frozen. Even if the Home Secretary were telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Cambridgeshire's share of new officers would not right the wrong of 60 or 70 frozen posts.

Cambridgeshire police, in my safe constituency and county, face a bill of £900,000 for policing the millennium. Who will pay that bill, Minister? Will you pay it, or will more police posts have to be frozen, so that police officers cannot patrol the Ortons, Fletton and Peterborough, or Yaxley, Ramsey, Bluntisham and Sawtry in my constituency? Do you realise, Minister, that Government policy is adding—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is a long-standing hon. Member, and really should use the correct parliamentary language.

Does the Minister realise that the Government are adding to the police service's load? Last weekend, for example, 32 asylum seekers—most of whom dropped off the back of lorries—entered the one police division that I have been describing. In one case, two officers spent seven hours with seven asylum seekers. That represented a loss of 14 hours policing. Cambridgeshire has no idea how much of officers' time is being spent dealing with such matters.

If the asylum seekers have identity cards or means of identification and a name and address to go to, the police take the information and let them go, and that is the end of the immigration process. If they do not, the police spend hours with them, trying to identify them and where they are supposed to go to. They then give the asylum seekers a travel pass and a map of the way to Croydon. That is the asylum system that Ministers have defended to this House today.

Martin Slade of the Immigration Service Union has said:
"The point of immigration control is to control immigration. We don't think they're controlling anything."
Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council has said:
"The only crisis is in the Government's asylum system. They should concentrate on sorting out the shambles in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate."
I want the House to understand that my constituents are suffering because of the incompetence and ineptitude of this Government and of Ministers. It is time for them to stop saying one thing and doing another, and to start doing what they were elected to do. Otherwise, that phrase—which I suspect I coined three years ago—will return to haunt them.

5.46 pm

I shall confine my remarks to the immigration and asylum part of the motion.

The events in Kent throughout this summer will be familiar to many hon. Members from newspapers and from television, and the difficulties arising from thousands of people seeking asylum have caused considerable distress throughout the county.

Kent and the ports play host to every conceivable nationality—indeed, they are welcomed. However, towns such as Dover and Ramsgate are not used to receiving such large influxes of people from foreign lands—whatever their reason for asylum and however barbaric their torture or persecution. Few would disagree that these people deserve our sympathy, our help and our tolerance. However, if we are to retain that tolerance when people seek sanctuary on our shores, it is vital that a proper structure is in place—a structure that does not place unfair burdens on particular communities, as has happened in Kent, and that quickly rejects those applications that are false.

Parts of Dover and Thanet contain some of the poorest areas within Kent—its objective 2 status renewal is confirmation of that. It does not take a great deal of imagination to work out the consequences of large numbers of asylum seekers entering a community that is not familiar with them and that suffers also from high unemployment. It is an unhealthy blend, and requires careful handling.

There are two tasks for those in positions of responsibility—to put in place a different structure to resolve the difficulties and the burdens that the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 has put upon Kent and other port areas, and to reimburse the local authorities—and the Government are carrying out both of them. In the meantime, before we can resolve the matters before us with legislation, those concerned should tread carefully indeed and avoid anything that causes unrest.

Sadly, the temptation to gain publicity from this situation has proved too much for some of those in positions of responsibility. Instead of seeking solutions, they have sought the camera and fanned the flames of unrest. We have seen the consequences of that on the "dross"—a word used by local newspapers. The editor of the Folkestone Herald was warned by Kent police that his editorial in October last year could incite racial violence. It is important for hon. Members to know what local papers have been carrying within Kent at a time of such sensitivity. That editorial last October said:
"We want to wash dross down the drain.
Illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, bootleggers and the scum-of-the-earth drug smugglers have targeted our beloved coastline. We are left with the back-draft of a nation's human sewage and no cash to wash it down the drain."
Those are the views of the local newspaper editor. Hon. Members will understand the atmosphere that has been created in the towns of Dover, Folkestone and Thanet, and throughout Kent.

The most outrageous aspect of the situation is that some of those scoring points are from the party that brought us the dreadful Immigration and Asylum Act 1996, which forced people to stay in their port of entry and put the costs on the local council. I worked for Kent social services while the legislation was going through the House. The problems have been brewing for years. To deny that events in Europe and the rest of the world had an effect on the number of people coming into this country is to deny reality.

It is worth noting that, when Kent county council asked for help in 1996–97 because it was incurring a £2 million debt as a direct consequence of the legislation, it was told to stop whingeing and go away. No help was forthcoming from the Kent Conservative Members of Parliament. Why? Because Kent county council was run by a Labour-Liberal administration.

The world has changed now. We have a Conservative administration in Kent and a Labour Home Secretary. Suddenly, Tory Members of Parliament and the Tories on Kent county council have seen the consequences of the disastrous legislation. It is not quite so marvellous after all. I am pleased to say that, in contrast to the Conservative Government, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his team have not ignored the difficulties. Unlike the Tories, they have not said "Go away, it's not a problem." They have met many of the costs. Instead of ignoring the issue, they have delivered a one-off payment of £670,000 to Kent police. The chairman of the Kent police authority described the granting of 42 extra police officers as generous.

We are also getting more immigration officers, and the £12 million costs of that were reimbursed to Kent county council. There is a continuing commitment to consider reimbursing the Ashford reception centre and the costs of unaccompanied minors, as well as bringing forward the dispersal programme early before the new legislation comes into force. The Kent Tory administration and Kent Members of Parliament have got what they wanted. The Tories have also got what they wanted: they have been able to play the issue in the media.

We are considering the issues of dispersal in other parts of the country, such as Sheffield, where we may be asked to receive people. We have two primary concerns. The first is that we shall need extra support like that given to Kent, which the hon. Gentleman has described, if we are not to suffer community relations problems. The second is the comments that he has referred to, which give the impression that other parts of the country are being asked to take incredibly difficult and dangerous people who are no longer wanted in Dover and Kent. It is counterproductive for people to make such negative comments.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said before, the dispersal programme is right, but it needs to be carefully managed. It is important that the Home Office works closely with local authorities to ensure that it is successful. It is the right policy. The burden should not fall only on particular communities.

The Tories in Kent know a good excuse when they see one. Despite the best social services budget in years, with a 6 per cent. increase on the standard spending assessment, they are blaming the cost of dealing with asylum seekers for their decision to put up the cost of old people's meals on wheels. What a cynical attempt to use a problem that they created to cause fear among elderly people. That increase in cost comes to £18,000. At the same time, they are spending £5 million on new computers and a new call centre. We can see where their priorities lie.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the listening ear that he has provided. However, the Government are about more than just listening; they have provided real resources. I have lived in Kent all my life, but never before have I witnessed such scenes of intolerance and violence as I saw in the ports and elsewhere last summer, and I hope that I never see them again. It is our responsibility to do everything that we can to handle the delicate situation. In a letter to the Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who was then responsible for immigration, the Tory leader of Kent county council said that there was a tinderbox atmosphere in the port towns. I agreed with him but, sadly, he felt the need to release the letter to the press. A couple of weeks later, there were attacks in Dover. He added to the problems rather than seeking solutions.

The performance of the Tories in dealing with the matter has been a disgrace. They passed the 1996 Act and put the burdens on Kent and now they are blaming the Government. We welcome the additional resources and we look forward to the new legislation to lift the burden on areas of Kent.

5.56 pm

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and I have spoken together about Kent from time to time. We were both brought up in the county, although in different eras, I suspect. I hope that he will bear it in mind that, when there is uncontrolled immigration, the first people who suffer tension and prejudice are not those such as he or I, living in relatively leafy towns and suburbs, but British born and bred ethnic minorities.

This short debate covers a wide range of Home Office responsibilities, which have in common the indelible mark of the Government's failure to fulfil their promises to the electorate, their failure to make their policies work and their failure to sustain the services and standards that they criticised so stridently when they were in opposition.

The fall in police numbers and the slump in police morale this year and last year vividly illustrate the deficit between Labour's pre-election boasts and its performance in government. Large numbers of police officers are leaving the service and the pattern is the same throughout the country. The Police Federation has been unable to conceal its dismay at the undisguised hostility of the Macpherson report, the shortfall in promised funding, the betrayal of the Blakelock family, the manipulation of recruitment statistics and the creeping disease of political correctness that hampers authority. No wonder that crime is rising under a Government insensitive to victims, muddled about practical crime prevention measures and slow to act on the causes of crime.

On asylum seekers, the Government are compounding a growing and acute problem. I do not doubt that the Home Office will continue to honour the Geneva convention and will try at the same time to use the fair but effective means at its disposal of ruling out the large number of applicants who do not have a well-founded fear of persecution, but the scale of the influx, genuine or bogus, will not diminish as migration from eastern to western Europe continues unchecked.

The Government are compounding the problem in three ways. First, as I have said in the House before, the Home Office and the Treasury should recognise that the existence of a long asylum queue, with all the delays that that entails, is the biggest attraction for others to arrive here and join the queue. The several hundred million pounds that Ministers have spoken about will not resolve the problem. To massage numbers from the list by awarding exceptional leave to remain status and through other devices is not the answer. That did not happen in the first half of the previous Parliament, as one Minister wrongly claimed during the summer recess. To process the whole queue fairly but quickly would cost a great deal more in the short run but, once it was done, the repeated annual savings would be much larger than the once-and-for-all processing cost.

Secondly, the no-doubt-genuine aspirations of the Government's new legislation will soon be undermined if the appeal procedures are not conducted as swiftly in practice as Ministers have claimed theoretically will be the case. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 had provisions for a seven-day determination of manifestly unfounded applications, but that foundered when the Lord Chancellor's Department refused to add enough extra adjudicators to process the appeals within the prescribed timetable. That failure by the Lord Chancellor's Department could have been remedied, but it was overlooked in the second half of the previous Parliament, and has—unwisely, in my view—been disregarded by the present Home Secretary.

Thirdly, the European Union cross-pillar and comprehensive approach to asylum, to which the Government too readily subscribe, is turning attention away from a basic principle of the Geneva convention that, because of our island geography, is advantageous to the United Kingdom. The convention requires that asylum seekers must apply in the first safe country that they reach—so all the applicants who arrive in the United Kingdom via continental Europe should, by definition, be returned to whichever other convention country they first reached. Even if they have a well-founded fear of persecution, their cases are manifestly unfounded in the United Kingdom, because they should have been considered elsewhere. That is the way to respond fairly and properly to the convention.

Immigration control is similarly affected, as events in Tampere showed, by the European Commission's plans to absorb more third-pillar interior and justice policies within treaty competence. Rights of appeal to the European Court on immigration cases are the thin end of the wedge.

A greater threat to the integrity of our controls comes from the Commission's desire that a standard format European visit visa, issued, say, by a Greek entry clearance officer, should have some legitimacy when presented to an immigration officer at a British port of entry.

As Ministers know, I applauded the Government for having kept our border controls. However, the Commission will not rest until it has found other ways in which to envelop United Kingdom immigration controls within treaty competence. No one should doubt that, with EU enlargement, the already porous external frontiers will grow more porous still, as they extend into central and eastern Europe.

Finally, there is the Government's handling of the revelations in the Mitrokhin archive. The most disturbing aspect of that bizarre episode is the fact that the Security Service took it upon itself to decide whether the material provided sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution with a realistic chance of success. Surely that was for Ministers, the Law Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service, not the unaccountable Security Service, to decide.

In a recent letter to the Home Secretary, I said that I believed strongly in our constitutional monarchy and in a framework of authority that promotes the rule of law and safeguards genuine national interests, but that I abhorred the abuse of power. The Security Service is virtually immune from the law, and has no legal status, but it can break and enter, bug and tap telephones under the Royal Prerogative. It communicates as it pleases with a parliamentary Committee that cannot even report to Parliament, and that has to be content with arbitrary deletions from what it is told.

It is astonishing that the Government, who are allegedly committed to freedom of information and human rights, should fail to impose accountability on the secret service for its high-handed decisions about how to deal with the Mitrokhin archive. In 1988, Sir John Donaldson, then Master of the Rolls, said:
"It is silly for us to sit here and say that the security service is obliged to follow the letter of the law. It isn't real".
That still applies today.

Richard Tomlinson, who helped to bring the Mitrokhin files to the west, is pursued. David Shayler, who has had the temerity to criticise managerial inefficiency in the service, is hounded. However, spies whose persistent treachery has now been exposed by Mitrokhin were to be left alone without reference to the Law Officers or the Crown Prosecution Service.

The mishandling of the Mitrokhin archive, and the Government's failure to hold the Security Service accountable, are yet another example of the Labour Government's inability to put their promises into practice.

6.4 pm

When I returned to the House following the summer recess, one of the first things I noticed was the splendid new green annunciator screens that now hang half way across the Chamber on each side. I wondered what they were for, but now I know: they are large enough to cope with the titles of Opposition day motions. The subject of the debate was rather more succinctly expressed by Madam Speaker, who simply introduced it as "general Home Office matters".

I realised that the Tories could not describe the subject in those words because if they said that the debate was about general Home Office matters, that would put the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), in a difficult position. Because of the actions of the Leader of the Opposition, she is not allowed to speak on all Home Office matters. Now I understand why our debates have such long titles, and why we need such large screens.

I intend to speak only about police numbers, but first I must say briefly what a delight it is to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle). I worked for a short time for a Member of the previous Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman was an immigration Minister. He was an extremely effective and good one, and we always thought that he was fair. All Members should take seriously the comments that he makes on such matters in the House—I am sure that they will.

I want to speak about police numbers because I am one of the two Members—the other is a Liberal Democrat Member, whose constituency escapes me for the moment—who chaired police authorities before we entered the House.

Yes, I meant the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

I chaired the Humberside police authority from 1993 to 1997, which was a key time in the history of police authorities. When I first became the chair, our authority was an integral part of local government. Then came the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, and I was chair for the transitional period. The authority finally broke into full independence as the 1997 general election approached.

Listening to some of the comments in the debate, it strikes me that although police authorities, local authorities and police services are well aware of the effect of the changes, and their impact on powers and responsibilities, despite the fact that the Act originated from this building the House seems full of Members who have no understanding, or little understanding, of what has changed. Perhaps they do not want to understand.

I was not always a complete and utter fan of the 1994 Act when it was first drafted, but, due to many efforts in this House and in the other place, it turned out to be a fairly good and robust piece of legislation. For many years before it was enacted, I, and many other chairs of police authorities, had argued strongly that we wanted greater independence for police authorities and chief constables to decide establishments and police numbers for themselves, taking into account what they believed were the priorities for their areas, and the other things that they could spend money on, such as greater civilianisation, more training or more equipment. We were therefore pleased when the Act was passed. However, it had a knock-on effect, in that the ability of any Home Secretary—it does not matter any more of what political colour—to predict police numbers is now not simply limited, but non-existent. Home Secretaries no longer have that power. It would be much better if we at least started from that point, and accepted that fact.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who now speaks for the Liberals on such matters, said that he did not think that the Home Secretary could have it both ways, by saying that he was not responsible when police authorities employed fewer officers, but that he was responsible when numbers went up. On the contrary, not only can my right hon. Friend have it both ways, that is the only way to explain the present position. He has no control over decisions that police authorities and chief constables make about their own establishments. If he wants to increase police numbers, all that he can do is to ring fence a sum of money and say, "I am willing to give you this money only if you spend it for that purpose." Whether we think that that is a good or a bad thing, that is the reality; that is the law.

I believe that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said that he hoped that we were not going to go back to the time when establishments were all centralised and decided in Westminster and Whitehall. That would be a retrograde step. For instance, in Humberside during my chairmanship we decided to buy a police helicopter. We covered a large rural area as well as the cities of Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby, and a helicopter would, in our opinion, be a good way of fighting crime and giving us fast access, especially to the rural parts of the county, in all kinds of circumstances. The helicopter has proved a great success, but let us not kid ourselves—it is extremely expensive to buy and run, and the money that we spend on it has had an impact on the number of officers that we can recruit.

We acquired the helicopter as part of a deal offered by the previous Government, whereby half the cost would be paid if we made an application. That was a generous offer—we took it and we got our helicopter. However, by doing that and following the policies of the Government of the day, there was an impact on the number of officers that we could recruit.

The idea that somehow the Home Secretary can be personally responsible for all such decisions is not credible, and it is not true. Furthermore, that would not even be desirable. Having funded the police authorities, we should allow them and their chief constables to write their own policing plans, set their priorities and decide for themselves how many officers, how many civilians, what equipment and what training would be right for their areas.

Conservative Members have claimed that when they were in power there were more constables. That is true, because within the freedom and flexibility that police authorities now have they have taken a decision to push down the rank structure. There are now many fewer superintendents and more constables. That is right and proper, because more constables can perform more active duties on the beat.

Civilianisation has also had an impact. Scenes of crime officers used to have to be police officers, but there is no reason why that should be the case, and many forces now have civilian scenes of crime officers and many other jobs have passed to civilians. In the end, whether the Government keep their promises of more officers on the beat cannot be judged only by how many police officers there are—the issue is the rank of those officers, what they do and what infrastructure is provided around them.

Special officers have been mentioned, and it is right to say that they make a tremendous addition to the resources of a local police force. However, I urge caution in judging how well a force is doing on the bare numbers. Specials are volunteers and they work the hours that they wish to work. In other words, a small number of special constables may make a bigger contribution to a police force because they are able to put in more hours. Therefore, I warn the House against some of the simplistic judgments that we have heard today.

The shadow Home Secretary spoke about reversing the decline and said that however many police officers were left, she would return the numbers to what they were when we came to power. I have mentioned the impotence of Home Secretaries under the legislation, so that promise is not deliverable. Even if the Home Secretary wanted to increase recruitment by a certain amount, he has no control over the decisions that police authorities and chief constables make about replacing officers who leave. Unless that power is re-centralised, the promise is unachievable. It may be that the shadow Home Secretary intended to announce by the back door that she would re-centralise that power, but I hope not because that would be a retrograde step.

Across the country, local authorities are dealing with community safety and crime reduction with great success on the back of the Morgan report, which was provided for the previous Government but never implemented. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 means that the report is being implemented and partnerships are being formed between the police, local authorities, the business sector and the voluntary sector. That is making a big difference. We need to have proper debates about how to achieve community safety and crime reduction—the real issues—instead of point scoring.

I have had the great honour of working with hundreds of police officers with Humberside police, and the one thing that really cheeses off police officers is debates like this, in which their work is undervalued and we do not consider what should be done to support them. The solution is not as simple as the numbers: it involves money, resources, priorities—

6.14 pm

As always in Home Office debates, I declare an interest as an acting recorder of the Crown court, a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and a founder and first chairman of the Immigration Advisory Service. I wish to address the issue of asylum and immigration, and in doing so it is important to use language that is not emotive. I shall try to be constructive and courteous while, at the same time, trying to identify the problem that faces the country and the Government.

The newspapers today contained reports of record numbers of people seeking asylum in this country. Total asylum seeker numbers for 1999 have already exceeded applications for the whole of the previous year. It is anticipated that by the end of this year there may be 70,000 applications for asylum, plus dependants. August and September both had record numbers—more than 7,000—of applications. That creates a tremendous strain on the adjudication and courts service which has to hear the applications.

The Home Office faces a crisis in the backlog of asylum and immigration cases that still await decision. In March, the backlog stood at 125,000; by June, it had risen to 140,000—today, it is just over 150,000, and by the end of the year, on present trends, it will reach more than 160,000. That is a huge burden on the Home Office and the resources of this country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to respond to the shameful attack by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) on the councillors, editors and people of Kent. Does my hon. Friend agree that Kent needs a reduction in the number of asylum seekers, as was achieved in the last year of the previous Government, and not the enormous increases that he has just described?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in that area. He has shown great devotion to his duty to his constituents, and he has been in his place throughout the debate today.

Why is the backlog of asylum and immigration cases so big? It is because decisions are being made at half the rate at which new applications are made. It is no good continuing with a system that makes decisions so slowly. This morning, at the meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, I put some straight questions to the Home Secretary. I said, "Home Secretary, there were 7,300 applications for asylum in September. How soon will their cases be heard? How soon will the results of those cases and any appeals be known? How soon will those who fail in their applications be removed?" The Home Secretary could not answer, and nor could the official who accompanied him.

That is the scale of the problem that faces the country, and the Home Office is not getting to grips with it. It has let the problem, which it admittedly inherited from the previous Government, get worse and worse. Incidentally, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) for the outstanding work that he did as an immigration Minister in the previous Government.

The Government are not doing enough and the Home Office is in chaos. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon faces impossible queues. Telephones go unanswered and the computer system is in chaos. In my surgeries on Friday nights in Woking—which has a large, settled ethnic community—I see many constituents with ongoing cases who come to me in despair because their correspondence and telephone calls are never dealt with. They tell me, and I tell the House, that the Home Office appears to the communities outside the House to have lost its grip on the problem.

The Home Office needs to decide asylum and immigration applications quickly. In Croydon, the 28 teams of 16 people each are doing their best to decide the cases, but more money may be necessary and may save time in the long run. More money now may lead us to a system that would be in the better interests of those many genuine cases who are being elbowed aside by those who have less claim. Therefore, we should decide cases fast and hear appeals quickly. There is no reason why they should not be heard quickly and why decisions should not be made thereafter. If it is decided that the appeal has failed and someone has to be removed—remove them fast. The slower the system, the worse the problem will get. Nothing that the Home Office said this afternoon or the Home Secretary said this morning gives me any reason to believe that the system will do anything save slow down even more.

Finally, what of the problem of those tens of thousands of people whose immigration or asylum applications have been lost all the way down the line and who are out there in the community? Many thousands of asylum applicants have lost all contact with the Home Office. That is not good enough. In this modern computerised age, this Home Office ought to be able to get to grips with retrieval. Those people who should not be here should be taken to account and removed. One adjudicator told me recently, "It is ludicrous that I hear appeal after appeal in the certain knowledge that even if the appeal fails all the way up the line, the applicant will go to ground and stay in this country for ever."

The current situation will not do. The many thousands of people in the ethnic communities in this country recognise that the Government have lost their grip on all matters connected with asylum and immigration. They have come out with a good line, but they have not acted and thought through the problem properly. They may need more money or resources. If the House finds in six months that the list of those waiting for an initial determination in an asylum or other immigration case is getting longer, it will be a clear sign that the Government are continuing to fail.

6.22 pm

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spelled out why the total number of asylum seekers coming into the country has increased, and why many of them are settling at their ports of entry due to the changes in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. I shall concentrate on some of the difficulties that this has caused my constituents.

Until 1996–97, although about 21 million passengers travelled through Dover every year, very few stayed in the port. Few asylum seekers who passed through settled in Dover because the legislation was very different. At that time, we had an ethnic minority of less than 0.6 per cent., which was one of the smallest in the country.

In the past few years, as the changes introduced by the Conservatives took effect, asylum seekers have been required to claim in the port of Dover. Therefore, the numbers started to increase. For sensible and practical reasons—practical in the short term—the county council, which is picking up the bill, and Dover district council, which is settling the housing, housed those people in inexpensive accommodation in bed-and-breakfast areas close to the port. Large numbers of asylum seekers were concentrated in one small area of the town—an area that is not prosperous.

The early settlers who came across in large numbers in 1997 were mostly Slovakian Romany people. The local perception was that they were not fleeing from oppression—certainly not from state oppression or tyranny—and were not genuine claimants.

Given that background, social tensions started to get worse. They were badly exacerbated by some of the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). The hostile comments in one local newspaper, the Dover Express, and the attacks of editor Nick Hudson on asylum seekers in his editorials raised tension and created an inflammatory atmosphere. He used the terms "human sewage" and "dross" in referring to asylum seekers. He published stories that most respectable newspapers would flush down the sink, puffing them up as story of the week, with headings like, "The good ship DSS Scrounger docks at Dover" and with many pejorative remarks. Those stories almost gave some legitimacy to the feeling of local people that they were being put on and having a hard time, or that they were not being dealt with fairly. His language was really hostile.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford could have told the House that senior members of the Kent police called in that same editor twice because of the language that he was using and the atmosphere that he was creating with his newspaper. The Dover Express is one of a number of local newspapers, but it stands alone in terms of that coverage. It changed its response to asylum seekers only when that editor took control. Many of the reporters have been at the paper a long time and still have the respect of the community, although I know that they have some problems.

Apart from being called in by the police, the Press Complaints Commission judged that the editor's coverage was likely to incite racial violence. Just this week, local churches in Dover put together a petition, which has been mentioned from the pulpits, entitled, "Christians against the Dover Express". It was handed in to the local paper last week. The police in Kent, the Press Complaints Commission and the local churches all say that that coverage is exacerbating the problems and adding to our difficulties.

Something else that added to our difficulties was the unwelcome intervention of the shadow Home Secretary in the summer. When we were trying to heal wounds, asylum support groups were coming in, the police were explaining the situation to the community and we were looking for calm, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) came posturing and pirouetting into Pencester gardens, saying all sorts of silly and spurious things—some of her remarks were inflammatory. On numerous occasions, she asked why the Government did not do something and why the Home Secretary had not acted.

The reality is that most of our problems were due to the large numbers of asylum seekers. What the right hon. Lady should have known—perhaps she did know—was that Kent county council could move asylum seekers who wished to go outside Dover and Kent. What she should have known, but did not tell the newspapers, was that months before the violence in Pencester gardens, the council had encouraged more than 100 asylum seekers to move away voluntarily. The numbers had started to decrease, but that did not suit the right hon. Lady's agenda on that day.

Today, the situation in Dover is much calmer. The police are taking appropriate action—not merely enforcement but liaison work. They are getting into the community and talking to both sides. A liaison officer is working with Kent county council and Dover district council, and talking to local people, especially in the hot spots. Life is returning to normal. The last figures that I have seen show that the number of asylum seekers in the area has dropped from 1,000 or more to less than 600.

In the remaining time, I must mention the good news stories in Dover—the stories behind all those headlines, which have been blown up and exaggerated by some Conservative Members. Local groups within the churches and voluntary asylum support groups have joined together into a network of asylum support without much outside funding and without any direct advantage to themselves. In a difficult situation, they have been working with asylum seekers and their families, in particular with the children, to give them some sort of welcome and to help integrate them into the community.

I am convinced that the practical changes in the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which I hope will soon become an Act, will deal with nearly all the problems that I have identified in Dover. The large numbers of asylum seekers can be reduced through sensible and sensitive dispersal, and Dover's attractiveness to asylum seekers can be removed by reducing the cash benefits to sensible support level. I welcome also those other provisions in the Bill that will give further protection to Dover.

I shall conclude my remarks with the message that there is a mixture of stories to be told about Dover, and that the hostility of one particular newspaper means that it will be very difficult to return matters to the way they were before 1996.

6.31 pm

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), with whom I share some sense of being in the front line when it comes to constituency asylum problems, and I acknowledge the experience with which he spoke. I shall be brief, in the hope that there will be time for a contribution from at least one other colleague.

Since the sad death of the late Alan Clark, I have become the only Conservative Member of Parliament in the country with an inner-city constituency. This debate is very germane to my constituency, which has a heavy crime rate because of the number of day visitors. It also has a continuing involvement with asylum seekers, given that 15 per cent. of the households in Westminster are now not on the electoral register.

I shall begin with a brief word about the police. This is the season in which amenity societies and residents associations in Westminster have their annual or general meetings. A feature of those meetings is the patient replies from the police that there is a limit to what they can achieve, given the fall in police numbers with which they have had to cope.

I witnessed only one event associated with last week's visit by the Chinese President. That was at Guildhall, where I thought that the City of London police handled the protesters extremely well, and gave them ample opportunity to make their views known to the President of China.

I wish to concentrate on asylum seekers. I think that it is still reasonable to describe the situation as a shambles. I declare an interest, in that I am a vice-chairman of the all-party refugees group.

One index of a shambles is that the new Minister of State at the Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), had to be diverted from the Financial Services and Markets Bill, an extremely important piece of legislation, to take over responsibility for asylum seekers from the Under-Secretary previously in charge, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). That decision was made by the Prime Minister: I can tell the House that the Royal Navy manual states, with regard to typhoons, that the first evidence of an approaching typhoon is a general sense on the part of the captain that all is not well.

A second index of a shambles is that, six months after the Home Secretary's very welcome letter telling colleagues that the very worst was over in the immigration service, lawyers daily release cases into my lap because they cannot get answers, in writing or by telephone, from the Home Office. Frankly, that worries me, because it looks as though a two-tier immigration service may be developing, in which those who can afford lawyers may be able, through Members of Parliament, to secure answers more quickly than other constituents.

Although I acknowledge that a huge number of the latter are still writing to me too, I have a specific question for the new Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), whom I congratulate on his promotion. When he winds up the debate, will he say whether constituents who write in to the Home Office through Members of Parliament—either directly or through their lawyers—receive quicker responses than those who do not? Ideally, Members of Parliament should intervene in such matters only exceptionally, rather than as a matter of course.

My question is especially important in the context of travel documents. Constituents' letters about those documents are now invariably accompanied by details of urgent family reasons for travelling. Those reasons include medical treatment, car crashes or even imminent death. The consistency of those rationales suggest that travel document requests are now being taken out of order, and that word has gone out on the grapevine that pressing family reasons are, in the Home Office's eyes, a good each-way bet.

By and large, and to its credit, the Home Office has not allowed queue-jumping to occur in the naturalisation procedure. Such queue-jumping always disadvantages the rest of the queue. However, I would welcome a statement of policy on travel document practices. It is currently taking the travel document section more than 60 days even to acknowledge an application's arrival. Even then, the accompanying statement that it may take at least six months to resolve the application does not indicate whether the six-month period starts with the date of application or with the acknowledgement of the application. That makes travel planning still more difficult.

However, what I ask for most of all is a clear statement of the detail of the backlog facing the immigration service. I can see that the service might be crying out for a period of peace and quiet in which staff can get on with sorting out that backlog. It would be much easier for some of us to afford the service that relief and respite if we had a much clearer idea of the present policies, procedures and situation that we could advance to our desperate and bewildered constituents. Home Office officials are personally very courteous to me. I should like to respond to them in kind, if they would give me the tools to do so.

6.35 pm

I begin by welcoming to his new job the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who I assume will be winding up the debate. My colleagues and I are looking forward to debating police matters and other issues with him.

This debate has again revealed the Home Secretary as a master of equivocation and obfuscation. In one of his least convincing performances, he failed today to answer any of the key questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I shall repeat those questions for the benefit of the House.

Will there be 5,000 more police officers than there are now in 2002, or 2003? If not, will there be more officers than there are now, or fewer? How many more or fewer officers will there be?

Is it true that the new police radio project will cost £1.5 billion? How will that project be paid for? How much extra are the Home Secretary and his Department giving police authorities? Is the amount merely the £50 million that the Home Secretary announced to the Labour party conference, or will more money be announced later? Will the shortfall have an impact on the ability of police authorities to recruit officers? Police authorities up and down the country say that it will.

Does the Home Secretary agree that there are significantly more asylum seekers now than when he took office?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the shortfall has affected some areas more severely than others? In Barnet and Hertsmere, for example, we have lost 60 of the 285 officers that we had in 1997. That fall of 20 per cent. has left our force hamstrung.

There will not be time for many interventions, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that one. It illustrates exactly what is happening throughout the country. The cost of paying for the radio project imposed by the Home Office is already impacting badly on police recruitment plans.

I return now to the question of asylum seekers. Does the Home Secretary agree that there are significantly more of them now than when he took office, and that there is a backlog of 90,000 cases? Is it true that mail at the immigration and nationality department of the Home Office has remained unopened since July? Is it true that only 1,800 of the 52,000 telephone calls made to the department in September were answered?

Did any Government Department give instructions to the police in connection with the demonstrations during the visit by the President of China? Is the Home Secretary aware of what appeared in last weekend's edition of The Sunday Times? The newspaper alleged that
"a senior Metropolitan police officer said last week that his colleagues had been instructed by the Foreign Office to adopt a 'zero-tolerance' approach to prevent causing offence during President Jiang's four-day visit. 'If the minutes of meetings between police and Foreign Office officials are made public, the Government is going to have egg on its face,' the officer said."
Is that true? When will the Government come clean about just what instructions were given?

The Home Secretary failed to answer any of those important questions. The extent to which he was floundering was made evident when he prayed in aid rail privatisation, the Child Support Agency, BSE, and even the matter of arms to Iraq. He seemed also to suggest that the excellent web site of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the cause of his embarrassment. While the debate has gone on, we have managed to find the right hon. Gentleman's own web site. Actually, we first found a web site maintained by an unofficial fan club at the university of York. We found the "Jack Straw Fan Club Home Page", which notes, "We love Jack Straw", and adds:
"I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."
The official web site of the Home Secretary lists, among other things, the right hon. Gentleman's recreations:
"walking, music, cooking puddings and supporting Blackburn Rovers."
That is hardly as good as my right hon. Friend's excellent web site. The right hon. Gentleman will be walking back to the Opposition Benches when he has faced the music at the next election. The proof of his pudding is in the eating; it is going down horribly with the police service, just as Blackburn Rovers went down at the end of last season.

Try as he may, the Home Secretary cannot camouflage serious crises in the key areas for which he is responsible. Police numbers are falling at an ever faster rate. Asylum seekers are at record numbers. There is a shambles in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, with a record backlog of unsettled cases. We have yet to hear a plausible—let alone a complete—explanation of the right hon. Gentleman's handling of the Mitrokhin spy archive and related matters.

We have heard today a complete abdication of responsibility for the problems in the right hon. Gentleman's Department. His revised explanations to the Select Committee on Home Affairs of police recruitment plans reveal that he has lost all credibility as regards any information that he gives on police numbers. The power of Opposition day debates is truly amazing. Their effect is astonishing. Some 4,000 more police recruits are planned today than were yesterday. Chief constables and communities up and down the land will be praying for more Tory Opposition days in the months to come when they see police numbers beginning to fall.

The Home Secretary has never explained how the 11,000 recruits already planned were calculated. Now he tells us the figure was 15,000. What was the original figure on which he based his request for more money? Was it 11,000, or was it 15,000? How can anyone have confidence that he has any idea of the true figure? Chief constables know the figures, and so do police authorities and the Police Federation. The numbers being recruited are being frozen for authorities throughout the country. Numbers are falling as a result. Today's announcement confuses the issue rather than clarifying it. The sudden conjuring up of 4,000 more recruits insults the intelligence of the electorate and the police service.

We have previously drawn attention to the problems of police recruitment in the police grant debate and July's debate on the police in London. Our concerns were dismissed as alarmist, but we can see now that the Home Secretary was himself alarmed at the trend on police numbers. Behind the scenes, he was asking for more money. We welcome that, and we welcome the recognition—at long last—that a serious problem had to be resolved. However, what angers the police and increasingly appals the public is that an initiative intended to shore up police manpower was portrayed as an initiative to recruit 5,000 extra police officers—5,000 more than now.

That was no unintended or mistaken misinterpretation of the Home Secretary's announcement. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury could see what was up, when he wrote that if the Home Secretary promised 5,000 extra—that is additional—officers, the Chief Secretary would end up having to find the money to pay for them. That is why the Home Secretary was forced to clear his announcement. What is even more telling is the tone of the Chief Secretary's reported remark:
"I will not countenance a further reserve claim".
What a telling message that is to the police service. Some £35 million is being provided for police recruitment, and £50 million for radios that cost £1.5 billion. The police can expect no more help. There was absolute silence on the growing crisis of funding police pensions. We must conclude that the crisis will only get worse.

In recent days, there has been no better example of the effect of all that on policing than the comment of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Condon, who told the Home Secretary last Thursday that he had insufficient manpower even to cover murder inquiries. We have seen a complete abdication of responsibility by the Home Secretary today in his failure to say what he intends to do about these crises.

The Home Secretary has been caught redhanded, but he is not alone in his conspiracy to hoodwink the voters. The Prime Minister was clearly a willing accomplice. He was offered the chance to protest his innocence at the Dispatch Box last week, but he perpetuated the hoax, telling my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague):
"Yes, there will be 5,000 extra police officers."—[Official Report, 20 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 433.]
One must admire him for standing by a mate who has been caught, but he could, in truth, do little else. The Prime Minister was well aware of what was going on, and he had to stand by his Jack or give him the sack.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary also knew that Labour spin doctors were busy selling the story to the media that there would be 5,000 extra police. Perhaps that is why there was no attempt to correct the story. Today's revelation does nothing to rectify the situation. The penny is beginning to drop in the public mind. They see the thin blue line getting thinner, and they remember that new Labour claimed it would be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The public remember the Labour manifesto promise that the police had Labour's strong support. They remember the Home Secretary saying that he would get 5,000 more police. They will recognise all too well that every one of those promises has been broken.

The public will also recall that the Prime Minister told the country that there would be no more lies and no more broken promises. What a shambles. The public will take their revenge at the ballot box.

The Government promised more police, but they are supervising the biggest fall in police numbers in living memory and the complete erosion of police morale. The Government said that they had secured the United Kingdom's borders, but they have presided over the biggest influx of asylum seekers that we have ever experienced. The Government embarked on a modernisation programme that has left the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in complete disarray. When faced with the revelation of the most serious spy scandal in a generation, the Government dithered and prevaricated, entirely failing to understand the seriousness of the situation or to report it to the House.

New Labour's slipshod stewardship of policing, immigration and national security are just the latest in a catalogue of mistakes and incompetence. Such mismanagement demands that the House register the strongest possible reprimand. I urge hon. Members on both sides to do so by voting for our motion.

6.49 pm

I thank the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for his courteous welcome to me, which I appreciated. In his speech, his only palpable hit was on the Home Secretary's support for Blackburn Rovers football club; the whole House will be aware that Norwich City's tremendous victory over Bolton—the team supported by the Chief Whip—took us above Blackburn in the first division, and I am very glad about that.

I welcome this debate. It is an opportunity for the Government to set out their case on the various issues that have been raised. I had hoped that it would be an opportunity for the Opposition to set out their policies on the issues, but I regret that yet again the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) showed herself to be more of a rent-a-quote and an unguided missile than a serious proponent of alternative policies. She is more of an embarrassment to her party leadership, as demonstrated on clause 118 of the Immigration and Asylum Bill—currently in the House of Lords—than a positive part of the Opposition team. Perhaps that is why there was no crime pledge in the Conservative list of five commonsense pledges presented at the Conservative party conference. Perhaps that is why today the right hon. Lady has tabled a compendium resolution—or as a friend of mine said, a kitchen-sink resolution. It does not mention the major progress that has been made in the youth justice system and the criminal justice system towards meeting the pledges that we made.

I shall deal with the three issues that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has identified. The first is that of cold-war spies, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) spoke. There is always good theatre to be had about such issues, but in truth some serious issues need to be looked at properly in considering the future of our country following the cold war and in seeking proper accountability for our security services.

The Government's agenda is public and clear. We have set out absolutely the need to put everything on a proper basis. I pay tribute to the Conservative Government. Their legislation on the matter and the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee acknowledged the need to put these things on a proper footing and to have serious debate on the issues, and that is what is happening. All parties in the political process have to work together. I am sure that that is the right way to do it. We should eschew cheap political theatre of the type that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald wants and focus on cleaning up the whole system.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary paid tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and his committee. The all-party approach of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is an attempt to address the issues in a proper way. That is the right way to proceed. It is not cheap posturing of the kind indulged in by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen.

No, I will not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised some significant points. The Government must take seriously what he had to say when they examine carefully the conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee once it has considered the issue in the round.

The second issue is asylum seekers and immigration control. It is striking that five hon. Members raised it this afternoon: my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) and for Woking (Mr. Malins), my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). It is no secret that the turmoil in Europe at the end of the cold war, especially in the former Yugoslavia, has massively increased the problems. That was acknowledged by some hon. Members today. It is a real situation that affects not only Britain but every country in Europe. It is why we dealt in 1988 with 4,000 asylum applications a year and with 45,000 last year.

Reorganisation of the immigration and nationality department was long overdue. Investment should have been made to resolve the problems in the past, but it has been down to us to sort out the mess that we inherited. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, the stewardship of the Tories under the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made the situation far worse. They left thousands of asylum seekers to pick up the tab. They established the unfair and arbitrary white list. They failed to tackle unscrupulous so-called immigration advisers. They did nothing whatever to speed up the process of applying for asylum.

I place on record my appreciation of the comments made by the hon. Member for Woking. He acknowledged that the Government inherited serious problems on asylum and immigration. That was an honest and correct thing for him to say, and I am glad that he had the courtesy to do so.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made some serious points. We have invested an extra £120 million over three years. We are taking forward a range of initiatives to improve productivity, develop new and speedier working methods, streamline procedures for dealing with general casework and thoroughly reappraise the IT system. We are recruiting an extra 340 staff in Croydon and we have plans to recruit a further 200 in Croydon and 85 in Liverpool. The hon. Gentleman was right to identify the need to speed up decisions. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), is working exceptionally hard to achieve change in precisely the way that is needed and should have been effected a long time ago.

I must make reference to the race card, which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald raised. We could not have had a clearer illustration of what is at stake than in the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Dover. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said in 1995, having been head of research at Conservative central office:
"Immigration was an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 European election campaign. It played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt."
Those were not my words but the words of the former Tory strategist who is now the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover put the issue straightforwardly.

We are making progress on asylum and immigration. My Home Office colleagues and I acknowledge the immense task that needs to be undertaken. Incidentally, at the G8 conference on organised crime last week we secured international agreement to inhibit trafficking in illegal immigrants throughout the world. That is an example of the international co-operation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary moved forward at the EU summit at Tampere. Many Opposition Members would eschew that co-operation.

The last issue that the Opposition raised was the police. It is a shame that not once has any credit been given to the Government for the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the establishment of local crime reduction partnerships up and down the country. The Act is described by many chief constables to me as the best legislation that any Government have introduced to inhibit and reduce crime in any area directly. Building a genuine partnership between all agencies is at the core of our approach.

Another element of our approach is recognition of the fantastic benefits that technology can provide. We are focusing on intelligence-led policing, the use of DNA and the public service radio communications scheme, which has been described. A total of £1.5 billion has been identified for a public finance initiative for the scheme and we are allocating more money to take it forward. Forces want the scheme because they want to communicate with each other and develop in an effective way. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced earlier this year a commitment on DNA which will massively increase our ability to use it to solve crimes.

I was interested in the remarks made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) about police numbers. I will take him through the ups and downs of police numbers in the past eight or nine years so that the House has them fully on the record, given his absurd claim of an average increase of whatever it was he said. The figures are as follows: 1991–92, plus 132; 1992–93, plus 663; 1993–94, minus 393; 1994–95, minus 675; 1995–96, minus 321—this was all under the Conservatives—1996–97, plus 257; 1997–98, minus 344; and 1998–99, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, minus 715. Those figures do not show a strong record for the Conservative Government. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend made his announcement. He was right to do so and to take it forward.

The Conservatives should support the process of modernisation and change. They should have initiated it when they were in office, but they did not. The country needs a modern, effective, accountable police service that focuses its efforts in partnership with others on reducing crime. That is what the Government want and what the Government will deliver.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 145, Noes 371.

Division No. 276]

[6.59 pm


Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Heald, Oliver
Amess, DavidHeathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon JamesHoram, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Baldry, TonyHowarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Beggs, RoyHunter, Andrew
Bercow, JohnJack, Rt Hon Michael
Beresford, Sir PaulJackson, Robert (Wantage)
Blunt, CrispinJenkin, Bernard
Body, Sir RichardJohnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Boswell, Tim
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaKey, Robert
Brady, GrahamKing, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brazier, JulianKirkbride, Miss Julie
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterLaing, Mrs Eleanor
Browning, Mrs AngelaLansley, Andrew
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Letwin, Oliver
Burns, SimonLewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Butterfill, JohnLidington, David
Cash, WilliamLilley, Rt Hon Peter
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Llwyd, Elfyn
Chope, ChristopherLoughton, Tim
Clappison, JamesLuff, Peter
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)MacGregor, Rt Hon John
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyMacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Collins, TimMaclean, Rt Hon David
Colvin, MichaelMcLoughlin, Patrick
Cran, JamesMadel, Sir David
Curry, Rt Hon DavidMalins, Humfrey
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden)Maples, John
Mates, Michael
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Duncan, AlanMay, Mrs Theresa
Duncan Smith, IainMoss, Malcolm
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterNicholls, Patrick
Evans, NigelNorman, Archie
Fabricant, MichaelO'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Fallon, MichaelPage, Richard
Flight, HowardPaice, James
Forth, Rt Hon EricPaterson, Owen
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanPickles, Eric
Fox, Dr LiamPrior, David
Fraser, ChristopherRandall, John
Garnier, EdwardRedwood, Rt Hon John
Gibb, NickRobathan, Andrew
Gill, ChristopherRobertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gillan, Mrs CherylRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gray, JamesRuffley, David
Green, DamianSt Aubyn, Nick
Greenway, JohnSayeed, Jonathan
Grieve, DominicShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hague, Rt Hon WilliamShepherd, Richard
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Hammond, PhilipSmyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Hawkins, NickSoames, Nicholas
Hayes, JohnSpelman, Mrs Caroline

Spicer, Sir MichaelWardle, Charles
Spring, RichardWaterson, Nigel
Steen, AnthonyWells, Bowen
Streeter, GaryWhitney, Sir Raymond
Swayne, DesmondWhittingdale, John
Syms, RobertWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Wilkinson, John
Tapsell, Sir PeterWilletts, David
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)Wilshire, David
Taylor, John M (Solihull)Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Taylor, Sir TeddyWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Townend, JohnWoodward, Shaun
Tredinnick, DavidYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Trend, Michael
Tyrie, Andrew

Tellers for the Ayes:

Viggers, Peter

Mrs. Jacqui Lait and

Walter, Robert

Mr. Stephen Day.


Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Chidgey, David
Ainger, NickClapham, Michael
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Alexander, DouglasClark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Allan, Richard
Allen, GrahamClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryClarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Atherton, Ms CandyClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Austin, JohnClwyd, Ann
Ballard, JackieCoaker, Vernon
Barnes, HarryCoffey, Ms Ann
Battle, JohnCohen, Harry
Bayley, HughColeman, Iain
Beard, NigelColman, Tony
Begg, Miss AnneConnarty, Michael
Beith, Rt Hon A JCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bell, Martin (Tatton)Cooper, Yvette
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)Corbyn, Jeremy
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Corston, Ms Jean
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Cotter, Brian
Bennett, Andrew FCousins, Jim
Benton, JoeCranston, Ross
Bermingham, GeraldCrausby, David
Berry, RogerCryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Best, HaroldCryer, John (Hornchurch)
Betts, CliveCummings, John
Blackman, LizCunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Blears, Ms Hazel
Blizzard, BobCunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidDalyell, Tam
Boateng, PaulDarling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Darvill, Keith
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bradshaw, BenDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Brand, Dr PeterDavies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Breed, ColinDawson, Hilton
Brinton, Mrs HelenDean, Mrs Janet
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Dobbin, Jim
Browne, DesmondDonohoe, Brian H
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Doran, Frank
Burgon, ColinDowd, Jim
Burstow, PaulDrew, David
Butler, Mrs ChristineDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Byers, Rt Hon StephenEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Edwards, Huw
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Efford, Clive
Campbell-Savours, DaleEllman, Mrs Louise
Cann, JamieEnnis, Jeff
Caplin, IvorEtherington, Bill
Casale, RogerFearn, Ronnie
Caton, MartinField, Rt Hon Frank
Cawsey, IanFisher, Mark
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Fitzpatrick, Jim
Chaytor, DavidFitzsimons, Lorna

Flint, CarolineLawrence, Ms Jackie
Follett, BarbaraLaxton, Bob
Foster, Rt Hon DerekLepper, David
Foster, Don (Bath)Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Levitt, Tom
Fyfe, MariaLewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Gapes, MikeLewis, Terry (Worsley)
George, Andrew (St Ives)Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
George, Bruce (Walsall S)Linton, Martin
Gerrard, NeilLivingstone, Ken
Gibson, Dr IanLivsey, Richard
Gilroy, Mrs LindaLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Godman, Dr Norman ALock, David
Godsiff, RogerLove, Andrew
Goggins, PaulMcAvoy, Thomas
Golding, Mrs LlinMcCabe, Steve
Gordon, Mrs EileenMcCafferty, Ms Chris
Grant, BernieMcCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)McDonagh, Siobhain
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Macdonald, Calum
Grocott, BruceMcDonnell, John
Grogan, JohnMcIsaac, Shona
Gunnell, JohnMcKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)Mackinlay, Andrew
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Hancock, MikeMcNamara, Kevin
Hanson, DavidMcNulty, Tony
Harman, Rt Hon Ms HarrietMacShane, Denis
Harvey, NickMcWalter, Tony
Heal, Mrs SylviaMcWilliam, John
Healey, JohnMahon, Mrs Alice
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Mallaber, Judy
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hepburn, StephenMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Heppell, JohnMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hesford, StephenMarshall-Andrews, Robert
Hill, KeithMartlew, Eric
Hinchliffe, DavidMaxton, John
Hood, JimmyMeale, Alan
Hoon, GeoffreyMerron, Gillian
Hope, PhilMichie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hopkins, KelvinMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Howells, Dr KimMilburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hoyle, LindsayMiller, Andrew
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)Mitchell, Austin
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Moffatt, Laura
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hurst, AlanMoore, Michael
Hutton, JohnMoran, Ms Margaret
Iddon, Dr BrianMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Illsley, EricMorley, Elliot
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jamieson, DavidMorris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Jenkins, BrianMudie, George
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Naysmith, Dr Doug
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)Oaten, Mark
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)O'Hara, Eddie
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Olner, Bill
Keeble, Ms SallyO'Neill, Martin
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Osborne, Ms Sandra
Kelly, Ms RuthPalmer, Dr Nick
Kemp, FraserPearson, Ian
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)Pendry, Tom
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Perham, Ms Linda
Khabra, Piara SPickthall, Colin
Kidney, DavidPike, Peter L
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Plaskitt, James
Kumar, Dr AshokPollard, Kerry
Ladyman, Dr StephenPond, Chris

Pope, GregSmith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Pound, Stephen
Powell, Sir RaymondSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Prescott, Rt Hon JohnSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Prosser, GwynSnape, Peter
Purchase, KenSoley, Clive
Quin, Rt Hon Ms JoyceSouthworth, Ms Helen
Quinn, LawrieSpellar, John
Radice, Rt Hon GilesSquire, Ms Rachel
Rammell, BillStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Rapson, SydSteinberg, Gerry
Raynsford, NickStevenson, George
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)Stinchcombe, Paul
Rendel, DavidStoate, Dr Howard
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Roche, Mrs BarbaraStraw, Rt Hon Jack
Rogers, AllanStringer, Graham
Rooker, JeffStuart, Ms Gisela
Rooney, TerrySutcliffe, Gerry
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rowlands, Ted
Roy, FrankTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Ruane, ChrisTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Ruddock, JoanTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Temple-Morris, Peter
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Ryan, Ms JoanThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Salter, MartinTimms, Stephen
Sanders, AdrianTipping, Paddy
Sarwar, MohammadTodd, Mark
Savidge, MalcolmTonge, Dr Jenny
Sawford, PhilTouhig, Don
Sedgemore, BrianTrickett, Jon
Shaw, JonathanTruswell, Paul
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Singh, MarshaTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Skinner, DennisTurner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)

Tyler, PaulWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Tynan, BillWillis, Phil
Vaz, KeithWills, Michael
Vis, Dr RudiWinnick, David
Walley, Ms JoanWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Ward, Ms ClaireWise, Audrey
Wareing, Robert NWood, Mike
Watts, DavidWoolas, Phil
Webb, SteveWorthington, Tony
White, BrianWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Whitehead, Dr AlanWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Wicks, MalcolmWyatt, Derek
Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. David Clelland and

Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)

Mrs. Anne McGuire.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House applauds the Government for its achievements on Home Office issues; notes that the previous government left the youth justice system in disarray, left chaos in the immigration and asylum system, in particular as a result of provisions in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and that police numbers fell by 1,500 between 1992–93 and 1997–98; further notes the action that the Government has taken in asking the Intelligence and Security Committee to review the handling of the Mitrokhin Archive, including key decisions taken before 1997; and welcomes the Government's initiatives to provide new money to fund the recruitment of 5,000 police officers over and above the number that would otherwise have been recruited, comprehensively to tackle crime and disorder and to develop a fairer, faster and firmer immigration and asylum system, through the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which will better serve genuine refugees and help reduce the number of abusive claims in the United Kingdom.'.

National Health Service

We now come to the next motion. I inform the House that Madam Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister and has ruled that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

7.15 pm

Order. I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly as the hon. Gentleman is addressing the House.

That was a short soundbite, even for me.

I beg to move,
That this House notes and applauds the dedication of those who work in the National Health Service but regrets the inadequacy of the support they receive from Her Majesty's Government in their efforts to deliver a first-class service; deplores the mismanagement of the National Health Service by Her Majesty's Government; regrets the continued distortion of clinical priorities in favour of political targets; urges the new Secretary of State to acknowledge the damage the waiting list initiative has caused to the National Health Service and to abandon waiting list targets as a measure of performance; calls on him to acknowledge the existence of rationing in the National Health Service and to ensure that in future such rationing takes place solely on the basis of clinical need; and calls for a fully informed and wide-ranging debate on the future of health care delivery to ensure that the people of this country have the health services they deserve.
I hope that tonight's debate will be the first in a series of mature and incisive health care debates. However, given the amendment that has been tabled by Her Majesty's Government, I imagine that it will be a rather rhetorical conversation initiated by those on this side of the House, with Government Members advancing the usual simple, puerile arguments about how the Conservatives seek to privatise the national health service and so on. The Opposition will present reasonable, well thought out ideas about the future shape of health care, which I expect will be met with hissing and booing from the second-rate pantomime audience opposite.

We have three aims for health care in this country. We want a shift from throughput to outcome and from waiting lists to waiting times, and we want clinical priorities to replace political priorities. I say at the outset that I have some sympathy for the Secretary of State because he knows that we are absolutely right in those aims—he probably shares most of them. He must tonight defend not his waiting list initiative but that of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), and of the Prime Minister. The initiative has been condemned by almost every health care group, including the British Medical Association—that reactionary force which the Secretary of State loathes so much—the Royal College of Nursing, another reactionary group; the Royal College of Physicians; and the Royal College of Surgeons, each of which belongs to the forces of darkness that the Prime Minister sees around every corner. The Secretary of State is desperate to claim our territory, but he knows that he cannot dismiss the Prime Minister's pledge.

The Secretary of State is another of the Government's political prisoners: he is impotent in his Department because he cannot do what he knows to be right. He is desperate for a dose of political Viagra which, in this Government, is in as short supply as the real thing. The real problem that we face is not simply the Government's policy but the culture of the Government. As was revealed by the Home Office team in the previous debate, this Government engage not just in creative accountancy but in crooked accountancy. The Home Secretary's school of accountancy is applied in the Department of Health and in every other Government Department, so when the Secretary of State says that there will be an extra 410 cardiologists by 2005, he does not bother to add that those people are already in training and would be available to the NHS anyway.

The Government have a wonderful definition of "extra". Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you asked me to get you a sandwich from the Tea Room and I returned with an extra sandwich, you would expect to receive two sandwiches. However, if you sent the Secretary of State, you would get not only just one sandwich but an explanation that it was one more sandwich than you would have received if he had not gone in the first place. That is how the Government manage their accounting and their rhetoric.

More important is the Government's fundamental dishonesty. The Government promise things that they know they cannot deliver—it is part of the great Labour lie. While that is bad in other policy areas, to promise in health care things that one cannot deliver is to take advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable. The Government say that there will be extra consultants, but there are none. They say that there is no rationing when rationing is occurring. With Viagra and Relenza we have the most specific examples yet of health care rationing. The Secretary of State says that every drug that patients need will be made available—he should tell that to those whose consultants say that they would benefit from beta interferon. The Government, whose rhetoric does not match their actions, take cynicism to heights previously unknown in our politics.

How does the hon. Gentleman square all that he is going to do for the health service with the fact that a Tory Government would cut taxes at the same time?

During the 18 years of Conservative government we made dramatic moves, not only in increasing the funding for health care available in this country but in reducing the burden of taxation, which was higher when we came into office in 1979 than when we left. It is entirely possible with economic growth, as we demonstrated, to increase health expenditure while reducing taxation. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

The Government's cynicism is most apparent in their manipulation not only of money but of waiting list figures. There have been several examples recently of quite scandalous manipulation of statistics.

In a moment; I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's defence.

In Bradford, for example, it was decided that patients who had previously had surgery to insert metal plates or screws in their bodies through various types of orthopaedic surgery and were waiting for them to be removed were not really waiting for treatment because they had received part of it. They could not get through an X-ray machine at Heathrow, but, according to the Government, they were not waiting for any treatment. They were put on a new list called 05 and are part of the Government's great disappeared of the health service.

In Derriford in Plymouth, those who reached the 18-month maximum waiting time for heart surgery were, strangely enough, subject to further investigation, after which the clock was stopped. They may have had chest pain or angina, and they may have been waiting in fear for the surgery, but, according to the official statistics, no one waited more than 18 months for surgery at those hospitals. That is a crude and repulsive manipulation of the data. At the Alexandra hospital in Redditch, 759 patients simply disappeared off the waiting list. That was called an administrative clean-up, which is a rather nice term for removing from the list patients who are still waiting for treatment.

As we are talking about manipulation, can the hon. Gentleman explain why the previous Conservative Government totally failed to give any credence whatever to the Black report, to health inequalities or to the prime role of poverty as a precursor to ill health?

We are talking about patients who are waiting for surgery that could be life saving and who may die prematurely if it is denied to them. That argument demands more than a cheap, sixth-form debating point.

How many patients are living in pain and fear while awaiting surgery but are simply being removed from the statistics because it is awkward for the Government if they appear in them? Getting on the waiting list is in itself quite an achievement. People have first to get on the waiting list for the waiting list and then, if they are very good, they might get on the waiting list itself. The total number of such people—those who have seen their general practitioner but have not yet had treatment—has increased massively under this Government: 237,000 extra patients are waiting for treatment. They are the real waiters in the NHS, not those who are defined narrowly by the Government.

The problem of waiting lists lies at the heart of all the Government's troubles. The trouble with the waiting list initiative is that it treats all patients on the list in exactly the same way. Someone who is waiting for a coronary bypass graft is treated the same as someone with an ingrowing toenail. They matter, and are weighted, the same on that particular list, so within a finite budget there is inevitably pressure on clinicians from hospital managers and others to try to get the numbers down by using theatre time in a way that gets the maximum number off the list. That means that three inguinal hernias can be dealt with instead of a coronary bypass and in the same amount of theatre time. That is what has been happening.

People say, "Surely getting waiting lists down is a good thing?" It would be if the initiative were applied according to correct clinical priority, but clinical priority is being completely distorted to fit the Government's political priorities. That, if not unethical, is certainly an immoral way of running our health care system.

Since he took office, the Secretary of State has been willing to talk about a change of tack. I urge him to ditch the waiting list initiative, which is continuing to cause clinical distortion across the country. Surgeons and doctors are all complaining that their clinical freedom is being interfered with. He knows that the initiative is causing problems in the service—why does he not just ditch it? That might offend the Prime Minister's ego, but there would be plenty left if we lost a bit of it.

One matter that I want to concentrate on is the Government's attitude to cancer treatment. I did my junior doctor training in haematology and oncology, and I would be the first to agree that we need to improve our outcomes dramatically in respect of almost all cancers. I am right behind any Government of any political colour who seek to achieve that, but it has to be done in the proper way. The Government's cancer policy, as with everything else that they have tried to achieve, is not properly thought out and is run by gimmicks, headlines, crooked accountancy and incompetence.

Let us begin with some of the gimmicks. We have a drug tsar, so we have to have a cancer tsar. No doubt they will be joined by the gastroenterology tsar, the respiratory tsar, the cardiology tsar, the over-spending patient care group tsar and, when winter arrives, the winter crisis tsar. We may be short of consultants and have the smallest number per head of population of any comparable western country, but—my God—we will have the highest number of tsars per head of any western European country. What good will that do patients? None whatever. It is one of the many gimmicks employed by the Government, but what matters is the policies that follow.

The question of crooked accountancy comes up time and again. We hear great announcements of extra money and, before he deserted the sinking ship, the Secretary of State's predecessor sent all Members of the House a letter entitled "Cancer funding boost". It says:
"I wrote to you with details of £93 million … to provide the biggest ever investment in cancer equipment in England."
However, sources in the profession tell us that exactly the same money had been earmarked for quite some time. Without extra funding, that money is enough to keep operating about only half the linear accelerators, which are an essential part of cancer treatment. It is a fraud and a sham. The whole thing is a complete charade.

On top of that, we have another example of Government incompetence. A serious point was put to the junior Minister at Question Time last week. We said that there was a grave danger—the point has today been echoed by the president of the Royal College of Surgeons—of swamping the system if every woman with a breast lump was to be referred within two weeks. I gave the Minister an example: neither the general surgeons nor the gynaecologists could cope if every woman with post-menopausal bleeding was referred within two weeks.

I asked:
"What level of clinical suspicion is required"
before the Government's time pledge comes into account. Is every patient with suspected cancer or only those with urgent referral for suspected cancer included? My understanding is that only urgent patients fall within the two-week time scale. I look to Ministers for clarification of the position, but I assume from the Secretary of State's silence is that my understanding is correct—only patients who are referred urgently will be seen. It is important to clarify that because the belief out there, and that which has been spun by Ministers to the press, is that every patient with suspected cancer would be seen within two weeks. Which is it? We look for clarification because it makes a huge difference to the real running of the system with real doctors, not spin doctors, and real patients.

When the Minister was asked that question, answer came there none. She said:
"We are working with GPs on the guidelines to ensure that referral takes place properly and according to appropriate clinical priorities."—[Official Report, 19 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 244.]
That was very interesting because the letter that we received from the British Medical Association said:
"I have checked with the GP Committee and discovered that they have not been involved in discussions with the Department of Health on any guidelines."
Will the Minister clarify exactly whom she was talking to?

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has tabled a parliamentary question about what recent discussions have taken place between the Department and representatives of general practitioners regarding guidelines, the level of clinical suspicion in cancer diagnosis and when those discussions took place. Having had a week to consider her diary, the Minister said that she would let my hon: Friend have a reply as soon as possible. Despite all the extra special advisers and civil servants, Ministers cannot even look back in their diaries and decide when they met GP representatives. We suspect, therefore, that no such discussions have taken place, and that that is another part of the fantasy politics in which Ministers are engaged.

Ministers scoff at the potential overworking of the system, but the president of the Royal College of Surgeons said:
"Clinics are being snowed under with inappropriate referrals for breast cancer. Breast surgeons are coping, just, at the moment, but it could be at the expense of other things.
The College is particularly concerned that when they bring on bowel cancer this is going to place an even greater load on hospital services."
We need to know tonight with far greater clarity exactly what the Government's policies are and what the Government will do in response to those important criticisms from people at the cutting edge of the service.

We have made our priorities clear. We believe in instituting a patients guarantee, ensuring that the sickest patients will be treated first; and those with less urgent conditions will have to take their appropriate place in the queue.

The hon. Gentleman talks about taking pressures off the NHS. Would he advise people who can afford it to take out private medical insurance?

I shall deal with the private sector in a moment—it is essential that we do so as part of a rational debate. I want to ensure that people take their appropriate place in the queue, that there is no queue jumping and that some people are not pushed up the queue ahead of those with greater clinical need because some political priority is being forced on hospital managers.

We have said that we would continue to increase funding for the NHS in real terms year on year, as we did during our period in office. However, we believe that there is a place in health provision for the independent sector and that we should have more mixed provision. The biggest difference between what this country spends on health and what comparable European countries spend is that while our state spend is similar, people in other countries spend rather more from their post-taxation income.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) implied that it is bad to take out private health insurance. That is strange logic for any Government who rake in money from tobacco sales but tell us that we should not buy private health insurance; in other words, people can buy ill health but they must not buy health—what a twisted sense of morality.

I want to make one or two things absolutely clear for the sake of this debate. My party does not want an entirely private system. I have had experience of such a system in the United States, and I find the idea of a health care system that is not free at the point of use absolutely repugnant, and would not support such a system. Given that the culture in this country has developed from our experience of the national health service, we have the chance to get the best of both worlds. A Government who talk about partnership and mixed provision show how Luddite they are on health when they totally deprecate individuals who want to take out private health provision for themselves or their families.

Certain conditions must be attached to any independent sector involvement. It must augment NHS provision, not seek to replace it, and it must increase the total capacity of available health care. It must be uniformly regulated, because it would be unacceptable for a Health Secretary to use public money to buy private health care that was not regulated and did not guarantee certain minimum standards that we take for granted in the NHS.

The most important change needs to come from the insurance industry. I have no private health insurance because, like many people, I believe that the private health insurance products on offer are too inflexible and heavily loaded, have too many exemptions and are too expensive. We need far cheaper and more flexible products which are accessible to a much wider range of our fellow citizens at all income levels. The restriction in that market holds people back from helping to augment the spend on health, which would relieve some of the burden on the NHS.

In continental Europe, there are compulsory insurance-based systems. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is not dissimilar to raising money through taxation, because people have no choice—they have to insure privately? What he advocates would work only if standards in the NHS—the publicly provided service—were such that people had an incentive to go private. What does he think might attract people to pay extra money on top of their taxes?

The hon. Gentleman confuses two issues: access and quality. What we should be able to have from the NHS is an absolute assurance that, if we or members of our family are ill, the most serious complaints will be treated first and within a reasonable time, and there will be no distortion of clinical priorities. However, it is perfectly acceptable that people may choose to spend their private incomes on any product that they choose, to buy convenience in health care with their post-taxation income, thereby relieving the burden on the NHS. What is wrong with a system that buys everybody the best of every possible world, while allowing us to get better value from the NHS?

I am conscious of the time and the fact that many hon. Members want to speak.

Our motion begins by discussing the first-class staff in the NHS. Sadly, however, they are increasingly first-class staff in a second-class service. Morale is very low, from GP recruitment to early retirement for consultants. Despite the Government's attempts to increase recruitment, we are short of midwives and nurses because we cannot retain them. We must increase the total amount that we spend on health. Some money can come from the Treasury, but not enough. We must encourage people to spend more on getting good health through prevention and other products—some 15.5 million of us buy private health insurance for overseas travel every year, and the ground does not open up and swallow us.

We need more doctors, not more spin doctors. The Government say that they want to think the unthinkable, but now they will not even think the thinkable. They are obsessed with monopoly provision in health, whereas in everything else they claim partnership and mixed provision. It is not the British Medical Association or the royal colleges that are bound by the dark forces of conservatism, but the Government through their health policies. Just as they resisted people's right to buy their council homes and to have their own pension funds, so they seek to deny us choice in the provision of our own health care. The Conservative party, not the Government, will genuinely set the people free.

7.37 pm

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"applauds the dedication, skill and professionalism of the staff of the National Health Service but regrets that Her Majesty's Opposition seek to undermine the National Health Service at every turn; welcomes the Government's success in cutting waiting lists in line with its manifesto pledge and its programme to make services faster and more convenient; supports the Government's commitment to modernise cancer, heart disease and mental health services, and to ensure high standards of National Health Service care everywhere; notes that a modernised National Health Service funded through taxation and offering treatment according to need not ability to pay is both fairer and more efficient than private alternatives supported by the Opposition; and so believes that the National Health Service should be modernised not privatised.'.
It is a privilege to stand here as a Labour Secretary of State for Health in a Labour Government committed to modernising the national health service, which a Labour Government created in the first place. Incidentally, the Conservative party voted against it not once, not twice, but 51 times.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) promised a mature debate. I am still looking forward to precisely that. What we heard tonight was a Conservative party committed not to the future of the NHS or to modernising it, but to demoralising it. It is committed to demoralising the public who use it and the dedicated staff who provide treatment and care day in, day out.

The right hon. Gentleman started his career as Secretary of State for Health with the hoary old myth to which Labour politicians cling. Is he aware that the structure of the NHS was set out in the 1944 White Paper produced by the coalition Government led by a Conservative Minister of State for Health?

I am aware of how the Conservative party voted when it came to push and shove: it voted against the NHS. Conservative Members entered the No Lobby 51 times. Indeed, some Conservative Members—[Interruption.]

At that time, some Conservative Members warned that the coming of the national health service would bring about the demise of civilisation as we had known it. I believe, as do the staff and the public, that it has been the greatest civilising force this century.

The Secretary of State talked about the future of the national health service. The debates to which he refers took place before I was born, and I am not young. He may be a little younger than I am, but it was before he and most of the people in this Chamber were born. Let us talk about the future instead of the past.

I am happy to rise to the hon. Gentleman's challenge. It is our intention to build up the national health service, whereas the mantra that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is the new Conservative mantra for the NHS: talk it down, run it down, deny it can ever succeed. We all know that the national health service must change and improve—staff and patients also know that. It must be fairer, faster and more convenient. Yes, it must modernise, but no, it does not have to privatise. That is the difference between the Labour party and the Conservatives.

The Secretary of State says that the NHS must be more convenient. In that case, why will my constituents be forced to travel further because our local accident and emergency department and 70 acute beds are to close? Services are being transferred out of the constituency. Does he consider that to be more convenient?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that changes in NHS structures and services are not a peculiar development of the past two years: they have been going on for the past 50 years or more, and will continue. We should welcome what is happening in the national health service. With the advent of new technology, such as telemedicine, and new treatments and drugs, more and more treatments are being brought closer to where people live. That is a welcome development.

I can give the hon. Gentleman a good example of that. Twenty or 30 years ago, patients with a stomach ulcer would have gone into hospital for invasive surgery, which would have been risky, and would sometimes have resulted in time off work or serious injury. Nowadays, such patients are treated with drugs. That is better, faster, more convenient and a good development. Those who say that we have an enormous problem with the NHS drugs budget and that it is growing exponentially forget that those new drug treatments are welcomed by patients and by staff. Such developments are not peculiar to the past couple of years. They have been part and parcel of the national health service for the past 50 years or more.

I shall make a little progress, and I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene in a moment.

The hon. Member for Woodspring made allegations about fiddled figures. It is slightly galling to hear Conservative Members talk about fiddled figures, but I shall let that go for a moment. He made an allegation about Bradford, which was first raised in the House on 9 November 1998, and was repeated on 25 March this year. The hon. Gentleman knows that that allegation has no foundation in truth. He referred to metal plates. Patients go into hospital to have a plate inserted and subsequently have to have it removed. Of course they are not on a waiting list to have it taken out. On that logic, pregnant women would be on a nine-month waiting list. As the hon. Gentleman knows fine well, that is a planned admission.

The hon. Gentleman and his party seem to gain some perverse satisfaction from trying to convince people that the national health service is failing. What is worse, they try to convey the impression that it is bound to fail and can never succeed.

In a moment.

The Conservatives present a catalogue of doom and a counsel of despair. There they are: Dr. Gloom on the Front Bench, and the doom merchants on the Back Benches. They are like some failed 1960s pop group. For each of the past 51 years, the NHS has proved the doom merchants wrong. It has coped with new ailments, new treatments, new drugs and an ageing population. It will go on coping for at least the next 51 years, but it will do that only by modernising and introducing new drugs and treatments.

There has been a lottery of care. The Conservatives were responsible for that when they created the divisive internal market. The uptake of treatments that work has been too slow, and the uptake of treatments that do not work has been too fast. We want fairer and more effective decision making in all parts of the national health service. That is why we established the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, new national health service frameworks and the Commission for Health Improvement. Our answer to those problems is not crude rationing decisions, but clear rational decisions. That is the difference between us and the Conservative party.

The Secretary of State should not display such complacency. The Labour party is losing a lot of ground on this issue. How would he respond to my constituent who was diagnosed in February this year as requiring heart surgery? He was told that he would not be able to have that surgery until June or August next year. The reason given was that the Government have said that consultants should set themselves the objective of getting waiting lists down, not addressing clinical priorities. The Secretary of State had better beware, because the complacency that he has shown tonight will not go down well. He should respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)

Order. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) should not make a speech.

There is no complacency on these issues. If the hon. Gentleman had bothered to listen, he would know fine well that one of the first things that I did when I became Secretary of State was to find new, extra money—

It is new money. I made the first allocation from NHS budgets for next year. No money had been allocated for next year. I allocated extra money to speed up heart surgery—£50 million to pay for 3,000 extra heart operations. Surely the hon. Gentleman should have welcomed that, rather than run it down.

I counsel the Secretary of State against using the word "extra", because it has the same currency as "read my lips". He said that there was no rationing in the health care system. People would say that there is rationing if a new drug is not made available, and if some drugs are available in some parts of the country but not in others on the ground of cost. What is the right hon. Gentleman's view? Does he believe that there is rationing in the health care system?

The national health service has always faced hard choices. That is the reality of life in the NHS. It is the reality for clinicians on the ground, and it is the reality for those of us who are charged with running the service. There has always been priority setting in the national health service, and there always will be. The issue is how priorities are set. We believe that priorities should be set on the grounds of effectiveness and what works. The difference between us and the Conservatives is that they want a system based not on what works, but on who can afford to pay for their care. That is the dividing line between Tories and Labour on health care. It is not about rationing: it is about rational decisions.

The Liberal Democrats supported the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and I support the Government's approach to rational decision making. However, hamstringing NICE by making affordability one of the criteria for NHS treatment is too restrictive. That decision should be made by politicians—the Secretary of State himself—rather than clinicians.

Clinicians and managers throughout the national health service, whether in fundholding or other systems of care, have always had to decide how to align clinical and financial responsibility. What we are doing is helpful to clinicians. Doctors and managers on the ground want to know that when they take difficult decisions they have support from the centre. We are not abdicating responsibility—that is what happened under the previous lot. We take responsibility and make difficult decisions. I applaud my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the previous Secretary of State, for the difficult decisions that he had to take on Viagra and Relenza. By and large, those decisions have been welcomed in the national health service.

I shall make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

The truth is that, in the debate about rationing, the Conservatives' aim is to stimulate not a debate, but doubts. They do not believe that the national health service can cope, and they do not want the public to believe that it can cope. They want more people to be treated privately. The hon. Member for Woodspring was explicit about this, both today and in his speech yesterday, with which I shall deal in a moment. As the Prime Minister said in Bournemouth just a few weeks ago, we want a health care system that delivers care when people want it, where they want it—and we want it on the national health service.

The Opposition motion is the product of a strange Conservative form of selective amnesia. Since the Conservative party's visit to Blackpool, there seems to have been an outbreak of it. First, on that occasion, the Conservatives forgot even to mention their former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). [Interruption.] It is true: they forgot to mention him. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, slips are made in politics. These things can happen.

Secondly, the Conservatives managed to expunge from the record their former conference darling, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—he of the famous "little list". They now want to take that amnesiac approach to politics a stage further by conveniently ignoring their own record on the national health service. This must be the first occasion on which a political party has tried to airbrush itself out of politics. Well, the Conservatives may have forgotten what they did, but we have not—and neither have the staff of the national health service, or the public who rely on it.

Let me remind the Opposition of the Conservative record on health, and the difference that a Labour Government are making to the state of the NHS. When we came to office, the Tories had cut the number of nurses in training by more than 4,000. It is no use the hon. Member for Woodspring going on about the shortage of nurses; the Conservatives created that shortage in the first place. This year, following the biggest real-terms pay increase that nurses have had in a decade, the number of student nurses is at a six-year high.

When we came to office, investment in new buildings, plant and equipment was at a 10-year low. This year, the NHS capital budget is at an all-time high. The biggest new hospital building programme in the history of the NHS is now under way, and about 200 casualty departments and 1,000 GP surgeries are being modernised. When we came to office, the Tories had undermined the NHS and demoralised its staff by introducing the hated internal market. The motion deplores mismanagement; I deplore it too. That is why we have abolished the internal market in the national health service. That is why we have ended the two-tier system introduced by GP fundholding, and that is why we are putting doctors and nurses in the driving seat to share the task of providing health care in the future. In the process, we are freeing £1 billion from bureaucracy so that we can reinvest it in front-line patient services. Those are the public's priorities for the national health service, and they are our priorities too.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State.

As a matter of historical fact, can the Secretary of State tell us what proportion of this record capital spend on the NHS is due to PFI projects? Can he also tell us what was his party's attitude before the election?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what my party promised in its manifesto at the last general election. We promised that we would rejuvenate the private finance initiative and make it work. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the private finance initiative in health at his peril, because the Conservatives had not done a single hospital deal by the time we came to office.

The hon. Gentleman talks of management consultants. The Conservatives spent £30 million on consultants' salaries and lawyers' salaries, and not a single hospital was built. We have the hospital building programme under way, through both the PFI and the public route. Communities throughout the country which have waited for decades are now seeing the building of new hospitals.

It is this Government, too, who have invested an extra £21 billion in the national health service. The hon. Gentleman skated over that today, which did not surprise me. After all, it was his party that described the extra spending as reckless, madness and irresponsible. Try as the hon. Gentleman might to rewrite history once again, his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the game away when he accused my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of being goaded on class sizes and waiting lists, and to have gone soft on spending. We are spending more; the Conservatives want us to spend less. We will take no lessons from them on the inadequacy of support for the health service.

Nor will we take any lessons on waiting lists. When we came to office, waiting lists were at a record level, and rising fast. Today, they are falling. They are already down by 69,000, and we will keep them going down. By the end of the current Parliament, they will be 100,000 lower than the level that we inherited. The hon. Gentleman says that I should abandon the promises that we made at the last election. That is the cavalier Conservative way with election promises. When we make promises, we keep them. Indeed, it is because of our success in getting waiting lists down that we are now able to move into the next phase of our modernisation programme.

Cutting waiting lists was always just the start. I want all aspects of NHS care to be modernised. We start with services dealing with our country's biggest killers, cancer and coronary heart disease. Those are my priorities for modernisation. In the last fortnight, I have been able to put more money into paying for extra heart operations, so that patients can gain quicker access to the surgery that they need.

The hon. Gentleman says that I did not announce the provision of 400 extra consultants. Let me tell him that I did. He should know that there is a difference between doctors in training and doctors in post. The Opposition are in training, while we are in post—and the same applies to my announcement.

Yesterday, I also announced more money for cancer services. The hon. Gentleman dismissed that as a gimmick, but it is £80 million of new, extra money, enabling cancer patients to obtain faster, fairer access to care. Let us hear no more from Conservative Members about the distortion of clinical priorities. The question for the hon. Gentleman is simple: does he support our efforts to modernise services dealing with the most severe clinical conditions, or does he not? The public support them; staff support them; patients with suspected cancer support them. They want faster, fairer care, and they know that it will be delivered by this Labour Government.

Last week, the Secretary of State was kind enough to suggest, in reply to a question, that Shaun Johnstone should have had a brain tumour scan within two weeks. He was not given a scan within two months. The health service clearly failed him. Indeed, the photographer on the local newspaper in his home constituency—

Order. Interventions should be brief; they should not be seen as opportunities to raise constituency matters at length.

Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Lady last week at Question Time. I understand the circumstances surrounding the tragic case of Shaun Johnstone. I know that it has been looked into by the health authority, and I know that Shaun Johnstone' s parents have been advised that they should go to the health service commissioner, which is the right thing for them to do. Nevertheless, I repeat my promise to examine the case, and when I have had an opportunity to do so, I shall return to the hon. Lady.

No, I will not.

It will take time, effort and investment to turn the national health service around, but, notwithstanding the allegation in the motion, the national health service is not getting worse; it is getting better. More patients are being treated, more doctors are being trained, more nurses are being recruited, more hospitals are being built and more services are being modernised. It will go on getting better each and every year that this Government are in office. No doubt, every step of the way, it will go on being talked down by the Conservative party. The Conservatives are determined to brand the NHS a failure.

Yesterday, we saw the clearest contrast between Conservative priorities for the NHS and Labour priorities. Yesterday, both the hon. Member for Woodspring and I visited NHS hospitals. I went to visit patients and staff in the cancer care unit at St. Thomas's hospital, which is opposite this place. He visited an NHS hospital in Burton-upon-Trent. I outlined plans for modernising England's cancer services. He outlined plans to get more people to buy private health insurance.

I talked about more money for the NHS. The hon. Member for Woodspring talked about pricing policy in private health care. I talked about national standards to end the lottery in health care. He talked about product standards in private medicine. What better contrast could there be—Labour creating a faster, fairer health service, available to all; the Tories encouraging a private, pay-as-you-go health system that is available only to a few.

The differences between Labour and the Conservatives on health have never before been clearer. They believe that improvements in health care can come only through an enhanced role for the private sector. We believe that improvements in health care have to come through the NHS. Only the NHS is capable of offering care on the basis of need, and need alone, not of ability to pay.

We now know what the next Conservative manifesto will mean for the national health service; the hon. Member for Woodspring has been explicit about that at least. He calls his approach the "silent revolution", although, as he told a conference fringe meeting just a few weeks ago:
"no one has really picked up on what it actually means".
I can tell him. We have picked up on exactly what it means. I am determined that his secret revolution gets all the publicity that it deserves in communities throughout the land. He believes that
"the biggest problem we have in the NHS is that it is not a proper market".
That will come as a bit of a surprise to NHS staff, who could not wait to get rid of the last market that the Conservatives introduced to the NHS.

The hon. Member for Woodspring says that the secret revolution could

"revolutionise private insurance in the way we revolutionised pensions in the 1980s"—
no doubt with the same impact. The Conservatives' secret revolution can be summed up in a simple phrase: not modernisation, but privatisation. It is a measure of how far today's Conservatives have moved from the political mainstream. They are prisoners of their own extremism.

Today's Conservatives have no ambition for the NHS. They do not feel comfortable with the NHS's values. They want market forces in a service that is founded on co-operative principles. Fifty years after they opposed the creation of the national health service, they oppose its modernisation. They deserve to be rejected now, just as they were rejected then. I invite my hon. Friends to do just that in the Division Lobby later.

I remind the House that Madam Speaker has ruled that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

8.3 pm

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on his appointment as Secretary of State for Health. For all the demands and pressures, I think that it is one of the most exciting and rewarding roles in government, but there is a profound difference between the way in which he sees the health service and the way in which many Conservative Members see it.

Behind the rhetoric, the Secretary of State knows the position. He consults the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Health Organisation and other international bodies, which believe that others are copying our changes in the health service over the past decade, the essence of which his party has endorsed. They include a focus on primary care, the introduction of a preventive strategy and greater efficiency: what is called corporatisation of hospitals. Those are all developments that, for all the rebranding and rebadging, his party has, with a lot of noise, endorsed. Evidence-based medicine was the labour of love, if we like, of my term of office. I am delighted to see it move forward with the service frameworks and the development of NICE.

Where the Secretary of State and Conservative Members differ is that he really believes that the service is getting better. It is a serious criticism of his party that, in office, he and his colleagues rarely visit constituencies of Members who do not belong to their party.

I spent many days in Darlington, Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds. I saw the investment in hospitals and primary care. I recognise the variations in health and the need for economic and social policies to address the problems, but I ask the Secretary of State and his colleagues to spend the same amount of time in South-West Surrey and other comparable constituencies. The degree of pessimism in the health service in my area and in those of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends is appalling.

I would have liked to have asked the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), who has now left the Chamber, an ethical question about private health services. If your child went to an accident and emergency department with a teacher or nurse—both have come to me in the past fortnight—was not seen after an hour and a half, and it was suggested that you took the child home, would you think that that was a good enough service? If mental health provision were so inadequate that a young man with developed schizophrenia burned his parents' house to the ground, even though they warned the services of his deteriorating condition, would you think that the service was good enough? If you spoke to a consultant, as I did today, who said that the situation has never been worse—

Order. The right hon. Lady should not use the term "you" at such great length.

I profoundly apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The degree of emotion being generated in west Surrey is such that I want the Secretary of State to be aware of how desperate people feel.

The Royal Surrey county hospital has moved psycho-geriatric patients into surgical beds. Waiting lists are all rising. On the day that the Secretary of State's initiative on cancer was announced, a cancer specialist approached me saying, "Yes, we have to see people within a fortnight, but the surgery cases and chemotherapy waiting lists are both lengthening." On the day of the heart disease announcement, a doctor rang and said, "That is all very well, but the angiography waiting list has almost trebled in the past year."

The Secretary of State asks why I did not do anything. During my term as a Minister, I do not believe that I ever suggested that change would lead to a deterioration of services. No one in West Surrey health authority believes anything other than that services will deteriorate.

The ethical issue is: in those cases that I have identified, when a constituent says, "Should I go private if I can?", what is the appropriate response of the Member of Parliament? I have never believed that that situation would develop, but I have read the headlines of the local paper over the past month:
"Health chiefs must cut services by £20m by 2002.
"Anger at cuts in child health services.
"'Blocked' beds put pressure on services."
The funding raid on the home counties, which the Government describe as tackling inequalities, means that social services have lost £10 million. At the same time, the health service has a funding package that does not fund staff costs in an area with a high cost of living. It does not cover the cost of rents and all the other expenses in the area, which the Labour party dismisses as prosperous and treats in the same way as it treated the eight children from an independent school at its party conference. Other headlines state:
"A and E patients forced to wait up to 20 hours";
"Hospital could be £1m in the red by March."
I appreciate that Labour Members have little interest in areas such as the one that I represent. However, I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman might have been concerned about recent newspaper reports that tour operators have been advising people visiting the United Kingdom to take out private health care insurance. When I held the right hon. Gentleman's office, a frequently heard quip—which no one ever challenged—ran, "If you're abroad and ill, what do you do? You come back to the use the NHS. If you're ill and a foreigner in Britain, what do you do? You use the NHS." Why, therefore, should tour operators, such as the German equivalent of the Automobile Association, now be advising people to take out private health insurance?

Nouvelles Frontieres states:
"People have had lots of problems seeing a doctor in Britain. With insurance they can see a doctor straight away."
Portuguese tour operators have said that special health insurance was mandatory for the United Kingdom, but not for anywhere else in Europe. Elder Alves, of Top Tours, said:
"We always arrange health protection for people visiting London. We do not use NHS hospitals."
The French Guide states:
"You have to have an appointment to see a doctor. Insist that it is urgent—otherwise you could end up being healed next week for this week's flu."
Henri Menna said:
"I tell French parents to take out private medical insurance so they can have peace of mind. If the person contracts something serious or needs surgery while in England, it is better to get the person straight back to France, where the treatment and care are much better."
Those comments should disturb Ministers and other Labour Members as much as they disturb Conservative Members.

If the reality is that the right hon. Gentleman cannot deliver services or provide adequate resources, it would be better to be courageous and say that there must be more co-payment and more explicit rationing, so that patients might know what is or is not available. Currently, however, people are being told to wait ever longer, and they are getting ever more worried about their inability to receive treatment. The situation is unacceptable.

Difficulties are being experienced not only by patients. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the problem of disillusioned doctors is bigger than ever before, partly because of the public sector salary structure compared with opportunities available for comparable graduates outside the public sector. However, the difficulties facing doctors, and Ministers' lack of realism, is causing doctors' frustration to become ever greater outrage.

Time and again, the Government's policy has been driven by the need to please No. 10 Downing street, with media initiatives such as supernurses, walk-in centres and NHS Direct. However, a telephone line will not help to cure the health service's problems. NHS Direct is perfectly all right, but it is essentially a trivial and marginal initiative. It is well known in the service that No. 10 Downing street drove that initiative, and imposed it on the previous Secretary of State for Health.

The right hon. Gentleman is about to encounter an extremely serious winter situation and all the problems caused by the new millennium. I do not know the accuracy of The Independent's report that the previous Secretary of State decided that seeking the office of London mayor would be preferable to facing the difficulties that he has left the right hon. Gentleman, but my—

8.14 pm

The Opposition motion demonstrates the remarkable narrowness of Conservative Members' views on health issues. In it, they make two key claims—first, that the waiting list initiative has damaged the national health service; and secondly, that there has been a

"distortion of clinical priorities in favour of political targets".
As the Secretary of State said, in their motion Conservative Members are sending a clear and quite profound message—that the Government's electoral promises do not matter. I accept that, for all political parties represented in the House, a sad fact of modern politics is that, frequently, hugely complex issues are slimmed down to one-line soundbites or pledges. Nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, an election pledge is an election pledge, and, like other Labour Members, I was elected on a waiting list pledge. Like my colleagues, I owe it to my constituents to ensure that the Government deliver that pledge.