§ 19. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
If he will make a statement on the latest manpower and funding levels of the Metropolitan police. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
The 1998–99 settlement for the Metropolitan police service provides a spending capacity of £1.775 billion, in line with the national average for police authorities in England and Wales. Police strength in the Metropolitan police at May 1998 was 26,585 officers. The Commissioner tells me that it is recruiting and plans to end the financial year with about 26,750 officers and 13,377 civilians.
§ Sir Sydney Chapman
Although I appreciate the modest increases in the funding and the manpower of the Metropolitan police, does the Home Secretary agree that they are almost being negated because the alarming and increasing amount that is being apportioned to police pensions—a matter which was taken up by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard)—has to be met? Does he also agree that that alarming increase is affecting the provision of services at the sharp end? I understand absolutely that this is a long-standing problem which certainly cannot be laid at the door of this Government, but will the Minister look to some way, especially in the review and consultation, of disentangling the cost of police pensions from the provision of services at the sharp end of the Metropolitan police?
§ Mr. Straw
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the impact of the cost of the police pension scheme on police services generally. That point also applies to the fire service. Part of the problem has been the unacceptably high proportion of officers whom chief officers of police have allowed to retire early on grounds that are not acceptable, as the Audit Commission and hon. Members on both sides of the House accept.
The variation is extraordinary: at one end of the scale, only 17 per cent. of officers have been allowed to retire early in Kent constabulary; at the other end, 77 per cent. of officers in Merseyside have been retiring early. That suggests a lack of effective management control of the numbers who are retiring early. We have increased police budgets this year, nationally and also for the Metropolitan police, of 3.7 per cent. We look to chief officers of police 18 to make the same kind of efficiencies as other sectors of the public services, which were subjected to such efficiencies relentlessly—and, in my judgment, quite rightly—by the previous Government.
§ Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)
Will my right hon. Friend, who has referred to the resources given to the Metropolitan police, explain a situation that develops in some of the regions? Is there the same effect on the Metropolitan police as there is in some of the regions? Band D taxes meant that we had a reduction of £6 million for police services in West Yorkshire. Does the same apply right across the board, and does that include the Metropolitan police?
§ Mr. Straw
The system by which police authorities set a precept is broadly similar across the country and has, for the current year, as for many previous years, been the subject of capping. Within totals of grant and standard spending assessment, which are set by central Government, each police authority has a fair degree of flexibility about the overall amount that it desires to set and to spend on its police service.