§ 1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
What is the predicted net change in police numbers in London for the financial year 2000–01 over 1999–2000. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
In March 1997, the Metropolitan police service had a strength of 27,166 officers. In March this year, estimated strength was 26,034 officers. From 2 1 April, 474 Metropolitan police officers are being seconded to county constabularies as a result of the boundary changes to the Metropolitan police district, bringing total numbers to 25,556. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir John Stevens, intends to maintain overall numbers at around that level for the current financial year. In addition, administrative changes made by the new Commissioner should mean an extra 300 officers on the streets by the end of the financial year.
§ Dr. Cable
Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that even after that increase, at the end of the next financial year there will be more than 500 fewer officers than he inherited? Does he acknowledge that there is enormous anxiety, especially in suburban areas such as mine, which have suffered disproportionate cuts, about the loss of police officers and the resultant petty crime and vandalism? Does he also acknowledge that there is a serious crisis of morale in the police force in London, and that, according to the Police Federation, the pay and the conditions of employment lead many police officers to resort to working part-time as, for example, pizza delivery men and nurses?
§ Mr. Straw
I acknowledge the arithmetic at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's question. However, although the total number of police officers matters, the way in which they are used—the amount of time that they spend in police stations, on operational duties and on administrative duties—is almost as important. We propose to ensure that there is less bureaucracy in the Metropolitan police service, as well as outside it. The Commissioner is taking that plan forward. It will make sure that there are more front-line operational officers available, both in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and elsewhere.
On morale, I acknowledge the serious discrepancy between the remuneration of officers who joined the police service after 1994, when the Sheehy arrangements were established by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who was then Home Secretary, and the remuneration of those who joined 3 afterwards. Proposals from the employers' side to increase the London allowance for Metropolitan police officers are before the police negotiating board. We hope that an agreement will be reached on 19 April.
§ Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)
My right hon. Friend knows that the price of houses is high in London, and that approximately 40 per cent. of new Met recruits come from outside London. In view of the launch of the housing Green Paper and the arrival of a mayor, will the Home Secretary consult colleagues in the House and outside to consider creative ways in which to provide affordable housing for new police recruits?
§ Mr. Straw
Yes. The Metropolitan police service already provides a good supply of affordable housing for some new officers. However, I accept that there is a problem, especially with the remuneration of Metropolitan police officers compared with that offered by other employment opportunities. For that reason, the employers have made the offer in the police negotiating board, on the basis of funds that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made available to me and announced in the Budget three weeks ago. I hope that there will be early agreement in the negotiating board so that the differential—which, sadly, the previous Administration bequeathed to the police service—between officers who joined the service before 1994 and those who joined afterwards is greatly reduced.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the substantial fall in police numbers in London means that in the past eight months, 23 London police stations have either had to close or are no longer open round the clock? What confidence has he that he can rectify the problem of Metropolitan police recruitment and retention? Is he prepared to say how much of the £80 million recently announced for recruitment and retention will be spent on the Metropolitan police? If it is not a good slice, the thin blue line will become ever thinner.
§ Mr. Straw
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what I think is his Opposition Front-Bench debut at Home Office questions—certainly in front of me.
At all times and given any budget, whether a particular police station remains open or other changes are made in the service available to the public is a matter for the chief officer of police. No Government have ever guaranteed that an individual police station can remain open. It is essential that the police service is given the resources that it needs to provide a proper service to the public. That is what I have done in the three years in which I have set the Metropolitan police service budgets; in the previous year the police service in the Metropolitan police area enjoyed an increase of almost 5 per cent. in its budget. Adequate funds are available for this year to maintain total numbers at the level established by the Commissioner. In other words, by the end they should be similar to those at the beginning of the financial year.
I accept that there is a recruitment problem, and I have already dealt with that. Although I understand the concern of Londoners, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench are the last people in the world who should make points about current spending on the Metropolitan police service. I remind him—he may conveniently have forgotten—that the strength of the 4 Metropolitan police was cut by no fewer than 1,700 officers between 1992 and 1998, entirely under budgets set by the previous Conservative Administration.