My ministerial colleagues and I have regular meetings with the police to discuss a wide range of issues, including the Government's fixed penalty proposals. My officials have also met representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers to develop those ideas in detail. All police forces and authorities in England and Wales were invited to respond to the consultation paper "Reducing Public Disorder: The Role of Fixed Penalty Notices", which was published in September. Responses were received from 28.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the police in my area consider fixed penalties a useful addition to their armoury in the fight against yobbish and loutish behaviour? Is he further aware that, in the one in six cases of disorderly behaviour in which it is very difficult for the police to act, because such cases are not serious enough to undergo the process of arrest and court action, fixed penalties could be particularly helpful? When I meet the chief constable of Kent next week, can I tell him that the Government are determined to press ahead with their proposal?
Yes, my hon. Friend can certainly tell him that. As a result of the discussions that I have had with chief constables and other officers, I agree that such penalties are an additional resource and a valuable weapon, which I hope and believe will be of widespread benefit.
The Minister will recall that he described as "a metaphor" the Prime Minister's remarkable, memorable, on-the-hoof suggestion that those guilty of disorderly behaviour should, if necessary, be marched to the nearest cashpoint to pay an on-the-spot fine. Does he intend to upgrade or relegate the metaphor? Will there be on-the-spot fines in reality? Does he agree that an effective on-the-spot fines system requires police constables on the beat? There are 2,500 fewer police constables. Is there any prospect of a restoration to the previous number before or by the election?
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just said, in the six months to September this year, there was an increase of 444 police officers. The number has been increasing even since then. The fixed-penalty notice is the best way to proceed, because that is how the police want to operate. Such notices are an additional weapon in their armoury, which they welcome.