Recruitment by Hampshire police has increased in each of the past two years. The force took on 192 new officers in 2000–01, compared with 152 in 1999–2000, and 117 in 1998–99. Hampshire has been allocated 243 recruits from the crime fighting fund over the three years to March 2003. The force recruited 19 CFF officers in 2000–01. The force's latest forecast is that it will take on 121 officers through the CFF in the current year.
The Minister will be aware that crime in Hampshire is rising—it is up by 7 per cent. Notwithstanding what he said, there are fewer police officers in Hampshire than there were at the time of the 1997 election: we are running faster just to stand still. The Minister knows that the recruitment of officers under the crime fighting fund last year had to be deferred to this year because officers of the right calibre could not be found. Does that surprise him, given that a trainee manager at a McDonald's restaurant can earn more than a Hampshire police recruit?
The hon. Gentleman and I share a common interest in ensuring that Hampshire is successful in recruiting police officers, as we both represent Hampshire constituencies. The Hampshire constabulary was the first that I was able to visit and see at close hand after my appointment to my present job. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this year, which is the first year in which the impact of the new allowances agreed earlier this year will be felt, we will see the increase in recruitment to the Hampshire constabulary that everyone wants. Right across the country, police numbers are going up as a result of the ring-fenced funding—the crime fighting fund—that is going to the police force. Because those numbers are going up, we can be confident that we will achieve record numbers of police officers in England and Wales in the lifetime of this Parliament.
I wish I could share the Minister's optimism, but unfortunately in Romsey we are only too acutely aware of the decrease in police numbers, as we have lost seven officers recently. Bearing in mind the fact that many young police men and women in Hampshire cannot contribute to the police pension fund because they simply cannot manage on the money, and that the chief constable asked for £2,000 a year extra as the Hampshire weighting and that was not given, how will the Minister redress the problems that are not being resolved? Will he take notice of the chief constable of Hampshire?
The hon. Lady is also a Hampshire Member of Parliament, and it does not do a great deal for police recruitment in Hampshire to overstate its problems, as she has been doing. The wastage from the Hampshire police service is lower than in any of the other seven forces covered by the new allowance agreed by the police negotiating body. However, I assure the hon. Lady that I am not in any way complacent. Despite those figures, I hear stories and concerns, and I assure her that I will consider carefully whether there are any trends in recruitment or people leaving the force that we should be concerned about, so that we can make sure that we have the best practice in recruitment and retention in place in every police service.
I hope, for example, that in the not too distant future, Hampshire may be one of the areas that benefits from the new starter home initiative aimed at key public sector workers, although that decision and announcement are yet to be made. We are continually examining ways of addressing the real issues that arise, but let us not overstate the current situation.
I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. Does he agree that police morale is at the heart of the recruitment and retention problems both in Hampshire and across the country? Is he aware that there has been a very large increase every year in the number of officers who voluntarily resign from the regular police service and that the number of special constables—which is down by one third since 1997—has collapsed?
Does the Minister not understand why police are demoralised? Does he understand that they are demoralised when they see criminals who have been convicted and sentenced to months of imprisonment released in just weeks? Does he understand that they are demoralised when it takes them a whole shift to do the paperwork for one arrest? Does he understand that the time-wasting bureaucracy of the best value system as it currently operates is wasting police officers' time behind desks when they could be out on the streets doing their jobs?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about police morale. Whenever I meet front-line officers, I am struck by their commitment to the job that they are doing and by their love for the job. However, the hon. Gentleman was right on one point: front-line police officers express frustration about aspects of their job that prevent them from doing the job of policing as they would like. The hon. Gentleman mentioned bureaucracy. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have already instituted a study of the daily diary of police officers on the front line to identify how that issue can be tackled.
Parts of the criminal justice system need overhauling. Changes to the sentencing regime, for example, were being discussed earlier in this Question Time, and we recognise that that issue needs to be tackled. It is also true that front-line officers often feel frustrated with the quality of support that they receive, including the equipment that is made available to them. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that the commitment is there. We must support police officers. When there are real problems, we will tackle them.