The Government have delivered record police numbers. I am pleased to say that there are now nearly 140,000 police officers, which is an increase of more than 12,500 since 1997. In addition, there are 4,600 community support officers, who all contribute to increasing police visibility in our communities. We intend that number to rise to 5,500 by the end of March. It is clear that the Government have delivered an increase in policing of historic proportions.
I welcome the national increase in the number of police officers, which is indeed impressive, but I remind the Minister that when that is broken down into command areas, it does not mean that a lot of extra police are on the beat. May I urge her to increase her efforts—I know that she is making a strong effort in the Home Office—to raise the numbers of police on the beat and community officers, to reduce bureaucracy in police stations, and to encourage initiatives such as the 24-hour hotline in South Tyneside for reporting antisocial behaviour?
That last point is a good idea. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about how police forces must play a role in restructuring their policing to meet local needs. I am pleased that the divisional commander in his area has done exactly that by restructuring staffing so that the number of community-based police officers in Jarrow has increased. We will ensure that we examine performance to find out whether police are spending their time behind a desk or out in the community doing what they are trained to do: catching criminals and reassuring the community that they are doing just that.
But is not the Minister aware that it is not just how many officers the chief constable has but how they are used that matters? In Bedfordshire, seven years ago, there were two ring-fenced grants in the police budget; this year there are 29. Does not she appreciate how that ties the hands of chief constables so that they cannot deploy their officers in the way that local communities want? That is at the heart of the problem, and unless that question is addressed we shall still see rising crime.
We need to remember that one of the reasons why some of those funds are ring-fenced is that communities have asked for that to be done. That is partly because people think that some issues, such as the rural crime fighting fund, are important. Let us look at that against a real-terms increase of 21 per cent. in police funding since 1997, and an increase in the number of police officers—not forgetting the community support officers, opposed by the hon. Gentleman's party. At the end of the day, we can provide more resources from central Government, as we have done. We have given more attention to the crimes that are of most concern to the community. We have looked at ways of ensuring that we reduce bureaucracy, and we have given opportunities to civilian staff to do some of the jobs that police officers clearly should not be doing because they should be out there catching criminals.
My hon. Friend is right. There are more police, but the problem is that people want more visibility, especially in urban and rural areas such as Chorley. Will she talk to police constables to ensure that there is less paperwork and more visibility, to fight crime?
I agree, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. We welcome the support of MPs on both sides of the House to make that point to their chief constables. Let us not forget that under the Tories there was no ring-fencing and police numbers went down.
But can the Minister explain the statement she issued to the House last week on
As the hon. Gentleman is fully aware, we are currently looking at a review of firearms legislation and taking soundings on firearms licensing. The process is ongoing. The review has closed and we are considering the responses. I am happy to look at the points that the hon. Gentleman raises, but the key issue is that there are more police officers than ever before and also more people working with the police—people doing drug testing at our police stations, and civilian staff involved in detention and custody suites. More and more, we are enabling our police officers to do the job that they should be doing, equipped with full powers, while ensuring that there is a family of law enforcement so that we can meet all the different pressures on the police service today.