I am happy to support a fellow east midlands Member of Parliament in asking for more. One of the features of debates like this is that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House press the Police Minister for more resources for their area. In the end, we will all be judged, when we face the electorate, by whether we take the issue of crime seriously and whether we have used the resources that we have been given to deal with the causes of crime, and crime itself, in the five years since the last election.
The Minister is probably fed up with my voice, as he was with the Select Committee on Home Affairs this morning as we concluded our inquiry into crime prevention. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about the Government being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The Minister came with the very good news that crime has fallen since he has been in his post, and that is obviously something to celebrate. The police budget has increased, as hon. Members on both sides of the House must accept. However, it is important to look at the causes of crime, and we hope to conclude our report on that subject before the general election is called.
I want to apologise to the House for missing the opening statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister, but the wonderful new technology of the BlackBerry, which we have suggested should be given to every police officer, meant that I was kept informed of everything that he said. I was waiting to see the Prime Minister to discuss the important issue of Yemen, and the Prime Minister's diary and commitments on Northern Ireland meant that the meeting kept getting put back. That is why I missed the start of the debate, for which I am sorry, although I was present to hear the Opposition spokesman, Mr. Ruffley, talk about the Conservative party's policy in this area.
I thought that we could reach a consensus on police numbers, certainly after the Select Committee decided to conclude its unanimous report on police service strength. I see that two other members of the Committee-my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick and Mr. Streeter-are in their places. We were being lobbied hard by police authorities and others: some said that they would have to cut numbers, while others said that they were happy with what they had been given. Some authorities said that they had not had enough funding over the past 12 years. Paul Holmes reminded us that the east midlands had done worse than any other region, and asked us to look at that. We therefore decided to have a dispassionate look at numbers.
We published our report a couple of weeks ago, and the key facts are in it. We found that the Government were right to say that there had been a real-terms increase of 19 per cent. in central funding for the police since 1997-98, and that there had been an increase of 4.8 per cent. in the number of officers, and a rise of 15.5 per cent. in police support staff. However, we found that was a decline in the number of visible police officers in 13 of the 43 police authorities. Although we can agree that the amount of money being made available has gone up, the worry on both sides of the House has to do with what is going to happen in the future.
I obviously hope that the Labour party will take office after the general election, but it could be the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. Whichever party it is, though, it will face the difficulty that a declining amount of resources will be dedicated to the police service. One can wait for ages for a Police Minister to come along, but we have heard from two already today. It is possible that there are two future Police Ministers on the Opposition Benches. Because 88 per cent. of the police budget is to do with the work force, I and my Committee believe that every Police Minister will have to face the prospect of financial restraint.
I hope that all hon. Members will read our report, because it suggests alternatives to cutting the budget. We looked at the involvement of the private sector, and we talked about how the public sector could be more efficient. We also raised the issue of voluntary mergers: although we do not say that they should be compulsory, we in the east midlands have already seen collaboration between the forces of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. That is an option and a scenario that could be pursued.
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