It depends on which years we use as our base. In 1990, police numbers were 28,300. Since 1997, they have fallen to 26,675. Why the Conservative Government changed their priorities and started cutting police numbers is something that the hon. Gentleman will no doubt explain later.
There has been a transformation in the funding arrangements. The combination of the fighting fund and the GLA has created a more optimistic environment. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I shall run through the arithmetic. Over the two years from March 2000 to March 2002, the base case from which the police and the Home Office will have been working is the expected decline in police numbers of about 2,700 because of wastage and retirement. Usual recruitment will bring in another 1,070, leaving a deficit of 1,600, as a result of which the rate of decline in police numbers will have accelerated.
Since its introduction, the crime fighting fund has funded 1,200 posts over two years, but that still leaves a deficit of 400 to 500. The extra precept contribution from the GLA now means that a positive balance has been achieved over that two-year period. That is welcome, but given that the crime fighting fund and the precept increase are politically difficult accomplishments, how does the Minister see such stabilisation being sustained for years in light of the fact that there will be a high level of attrition from the police through retirement? There will be a substantial bulge within the next few years.
As for recruitment policy, everyone welcomes the fact that London allowances have been increased substantially, thereby nullifying the negative effect of the withdrawal of housing allowances by the former Home Secretary under the Conservative Administration. That is a welcome change. However, I find certain aspects of the recruitment problem mystifying and inconsistent. When helping a police officer who had left the force prematurely and was living in police housing, I discovered that his house was in the process of being auctioned and that police houses throughout my constituency were being sold off at private auction, with no end use by the police service.
Common sense suggests that that is utterly perverse. We have an enormous police recruitment problem. There are police officers in my constituency who commute from Portsmouth and round the M25 from St. Albans because they cannot afford housing in the area. Yet, police property is being sold off. Substantial amounts of it have been sold over the years, most recently under the MPA, but previously under Home Office guidance. Will the Minister clarify matters? The only explanation that I have been given is that there is a mismatch between the accommodation that is available, which is mainly family, and that which is wanted by young recruits who are often single men and women.
However, even a moderately imaginative landlord could find a way in which to convert a three-bedroom house into bedsits with shared communal facilities. A little imagination by the Metropolitan police property department would solve the problem, which relates to the wider issue of affordable housing, our access to which is shrinking. In many areas such as my constituency, there is no land on which to build new houses. The stock of housing that can be afforded by young professionals, including police officers, is diminishing, yet an asset is being sold for no obvious reason. There is a distinct lack of joined-up thinking. I hope that the Minister will bring that problem to the attention of the Metropolitan police.
As for recruitment, we recognise that it is not only a matter of numbers. There must be quality and balance among the recruits, the most obvious being the ethnic mix. We know that the police are making big efforts. I pay tribute to Mr. Grieve and the impact that he has had in making the Metropolitan police a friendlier environment for ethnic minorities, both as members of the public and recruits. The culture is changing in a welcome way. Recruitment numbers are beginning to reflect that, but are still hopelessly inadequate in terms of the 25 per cent. target that has been set.
The problem is not simply one of ethnic minorities. Many types of people could make a useful contribution to the police service, but were discouraged in the past by unimaginative forms of recruitment. The Home Office has been examining recruitment criteria and perhaps the Minister would report on that. About a year ago, I brought to his attention the case of a young man who had a large gap in his teeth. Under a 1920's regulation he was debarred on medical grounds. That case was investigated and solved, but it was the tip of a large iceberg.
The problem is not only one of full-time police officers. One of the points emphasised by my colleagues is the need to examine a much more varied portfolio of police careers, especially the role of specials, the numbers of whom have declined astronomically in London and elsewhere under the Government. There are many unnecessary financial impediments such as lack of compensation or reimbursement for court time spent by specials. An unnecessary regulation has been brought to my attention whereby special police officers cannot stand for Parliament. One of my political colleagues, Jonathan Simpson who is a special police officer in Hampstead and Highgate, has had to choose between a political career and one as a special police officer. There is no obvious reason why such a regulation should continue to exist.
Similarly, there is broad consensus among police thinkers of the need to use volunteers creatively--to man the police station for example, not go round with baseball bats late at night.