Blunkett and Brown clash over policing

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A cabinet row has broken out over whether the Government should pledge to recruit an extra 40,000 police officers to match a promise made by the Conservative Party.

A cabinet row has broken out over whether the Government should pledge to recruit an extra 40,000 police officers to match a promise made by the Conservative Party.

In a government-wide spending review, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is bidding for funds for a big expansion in police numbers to prevent Labour being outflanked on law and order at the next general election. But Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, does not believe increasing police numbers would reduce the number of offences or people's fear of crime.

The number of police in England and Wales stands at 138,000, the highest since records began in 1921. The Tories have promised to recruit an extra 40,000 officers over eight years, funded by a shake-up of the asylum system. Mr Blunkett wants to expand 40,000 more police and community support officers over the same period. He believes this will enable Labour to take the fight to the Tories on crime, since the rest of the Home Office budget would be frozen under a Tory Government to give priority to health and education.

The Chancellor and Home Secretary have clashed during previous spending reviews. Tony Blair, who has brokered several compromises between them, may have to do so again before a three-year spending blueprint is published by the Treasury in June.

Mr Blunkett may appeal to Mr Blair to include his proposal in a five-year strategic plan for the Home Office which is likely to be issued by the Government shortly before Mr Brown unveils his spending review. But he would first need to win the Treasury's backing for the funding. The spending review will be the toughest since Labour came to power in 1997. With big increases already earmarked for health and education, other departments are facing a squeeze.

The Home Office and the Ministry of Defence are vulnerable because the Treasury regards them as inefficient. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, has already appealed to Downing Street to head off cuts in his budget.

There is gloom at the Home Office about the review. John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary, has warned in a leaked internal memorandum that the level of policing in rural areas could be reduced. He said: "To have maximum impact, we will need to target resources on our highest crime neighbourhoods. Within a tight budget that will be difficult as we will also need to avoid damaging retrenchment in the rest of the country."

Mr Gieve said the Home Office plan would tell police and other agencies to give priority to violent crime and anti-social behaviour, which have "the biggest impact on public fears".

He suggested more offenders would escape custodial sentences. "Prison and probation are expensive and in a constrained budget we will need to focus these resources on the more prolific or dangerous offenders and rely on more penalty notices, cautions and fines to push numbers brought to justice above current levels," he said.

The Home Office is planning to cut the number of staff at its London headquarters by 25 per cent. Mr Gieve admitted that it "does not compare well" with other departments because almost a quarter of its posts are in support services such as finance, human resources and information technology.