Police strength is falling by more than 1,200 officers every year

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The Independent Online

Police strength across England and Wales is falling by more than 24 officers a week, it was revealed yesterday. Opposition parties attacked the Government's record and accused it of overseeing a drop in police numbers of more than 1,600 since they came to power.

Police strength across England and Wales is falling by more than 24 officers a week, it was revealed yesterday. Opposition parties attacked the Government's record and accused it of overseeing a drop in police numbers of more than 1,600 since they came to power.

The figures came as Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, announced £35m funding for an extra 1,000 officers as part of a three-year programme to provide an additional 5,000 constables in the next three years. The urgent need for greater police numbers was underlined by the disclosure that in the six months up to September last year there was a drop of 632 officers to 125,464 in England and Wales.

The new statistics show that 29 out of 43 forces have lost officers in the last six months, including 188 in the Metropolitan police, 140 in Merseyside, 109 in West Yorkshire, 63 in Sussex, 59 in Surrey, 56 in Essex, and 53 in Hampshire.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on home affairs, said: "It is clearly now impossible for Labour to say it has met its manifesto pledge to get more police officers back on the beat. They know they have failed and the public know they have failed.

"The new funding announced today is welcome but no guarantee there will be enough to replace officers lost over the last three years."

Oliver Heald, Conservative home affairs spokesman, said: "Police morale is so low that retirement and resignation will continue to outstrip recruitment. Under Labour, the thin blue line is getting thinner and thinner." The continued decline has been seized upon by opposition parties who have identified police figures as an important election issue.

But in response, Mr Straw said: "Police numbers have been in decline since the early 1990s. Figures released today show that there were 125,464 police officers at the end of September 1999 - 632 fewer than in March. I have listened to the concerns of chief officers, and have taken action to stem this decline."

Under the three-year programme, forces in England and Wales will get funding for an extra 1,060 officers in the coming year, 2,000 in the second year and 1,940 by the end of March 2003. All the extra funding has been ring fenced and police chiefs must spend it on recruitment. But chief constables are not prevented from cutting back on their existing recruitment budgets and with growing numbers of officers leaving the service there is no guarantee that the decline will be halted.

Mr Straw's party conference pledge last year to provide more officers led to a political storm, with opposition parties accusing him of misleading the public over recruitment targets.

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