Home Office minister John Denham is to meet chief constables and police authorities in the south east of England before Christmas to discuss ways of tackling the problem of retention of officers.
The minister was replying to questions initiated by David Cameron, Conservative MP for Witney, who asked what discussions he had had with the chief constable of Thames Valley Police about the recruitment and retention of officers.
Mr Cameron said that in some parts of the Thames Valley area, more than 60% of front-line officers were probationers. He asked the minister to consider increasing the extra allowance for officers in the south east of England, and giving the Thames valley chief constable more flexibity over his budget, particularly in respect of overtime and the special priority payments.
'We must try to keep some of those officers in the Thames Valley force rather than see them go all over the country', added Mr Cameron.
Mr Denham said among things to be considered were how the additional special priority posts money would be implemented by forces in the New Year. Thames Valley officers already received an additional allowance compared with a norm of£2,000 a year, and the government was helping in other ways - for example, 171 of the homes under the starter homes initiative would benefit Thames Valley officers.
He added: 'Additional resources are on the way as a result of the pay deal with the Police Federation and the employers earlier this year. We need to discuss how they can be used.
'We are considering, among other things, giving the forces help with housing. I am due to meet the forces in the south east before Christmas to look at a range of options'.
Although ministers said English and Welsh police forces were recruiting successfully, with 10,215 officers joing in the year to March 2002 - 38% more than the previous year and the highest number of recruits since 1975 - they revealed a massive drop in the number of special constables since 1997.
In answer to George Osborne, Conservative MP for Tatton, they revealed that on 31 March 1997 there were 19,874 special constables in England and Wales. On 31 March 2002 there were 11,598.
Mr Osborne said the figures revealed the 'total collapse' in the number of special constables. In his county of Cheshire, the number had fallen by more than 50%. The government said they were committted to increasing the number of specials, and regularly organised recruitment campaigns. Why had it failed so spectacularly, he asked.
Junior Home Office minister Michael Wills said specials had an important role to play, and the country needed more of them. The government was investing£300,000 in the recently-announced Champion's Initiative, and it needed to improve relations with employers to promote the special constabulary.
He said the fall in numbers was long-standing - in some ways it could be traced back to 1945.
He added that recruitment was not the real problem, the reason numbers fell was because forces were losing more specials. One in five, however, left to join the regular police force.
Hansard 2 Dec 2002: Column 598 -599; 601 - 602; 605 - 607