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House of Commons

Monday 12 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

HOME DEPARTMENT

The Secretary of State was asked--

Criminal Record Checks

1. Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): If he will make a statement on the cost of criminal record checks for volunteers in voluntary organisations. [151698]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): Criminal record certificates and enhanced criminal record certificates, which will relate principally to positions involving working with those under the age of 18, or with vulnerable adults, will be issued free of charge to volunteers--not only in voluntary organisations but in other situations too.

Mr. Hope: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. As chairman of the all-party group on charities and the voluntary sector, and on behalf of the sector as a whole, may I say how pleased we are by the Government's response to the campaign? It is important that volunteers have free checks so that children can be properly protected. The sector fully supports criminal record checks, and there was concern that, in the international year of volunteering, children would not receive that kind of protection. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when the system is introduced, the checks will provide the kind of security and information that those organisations need to ensure that children receive the best possible protection?

Mr. Boateng: The Government are grateful to the all-party group and to my hon. Friend, its chairman, for their work in representing the voluntary sector's concerns. I can give him the assurance that he seeks, but he will understand--as, I am sure, will other Members on both sides of the House--that the protection of children and vulnerable people cannot be served by a body like the Criminal Records Bureau alone. It is important to make sure that those responsible for recruiting workers in that sector themselves carry out the necessary checks of other references, and put in place the necessary arrangements for proper interviews and performance monitoring. We

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need a complete package to protect children and vulnerable people better, but this step is an important part of that, and we are glad to have taken it.

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): Can the Minister assure us that the certificates will be transferable, whether given by the Scottish Executive, the Home Office--in England--or, presumably, the Welsh Assembly, and that people who move to different parts of the country will not have to apply all over again?

Mr. Boateng: We are working closely with the Assembly and the Executive to make sure that there is a proper exchange of information. Those negotiations and discussions are continuing, and I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman to tell him of our progress.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): I thank my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for exempting volunteers from the proposed charges for the Criminal Records Bureau, thus inadvertently responding to a recommendation that the Home Affairs Committee is likely to send him. Will he pay particular attention to inaccuracies and omissions in the police national computer records of convictions, involving failure to record convictions against some people, as well as the opposite? When those checks are made, it is essential that they are as accurate as possible.

Mr. Boateng: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the Committee for their work in that area, as is my fellow Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has identified a problem that we are exploring with the Association of Chief Police Officers. We will make sure that we get things right, because we seek to achieve the degree of accuracy that he rightly pinpoints as important.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I welcome the Government's change of policy, and the alacrity with which they changed course once they knew about the speech that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Would that the Government always followed my right hon. Friend's suggestions with such alacrity.

The Minister talked about exemptions for volunteers. Will the Government exempt voluntary organisations generally, or just individual volunteers? In particular, will he explain why, a week after the Government's announcement, in a written answer on 15 February, another Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), mentioned registration fees for the Criminal Records Bureau, which would involve employers and voluntary organisations paying a charge of £300? Have the Government not been rather shy about letting us know about that?

Mr. Boateng: If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically churlish in his response to the announcement. I thought that he had a sunnier disposition--but perhaps it is the time of year, and the anticipation of potential approaching events. As he well knows, this is an exemption for volunteers, not for voluntary organisations. It is right that voluntary

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organisations should pay a registration charge, and we are having discussions with them about that and several other related matters. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would give a broader and more generous welcome to the measures that we have announced.

Police Numbers (Sussex)

2. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): If he will call for a report from the chief constable of the Sussex constabulary on police numbers in Sussex. [151699]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Government have no plans to call for such a report. Sussex police have been allocated a total of 206 crime fighting fund recruits. According to the latest information provided by the force, about 42 of those will be recruited in the current year and the remainder in the following two years. For 2001-02, the Sussex police authority will receive funding support of £181.8 million, which represents an increase of £9.3 million, and is 5.4 per cent. more than the provision for 2000-01. The authority will also receive about £500,000 a year from the rural policing fund.

Mr. Loughton: It is a shame that the Minister should say that, because last month he revealed that there are now 273 fewer police officers in Sussex than there were in March 1997. That represents one of the biggest cuts in the country. His statement also masks the added problem of the extra drain on resources, in the Worthing area in particular, caused by a series of murder investigations, including that into the murder of Sarah Payne; by the investigations into the human trafficking of at least 40 Nigerian girls abducted from social services and sold into prostitution in northern Italy; and, most recently, by the investigations into the 20 armed raids that have taken place in Worthing in the past nine weeks alone. Those raids include those involving my local sub-postmaster, Jack Sahaid, who was held up twice at knife-point and once at shotgun-point in the space of a week, and who has shown great bravery and community spirit by keeping the sub-post office open.

When will the Minister intervene and do something to give back the police officers taken away over the past four years, rather than coming up with this constant guff about additional resources--which do not result in extra police officers--and about numbers being the responsibility of the chief constable? Many of my constituents--such as shopkeepers and sub-postmasters--are living in fear at the moment.

Mr. Clarke: It is not guff at all. The fact is that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, throughout the country crime is falling and police numbers are rising.

Mr. Loughton: Not in Sussex.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman should stop heckling; he has already had his say.

In Sussex, as in every other police authority, it is up to the chief constable to decide how to allocate resources. The chief constable, his staff and his authority decided quite explicitly to increase the number of civilians in the

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force over a long period. More than one third of forces in the country now have more police officers than they had in 1997, and that will happen in Sussex as well.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Does the Minister not remember the present Prime Minister's pledge in 1995 that a Government led by him would put thousands more police officers on the beat? Given the fall of 2,500 in police numbers across the country, including 273 in Sussex--and not forgetting the fall by one third in the number of specials--is this not just another example of all spin and no delivery? When will the Minister give us a timetable--a short one--for restoring those police numbers in Sussex and throughout the country?

Mr. Clarke: That phrase does not improve with age. The facts are simple and straightforward. Since 1993, the number of police officers in Britain had been going down--until about a year ago when, following the decisions of this Government, police numbers started to go up for the first time.

A while ago we published figures that showed an increase of 444 police officers across the country up to September last year. Those trends are increasing and we shall be in a position to continue to increase them through the next year or two, as we continue to achieve a constant movement towards increasing police numbers. Many forces are already saying that they have the largest number of police officers in history coming in, in the short term, and nearly half the forces in Britain have more police officers than they had in 1997. The hon. Gentleman's arguments are nonsense, as he well knows, and he should get down to examining his own record as well as ours.


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