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Speaker's Statement

4.20 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have a short statement to make to the House on the letter of 28 November from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to me as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission. It is a matter of great regret to me that a private letter written by an Officer of the House to the Speaker should have reached the media in this manner, and I have asked for inquiries to be made into how it has come about. As to the letter's contents, I will be writing to the Commissioner for Standards to ask her for details of the pressure that she says was applied to her in seeking to carry out her duties. I will also be expressing my surprise that she did not raise those concerns with me at one of our regular meetings to discuss her work. I shall have nothing to add to this statement.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will take points of order after the statement on police reform.

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Police Reform

4.21 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, I shall make a statement on police reform and on tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

There is not an hon. Member who would not testify that the greatest priority of their constituents is to live free from crime and antisocial behaviour. Freeing people from fear and insecurity that damages their quality of life is a fundamental tenet of government. I am, therefore, placing before the House a radical reform agenda for both the police service and those who work alongside it. It is time to act to protect the victims of crime and disorder, and to help rebuild and renew communities.

I pay tribute to the professionalism and expertise of police and the civilian staff working with them. We all owe a debt of gratitude for the bravery that is often displayed by policemen and women. Our reform agenda will build on success. The British crime survey recently recorded an overall decrease in crime of 12 per cent. That is the largest annual reduction in 20 years, and the fear of crime has decreased from its peak, in 1994. There is, however, no room for complacency.

Modernisation is built on increasing police numbers, and by next spring we shall have reached an all-time record of 128,290. Today, l am able to announce a new commitment: to meet the target of 130,000 officers by spring 2003 one year early. That will be achieved alongside an increase in civilian staff who will be additional to uniformed officers.

Action is needed, however, to improve consistency and overall performance. Only one in four recorded crimes are detected, and only one in 10 result in a conviction. The variations across the country are unacceptable, and the time has come to tackle the differences in performance and in absence. Detection rates vary from a high of 63 per cent. to a low of 15 per cent. For robbery, the rate varies from a low of less than 15 per cent. to more than 50 per cent. One force achieved as few as eight days per officer lost through sickness, but another had twice that rate. One force achieved a medical retirement rate of 9 per cent., but in another almost two thirds retired on grounds of ill health.

We have established a standards unit to work alongside a refocused inspectorate. That will ensure that the best can be replicated by the rest. A new central police training and development authority will draw together leadership, management and training. A new national centre for policing excellence will develop and disseminate best practice on investigation and operational policing. We will seek to improve personnel policies, and will establish a new locally delivered national occupational health service.

To achieve the goal of safer communities, there must be a dramatic modernisation of working practices. Through the police negotiating board, we are seeking consensus on a programme of change and reform. We wish to ensure that those at the sharp end of public service are properly rewarded for the difficult job that they do. We are looking to enhance the status and rewards for those doing the most dangerous, difficult, or unsociable jobs. We want to see more flexible working arrangements

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and an end to unnecessarily restrictive regulations. The police negotiating board has been asked to agree changes to part-time working, the current 16-hour minimum, and the requirement to fix rotas a year in advance.

Reform must be underpinned by support. We will cut bureaucracy and halve the number of best value indicators. The diary of a police officer illustrated that over two fifths of police time was spent inside the station. We will civilianise and computerise many of the tasks undertaken by those who would be better deployed out of the station. We will increase the number of specialist investigatory teams, develop a cadre of specialist detectives and accelerate the expansion of forensic work.

Technology can also play a key role in enabling officers to do their job more effectively. The Airwave programme will now be extended across the country at a cost of £500 million, ensuring proper communication within and between forces. We will widen the number of those who can work with and assist the uniformed police. The number of special constables will be drastically accelerated. Community support officers—sometimes called auxiliaries—will be trained aides to the police. The expanded "police family" will allow street wardens, traffic wardens and others to be accredited by the police for specific duties within strictly defined limits. They will be appropriately trained.

Our endeavour is to face down the antisocial and thuggish behaviour that bedevils our streets, parks and open spaces. That will help with our civic renewal agenda, ensuring that the community becomes part of the solution. The police cannot reduce crime and disorder and tackle the scourge of hard drugs alone. Families have a key part to play in teaching right from wrong, and respect for others. Local authorities, schools and the health service, and the voluntary and private sectors, must work together. All of us have a role to play in combating criminal activity and social disintegration: decency and respect are the responsibility of us all.

It is through the crime and disorder reduction partnerships and our community renewal programmes that we will be able to restore confidence. By supporting neighbourhood watch and other local initiatives, and mobilising the community itself, we really can make a difference.

Reform is for a purpose. Those we represent do not have a choice of policing services. That is why standards are at the heart of this reform. I am proposing today a three-tier approach to ensuring that the public are served to the standard they expect and deserve. Regulations setting out mandatory requirements, where it is necessary for all forces to adhere to a national standard, will drive consistency across the country. Codes of practice will be issued by and in the name of the Home Secretary. Those will be developed by the national centre for policing excellence, drawing on the expertise of the Association of Chief Police Officers. In addition, guidance, where local flexibility and responsiveness require a light touch, will provide a menu of best practice.

There is no intention that the Government will interfere in the day-to-day operational independence of the police. That would not be in the interests of the people whom we serve, the police or the Government. However, where action is needed, it is the duty of the Government to respond. Using the expertise of the standards unit and the

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inspectorate, we will establish new powers of intervention where consistent failure provides inadequate protection for those whom we serve.

Basic command units, as well as the police force area, will provide comparison, like with like. We will work with chief constables and commanders to establish and spread best practice. We will provide support through multidisciplinary approaches to tackle the worst of repeat offending and repeat victimisation. We will mobilise the community against drug-related crime, and establish policing priority areas. We will update the role of the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

It is essential that we provide a greater degree of accountability as well as of devolution and delegation. We will establish pilots for decentralising budgets to basic command units, enabling greater flexibility in the use of resources and the response to local needs. In addition, we will support the developing role of the police authority in reaching out and responding to the community.

When things go wrong, it is important that people have confidence in the process. That is why I confirm today that in the police reform Bill we will be establishing an independent police complaints commission.

I spoke of our pride and confidence in the police service. That is why the Government have decided that we should award the Queen's jubilee medal to the police service. It is a symbol of our support. However, the test will be the difference that we make to the well-being of those whom we serve.

I want to put to rest for ever the cry, "There is nothing we can do," which is so often heard. Our job is to make sure that those who need help get it. Those who fear to walk down their local street or in their local park must be able to do so once again. Our job—my job—is to mobilise all the forces at our disposal to make that a reality, and I am determined that we should do so.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his courtesy in providing early copies of the statement and the White Paper.

I begin by welcoming unreservedly the Home Secretary's splendid attack on the excessive bureaucracy recently imposed on the police forces of this country. We are delighted to receive him as a member of Her Majesty's opposition to the previous Home Secretary. I assure him that we shall work with him enthusiastically to demolish yet another part of the house that Jack built.

We welcome also the aspirations in the White Paper to increase the flexibility of working practices in the police forces. As the Home Secretary rightly said, there can be no good reason for rigidities such as the requirement that one year's notice be given of any change in rest periods. However, will the right hon. Gentleman say by what means he will ensure that such rigidities will be removed in practice?

The whole House will agree with the Home Secretary's desire to enhance the police's use of information technology, but what has happened to the custody and case preparation system based on information and communications technology, about which we were told by the previous Home Secretary on page 82 of his February White paper? While we are at it, what has happened to the rest of that White Paper? Will any of its remaining recommendations now be implemented?

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We share the Home Secretary's desire to provide the police with more ancillary staff, enabling policemen to spend more time maintaining order and fighting crime. It is not altogether surprising that we share this aim, since we have repeatedly called for such measures over the past few years. Does the Home Secretary accept that hiring people to support the police is one thing but hiring people to pose as policemen is quite another? Does he agree that the police have special authority because they are given special training, have special obligations and live under a special code of discipline? Does he accept that the morale of the police and respect for the police would diminish if, in an effort to provide a show of increasing police numbers, he were to erode or muddy the clear distinction between policemen who have these special characteristics and other people in uniform who do not?

On the Home Secretary's important proposals on standards and targets, we recognise fully the need to spread best practice among the various police forces, as well as the need to expose the wide differences to which he referred in their performance. As the Home Secretary rightly points out, it is his duty to set national targets and to provide a stimulus for police forces to reach those targets. However, does the Home Secretary agree that there is a great difference between quite properly holding chief constables accountable for their performance and quite improperly seeking to micro-manage individual police forces from Whitehall?

Is there not a danger that the operation of a standards unit, allied to reserve powers held by the Home Secretary, might lead in practice and over time to chief constables coming to think of themselves as employees of the Home Office? Is there not a danger that intervention by the standards unit in the affairs of individual basic command units within a given police force may gradually undermine the operational independence of the chief constable of that force? Is there not a danger that if the independence of chief constables is undermined in practice, some future and less benign Home Secretary may be able, to some degree, to politicise the police?

Does the Home Secretary agree that these are delicate issues, which lie at the centre of the preservation of the rule of law in this country? Does he accept that the preservation of the rule of law is the single most important task of this House, and that nothing should ever be allowed to prejudice the fulfilment of that task?

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