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House of Commons

Monday 11 March 2002

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—

Victims of Crime

1. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What plans he has to give victims of crime more information about progress in (a) detection and (b) prosecution of the cases with which they have been involved. [38873]

The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): I am currently reviewing the standards of service outlined in the victims charter. At present, the police have a charter commitment to keep victims informed about key developments in cases. That includes information about whether a suspect is charged and the outcome of the court case. By autumn this year, the Crown Prosecution Service will have fully implemented a system to convey its own key decisions to victims. That will include information about whether charges are dropped or altered.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and express my thanks for all the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team are doing to support victims, including the doubling of funding for Victim Support and the promised victims charter of rights, to which we look forward eagerly. Nevertheless, from my experience, having taken up cases for victims of crime in Blackpool and held consultations on the subject, there are still problems with co-ordination of information between the CPS and the police. In particular, can I press him to consider the lack of continuity that is sometimes evident between investigating officers, those who make arrests and those who attend the court? It seems to me and to many people to whom I have spoken in Blackpool that that often causes problems in terms of relaying information.

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful that my hon. Friend recognises the additional support that we are currently giving to victims, including the doubling to £25 million of the grant to Victim Support and the changes that we have made in the courts to ensure that intimidated and vulnerable witnesses can give their evidence in safety, including through video links where that is appropriate. It is absolutely essential that we support victims end to

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end in the criminal justice system. Victims are also witnesses; they should be given information and support during the process of detection, when they need to appear in court, throughout the court process, when they are told about the offender's sentence—if he or she is found guilty—and when they are part of the sentencing process, if that is appropriate, where issues such as reparation and restorative justice may arise. Unless we support victims and witnesses throughout the process, we will not bring enough offenders to justice in a timely way.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): If, as the Minister says, he cares about the rights and concerns of victims, will he explain why the Government have chosen to scrap a criminal justice Bill that would have furthered those rights and to replace it with a ban on foxhunting? Which is more important to him?

Mr. Bradley: We have done absolutely nothing of the sort. We have been consulting on key elements of reform in the Halliday report on sentencing reform and the Auld report on court reform. I invited the Opposition spokesperson into the Department to be briefed on sentencing reform. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we decided at that stage to publish a White Paper in the spring with a view to introducing legislation on the criminal justice system in the autumn. Nothing has changed.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, but can I draw a problem to his attention and ask him to intervene? Chief constables such as mine in Essex—I understand the problem to be endemic—are operating victim support in reverse in terms of people whose cars have been stolen. Is he aware that when my chief constable says that he wants the car for forensic purposes, people get not progress on prosecution, but a bill from the car recovery outfit? That is intolerable. It is now time for him to tell chief constables that this has got to stop—from this evening.

Mr. Bradley: I understand my hon. Friend's point. The situation has been going on for a long time, and I assure him that we are looking at it very urgently.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): May I congratulate the Home Secretary through the Minister on the support that he expressed for Sir John Stevens in his article in the News of the World on the need for reform of criminal justice? That position is rather different from his previous imprecations about his sending in Whitehall hit squads. May I pick the Minister up on the criminal justice reform Bill? He says that there has been consultation, but I have to tell him that, apart from indicating the contents of Auld, providing us with that report and giving us a briefing, the Government have engaged in no formal consultation whatever with the Opposition parties. As the importance of the criminal justice Bill is acknowledged in all parts of the House, when will the Government respond to the formal proposals that were put to them by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), indicating that we would co-operate on moving such a Bill through the

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House as quickly as possible? No valid explanation whatever has been provided of why the Bill is not being introduced in this Session.

Mr. Bradley: It is quite extraordinary that when we invited the official Opposition spokesperson to attend the briefing on the Halliday consultation, to which we received hundreds of responses, they had not at that point bothered to respond to the consultation document. If they want genuinely to participate and to ensure that we have cross-party support for introducing criminal justice reform, they should take the opportunity to respond to the consultation.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the success of victim support schemes around the country. That is especially true of two schemes—Môn-Gwynedd and Conwy—in my constituency. In the context of providing more information to victims of crime, will he ensure that police authorities automatically refer cases involving victims of crime to local victim support schemes?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the victim support service in her area. Through the extra money that we have made available, Victim Support has developed highly effective witness services in our courts, and every court will be covered by April this year. We must ensure that there is proper communication with all the agencies involved in a case, whether it be the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or others that become involved with the victim at that point or later in the process. Within that communication process, technology must be enhanced to ensure that information is quickly relayed to the different agencies so that they can then communicate with the victim and/or witness. That is essential for the effective completion of more cases through the court process.

Police Officers

2. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): What representations he has received from police officers about his proposed reforms to pay, pensions and conditions. [38874]

4. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): What discussions he has had with the Police Federation since the results of its ballot on the proposed new terms and conditions for federated ranks. [38876]

5. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): What recent representations he has received about police conditions of service. [38877]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): Other Ministers and I have made numerous visits to, and undertaken consultation meetings with, representatives of the police service and members of the public around the country. Discussions that have taken place since the Police Federation ballot, both through the negotiating board and directly with myself and other Ministers, have been extremely cordial and fruitful.

In addition, I have received many letters from police officers and from the public. The public naturally place emphasis on reducing variations in service, ensuring a

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reliable and reassuring policing presence, and achieving a massive reduction in street robbery, crime and antisocial behaviour. Our reforms are designed to achieve those goals.

Mr. Osborne: The fact is that rank and file police officers rejected the Home Secretary's reform proposals by a majority of 10 to one. In my local police force in Cheshire, 86 per cent. of officers voted against them. That is hardly surprising, given that Ministers go around treating the police as heroes one moment and wreckers the next. Instead of blaming the Police Federation for the outcome of the ballot, should not he work with police officers, listen to their genuine concerns, and produce some better proposals?

Mr. Blunkett: There is a history of Opposition parties taking advantage of the efforts of Governments of both persuasions to bring about radical reform. Previous Home Secretaries bear the scars—internally, if not externally—to verify that fact. Those who do not like what we are doing—whether the Police Federation, the leadership of the police service or Opposition parties—have an obligation to say what they would do.

We shall seek a way forward precisely for the reasons that I spelled out a moment ago. This is not about an old-fashioned confrontation between trade unions and the Government, but about reform to bring a decent police service to the public whom we serve. The judge and jury of our success will be the men and women who face robbery on our streets and fear leaving their houses, not Opposition Members making knockabout points in the House about why we are not backing the Police Federation.

Mr. Lansley: Does the Home Secretary understand that police officers hearing what he has said today will be sorry that he has not expressed some sense of regret for the intemperate and derogatory nature of his remarks about the police, which contributed to the ballot result? Will he now express that regret, and say that he is willing to enter the current conciliation without preconditions on key issues such as overtime and priority payments?

Mr. Blunkett: How the Opposition have turned. What a reversal of roles. What an interesting backing of the trade unions against the people we are seeing this afternoon. Let me make my position absolutely clear. I have met representatives of the Police Federation since the ballot, and indicated to them and to the staff side that, of course, we are prepared to go into the conciliation with the intention of finding a solution, otherwise I would not have suggested going to conciliation in the first place. I also want to refute the hon. Gentleman's allegation that I have somehow used detrimental language against the police force. If he can find a single quote in my name, or an interview on radio or television, of course I will agree with him that I should withdraw. [Interruption.] Someone has just shouted out "Spanish practices". My cousin has lived in Spain for the last 35 years. I would never be able to visit her again if I had used the term "Spanish practices".

Mr. Clappison: May I give the Home Secretary an opportunity to use some positive language? Will he give sympathetic consideration to the letter that he has received

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from the chief constable of Hertfordshire about the severe difficulties that that force is experiencing in recruiting and retaining officers? Will the Home Secretary take into account the fact that the Hertfordshire force is now under strength by 290 officers, and that, in many cases, it is competing for recruits with the Metropolitan force, which offers an extra £4,000 in allowances and free travel? Will he give the otherwise excellent Hertfordshire force the help that it needs to put the officers on the streets to fight crime, which is what my constituents want?

Mr. Blunkett: We might have some degree of agreement here, because there is a genuine problem in Hertfordshire and the other counties that find themselves just outside the ring, in terms of the substantial enhancement that all sides sought, to ensure that recruitment could be increased in the Metropolitan police force by 1,100-plus over the last 12 months. However, it is precisely to be able to target resources, and to be able to reward those at the sharp end on top of the normal pay round—which is not until September—that we have embarked on the reform agenda. I hope that all hon. Members will, therefore, back that agenda in putting money and incentive into the pay packet and the jobs of those police officers outside the Met area who do not receive the same level of additional payments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that this action is 18 years too late? It should have been taken in 1984, when all those police, acting according to Mrs. Thatcher—who was Prime Minister at the time—were sent to every coalfield to allow the scabs to get into the pits. The net result was that they did not care about their own pay then. I have a proposition to make: I have a gang of ex-miners who will sit on the national reference tribunal to settle this issue.

Mr. Blunkett: I am almost inclined to take up my hon. Friend's generous offer. On a slightly more serious note, I live in Sheffield, half a mile away from Orgreave, and I am well aware of the situation. That is why I scratched my head when I saw a BBC film—which was shown as the introduction to "On the Record" yesterday, and produced by somebody called Grossman, I think—which tried to suggest that the police reform agenda was tantamount to using the police in the way in which they had been used at Orgreave in 1984–85. I have to say that when those in short trousers make these films, they can have no clue whatsoever about the history they are dealing with, and it would be better if they got themselves another job.

Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): May I reassure my right hon. Friend that I am not wearing short trousers? Does he agree that the key to reform lies not in books of theory, but in what is happening on the ground? He will know that in Northumbria the detection rate has risen by about one third in the past seven years, and that each and every one of the 60 extra police officers who are being assigned to south Tyneside will be community beat managers working on the street, tackling local problems. Will my right hon. Friend consider convening a seminar of chief constables from around the country so that they can learn from the Northumbria experience?

Mr. Blunkett: I am deeply relieved by my hon. Friend's reassurance at the beginning of his question.

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I will not carry out an examination in person. His force is one of the best in Britain. It is at command unit level and it is well led. I have every intention of calling together those both at chief constable and at command unit level to share experience and to spread that experience, so that the kind of improvements that my hon. Friend outlined can be the experience of everyone, everywhere in the country.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): Is it not the case that the Police Federation's figures show that almost two thirds of the officers who rejected the proposals did so on the basis of overtime, not because of the wider issues that have been raised by the Opposition? Are not the real issues the need to get more police officers on the beat, deal with the variation in performance and improve standards, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband)? The performance in my operation command unit is very good, but were it to come up to the best in the country, the constituents in Dudley, North would be extremely pleased.

Mr. Blunkett: I entirely agree. That is what the reform agenda is about. I welcome the advertisement placed today by the Police Federation, as it indicates that the Police Federation is prepared to support and give backing to the vast majority of the reform agenda. If we can find a way forward, not simply by capitulating on the level of overtime, thereby bringing about a substantial mismanagement of resources, but by managing overtime down without putting fear and apprehension into officers who have been misled about our proposals, we will seek to do so.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Contrary to the Home Secretary's earlier assertions, the Opposition stand four-square behind the need for a more modern and flexible system of pay and conditions for the police service, whatever he might like to think. However, we do not stand four-square behind a hectoring and bullying style which has caused so much demoralisation and led to the spectacular defeat of the Home Secretary in the ballot. Will he confirm to us—or, indeed, deny—the reports over the weekend that he will at last accept the view of all levels of the police service, plus the Opposition, plus the majority of the other place, and drop his proposals for centralised powers of control over the police in clauses 5 and 7 of the Police Reform Bill?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I am not seeking centralised control. I am not seeking operational control at any level, and it is a simple lie by those who have said the opposite. Secondly, I do not expect—I say this to the shadow Home Secretary—any member of his party to ask the Home Secretary to take responsibility for the level and quality of policing in this country, unless the Home Secretary has the power as well as the responsibility to do something about it. In the words of The Daily Telegraph leader a week last Saturday, I should simply eulogise or appeal to people to change. I am afraid that the electorate expects something better than that. It expects us to work with the police service, retaining its operational responsibility but ensuring that if we are to answer to Parliament and to the electorate, we have some means—some levers—to deal with the variation and improve the delivery of police services everywhere in the country.

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