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8.57 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate.

Hon. Members may be aware that I am chairman of the all-party group on abuse investigations. During the past four years, I have received a considerable amount of correspondence from the family and friends of individuals who believe that they have been convicted of crimes that they did not commit about the validity and integrity of police and criminal justice procedures. The members of the all-party group have not considered individual cases, but have examined the processes used by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other criminal justice structures. Along with numerous professionals working in the criminal justice system, the group's members have grave concerns about the processes currently employed in the system.

It is in that context that I welcome the Bill. I wish to contain my remarks to the following areas: the failure of existing policing arrangements and my concerns about the proposals before the House. To date, I believe that there has been a demonstrable failure by police authorities to share good practice with other authorities. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the Attorney-General has referred the Damilola Taylor case for review. I am concerned about the absence of any structure that requires, rather than requests, that police authorities implement the recommendations that will be made following the Attorney-General's review.

I believe that there is a manifest failure among police authorities to review their performance and procedures to ensure that they are effective. Indeed, I note that unless authorities are directed by some catastrophic disaster such as the Stephen Lawrence or Damilola Taylor cases to make recommendations to improve internal practices and procedures, very few of them will do so.

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Police authorities have been unable to develop local information databases that reflect significant local circumstances or to produce statistics that could be used to justify local policing plans instead of reflecting national priorities. That is a serious problem.

I am deeply concerned about the failure of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary—HMIC—to improve the effectiveness of police authorities. I have read all the HMIC's reports from 1995, and it seems to spend a great deal of time reviewing how police authorities achieve targets, rather than examining the procedures and practices that the police use to achieve those targets. The reports suggest that the HMIC is more interested in the number of cases coming off the end of the production line than in the quality of those cases.

The failure of the police authority and the HMIC structures to employ and utilise the services of experts who could be instrumental in improving the effectiveness of police authorities leads to a great deal of inefficiency and wasted time. The police must be masters of a particular trade, not try to be jack of all the trades in which a modern, effective organisation must be engaged.

I have great concern about the technical competence of officers. That arises from the number of cases that are repeatedly rejected by the Crown Prosecution Service, which then need to be reworked. I am equally concerned about the number of cases that are subsequently discontinued in court. The current processes are manifestly inefficient, and some authorities seem to be unable to tackle the inefficiencies. I suspect that that is because they do not adequately train staff or retain appropriately qualified staff.

On the failure of the complaints system, I recently asked a series of parliamentary questions on the number of complaints received by the police, the CPS, the Attorney-General, the HMIC and Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. In some cases, no statistics on complaints are collected; in others, the statistics that are collected are not subject-focused. How can people involved in the criminal justice system know what concerns the public if they do not collect the statistics that flow from complaints?

I turn to the Bill. I have grave reservations about the proposal to establish a separate standards unit. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, with all its faults, should be expanded and required to undertake the activity ascribed to the standards unit—although I recognise that it was the HMIC's inability to seize the initiative on improving standards that led to the proposal. I seek reassurances that the two units will eventually merge. I am normally fundamentally opposed to command from the centre. Can the Minister confirm that the new police standards unit will, in the longer term, be an enabling authority that encourages police authorities to develop more efficient practices and procedures, to share good practices and to work together to resolve cross-border crimes? The unit must encourage authorities to review their own practices and procedures instead of being remotely managed, which breeds managerial ambivalence.

The proposed complaints system addresses some of the concerns that have been expressed and will at least minimise the confusion that arises among the public. Many people are not even aware that they can complain about the police or, if they do so, worry that the police may subsequently take punitive action against them for

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raising a complaint. Currently, following a complaint, the Police Complaints Authority refers its recommendations to each police authority, and chief constables can decide whether to accept them. It is regrettable that the Home Secretary needs to avail himself of powers to address that unacceptable situation. Legitimate complaints must lead to changes in practices and procedures. The system discourages many people from complaining, because they believe that nothing will change. We live in a democracy, and the police, as part and parcel of the democratic process, must engage and work with the people whom they are employed to protect. The lack of Home Office intervention so far has allowed police authorities to believe that they are essentially a law unto themselves.

My primary worry about community support officers is their employment terms and conditions. Will the Minister reassure me that they will be not only directed by the chief constable but paid directly by him, not through the local authority?

The White Paper refers to extending the role of the port police. I am sure that the proposal is sensible, but we must ensure that all those engaged in police work are protected under the same terms and conditions as those who are employed by police authorities. That does not currently apply to officers who work in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.

I wish that the Bill was unnecessary. However, the great variation in police performance cannot go unchecked. The police authorities have not tried to manage themselves; regrettably, they must therefore be managed.

9.5 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in a high-quality debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who gave a bravura performance without notes. As a former speech writer, I am always suspicious of that because it puts us out of a job. Nevertheless, his speech was impressive. I also draw attention to the powerful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).

We are all trying to tackle the same problem, which I encountered at my surgery on Friday. A gang of local youths are making life a misery for a family who live on a housing estate in Knutsford. The case was serious; the daughter, who was pregnant, had been attacked. The police have arrested six people, but they are out on bail on the same small housing estate. People in estates throughout the country cry out for politicians to respond to their anxieties, put police on their streets, deal with the criminal justice system and tackle the growing problem of disorder in their communities.

I have every sympathy with a Home Secretary who says that he will listen to people, who wants to make policing more visible and says that he will take on some of the ingrained practices of the police. When he announced his great crusade to reform the police within weeks of becoming Home Secretary, many people believed that he would do it because he had the political capital and clout to do what previous Home Secretaries, including Conservative Home Secretaries, had failed to achieve: take on the police, reform their practices and radically change the way in which law and order works in this country.

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The political capital has been dissipated and the good will has gone. The Home Secretary, who knows when to take the limelight and when it is important to turn up, is absent. That speaks volumes about the Bill. It is a great shame and a missed opportunity.

I want to concentrate on community support officers. Various Members have got the name wrong; even the Prime Minister occasionally gets it wrong. Hon. Members have spoken about the value of community support wardens in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) spoke about their value on an estate in Lewisham. The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) spoke about the value of street wardens.

There are street wardens in my community, and they do a fantastic job in Cheshire. They have transformed the life on some estates. Why not simply extend the activities of wardens? We should not create a new category, called community support officers. Wardens should not be removed from the job that they currently do. It is low level and involves picking up litter, reporting vandalism and keeping an eye on the estate. We should not take away that role and replace it with a pseudo-police role.

The Stockport community warden scheme is one of the best in the country and Home Office Ministers often cite it as an example. It is close to my constituency, and the people who run it are suspicious of the proposals for CSOs. They say that there is a risk of turning wardens into pseudo-policemen that might break down the bond of trust that has developed between the local community and the wardens. That may say something about the esteem in which police are held, but there is a danger. The Home Office seems to be trying to get policing on the cheap.

When Cheshire Members of Parliament went to see our chief constable a couple of months ago, and spoke to him about the proposals in the White Paper, he was very concerned that he would not have the flexibility to deploy these community support officers in the way that he wanted to. He would not, for example, be able to send them to riots in Burnley, as he had had to do with his regular police officers last year, or send them to a football match to deal with some of the really tricky problems such as those we saw at Millwall recently. He felt that he would not have that kind of flexibility, and that that would be a great weakness of community support officers. After all, once we start paying them a decent salary and giving them all the perks and pensions, they are going to be almost as expensive as new police officer recruits, but without the flexibility.

I urge the Government to reconsider this proposal. By all means, let us extend the warden schemes and develop the neighbourhood watch schemes. Let us use these examples and build on them. Let us have a broader police family, but let us not try to get policing on the cheap.

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