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9.22 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I should begin by declaring an interest: 15 years ago, I wrote a critical article about the then Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I married him 13 months later, and five months later he retired, although the two things are not connected.

I am delighted to speak in this debate, as we in Northern Ireland are streets ahead of the rest of the UK. Police reform went ahead in Northern Ireland two years

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ago, with the introduction of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. I hope that it will be useful and constructive for Ministers and the House to draw on our experience of police reform.

My first point concerns the retention of officers. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said that we must ensure that we retain police officers. It is essential that the Home Secretary somehow builds up the support of the rank and file members of the police service in England and Wales. The Police Federation of England and Wales and the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales must support the reforms.

I say that passionately. The House will hear the passion in my voice, but I feel passionate because of what happened in Northern Ireland. The Patten report recommended that the number of regular police officers should be reduced over 10 years to 7,500. The report came out on 9 September 1999. Two and a half years on—nowhere near the 10 years recommended by Patten—we in Northern Ireland are down to 6,900 police officers.

I am sorry to have to say this, but nothing has done more damage to the credibility of the Belfast agreement, and to the support for it, than police reform. I hope that the damage can be repaired, but that will require more resources. It is essential that rank and file members support police reform.

When we gave the Minister a break earlier on and stopped intervening on him, he actually managed to tell us that the target for spring 2003 was 130,000 police officers. That may be the target, but the difficulty is that, without the support of rank and file officers, experienced police officers will drain away and morale will go down, as it has in Northern Ireland. The Government must retain police officers by persuading them that the reforms are worth introducing.

Secondly, I was absolutely delighted when fundamental human rights were put at the core of policing in Northern Ireland. That is where they should be because that enhances people's respect for the police. I am delighted that the United Kingdom has rightly made the European convention on human rights part and parcel of its domestic law. We in Northern Ireland have a new oath for police officers, who now swear to uphold fundamental human rights. I am very pleased that that is mirrored in clause 64. It is essential that the other people to whom the Government intend to give policing or detention powers have human rights training; otherwise the Government will face many legal actions. The respectability of police officers is increased when they have a basic operational understanding of human rights legislation.

Thirdly, it is the responsibility of all hon. Members, not just Ministers, to increase public awareness of police reform. That is key. I am very sorry to say that we politicians in Northern Ireland must bear a lot of the responsibility for not preparing the general public for the reforms, especially the speed of reform, introduced under the Patten report. I do not want that mistake to be repeated in England and Wales. The Government must, please, increase public awareness of the reforms, which depend on public support.

I shall rest my case on my fourth and final point, as other hon. Members wish to contribute. I made this point in an intervention in the hope that it would be taken on board. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has limited powers over policing; we have a Chief Constable

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and a policing board, which includes 10 elected Assembly Members. That arrangement is working very well, but it is not just tripartite—we will have district policing partnerships for every local council in Northern Ireland. I know that our system is easier to manage; we have 26 district councils, and the number may decrease as local government reform is due.

Every district policing partnership will meet the local chief superintendent every month to discuss, advise and consult on local policing issues. Whether considering parades—we are approaching the season for them—or other issues, district policing partnerships represent a real vehicle to enable local councillors, who form the majority of each partnership, to be accountable to the electorate. Those partnerships also represent the means through which ordinary people can have a voice.

I urge the Government to consider those four points and to try to learn from the good lessons of police reform in Northern Ireland.

9.28 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): I welcome the Bill. It is very timely that the House is considering part 1 in the immediate aftermath of the thematic report, published on 10 April by the inspectorate of constabulary, about the way in which the crime of rape is policed.

The inspectorate examined the way in which rape is dealt with in nine police areas, which represent a cross-section. The disparities that it found among those forces in the operational and investigative standards at almost every stage of dealing with that offence make much of the case for the police standards unit and for the Home Secretary's extended powers under part 1 to direct chief officers to remedy shortcomings and to regulate procedures and practices.

If this were a different debate, I would be arguing that the overall picture concerning rape is very poor indeed. However, what is germane to this debate is that inspectors have found specific examples of good practice in some police forces—not necessarily in the same force—that, if combined, could produce a radical improvement in the current 7.3 per cent. conviction rate. That rate is the lowest ever, and far lower than for any other kind of assault. To be fair to women, such good practices must be disseminated to all 43 forces, and especially to those that are performing poorly. The inspectorate of constabulary is influential, but its role is only advisory, and although the Association of Chief Police Officers has frequently mediated to spread good practice, it cannot ensure its adoption. In that regard, the Home Secretary's powers are also insufficient.

In response to the report on rape, a cross-departmental working group has been set up to try to implement its 80 recommendations. The police standards unit that the White Paper announced is now working, and its core task is the identification and dissemination of best practice. Had it been operating earlier, it would have continuously identified and spread good practice to drive up standards to the best levels of operational performance, and rape convictions would not have fallen so far behind. It would have identified a host of best practices scattered around the country, which I do not have time to itemise.

The PSU will be particularly important for those such as rape victims, whose criminal victimisation is not naturally at the top of the police's hit list. For rape, read

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domestic violence as well, for which the standards are equally variable. However, centres of excellence do exist that involve officers with special interests. The PSU is operating and does not need legislation, but to implement its recommendations it plainly needs all the powers that part 1 of the Bill gives to the Home Secretary. In particular, it needs enhanced powers to direct police authorities, and to direct chief officers in cases where the Home Secretary is satisfied that a particular force, or part of it, was ineffective or inefficient. That would assist rape complainants. Clause 7 will allow the Home Secretary to issue directions requiring all forces to follow particular operational procedures—in other words, to follow best practices.

Huge variations in performance between forces, and therefore between postcodes, are unacceptable. If women in a given area knew that their rape complaints would be investigated poorly, but a few miles away they would be offered support, assistance and best practice, they would be inflamed with anger to discover that no mechanism exists to enable the Home Secretary to compel such practice in their area. They would not regard the power to drive up standards as interference in the independence of operational command, and nor do I.

I also welcome the advent of community support officers. The beauty of the proposal is that the question whether an area will have such officers, and the powers granted to them, will be determined according to local need by the chief police officer and the local police authority. That is a clear devolution of policing power; what it is not is policing on the cheap. CSOs will do exactly as has been described: support the police—and surely the community, as well—by handling a specific range of antisocial behaviour, including noisiness, litter, dog-fouling and rowdiness. Only recently have we come to realise that such conduct affects people's day-to-day peaceful enjoyment rather more than does armed robbery, for example. It has always been extremely difficult for police to provide a local, targeted response to such conduct, which calls for a much more street-based, mediation-oriented regime. It is an inappropriate task for highly skilled, but differently skilled, officers, who as police are better suited to different duties. CSOs offer a real opportunity for a modern way forward.

Redcar and Cleveland borough council—my constituency is located in that borough—has the largest community support warden scheme in England. Some 45 wardens provide coverage until 10 o'clock each night, and soon there will be 49 of them. Each ward has a pair of wardens, so they are never far away. They have a radio link and mobile phones. They also have vans, but the rules require them to be on the beat 85 per cent. of the time in the evening. They were established as the council devolved its services down to neighbourhood level, so they are the first port of call for anybody who sees a hole in the road or some item of disrepair. The wardens call out the repair team from the local office, and the matter is dealt with swiftly. That helps to alleviate what is called the broken window syndrome—if a minor problem such as a broken window is not fixed, it is followed by others in a spiral of decline.

I am told by Councillor David McCluckie, the lead councillor for community safety, that the wardens also play a very important role in gathering information, some of it very sensitive, about crime. People feel much freer to give the wardens the information than the police, probably

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because members of the public could have all sorts of reasons for talking to the wardens. A member of the public might say, "There's a hole in the road over there, and No. 26 is dealing drugs", but as long as the hole in the road is mended no one can take revenge if the other information is acted on as well.

The wardens have byelaw powers to give tickets for dog-fouling and other minor offences. If they observe the stuff of antisocial behaviour, they can make statements and they have given evidence. They do not live in the ward where they work, so they do not face retribution.

A notable aspect of antisocial behaviour is that it involves the young more than any other group in the community. Sometimes the behaviour is deliberate and highly offensive, but sometimes the young people are not aware of or concerned by the effect that their behaviour has on the rest of society. Often they do not have anything else to do, or that is what they think. In a ward called Grangetown, the council has decided to build a youth shelter because two wardens made an informal approach to a group of young lads and found that the nuisance of kicking a ball against the walls of pensioners' bungalows was for want of another surface to kick the ball against that was anywhere near the shops.

Young people know who the wardens are and they do not approach the young people aggressively or judgmentally. The wardens' uniform makes them look like paramedics, and everybody trusts them. The wardens are trained by the police in PACE—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—so they know what they are doing. They are also trained in anger management and mediation and how to develop an exit strategy. If they want a name and address and are refused, they are so local that they can ask people nearby for a name, or they follow the person home and deliver the ticket. If they have to withdraw from a confrontation, they can identify the offender through other locals and can go to the home later with a police constable.

Antisocial behaviour has been cut by between 20 and 30 per cent. in the year that the wardens have been working, and the fire brigade locally reckons that the number of hoaxes and fire-raising incidents has fallen by 70 per cent. The wardens are seen as the community's champions. They are proud of that role and they want to retain it. They take pride in their communities.

The picture that I have painted does not show something that is inferior to policing. It is not policing on the cheap. It is a new approach, based in and regenerating the community and with its own virtues. A poll has been taken about whether the wardens would benefit from having powers of detention, and they do not want them. They fear that they would not be safe while exercising such powers and that they would be distanced from the community. However, there is no doubt—

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