Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. On detention centres, you won your appeal on the Oakington case, although it is possible it may go for further appeal so I will not ask you to make any detailed comment on the case, but have you taken up anything that has been said in the course of the judgment which was made there, any changes which are likely to be made as a result of that judgment?
  (Mr Blunkett) Of course this is a historic challenge rather than a present day usage. We were very keen and very pleased indeed that the Appeal Court judges ruled unanimously in our favour. You are right in saying I have to be circumspect in view of the leave to appeal to the House of Lords. I think it is very important we always take note of judgments. The judiciary may be surprised to hear me say this so positively, but I do think it is very important that we listen and that we reflect on that policy. Oakington is of course a one-off, in the sense it provides on a seven-day holding basis the most sophisticated provision anywhere in Europe. So much so that I gather that when some elderly people were flooded out nearby earlier this week, they were accommodated in Oakington—I hope we will let them out in due course. It is a very different centre from those which I was describing a moment ago.

  61. When do you think you will stop using prisons to accommodate asylum seekers?
  (Mr Blunkett) We gave a specific pledge in relation to Cardiff, where particular concerns were raised earlier in the year, that we would have those who had not committed a crime or been charged with a crime out by Christmas. I am, I repeat, now committing our staff to ensure we achieve that across the prison service by February.

Mr Cameron

  62. A factual question: how many asylum seekers are currently held in prison?
  (Mr Blunkett) There are approximately 900 but only 400-plus of those are in the category I have just described, namely there is no legal reason for holding them in prison, as opposed to other detention or secure facilities.

  63. Can I take you back to the 30,000. I want to be absolutely clear, it was a pledge to remove 30,000 asylum seekers in 2001-02, you are now saying you might hit that run-rate next spring, 2002, but you are not going to hit the 30,000 target until 2002-03 and only then with extra measures?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, the pledge was 2003. It was in our manifesto. There was not a public service agreement either on this issue but there was an internal service agreement which was unattainable, and I have therefore adhered to the manifesto and to my statement on 27 June.


  64. One should not be under any illusions, Home Secretary, about the difficulty of achieving that kind of target, should one? There will be a lot of personal tragedies involved in that as well, will there not?
  (Mr Blunkett) The difficulties are enormous. I think I made the point actually in the House in June that there would be considerable tears in terms of trying to reach that target, were we to be addressing long-standing, domiciled families. I have no illusions about this at all, and we will try and address those issues in the development of policy in a way which is both sensitive to that and is robust in terms of the signals that if people are not accorded the right to remain or given leave for long-term asylum status, refugee status, they will have to leave the country.

  65. Where children are involved—and some of them will be very young children—I hope we are going to deal with this matter sensitively, are we?
  (Mr Blunkett) We have got to. I have to combine, as with so many Home Office policies, the right robust signals that achieve policy objectives with a sensitivity to treat people as human beings.

  Chairman: Thank you. Can we turn now to police reform. Janet Dean?

Mrs Dean

  66. Home Secretary, turning to police recruitment and retention, how well has police recruitment across the country gone so far this year, and has every force been able to recruit the numbers for which the Crime Fighting Fund money was granted?
  (Mr Blunkett) The Crime Fighting Fund has been a tremendous success and has helped us enormously to get to the 125,519 officers on the latest statistical count, and leads us to believe that we will be able within the next year to reach an all time high in terms of police numbers and by 2004 at the latest to get over 130,000 police officers in place. It has to be accompanied, of course, by the ability to retain those officers, and therefore avoiding seepage is a crucial part of the policy.

  67. Are you satisfied with the current rates of retention?
  (Mr Blunkett) We are satisfied that there has been some substantial progress. There are difficulties in some parts of the country. London has a particular problem—and it was raised in the House yesterday afternoon—in terms of the way in which housing and other costs make it attractive for people to spend time learning the trade and then to move out. We need to continue the progress that was made by the former Home Secretary and the schemes worked out with the Department for Transport and Local Government to assist them in that and make sure that the supplements and supports available to them on top of the London allowance support that fact.

  68. Finally, can you tell us what progress has been made in adjusting pension arrangements to encourage experienced police officers to remain in the force?
  (Mr Blunkett) Part of the police reform measures in the White Paper will have to address the issue of enabling police officers to be encouraged to stay on. Forgive me, if I do not pre-empt the White Paper at this stage.

Angela Watkinson

  69. Home Secretary, I notice that one of the possible elements in the police reform package is to have CID officers in uniform. Bearing in mind that the nature of their investigations often means that they must not be identifiable, has there been any consultation as yet with police forces on this matter?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes there has. The decision of Sussex Constabulary was their own in terms of the changes that triggered an interesting set of headlines across the country. I am bedevilled, as all Home Secretaries have been, by, one, consultation behind the scenes ending up with pronouncements by those who do not like it publicly, and, two, individual initiatives being paraded as Government policy. I can, however, confirm that we are very keen to look at the best proportion of those in the CID at any one time being in uniform or in civilian dress. In other words, people might actually be able to come in and out of civilian dress. There might be no great problem in them sometimes donning uniforms for one particular need and being able to go into civvies for other activities. It does not appear to me to be a great revolutionary move but it does appear to engage people's imagination. I hope, therefore, that the consultation and the experiments in Sussex will enable us to get it right, that we need people in civvies when they are undertaking operations where it would be a commonsense approach to do so, but we do need visibility of policing and reassurance in our neighbourhoods and communities because quite a lot of the detection, the intelligence work can be undertaken as part of community policing and not merely by those who are not identified quite so visibly as policemen.

  70. Is it your impression, Home Secretary, that many policemen regard patrolling the beat as a punishment rather than one of the basics of their profession?
  (Mr Blunkett) I made the point at the Superintendents' Conference in early September that it would be tragic if people were disciplined by being switched from DC to PC and, therefore, we should be able to promote the status and the rewards and future prospects of those who do a damn good job as community police officers. We need to develop that and to see intelligence gathering, reinforcement, preventative policing and community safety programmes as being something that is very worthwhile and is critical to overcoming anti-social behaviour and disorder, which are the main gripes of most of our constituents.

  71. Do you think there is anything in the suggestion that sometimes the police are a little too keen on state-of-the-art technology where perhaps, instead of a helicopter, we could have 100 policemen on bicycles and that would be greater value for money?
  (Mr Blunkett) So long as they do not all ring their bells in quite the way the helicopter that comes over my house regularly in Sheffield disturbing people's nights' sleep, then I would be interested in how to do it. I think the two need to go hand-in-hand. We are developing technology for the appropriate purpose. The Airwave programme, the technology that can be used in the future to allow speed and effectiveness and coherence and security of the criminal justice information system to work from the moment of arrest, through charge, to prosecution would be very helpful. I think using technology inappropriately, as in other areas of our lives, uses an enormous amount of resource for very little return. I was joking but I do live quite close to an area in my own home city which has a particular problem with criminality and it is sometimes, as I wake up in the night, a moot point as to whether they had better get on with it or wake me up. That was a joke by the way! I am in favour of them. The heat sensors and all the rest of it are very effective.

Mr Singh

  72. Home Secretary, we all recognise the need for our police forces to be more representative of the communities that they serve and I think we all welcome the targets that the previous Home Secretary set for the recruitment of ethnic minority officers into the service. One of the problems with targets is people will say when they miss them "we did not have the turnover" or "we did not have the expansion in numbers". It seems to me that you are committed to expanding our crime-fighting personnel, if I can put it that way, to encompass all of it quite substantially and this is now a chance that may never come again in terms of increasing our recruitment of ethnic minority people into our crime fighting personnel.
  (Mr Blunkett) . Yes I think it is and some of the work that has been done in the Met and forces like Leicestershire to encourage recruitment of ethnic minorities in a wide range of the community is very encouraging. If the expansion of the civilian staff and support staff, the way in which we can develop the use of specials, and the way in which we can encourage people to come forward as full-time trained police officers can do that, I think we would all gain a great deal from it. It is back to the point you were raising with me earlier, if people have confidence and trust they are more likely to trust themselves to taking up the job.

Mr Watson

  73. Home Secretary, you mentioned special constables. What are you going to do with them?
  (Mr Blunkett) As you know, they are overseen, accredited and trained with the police so that they, unlike other members of the broader police family, the extended police family as we are now calling it, have the capacity to pick up some of the police powers because of that training and acreditation to be able to help both with reassurance and with tackling anti-social behaviour and disorder in our communities because if they are able to use those powers they have the authority and, what is more, the people committing those crimes and activities know they have got the authority to do so.

  I think if we can develop this as part of what I was describing earlier to my aggrieved Hon. Member for Colchester—


  74. Who has now disappeared.
  (Mr Blunkett) Who has disappeared. Well, there we go. Thank you for clarifying his question, Chairman, it did help me a lot to answer it. That we would be able to make this part of the civic renewal agenda so that people would feel they were playing a part, getting the necessary credit as well as the professional training for it. I hope to be able to examine how we would provide them with the necessary expenses so they are not out of pocket in doing it.

Mr Watson

  75. You say you want to extend the powers that specials might yield. What reaction have you had from regular police about the proposals to extend the powers of special constables?
  (Mr Blunkett) The police service as a whole is very enthusiastic both about special constables and a third element, because there is the street or neighbourhood warden/traffic warden element, there is the specials and there is a third element which is being discussed in the Metropolitan Police Authority which is—I do not like the term—something like auxiliaries who have a very specific task. Unlike the specials they would be full-time paid workers but with a very specific and targeted role, accredited with that role. This means that instead of seeing the agenda as being full-time police officers or nothing, fearful that if we are recruiting others to the extended police family we are inevitably going to pull back on full-time police recruitment, we can recruit the numbers I described earlier and extend the different layers of the family in a way which will provide us with a presence on the streets, reassurance, key targeting, for instance where there are major problems and pressure on the police, perhaps on a Friday and Saturday evening where enormous numbers of police personnel are utilised displacing the time that they would be able to spend, not just then but at other times of the week, on policing and crime reduction programmes, and enable them to back up, so you can have a mixture of full-time police together with other members of this extended programme. That seems to me to be the best of both worlds.

  76. Thank you. If I can take you on from what is broadly front line policing and perhaps look at the future management of the police. Under the current climate and circumstances do you think there could ever be a case for a national police service or at least a rationalisation of the current 43 police forces?
  (Mr Blunkett) There has been a continuing debate about rationalisation, whether there should be a regionalisation or something akin to it. My own concern at the moment about that is that it is likely to divert from, dislocate, reforms relating to uniformity and getting rid of the great disparity in performance, in standards on the ground, in detection and conviction rates, in areas of sickness absenteeism or sickness early retirement that I would rather concentrate on at the moment. This debate presumably is not going to go away. I think that the idea of having a national police force is not one that would be welcomed in many quarters, therefore ensuring that we have clarity of direction, that we have a standards unit that can work alongside the Inspectorate of Constabulary and do that job better in terms of achieving that comparable standard of delivery, is more important than getting involved in an esoteric argument which would lead us nowhere.

  77. If I could just focus on that clarity of direction. Do you think that one of the problems is accountability of chief police officers? Do you think they are accountable enough to police authorities or perhaps that they should be accountable to a national police authority?
  (Mr Blunkett) There is a very specific remit for the police authority in relation to what the chief constable should be held to account about. What I would like to see is a much broader definition of accountability so that the very positive development of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships and other community safety measures can be made accountable more broadly to the public so that people can feel what is happening and be part of it. The police authorities are submitting their own thoughts in relation to the White Paper and the police reform agenda. I do honestly say that if there are things that the Select Committee collectively or as individuals would like to submit to us that would be very welcome because this is an issue for us all, not just for ministers to decide and others to criticise.

  78. Perhaps one of the problems we see with the 43 police forces is that they all introduce 43 IT systems and 43 communication technologies. Do you see a role for you, or the Home Office, taking greater powers to ensure that there is a compatible technology and communication system across all forces?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I do. I think both through the Police National Computer development, the airwave development piloted in Lancashire, the way in which we are now taking hold of, with the Lord Chancellor's office, direction of the information technology systems across the criminal justice system as a whole, we can make them workable, effective and coherent.

  79. Just one final question, Home Secretary. The Lord Chancellor's Department have recently been monitoring why court cases in the magistrate's courts fail to take place on the day that they are planned and they found that literally thousands of cases in a year fail on that day because the police expert witness fails to turn up. Have you any plans to try to put pressure on chief constables to make sure that they turn up at the time that they are allotted?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am tickled by the fact that I am able to say that it is not just ministers who engage in spin. I read in the Sunday papers that you were going to ask me this question so I thought I had better do a bit of work on it. I am aware of the review, although of course it has not been published so I congratulate you on your sources of information.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 21 January 2002