Police members of NCIS
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Hawkins: Once again, I want to put on record the very strong concerns expressed by the Police Federation. Clauses 71 and 72 propose to change the way in which people can go into NCIS or the NCS. They make provision for the appointment of a person attested or sworn as a constable of any rank to be appointed as a permanent police member of either NCIS or the NCS.
The Police Federation makes the point—I have seen this at NCIS and the NCS, where I had a briefing some time ago—that serving officers are currently seconded to NCIS and the NCS for a period and then, having done their secondment, go back. The Police Federation says, which seems to me to make eminent common sense, that that is an efficient and effective way of ensuring a free flow of skills between the forces and the service authorities. It makes the point that when officers have spent some time at the NCS or NCIS and then go back, they return to their forces with enhanced skills and specialist experience, which helps build up and strengthen the detective skills base in the forces.
One point that was made to my hon. Friend, myself and others in our Front Bench team as recently as last night by a retired, senior Customs man who had worked closely in this field was that in some forces there is a shortage of people with the required experience to carry out the operations. If some of the best people are taken away from some of the forces—particularly from smaller forces—and go permanently to NCIS or the NCS, that will compound the problem. The man who spoke to us last night made the point that that will exacerbate the problem that already exists. He said that he had something like 28 years' experience of dealing with drugs seizures and he expressed serious concern about the shortage, especially in smaller forces, of officers who were sufficiently senior to carry out big operations against those who NCIS call level 3 criminals—the most serious criminals.
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If that is the case, making the changes and having lots of people move permanently into NCIS and the NCS could make the situation worse. The Government recognised in their White Paper that there is a shortage of experienced detectives in some forces as a result of the over-rigid application of tenure policies. That is the Government's view, as set out in their White Paper and it was reinforced in spades by the gentleman who briefed my hon. Friend and other hon. Members last night.
The Police Federation says that that shortage, which the Government have already acknowledged, could become a famine if the supply of detectives returning from what are currently secondments to NCIS and the NCS is significantly reduced. The Police Federation has made the point that that would be a qualitative as well as a quantitative reduction. The service authorities, NCIS and the NCS, would clearly have a motivation to retain as permanent police members those officers who had performed particularly well. That is human nature, and what we would expect. However, they would be prepared for those of perfectly competent but less star-like—what the Police Federation call ''standard''—performance to return to their forces, so that the effect of sections 71 and 72 could be to allow centralised organisations such as NCIS and the NCS to cream off the best talent from around the country to the impoverishment of the supplying 43 forces.
The Police Federation made the point that there could be a danger of exclusivity and reduced co-operation between service authorities and forces. Indeed, we know from experience in other countries—particularly and most worthy of note, the United States—that police or security agencies operating exclusively can lead to a danger of communications failures between them. All members of the Committee have been very much aware that in the USA, during the past three or four weeks, there have been huge debates and great investigations in Congress and the Senate about whether intelligence failures in the run-up to the terrorist atrocities on 11 September were caused by the danger of exclusivity.
The Police Federation says, and I agree entirely, that communication and co-operation between the service authorities—NCIS and the NCS—and forces are presently facilitated by the current secondment arrangement, which ensures a regular movement of personnel in both directions. If that movement is all, or mostly, one way, NCIS and the NCS could increasingly be seen, and could come to see themselves, as an exclusive set of organisations, and that could be to the detriment of communication and co-operation with police forces. That would be hugely detrimental.
I have been very impressed with what I have seen of the work of the NCS and NCIS. We want them to get even better. There is no doubt that what they have achieved in operations against the most serious criminals—many of them operating internationally and in this country—has been wonderful. I cannot praise them too highly. We do not want to do anything that could risk damaging that. The Police Federation has a very good point, quite separately from the
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briefings that I have had at NCIS and the NCS. As recently as last night, my hon. Friends and I had a briefing from someone who was at the sharp end for many years—in his case, in Customs. Without being aware that the matter was about to come up in Committee, he made very much the same points that the Police Federation made about what needs improving and the danger that the situation could get worse. I believe that it can get worse, if the measure is implemented. I put that point seriously to the Minister and know that he will take it seriously. I shall listen with interest to what he has to say.
Norman Baker: Without repeating the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), by and large, I endorse them. I, too, have had a meeting with the Police Federation and found their arguments on the matter persuasive. Obviously, I shall listen to what the Minister says to find out whether there are counter-arguments.
This is not a philosophical but a practical point about what works best for the police. It is right that the Government should examine continually the operations of the police to see what improvements can be made. Indeed, some improvements have been set out in the Bill. However, I have not detected any failure in NCIS or the NCS. The arrangements in that part of the police family work well. I am concerned about the potential for NCIS and the NCS to cream off the best personnel at the expense of the 43 forces. I am also concerned that reinforcing the differences that already exist between NCIS and the NCS and the 43 forces by separating their personnel could lead to competition between different parts of the police, which would not be very healthy.
I recently attended the launch of an initiative, which I am happy to support, at Newhaven in my constituency. It brings together Customs, special branch and district council environmental health officers in recognising that there has not been the co-operation necessary to deal with the problems that are associated with the port. The work and information of different bodies were not being shared. There is a recognition that close co-operation is necessary, and I fear that that co-operation, which exists at present—I have seen no evidence to the contrary—may be jeopardised by the measure. I hope that the Minister is able to reassure me. The Police Federation has made sensible points, which merit a proper response.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): The Minister will be aware of the work that the Select Committee on Defence has been doing recently on homeland defence. A point that has been raised, not just by police forces but by ambulance and other emergency services, is that the level of threat to this country that has developed—or that has been underlined—since the events of 11 September last year has made it clear that all types of specialist skills are woefully lacking in some of the ordinary forces, not just police forces, across the country.
One of the clearest statements came first from the Ministry of Defence police and then from several different chief officers of constabularies, who discussed
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the intelligence effort necessary to combat the higher level of threat that we now face. They mentioned how heavily they depended on the cross-fertilisation of expertise from organisations such as NCIS and the NCS and how powerfully useful officers were, at quite modest levels, who had had a two or three-year tour with those organisations. They went into a hothouse of intelligence matters, understood intelligence at a level higher than just that of the petty criminal on the streets, honed their skills and were allowed to return to the forces to the huge aiding and abetting of the ordinary workaday intelligence out in the shires. I shall not labour the point further. However, the forces made the point clearly that the cross-fertilisation is important and that clauses 71 and 72 would probably work to its detriment.
Mr. Denham: There were points of substance in the contributions of the hon. Members for Surrey Heath, for Lewes and for Newark (Patrick Mercer), but we must get the balance right. I am sure that opening up the possibility of direct recruitment is appropriate. It is undoubtedly true that the system of secondment is of value to NCIS, and it is of particular value to the police forces because NCIS trains people, as the hon. Member for Newark said, to a specialist level of operation that they would not necessarily gain in their own police forces. That is of enormous benefit to all the forces that supply officers to NCIS.
Equally, NCIS and NCS must be able to do their own job. Training people for two or three years only for them to disappear when much time and energy has been invested in developing the skills that they need to have in NCIS frequently creates problems for that organisation. NCIS has never yet managed to reach its full complement of 1,300 officers. It is about 200 short.
The further difficulty is that it is not always easy to attract officers to the relatively short secondments that are on offer, nor it is easy to attract them to the longer secondments. Officers who intend to return to their force worry about what will happen to their career prospects while they are away. I assure the Committee that there is no intention of moving away from reliance on secondment as the primary method of staffing the organisations. Allowing some direct entry would enable NCIS and NCS to develop and skill up those that they have recruited directly, so that they are not always dependent on the existing body of skills.
It is most important to have permanent appointments in some senior and supervisory posts to enable the expertise in the organisation to develop. It will enable the organisations to achieve a better balance between secondment and direct employment. At present, direct employment is not possible. While I understand the arguments about not throwing out the baby with the bath water and ignoring the benefits of secondment, no justification has been made for not allowing the organisations direct recruitment.
As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, we have recognised in the White Paper the shortage of specialist investigative skills and we will be dealing with that problem through the police reform programme. Some uncontroversial clauses allow a wider range of people to take up investigative jobs within the police service. I do not think that the two
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clauses would diminish the number of people with investigative skills in the police service. Indeed, on some occasions they would enable NCIS to train up people in situ rather than rely on secondments. If anything, the provisions are more likely to increase the number of people with investigative skills in the police service.