HC Deb 05 December 2001 vol 376 cc346-61 4.21 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, I shall make a statement on police reform and on tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

There is not an hon. Member who would not testify that the greatest priority of their constituents is to live free from crime and antisocial behaviour. Freeing people from fear and insecurity that damages their quality of life is a fundamental tenet of government. I am, therefore, placing before the House a radical reform agenda for both the police service and those who work alongside it. It is time to act to protect the victims of crime and disorder, and to help rebuild and renew communities.

I pay tribute to the professionalism and expertise of police and the civilian staff working with them. We all owe a debt of gratitude for the bravery that is often displayed by policemen and women. Our reform agenda will build on success. The British crime survey recently recorded an overall decrease in crime of 12 per cent. That is the largest annual reduction in 20 years, and the fear of crime has decreased from its peak, in 1994. There is, however, no room for complacency.

Modernisation is built on increasing police numbers, and by next spring we shall have reached an all-time record of 128,290. Today, I am able to announce a new commitment: to meet the target of 130,000 officers by spring 2003 one year early. That will be achieved alongside an increase in civilian staff who will be additional to uniformed officers.

Action is needed, however, to improve consistency and overall performance. Only one in four recorded crimes are detected, and only one in 10 result in a conviction. The variations across the country are unacceptable, and the time has come to tackle the differences in performance and in absence. Detection rates vary from a high of 63 per cent. to a low of 15 per cent. For robbery, the rate varies from a low of less than 15 per cent. to more than 50 per cent. One force achieved as few as eight days per officer lost through sickness, but another had twice that rate. One force achieved a medical retirement rate of 9 per cent., but in another almost two thirds retired on grounds of ill health.

We have established a standards unit to work alongside a refocused inspectorate. That will ensure that the best can be replicated by the rest. A new central police training and development authority will draw together leadership, management and training. A new national centre for policing excellence will develop and disseminate best practice on investigation and operational policing. We will seek to improve personnel policies, and will establish a new locally delivered national occupational health service.

To achieve the goal of safer communities, there must be a dramatic modernisation of working practices. Through the police negotiating board, we are seeking consensus on a programme of change and reform. We wish to ensure that those at the sharp end of public service are properly rewarded for the difficult job that they do. We are looking to enhance the status and rewards for those doing the most dangerous, difficult, or unsociable jobs. We want to see more flexible working arrangements and an end to unnecessarily restrictive regulations. The police negotiating board has been asked to agree changes to part-time working, the current 16-hour minimum, and the requirement to fix rotas a year in advance.

Reform must be underpinned by support. We will cut bureaucracy and halve the number of best value indicators. The diary of a police officer illustrated that over two fifths of police time was spent inside the station. We will civilianise and computerise many of the tasks undertaken by those who would be better deployed out of the station. We will increase the number of specialist investigatory teams, develop a cadre of specialist detectives and accelerate the expansion of forensic work.

Technology can also play a key role in enabling officers to do their job more effectively. The Airwave programme will now be extended across the country at a cost of £500 million, ensuring proper communication within and between forces. We will widen the number of those who can work with and assist the uniformed police. The number of special constables will be drastically accelerated. Community support officers—sometimes called auxiliaries—will be trained aides to the police. The expanded "police family" will allow street wardens, traffic wardens and others to be accredited by the police for specific duties within strictly defined limits. They will be appropriately trained.

Our endeavour is to face down the antisocial and thuggish behaviour that bedevils our streets, parks and open spaces. That will help with our civic renewal agenda, ensuring that the community becomes part of the solution. The police cannot reduce crime and disorder and tackle the scourge of hard drugs alone. Families have a key part to play in teaching right from wrong, and respect for others. Local authorities, schools and the health service, and the voluntary and private sectors, must work together. All of us have a role to play in combating criminal activity and social disintegration: decency and respect are the responsibility of us all.

It is through the crime and disorder reduction partnerships and our community renewal programmes that we will be able to restore confidence. By supporting neighbourhood watch and other local initiatives, and mobilising the community itself, we really can make a difference.

Reform is for a purpose. Those we represent do not have a choice of policing services. That is why standards are at the heart of this reform. I am proposing today a three-tier approach to ensuring that the public are served to the standard they expect and deserve. Regulations setting out mandatory requirements, where it is necessary for all forces to adhere to a national standard, will drive consistency across the country. Codes of practice will be issued by and in the name of the Home Secretary. Those will be developed by the national centre for policing excellence, drawing on the expertise of the Association of Chief Police Officers. In addition, guidance, where local flexibility and responsiveness require a light touch, will provide a menu of best practice.

There is no intention that the Government will interfere in the day-to-day operational independence of the police. That would not be in the interests of the people whom we serve, the police or the Government. However, where action is needed, it is the duty of the Government to respond. Using the expertise of the standards unit and the inspectorate, we will establish new powers of intervention where consistent failure provides inadequate protection for those whom we serve.

Basic command units, as well as the police force area, will provide comparison, like with like. We will work with chief constables and commanders to establish and spread best practice. We will provide support through multidisciplinary approaches to tackle the worst of repeat offending and repeat victimisation. We will mobilise the community against drug-related crime, and establish policing priority areas. We will update the role of the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

It is essential that we provide a greater degree of accountability as well as of devolution and delegation. We will establish pilots for decentralising budgets to basic command units, enabling greater flexibility in the use of resources and the response to local needs. In addition, we will support the developing role of the police authority in reaching out and responding to the community.

When things go wrong, it is important that people have confidence in the process. That is why I confirm today that in the police reform Bill we will be establishing an independent police complaints commission.

I spoke of our pride and confidence in the police service. That is why the Government have decided that we should award the Queen's jubilee medal to the police service. It is a symbol of our support. However, the test will be the difference that we make to the well-being of those whom we serve.

I want to put to rest for ever the cry, "There is nothing we can do," which is so often heard. Our job is to make sure that those who need help get it. Those who fear to walk down their local street or in their local park must be able to do so once again. Our job—my job—is to mobilise all the forces at our disposal to make that a reality, and I am determined that we should do so.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his courtesy in providing early copies of the statement and the White Paper.

I begin by welcoming unreservedly the Home Secretary's splendid attack on the excessive bureaucracy recently imposed on the police forces of this country. We are delighted to receive him as a member of Her Majesty's opposition to the previous Home Secretary. I assure him that we shall work with him enthusiastically to demolish yet another part of the house that Jack built.

We welcome also the aspirations in the White Paper to increase the flexibility of working practices in the police forces. As the Home Secretary rightly said, there can be no good reason for rigidities such as the requirement that one year's notice be given of any change in rest periods. However, will the right hon. Gentleman say by what means he will ensure that such rigidities will be removed in practice?

The whole House will agree with the Home Secretary's desire to enhance the police's use of information technology, but what has happened to the custody and case preparation system based on information and communications technology, about which we were told by the previous Home Secretary on page 82 of his February White paper? While we are at it, what has happened to the rest of that White Paper? Will any of its remaining recommendations now be implemented?

We share the Home Secretary's desire to provide the police with more ancillary staff, enabling policemen to spend more time maintaining order and fighting crime. It is not altogether surprising that we share this aim, since we have repeatedly called for such measures over the past few years. Does the Home Secretary accept that hiring people to support the police is one thing but hiring people to pose as policemen is quite another? Does he agree that the police have special authority because they are given special training, have special obligations and live under a special code of discipline? Does he accept that the morale of the police and respect for the police would diminish if, in an effort to provide a show of increasing police numbers, he were to erode or muddy the clear distinction between policemen who have these special characteristics and other people in uniform who do not?

On the Home Secretary's important proposals on standards and targets, we recognise fully the need to spread best practice among the various police forces, as well as the need to expose the wide differences to which he referred in their performance. As the Home Secretary rightly points out, it is his duty to set national targets and to provide a stimulus for police forces to reach those targets. However, does the Home Secretary agree that there is a great difference between quite properly holding chief constables accountable for their performance and quite improperly seeking to micro-manage individual police forces from Whitehall?

Is there not a danger that the operation of a standards unit, allied to reserve powers held by the Home Secretary, might lead in practice and over time to chief constables coming to think of themselves as employees of the Home Office? Is there not a danger that intervention by the standards unit in the affairs of individual basic command units within a given police force may gradually undermine the operational independence of the chief constable of that force? Is there not a danger that if the independence of chief constables is undermined in practice, some future and less benign Home Secretary may be able, to some degree, to politicise the police?

Does the Home Secretary agree that these are delicate issues, which lie at the centre of the preservation of the rule of law in this country? Does he accept that the preservation of the rule of law is the single most important task of this House, and that nothing should ever be allowed to prejudice the fulfilment of that task?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that I can welcome the welcome of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for the White Paper. In any event, I will, in the hope that he did welcome it. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions, and I will answer them all.

Yes, we are tackling bureaucracy head on. We are tackling a legacy of decades of build up of codes of practice, paperwork that has been demanded and a failure to invest in technology that would allow people, from the moment they make their first notes, to be able to translate them all the way through the system.

Yes, we will carry forward the case and custody programme. I make no bones about the fact that the history of technology for Government as a whole, and for my Department in particular, has not been good. Between the Lord Chancellor's Office and my Department, we are determined to get this right. We have just appointed Jo Wright from IBM, who will be taking forward the very important task of making sure that we get this right.

Working practices and the development of a taskforce to carry forward the anti-bureaucracy drive under Sir David O'Dowd, who is stepping down as the chief inspector of constabulary, will ensure that the intention turns into reality. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not our intention to burden the police with any more unnecessary regulation.

Hiring people to pose as constables is not something that we intend to do. We are responding to the cry from the community and the police service across the country with full-time community support officers—the Metropolitan police call them auxiliaries—who can work alongside and under the direction of the police service. Secondly, the street wardens whom I saw this morning in north London are massively increasing the reassurance and confidence of a community that has seen a dramatic reduction in attempts to burgle and take away vehicles in just the two months that the wardens have been there.

Standards are of course at the heart of the matter and the hon. Gentleman is right to say so; we do not intend to take responsibility from chief constables, but rather to reinforce it. Chief constables will retain their operational freedom and I have made that clear this afternoon. To hold people to account—not to micro-manage—is no threat to anyone; someone has to hold chief constables to account and police authorities have a limited remit in relation to the budget and the developed plan. That is why we have experienced difficulties over the years. Simply to put the current rules on misconduct alongside a clarification of the rules on incapability or gross inefficiency poses no threat to anyone—nor does it in any public service, as far as I am aware.

Chief constables will retain their operational freedom; they will not be set against superintendents—or commanders, in London. The operation on the ground—the police station that people relate to and refer to—is important. Giving supers freedom to use resources more flexibly will enable them to get people back on the beat, rather than spending their time in the police station—like the 43 per cent. average that we discovered.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the rule of law is paramount, and that we must uphold it and expect our judiciary to do so. Our policing services are at the front line of that. That is why we are giving them our backing. I think that I have answered all the hon. Gentleman's questions.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to the police, to the specials and to the civilians in the police service. I also welcome without reservation many of the things that the Home Secretary said. He made a clear commitment to replace the officers lost under the previous Labour Government, and to increase them to a record number. He made a commitment to a more flexible working arrangement and career structure for the police, and to an independent police complaints commission. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my party has for a long time argued for a standing conference on policing, so we welcome the creation of the new national police forum where it can be debated in a more studied way in future. Evidently, all my colleagues welcome the fact that, next year, the police will receive the Queen's jubilee medal for their services.

May I push the Home Secretary a little further on police numbers? Does the Government's welcome commitment mean that there is a target and that by a certain date, "every community will have one"—to put it crudely—and that there will be community police officers throughout the land in urban and rural communities?

Subject to questions and clarification, we also welcome the announcement about the extended police family. Will the Home Secretary confirm the important fact that they will all always be public servants—public employees—accountable either to police authorities or local authorities? Will he confirm that they will always be counted as additional to, and not instead of, the police establishment; and that their powers—I am aware of the points made in the White Paper—will be subject to the most careful debate and consideration, so as to obtain the maximum agreement between the public, police authorities and the police in the months ahead?

I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on police accountability. There were some troubling inconsistencies in the use of the words "interference" and "intervention"—no interference but some intervention. Does the Home Secretary accept the old authoritative principle that no man can serve two masters, and will he confirm that he and the Government are absolutely committed to chief constables being answerable to their communities and their police authorities? Will he confirm that the Government have no intention of moving towards a national police force?

On priorities, we share the Home Secretary's view that average national clear-up rates are unacceptably low and that the divergencies are unacceptably wide. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the public look to the police to achieve three things: first, to deter and reduce crime; secondly, to detect crime and bring criminals to justice; and, thirdly, to respond quickly and effectively when the public call on them? Does he agree that all three must be our objectives, and that we must not concentrate only on clear-up rates to the detriment of the other two?

Mr. Blunkett

I accept the last point unequivocally, and it is one that would be shared across the parties. The target on numbers is reflected, of course, in the individual targets at force level, using as a lever the crime fighting fund, which my predecessor wisely introduced as a tool to ensure that good intentions were carried into practice. I cannot guarantee that there will be a police officer in every community for the reason that the word "community" is not precisely defined, but I take the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and all of us should seek to do so and to translate the targets that I have set for 2003 into further targets, following the review of expenditure in the 2002 spending review.

The hon. Gentleman and the shadow Home Secretary asked about chief constables. We do not intend to interfere with the role of chief constables. Their relationship with the police authority will be paramount. That must be the case, which is why I have not taken the power directly to deal with incapability or inefficiency but to direct the police authority to act.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about those who are employed as part of the wider family. Community support officers will be employed by the police service itself. Those who are not employed in that way and become the third tier, and are therefore wardens and the like, will be employed mainly by local authorities under the regeneration programmes. There will be a dual key so that their role can be activated only if the crime and disorder reduction partnership or the local authority, in the case of those who employ those people directly, agrees with the chief constable that that should be the case. We are not in the business of seeking to privatise the police, but, of course, security services work in large shopping complexes and major entertainment venues and we seek to accredit them and get them to work directly with the police, so that they are under supervision. When the security industry authority is up and running, it will enable us to do that more readily.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

May I welcome the Home Secretary's proposals in the White Paper, which, I hope, will improve the efficiency and credibility of our police? In particular, I welcome the long-awaited independent police complaints commission. Does he accept that, although the quality of our policing has improved immeasurably in recent years, we still have a long way to go? Does he agree that it is hard to justify increased resources for the police unless we get value for the already considerable sums that we spend on policing? How confident is he that the measures that he has announced today will put an end to the overtime scams, the sickness scams and the early retirement scams that tarnish the reputation of British police?

On detection rates, I am sure that the Home Secretary is aware that figures can be massaged. Will he ensure that we are comparing like with like; otherwise we shall put the most honest and transparent forces at a disadvantage?

Finally, the Home Secretary referred to setting up a cadre of specialist detectives. May I offer a warning, by mentioning the west midlands serious crime squad? Many of the serious problems in the police over the years have developed from elite squads that have become a law unto themselves. I am sure that he will want to ensure that measures are in place so that, first, those squads are accountable and, secondly, that people do not stay in them for too long and develop bad habits.

Mr. Blunkett

I take the wise words of warning from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Even those of us who were not involved in such issues at the time have engraved on our hearts the words that he uses. That is why the standards unit and the refocused work of the inspectorate will be critical in rooting out any dangers of that sort that exist, and why it is very important that the extension of the British crime survey to a sample of 40,000 individuals will ensure that we root down into command unit level, not just force level, so that we can examine in more detail the performance that my hon. Friend describes, so that we compare like with like and root out failure. I cannot guarantee—I wish I could—that all the failures and the undermining of confidence that my hon. Friend described can simply be eliminated. However, the tools and measures that we are putting in place will go a long way towards achieving that goal.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

What does the Home Secretary propose to do to end the anomalies in the funding of pensions and the perverse incentives that the police pension system gives to people to retire earlier than they would otherwise wish? Furthermore, how is what the Home Secretary has said about rooting out antisocial behaviour consistent with the pressure that the Government are putting on the courts to go soft on the young vandals who appear before them?

Mr. Blunkett

That is the first time that I have been accused of going soft on anybody or anything, and I have no intention of doing so. I intend to ensure that we take every possible measure to stop people reoffending and that we take tough action with the persistent offenders who obviously, as a result, have repeat victims. That is one of the scourges that we face. At any one time, about 100,000 people commit half the crime in this country, and the concentration on them does not mean going soft on the ones that we can deal with through the behaviour contracts and antisocial behaviour orders, which we will slim down. We will remove what I have described as the bureaucratic objections to implementing them and we will ensure that they are available more widely.

The hon. Gentleman touched on an issue that relates to value for money. Everyone in the House would like to deal with the problem that he mentioned, and I look forward to him making a contribution to me personally on what he wants to happen and on how best we can achieve it.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but if the changes do not result in our being able to tackle the nuisance and harassment that takes places on inner-city estates, the action will not be worth taking. The police currently do not have the resources to target such incidents in our communities and the victims are often too fearful to come forward to give the necessary evidence so that appropriate action can be taken. Therefore, when my right hon. Friend sets up specialist detective units or street wardens, will the people involved be trained in gathering evidence? If they become expert witnesses, we can target a problem that causes so many difficulties in our communities and which is often raised in our surgeries at the weekend.

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is right to say that properly trained and accredited individuals can play a part in becoming professional witnesses without experiencing the fear and intimidation that is present in many communities. West Lancashire has piloted a programme with the total support of the police and it has been able to provide cameras and tape recorders. It has been possible to use those eyes and ears on the ground to enable the police to take action swiftly and to get the kind of results that everyone would wish for their community.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement on police reform, and particularly the creation of an independent police complaints commission. He will know that Northern Ireland is slightly ahead on police reform because of the Patten report. It put human rights at the core of police reform in Northern Ireland. Will human rights be placed at the core of the new codes of practice?

On the award of the Queen's jubilee medal to the police service, will the Home Secretary clarify whether that extends to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Lady has me on the last point—I plead guilty to not knowing the answer. I have concentrated so much on England and Wales that I am not aware of whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made an announcement. I can assure her, however, that there is no question of discriminating against the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. I will check whether that announcement has been made and ensure, as soon as I leave the Chamber, that she is informed.

The human rights codes need to be practical and of value on the ground. We will provide the advice and the necessary safeguards for the public and the police on what can and cannot safely be done within the remit of the codes. I want to ensure that the advice in the codes puts the human rights of the victims and the community, as well as of others, at the top of the agenda.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially its emphasis on arrangements for youth crime and disorder—the No. 1 issue in many areas, including mine. What activity would trigger a standards unit intervention in a police force or a basic command unit?

Mr. Blunkett

Once the data are collected and the comparisons are made, in addition to compiling an annual plan, the force or, in the case of a BCU, the superintendent working to the chief constable will be required to produce an action plan, which will be monitored. Should there be a persistent failure either to take on board the codes of practice or to follow guidance that elsewhere had set standards showing that good practice achieves change, such as the national intelligence model, it would be up to the standards unit and the inspectorate to work first with the police authority and, in extremis, to report to the Home Secretary, who will be empowered to instruct the police authority and the chief constable to act.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

A chief constable of my acquaintance supports what the Home Secretary says about the greater use of high technology to ease the job of the police. So, when he was instructed to send out a copy of today's White Paper to every policeman under his command, he was pleased to e-mail the Home Office to say that he intended to do so using e-mail. He was surprised to receive the response that, on the Home Secretary's personal instruction, he was not allowed to do that by e-mail and had to do it by paper. Why was that?

Mr. Blunkett

It would be a damn good point if I had given a personal instruction either to the Wiltshire force or to anyone else. I am a great believer in people being able to read things easily and quickly. If forces wish to e-mail their stations and officers, they are welcome to do so.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that his statement will have the vigorous support of my constituents, especially those who suffer from the impact of under-age drinking and prostitution on the streets, and the severe impact of heroin dealing and use? Is he aware of the initiatives of Cleveland police to tackle drug dealers in a series of raids this week, followed by a commitment to take out a drug dealer a day? Will he convey his support and congratulations to the chief constable, Barry Shaw, and the chairman of the police authority, Ken Walker, on the actions that they are taking on behalf of our community?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that my hon. Friend is challenging me to say "No", but I do, of course, offer an unequivocal "Yes I will." I am pleased that those people are taking that action. There is much that we can do together, not merely to tackle the problem of those who are dealing on the streets, but to contribute to the work that is taking place to tackle the intermediate market. In the west midlands, action is being taken to tackle those who stand between international traffickers and the people causing misery in our neighbourhoods. We have a long way to go, and the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service will have a part to play with local constabularies in making that happen.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I welcome the Home Secretary's encouragement for beat policing, but is he aware that some senior officers take a contrary view and have, in effect, abolished it? That happened in my area two years ago, to much public annoyance. Is it an operational issue for the police, or something to which national standards will apply?

Mr. Blunkett

We shall provide guidance to forces on best practice. We want imaginative approaches. It is a question not of PC 49, with or without the whistle, walking the same beat every night and every day so that people get to know both when he will and when he will not be there, but of creating imaginative patrols that get people out of the station, interchanging those who are in plain clothes with those who are in uniform when that is appropriate, and ensuring that community policing means what it says.

The standards unit will concentrate on achieving best practice across the board. Without the constable in the community and the intelligence that that brings, and without the reassurance that is part of the process, we will not get the change that we need. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if a force refuses to recognise that reassurance and support for the community and community partnership is not forthcoming, we shall take the necessary steps to ensure that action is taken.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by my constituents if it means more bobbies on the beat, believing as they—and I—do in the deterrent power of a uniform. Will he assure me, however, that whoever is responsible for the expansion in numbers, whether of special constables or neighbourhood wardens, will pay particular attention to encouraging women and some of our older citizens to present themselves for those posts? Will he pay equal attention to ensuring that what we get is neighbourhood wardens, not neighbourhood vigilantes?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer to my hon. Friend's last question is an unequivocal yes. Such people will have to be accredited, and the dual key will ensure that all partners involved are in agreement. Community support officers, the new civilian programme and wardens give us an opportunity to broaden the scope of those who are encouraged to take part in policing, for example, by working on the gender agenda, as it is called, which is mentioned in the White Paper, or encouraging ethnic minorities to participate. Such posts can be the initial steps toward wanting to become fully fledged police officers. We have a great opportunity to change the nature and the make-up of the police service, as we have seen in London.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

When the Secretary of State says that the number of special constables will be "greatly accelerated", what does he mean? Will he quantify it? Will he also give us the benefit of his latest thinking on the payment of special constables?

Mr. Blunkett

Recent research into why the number of special constables fell found that, apart from many of them joining the full-time service, there were issues relating to management, recognition and the status that they were accorded. We can swiftly do something about that. In January, there will a new recruitment campaign. I am having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—I always am—on getting a package of measures that will provide greater incentives to those who give freely of their time and energy.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

My right hon. Friend should be aware that his keynote speech on police reform to the Police Superintendents Association, which signposted much of the contents of his statement and the White Paper, was warmly welcomed by every senior police officer to whom I spoke. However, does he agree that police performance standards will not rise as hoped unless the Spanish practices so beloved by the neanderthal wing of the Police Federation are ended? Senior police officers must be allowed to manage resources effectively. Never again do I want to hear of the Thames Valley police constable who presented a doctor's sick note claiming that the officer could not be expected to lift anything heavier than a kettle, or of his colleague, who was off work with a bad back but still had time to continue moonlighting as a fitness instructor.

Mr. Blunkett

Well, you only fire at an open goal when you discover that it is a hand grenade that you are kicking rather than the ball. I look forward to genuine co-operation from the Police Federation in getting rid of all the practices that give the police service a bad name, and that undermine the confidence, morale and motivation of colleagues. They have to fill the vacancies when others are not present at work. They have to do the job that somebody else should be there doing. They, like the rest of us, have to pay for those who retire early when that is inappropriate. We shall work together, including the occupational health service, to ensure that what my hon. Friend describes is never present again.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Having argued in the past from the Opposition Benches for an increase in the number of special constables, I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's proposals drastically to accelerate their numbers. However, I warn the right hon. Gentleman that he might find resistance among full-time police officers. How will he address that?

If the Home Secretary is to introduce an extended police family, what additional powers does he propose for traffic wardens? Does he agree that that might have to be handled with some sensitivity?

Will the independent police complaints commission have new members, or will it still use police officers to investigate police officers, as previously happened under the Police Complaints Board, and as still happens under the Police Complaints Authority? Will he examine the centralisation of policing, which has certainly been perceived as a problem in Leicestershire, where there are fewer but larger police stations? That is causing some concern.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman again revisit the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—PACE—which requires the use of custody officers for charging? That involves many sergeants in police station work who otherwise could be out and about catching criminals.

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, we are looking at civilianisation. A great deal can be done to ensure that a police officer is not tied down by duties that could be carried out by a properly trained and supported civilian staff member.

I think that the hon. Gentleman asked me five questions. I am wondering which one would he like me to answer.

Mr. Tredinnick

The complaints authority.

Mr. Blunkett

The authority will be able to employ its own investigation officers rather than drawing down the resources of another police service.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

My right hon. Friend has presented a huge agenda for change. Given that there has been an all-round welcome, the proof of it will be in his ability to deliver the agenda for change. I congratulate him.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many forces throughout the country, including mine in Staffordshire, want to be on the innovative end of changing work practices and working with local communities in areas of greatest need and in neighbourhood renewal areas. Is there any way in which he can give his seal of approval to the services that we want to deliver in Stoke-on-Trent?

Mr. Blunkett

We are extremely pleased that a number of areas have volunteered to be policing priority areas, which will not have rigid boundaries or be zones. In partnership with the police, and with investment through regeneration, areas of specific difficulty will be targeted. Policing priority areas will work with the police at a national and local level in bringing immediate and welcome relief to those who believed that nothing could be done and that nothing would be done. I am pleased that Stoke has volunteered to be part of that programme.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

There has been a broad welcome for the Home Secretary's statement, but there is also genuine nervousness that the independence of local police authorities should not be undermined by anything that the right hon. Gentleman has promised us. Does he accept that the proposed standards unit, which has many merits, could represent the first step on the road to a national police force? Does he agree that that would be a disappointing and unfortunate conclusion, and should not happen?

May I also gently remind him that under existing powers he was able, in effect, to sack the chief constable of Sussex by press release? I hope that, in retrospect, he accepts that that was not a sensible move and that the police authority should be allowed to deal with those matters itself.

Mr. Blunkett

I thought that it was sensible that Mr. Whitehouse resigned; I have no regrets about that. I want a system that works effectively and in which police authorities can deal with problems effectively. There is no question of centralising and nationalising the police forces of England and Wales; we are not proposing to do that. I make it clear, as I have done before, that the powers of the police authority will be exercised through the police authority.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. In particular, I thank him for responding to representations that other hon. Members and I have made about having more special constables. However, in the west midlands, we face the problem of retention. Money and recruitment have gone up but, unfortunately, we lose disproportionate numbers to neighbouring forces such as Staffordshire, Shropshire and Warwickshire. What changes does my right hon. Friend propose to effect a solution to the problem of retention?

Mr. Blunkett

I understand that there has been a problem with what might be described as seepage to other force areas. We need to work on that nationally, but we must also engage the inspectorate and others to work with the force on internal practices and consider how recruitment programmes in neighbouring forces can reduce the pressure. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) have just reassured me that they are on the case.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

I join others in welcoming much of the Home Secretary's statement, particularly the decision to award the Jubilee medal to members of the police force, which will be warmly welcomed in my constituency. A number of police officers from Carterton police station wrote to me about the issue, saying how disappointed they have been up to now. I therefore thank the Home Secretary for his announcement.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the test of his reforms will not be the standards unit, which may, or may not, clash with Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, or some of the things done at the top, but the extent to which power and responsibility is devolved to the station commander—often a chief inspector or a superintendent? Does he agree that it is essential that they should be able to empower police officers, pay more to those who are doing a good job and, on the rare occasion when police officers are not up to the job or are not suited to it, encourage them to find another profession?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely. The importance of leadership and management at that level and the exercise of sufficient flexibility will be crucial to the carrying out of that role, including ensuring that there is proper supervisory training for sergeants. The new role of beat officers will enable them to take more responsibility, including responsibility for the wider police family. All of that adds up to a delegation and decentralisation designed to meet specifically and flexibly the needs of the local neighbourhood and community.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement. How will he set up the independent police complaints commission, in which I have a particular interest, given what we have gone through with Operation Lancet in Cleveland over the past four years and what we have learned about accountability from that experience? It is important that we get accountability through the commission. Who will serve on it, and what consultation will my right hon. Friend undertake?

Mr. Blunkett

A great deal of discussion and consultation has already taken place on the IPCC. I will ensure that my hon. Friend is brought up to date on the precise stage that we have reached in making key appointments. We will ensure that we can accelerate the independence of the commission by means of the recruitment that I described a moment ago, which will break the dependence of the current complaints authority. I know that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not entering into the pain and difficulty experienced in Cleveland; in future, we want to make sure that processes are speedy and effective.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

The Home Secretary rightly drew attention to the excellent work undertaken by the neighbourhood watch movement, and reference was made to support. Will that support include financial reimbursement to the volunteer co-ordinators who undertake so much excellent work for the neighbourhood watch? Was it an oversight that in the Home Secretary's statement there was no mention of Crimestoppers and the 0800 555 111 national eyes and ears service for the public, which, as I am sure the House will agree, provides an excellent service and should be properly funded?

Mr. Blunkett

I gave neighbourhood watch as an example of a long-established and widespread organisation with—almost said tentacles—parishioners in every ward. Crimestoppers is a valuable scheme and we are working with it on long-term funding. We have just announced a third of a million pounds to ensure that it is lifted out of its immediate financial difficulty. We want to share that with others. We will speak to the crime reduction and disorder partnerships about the funding of co-ordinator posts. It has been drawn to my attention forcefully in the past six months that although police authorities have authority over such matters, its application is spasmodic across the country. We need to address that.

Mr.ChrisPond (Gravesham)

As a member of the police parliamentary scheme, I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Is he aware that although serious crime in north Kent has fallen sharply in recent years, my constituents share his frustration at the relatively low detection and conviction rates, especially for persistent young offenders? He will be aware that in Kent we are fortunate in having a progressive and effective chief constable. Perhaps my right hon. Friend has discussed some of the proposals with him, as I am looking forward to doing later this week. Is my right hon. Friend confident that that approach will be shared by all chief constables? What will he do if he finds a chief constable who stands in the way of reform and wants to prevent the raising of standards, as proposed?

Mr. Blunkett

The process described in chapter 7—go on, I shall be pompous—paragraphs 40 to 43 sets out the intervention powers to which I referred earlier, which are linked to the powers in chapter 6, paragraphs 83 to the end of the chapter. I thought that I had better memorise those during lunchtime—that was for Simon Carr of The Independent. The page numbers vary, depending whether one is reading e-mail or the print version. I shall end my reply by saying that I agree entirely with the accolades heaped on Sir David Phillips, not least because he is the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and I have to do business with him.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Is it not worrying that the fear of crime stays stubbornly high, despite falling crime figures in the recent crime survey? Are not community constables well placed to tackle that? In his quest for good practice, I invite my right hon. Friend to visit Colne Valley, where he could congratulate Chief Superintendent John Holt on having the wisdom to recruit more community police officers, and PC Ian Oxley, who has worked tirelessly to recruit special constables, especially through his work with the community and local businesses to raise the much-needed money for women special constables, who need vests fitted for them costing £500 each. Does my right hon. Friend intend to resource special constables so that they can carry on their valuable work tackling the fear of crime?

Mr. Blunkett

As I said earlier, I am very keen indeed to try to develop the role of special constables and the incentives that are provided to encourage them. I commend the examples that my hon. Friend has given. I do not remember her ever asking me a question about something that she has not insisted that I come and see for myself. Despite the depths of winter, which make Colne Valley a wonderful place to ski but not necessarily to get to, I shall do my best to do that.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. We must move on to the next business.