HC Deb 05 February 2001 vol 362 cc654-7
8. Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

What measures he has taken to reduce and remove unnecessary administrative burdens on the police service and to ensure that police officers spend more time on operational duties. [147094]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

We are implementing proposals from the recent report entitled "Making a Difference: Reducing Police Paperwork" and, last November, we issued police forces in England and Wales with a revised manual of guidance for the preparation, processing and submission of files. That will reduce considerably the number of forms that officers have to complete when they pass cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. We are also investing in a wide range of new communications technology to minimise the paperwork that officers are required to process.

Ms Kelly

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he assure me that he will continue to move resources from bureaucracy to front-line officers? My constituents in Bolton, West, whose communities are being scarred by a very small minority of young hooligans, feel strongly that more bobbies on the beat are needed to crack down on yobbish behaviour.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely right. May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Bolton Evening News and Labour Members for Bolton, who have campaigned energetically on precisely the points that she has raised?

A series of factors contributes to more bobbies on the beat. One is the number of police themselves; the second is operational levels; the third is the proper use of technology; the fourth is a more effective criminal justice system than the current one to ensure that police officers are not constantly obstructed in a wasteful way; and the fifth is effective partnerships between the police and other social institutions such as local authorities. The measures that we have already put in place and which we are introducing in current legislation will make an impact on the issues that my hon. Friend, her constituents and local newspaper have forcefully raised.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Does the Minister realise that front-line officers in my constituency welcome the reopening of the East Molesey police station, soon to be followed by Cobham police station, by volunteers? Last week, in a written answer, he gave me a bland reply in relation to support for volunteers. At the Dispatch Box, will he stiffen his sinews and say that the Government not only welcome volunteers, but will find extra ways to provide modest resources to them, so that they can continue to give confidence to the communities in which they work and continue to get the police out on the beat?

Mr. Clarke

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks and apologise if my earlier reply was bland. That was certainly not my intention. I investigated that matter soon after I took up the post of Minister. One of the things that surprised me was the wide range of volunteering initiatives in different forces throughout the country, which are treated extremely positively both by the police and by the communities that they serve. We are positively looking at ways of extending such initiatives. I am happy to confirm that that is one of the issues that we are addressing with the police in relation to measures to increase visibility and to reassure communities. Those initiatives can be set up in both isolated and non-isolated communities and are often constructive.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My hon. Friend will know that the Pennine division in the Lancashire force and indeed the Lancashire force as a whole have effectively ensured that the police are out on the beat doing the job and are doing less administration work. They have made excellent progress, but does he agree that one other concern is that far too much police time is taken up attending court merely for the deferment of a case?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Some of the changes that we have already put in place—for example, the Narey changes—are already helping, but much more needs to be done. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Lord Justice Robin Auld to conduct a review of the whole criminal justice process. The inefficiencies that hit police also hit many other parts of the community. Substantial reforms are needed.

A good range of evidence has been presented to the review. I hope that, when the report is published in a month or so, we will have an agenda on which we can make progress. The changes for which my hon. Friend is looking will have the impact of increasing the police presence locally, which I am sure the whole House would welcome.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) is absolutely right when she talks about bobbies on the beat. Time and again, my own constituents in Macclesfield talk to me about the need for police to be visible in the community. Does the Minister—who has given very rational and responsible replies to the initial question and to the supplementary ones—accept that police officers on the beat in the community, building relationships, can genuinely lead not only to a reduction in crime, but to greater information for the police force so that it can prevent crime?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. I should like to add just one measure to the list of those that I think are important to improving the situation. Recently, new guidance has been issued on tenure for police officers, which has ensured a less rapid turnaround of community officers. That rapid turnaround had made it necessary, every couple of years or so, for new community officers to renew relationships, which was a very time-consuming process.

It is precisely the type of personal relationship that the hon. Gentleman has described which has made the difference in many communities across the country, as individual community beat officers have thrown their own energy into building relationships with, for example, housing organisations, schools and doctors. We want to do everything that we can to encourage that.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on recognising the particular needs of rural police forces, such as North Yorkshire, in maintaining contact with the public. May I invite him to make an early visit to the experimental police station in the East division in my constituency, which is focusing particularly on making that contact with rural constituents and ensuring that law and order is ever-present in rural areas such as mine?

Mr. Clarke

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I should also like to take up that invitation when next I am able to do so. I was delighted that, only a couple of weeks ago, on 26 January, the North Yorkshire police force chief constable and the chairman of the police authority announced: North Yorkshire will have more police officers than ever before"— I stress "than ever before"— with the proposed increase in strength taking the force to 1,420 officers by March 2002. That was an historic announcement, and I know that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) will welcome it just as much as my hon. Friend does.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

But is not the Minister aware that matters are getting worse, not better? Has he heard of the comments of the chief constable of Lincolnshire, who talks of his force being in danger of sinking under a sea of targets and measures"? Is the Minister aware of the comments of Chief Inspector Ray Shepherd, of West Yorkshire police, who asked: Is Charles Clarke, the Home Office Minister, being fed so much nonsense that he isn't aware that police officers nowadays have far more paperwork to complete than before? Does not that help to explain the 60 per cent. increase in voluntary resignations from the police since 1997? Does not it help to explain the one-third fall in the number of specials? Is not it wrong to be putting police officers on to tasks of counting, measuring and filling in returns when we want those officers out there doing the job? Does not that explain why the Prime Minister will not debate the Leader of the Opposition on those matters?

Mr. Clarke

I meet the chief constable of Lincolnshire very often; he is a member of the national crime reduction taskforce which I chair. He is not an unhappy man, but a very happy one, and I hope to see him later in the week. The hon. Gentleman can be as rhetorical as he likes, but the facts are that crime levels are falling, as they have been doing throughout this Parliament; police numbers are increasing, for the first time since 1993; police morale is increasing, contrary to what he has to say; and the various measures that we have implemented to deal with particular aspects of crime, both nationally and in specific geographical localities, are improving the situation. I do not hide the fact that there is a great deal still to be done—that is certainly the truth—but we are doing extremely well, and shall continue to do so.