HC Deb 11 March 2002 vol 381 cc621-4
2. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

What representations he has received from police officers about his proposed reforms to pay, pensions and conditions. [38874]

4. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

What discussions he has had with the Police Federation since the results of its ballot on the proposed new terms and conditions for federated ranks. [38876]

5. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

What recent representations he has received about police conditions of service. [38877]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

Other Ministers and I have made numerous visits to, and undertaken consultation meetings with, representatives of the police service and members of the public around the country. Discussions that have taken place since the Police Federation ballot, both through the negotiating board and directly with myself and other Ministers, have been extremely cordial and fruitful.

In addition, I have received many letters from police officers and from the public. The public naturally place emphasis on reducing variations in service, ensuring a reliable and reassuring policing presence, and achieving a massive reduction in street robbery, crime and antisocial behaviour. Our reforms are designed to achieve those goals.

Mr. Osborne

The fact is that rank and file police officers rejected the Home Secretary's reform proposals by a majority of 10 to one. In my local police force in Cheshire, 86 per cent. of officers voted against them. That is hardly surprising, given that Ministers go around treating the police as heroes one moment and wreckers the next. Instead of blaming the Police Federation for the outcome of the ballot, should not he work with police officers, listen to their genuine concerns, and produce some better proposals?

Mr. Blunkett

There is a history of Opposition parties taking advantage of the efforts of Governments of both persuasions to bring about radical reform. Previous Home Secretaries bear the scars—internally, if not externally—to verify that fact. Those who do not like what we are doing—whether the Police Federation, the leadership of the police service or Opposition parties—have an obligation to say what they would do.

We shall seek a way forward precisely for the reasons that I spelled out a moment ago. This is not about an old-fashioned confrontation between trade unions and the Government, but about reform to bring a decent police service to the public whom we serve. The judge and jury of our success will be the men and women who face robbery on our streets and fear leaving their houses, not Opposition Members making knockabout points in the House about why we are not backing the Police Federation.

Mr. Lansley

Does the Home Secretary understand that police officers hearing what he has said today will be sorry that he has not expressed some sense of regret for the intemperate and derogatory nature of his remarks about the police, which contributed to the ballot result? Will he now express that regret, and say that he is willing to enter the current conciliation without preconditions on key issues such as overtime and priority payments?

Mr. Blunkett

How the Opposition have turned. What a reversal of roles. What an interesting backing of the trade unions against the people we are seeing this afternoon. Let me make my position absolutely clear. I have met representatives of the Police Federation since the ballot, and indicated to them and to the staff side that, of course, we are prepared to go into the conciliation with the intention of finding a solution, otherwise I would not have suggested going to conciliation in the first place. I also want to refute the hon. Gentleman's allegation that I have somehow used detrimental language against the police force. If he can find a single quote in my name, or an interview on radio or television, of course I will agree with him that I should withdraw. [Interruption.] Someone has just shouted out "Spanish practices". My cousin has lived in Spain for the last 35 years. I would never be able to visit her again if I had used the term "Spanish practices".

Mr. Clappison

May I give the Home Secretary an opportunity to use some positive language? Will he give sympathetic consideration to the letter that he has received from the chief constable of Hertfordshire about the severe difficulties that that force is experiencing in recruiting and retaining officers? Will the Home Secretary take into account the fact that the Hertfordshire force is now under strength by 290 officers, and that, in many cases, it is competing for recruits with the Metropolitan force, which offers an extra £4,000 in allowances and free travel? Will he give the otherwise excellent Hertfordshire force the help that it needs to put the officers on the streets to fight crime, which is what my constituents want?

Mr. Blunkett

We might have some degree of agreement here, because there is a genuine problem in Hertfordshire and the other counties that find themselves just outside the ring, in terns of the substantial enhancement that all sides sought, to ensure that recruitment could be increased in the Metropolitan police force by 1,100-plus over the last 12 months. However, it is precisely to be able to target resources, and to be able to reward those at the sharp end on top of the normal pay round—which is not until September—that we have embarked on the reform agenda. I hope that all hon. Members will, therefore, back that agenda in putting money and incentive into the pay packet and the jobs of those police officers outside the Met area who do not receive the same level of additional payments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this action is 18 years too late? It should have been taken in 1984, when all those police, acting according to Mrs. Thatcher—who was Prime Minister at the time—were sent to every coalfield to allow the scabs to get into the pits. The net result was that they did not care about their own pay then. I have a proposition to make: I have a gang of ex-miners who will sit on the national reference tribunal to settle this issue.

Mr. Blunkett

I am almost inclined to take up my hon. Friend's generous offer. On a slightly more serious note, I live in Sheffield, half a mile away from Orgreave, and I am well aware of the situation. That is why I scratched my head when I saw a BBC film—which was shown as the introduction to "On the Record" yesterday, and produced by somebody called Grossman, I think—which tried to suggest that the police reform agenda was tantamount to using the police in the way in which they had been used at Orgreave in 1984–85. I have to say that when those in short trousers make these films, they can have no clue whatsoever about the history they are dealing with, and it would be better if they got themselves another job.

Mr. David Miliband (South Shields)

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that I am not wearing short trousers? Does he agree that the key to reform lies not in books of theory, but in what is happening on the ground? He will know that in Northumbria the detection rate has risen by about one third in the past seven years, and that each and every one of the 60 extra police officers who are being assigned to south Tyneside will be community beat managers working on the street, tackling local problems. Will my right hon. Friend consider convening a seminar of chief constables from around the country so that they can learn from the Northumbria experience?

Mr. Blunkett

I am deeply relieved by my hon. Friend's reassurance at the beginning of his question. I will not carry out an examination in person. His force is one of the best in Britain. It is at command unit level and it is well led. I have every intention of calling together those both at chief constable and at command unit level to share experience and to spread that experience, so that the kind of improvements that my hon. Friend outlined can be the experience of everyone, everywhere in the country.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

Is it not the case that the Police Federation's figures show that almost two thirds of the officers who rejected the proposals did so on the basis of overtime, not because of the wider issues that have been raised by the Opposition? Are not the real issues the need to get more police officers on the beat, deal with the variation in performance and improve standards, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband)? The performance in my operation command unit is very good, but were it to come up to the best in the country, the constituents in Dudley, North would be extremely pleased.

Mr. Blunkett

I entirely agree. That is what the reform agenda is about. I welcome the advertisement placed today by the Police Federation, as it indicates that the Police Federation is prepared to support and give backing to the vast majority of the reform agenda. If we can find a way forward, not simply by capitulating on the level of overtime, thereby bringing about a substantial mismanagement of resources, but by managing overtime down without putting fear and apprehension into officers who have been misled about our proposals, we will seek to do so.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Contrary to the Home Secretary's earlier assertions, the Opposition stand four-square behind the need for a more modern and flexible system of pay and conditions for the police service, whatever he might like to think. However, we do not stand four-square behind a hectoring and bullying style which has caused so much demoralisation and led to the spectacular defeat of the Home Secretary in the ballot. Will he confirm to us—or, indeed, deny—the reports over the weekend that he will at last accept the view of all levels of the police service, plus the Opposition, plus the majority of the other place, and drop his proposals for centralised powers of control over the police in clauses 5 and 7 of the Police Reform Bill?

Mr. Blunkett

First, I am not seeking centralised control. I am not seeking operational control at any level, and it is a simple lie by those who have said the opposite. Secondly, I do not expect—I say this to the shadow Home Secretary—any member of his party to ask the Home Secretary to take responsibility for the level and quality of policing in this country, unless the Home Secretary has the power as well as the responsibility to do something about it. In the words of The Daily Telegraph leader a week last Saturday, I should simply eulogise or appeal to people to change. I am afraid that the electorate expects something better than that. It expects us to work with the police service, retaining its operational responsibility but ensuring that if we are to answer to Parliament and to the electorate, we have some means—some levers—to deal with the variation and improve the delivery of police services everywhere in the country.

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