HC Deb 01 April 2003 vol 402 cc246-54WH 3.59 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

It is a privilege to introduce this Adjournment debate, which I do for two reasons. First, it is a development of my national interest. I am not a Front-Bench spokesman on Home Office matters, but I have an interest in policing, and I have the honour of chairing the all-party police group.

The second reason is local. There are major concerns in my area, as in many others, about law and order matters. A couple of weeks ago, my local police community consultative group organised a public meeting—in a hall that, at a pinch, was capable of holding 400 to 500 people—on policing, antisocial behaviour and law and order in an area called Hampton. In the event, well over 1,000 people turned up. With some difficulty—on health and safety grounds—the meeting proceeded, but we are now having to hold the meeting in shifts. There were special circumstances, not least of which was that we had just had the terrible experience in that area of the Marsha McDonnell murder. None the less, the meeting reflected an undercurrent of concern about street crime, antisocial behaviour and the lack of a police presence.

I acknowledge—this is general background—that the Government, the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly have responded to concern about police numbers. Those numbers are starting to grow after a decade or more of decline, but I shall focus not simply on numbers but on quality and age profile. The problem in many parts of the country, and certainly in the south-east, is that a serious imbalance is emerging in the police force. That was well captured in a headline in the Evening Standard a few weeks ago: "Crisis as bobbies on the beat really get younger".

The position in many suburban areas in London, such as the one that I represent, is that 60 per cent. or more of all officers on front-line duties are probationers—raw recruits. In some suburbs in outer London, such as in Surrey, the figure reaches 75 per cent. Of course any officers at all—any people who are visible to the public—are welcome, but there are obviously inherent disadvantages in having probationary officers. They lack experience, inevitably make mistakes and perhaps do not inspire the same respect in local young people. Probationary officers are also inherently limited in the amount of face contact that they have with the public. In their first year, they spend 70 per cent. of their time at college; the figure is 40 per cent. in the second year.

An excessive dependence on probationers and raw recruits in the front line of the police service is unsatisfactory in itself. Moreover, the problem will almost certainly get much worse, for two reasons. First, the police force is being pulled in two directions. There are perfectly legitimate pressures to expand it. The ambition is to raise numbers in London from 28,000 to 35,000. That is absolutely right, but it will require an enormous effort in recruitment. Secondly, we are at the same time approaching what the police call the blue bulge. The cohort of officers who were recruited in the mid-1970s on the back of the Edmund-Davies report and more attractive police conditions are coming up to 30 years' service. Because of the limitations of the police pension scheme, which, as the Minister knows, is very restrictive—it prevents pension entitlements from being accumulated beyond a 30-year period—almost all those officers opt to retire.

As I said, the police force is being pulled in two directions. On one hand, there is the pressure for more recruitment; on the other, there is the loss of large numbers of experienced officers. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, among others, has described that as a very worrying situation. It is worrying for several reasons. First, the large-scale loss of experienced police officers once they reach 50 or 51 affects numbers—it will be difficult to meet the numbers objectives if large numbers of such officers leave the police force next year and the year after, the peak years of the bulge.

Secondly, the dilution of experience has serious effects. Increasingly, there are reports of the quality of police detection work and the presentation of material to the Crown Prosecution Service being diluted and weakened by the lack of experience in the ranks of police officers and the imbalance in the age structure. In addition, there is simply a waste of human resources.

Some 50-year-old police officers get sick. They get worn out and simply want to retire. One does not want them to feel that they have to continue working. Many others have a lot of potential. They are fully fit, fully active and want to continue working. Their resources are largely being wasted at the moment. Many of them, as the Minister will know, go into dead-end jobs with security companies and are not being properly utilised. How do we ensure that the resource represented by retiring police officers is fully utilised? There are two solutions. The Government recognise that, and I want to talk those two options through with the Minister and perhaps get some feedback from him.

The first option, which the Government are currently exploring, is to encourage retiring police officers to remain on an ad hoc basis. Several police forces, including the Metropolitan police, have opted to carry out a pilot scheme, subject to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis agreeing to extend contracts on a year-by-year basis. I do not know whether the scheme is working well. Perhaps the Minister could tell us either today or in a written statement how many officers are being kept through this route, breaking that down by police force. That information would be helpful.

The second route, which I want to explore in more detail and promote to the Minister, is to recruit on a systematic basis and on quite a large scale from the pool of officers who are retiring or have retired. There are currently 20,000 retired police officers in the 50 to 55 age group. Companies are already being established. I have no particular brief for any of them, but I have met and been briefed by RIG Police Recruit Ltd, which is one of the leaders in the field. It has already accumulated a database of more than 500 officers who are ready and available to work in the police. Some of them already are doing so in Thames Valley and Surrey. That is probably just the tip of an iceberg. It represents the beginning of a potentially large process if the Government and individual police forces can grasp the opportunity.

What would these officers do? Clearly they are not in the same position as full-time career officers, including those who have stayed on. If we looked at this imaginatively, we would see that there are many ways to exploit the tremendous resource represented by these retired officers who wish to work. There has been an unprecedented interest in police reform over the last few years following the publication of the Government's paper "Policing a New Century". We have experiments in expanding the police family, all of which I welcome. This is an aspect of the experiments that has not yet been fully explored. There are various things that these retiring or re-recruited police officers could do that are not currently being done.

The first involves recruitment on contract in order to carry out short-term assignments. Very often a police force is suddenly confronted with a major emergency. A classic example would be the terrorist threats surrounding Heathrow, the Soham inquiry in Cambridgeshire or the Marsha McDonnell murder in my constituency. In each of those cases, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of officers are recruited to work on a highly focused assignment. As a consequence, they are pulled out of other work, which the police themselves describe as overstretch. Normal police work is, in effect, undermined by it. Were there a pool of short-term contract officers available—experienced officers coming back into the force on a contract basis for so many weeks or months—those gaps could be filled and the problem of overstretch dealt with.

Those officers could also undertake part-time work. It has always been assumed that police officers will do a full-time job, but there is no inherent reason why they should not work part-time. There are times of peak demand, late evening on a Saturday being the most obvious, for which it should be possible to build up a cadre of part-time officers. There are certain activities that those officers would be ideally placed and qualified to undertake, which, I suspect, are not currently being properly performed. For example, there is a major demand for what are called in the trade "investigative officers". They work in the background on major inquiries. If there is a murder or disappearance, hundreds of officers have to be employed to knock on thousands of doors. Those background officers I have described would be ideally qualified to do much of that routine investigative work.

Post-arrest research is often very detailed, painstaking and labour intensive, but it is fundamental to the success of prosecutions. Again, officers of that background are ideally qualified to do that. Such officers could also work in the forensic service or in CID, or they could work with youth. It is an obvious point that young people will not accord a 20 or 21-year-old recruit the same degree of respect and deference that they would give to a 50-year-old officer with a grown-up family who has been through parenting. That is a simple, human point. If police of that age group and background were used in such a role, they would be so much more effective. I am not a police officer—that is not my background—but I know that there are all those roles available. I ask the Minister to consider carrying out an independent study to evaluate what roles might usefully be performed by re-recruited officers. There is clearly a supply and a need, but we must pinpoint more specifically and accurately where the demand lies.

Why does it appear to be so difficult to get that process moving, given that there is clearly an interest in Government in police reform and that so much is now beginning to happen? Why is this particular initiative proving so difficult to get off the ground? For example, why does the crime fighting fund, a body of funding available to chief police officers to meet their needs, specifically exclude such re-recruited officers working on contract? It is not obvious to me why that is so. Perhaps the Government are afraid that it is a relatively expensive source of manpower, but I am assured by people who work in the business that the hourly rate, and the hourly cost to the police force, is exactly the same. Can we have an evaluation of that?

Will the Minister address some specific issues? First, can he give us an evaluation of the efforts currently being made to encourage officers to stay on in the force beyond retirement age? How well is that succeeding and what is the regional breakdown? Secondly, can he suggest whether it might be possible to undertake a proper, independent study of how the vast resource of retired and retiring police officers could be put to the most effective use? Perhaps that has already been done; it certainly should be. Thirdly, can he tell us what the bottlenecks are on the Government's side? There might be funding or technical issues of which I am not aware, which are holding the Government back from utilising the crime fighting fund and other resources.

4.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Wills)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate and on the cogent and compelling way in which he has outlined his arguments. He has rightly identified an important issue for not only the Home Office but the entire Government. He gave a compelling example from his own constituency of the importance that people attach to such issues. It is important that we respond to them effectively.

Before I deal with the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I should place the debate in context by pointing out that police forces throughout the country are recruiting very successfully at the moment. He recognised that in his remarks. We are delivering on our promise to put more police officers on the streets, and we are ahead of schedule on our targets. Last week, we announced record police numbers, together with more than 1,200 community support officers. These numbers are proof of our commitment to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. We promised that there would be 130,000 police officers by March of this year, and by 30 September 2002—six months ahead of schedule—there were 131,548. That is 1,548 officers above the target. In the 12 months to September 2002 strength increased by 4,337, which is the largest increase for 27 years.

The crime fighting fund has already delivered 9,000 new police recruits over and above those that the service had planned to appoint over the past three years. The scheme will continue for a further three years. In 2003–04, the crime fighting fund will support the further growth of about 650 police officers. We have decisively reversed the decline in police numbers, and we expect to see that growth continue this year. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has set a target of 132,500 officers in 2004, and the present numbers show that we are well on the way to achieving that.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, there is far more to improving the effectiveness of the police force than simply boosting the number of recruits, important though that is. Before I turn to the specific points that he made, I should say that it is also important that the police officers we do have spend their time effectively. We must get far more of them out of the station and on to the streets. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the work that is being done under the bureaucracy taskforce, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). He is, sadly, no longer the Minister with responsibilities for the police, but I wish to pay tribute to his admirable work in that area. The taskforce was chaired by Sir David O'Dowd, and it is now well under way to being implemented throughout the country.

The need to retain more officers was rightly identified, and I want now to deal with the specific points that were made on that matter. It was pointed out that the police pension, good though it is, can act as a clog to retaining experienced officers. Many of them want to continue working, and they have a great deal to contribute beyond the time when it is in their financial interest to take the pension. We have introduced, as I think the hon. Gentleman is aware, the 30-plus scheme to encourage the retention of officers beyond the 30-year point at which they can retire with an immediate pension of two thirds of their final pensionable salary.

I wish to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date on the scheme. After the police negotiating board agreement of May last year, which included outline provisions for arrangements to retain officers beyond 30 years, the board agreed the details of the present 30-plus scheme in December. The main feature of the scheme is that it enables officers to retire in the normal way so that they can have the benefit of a tax-free lump sum and then rejoin the force if management considers them suitable for further service. Re-engagement is at the officer's former rank and pay. Once the officer is back in service, his or her pension is subject to abatement so that he or she will not receive a full police pension on top of a police salary. However, the scheme allows for sufficient pension to be paid in order to make up for any replacement allowances that are lost on retirement.

We hope that the scheme will be attractive to many officers who want to come back in this way. As pensioners, those participants in the 30-plus scheme cannot rejoin the police pension scheme. However, they could purchase additional benefits by taking out a personal pension. Participants will also be eligible for special priority payments of up to £5,000 on the same basis as other officers. If it is on top of their pay scale, they are eligible for a competence-related threshold payment of £1,000 a year. The aim of the scheme is to retain those officers who would otherwise be lost to the service through retirement. In order to measure the effectiveness of the scheme, and it is important that we evaluate it as it progresses, we are piloting it in two phases before we give the final go-ahead to a nationwide launch. As luck would have it, phase 1 finished yesterday, and I am pleased to announce the launch of phase 2 today, so it is a timely debate.

Eight forces participated in phase 1: the Metropolitan police and the Avon and Somerset, Hertfordshire, North Wales, Surrey, Thames Valley, West Mercia and West Midlands forces. Phase 1 commenced in December 2002. The pilots were not given central funding, and were primarily designed to test the level of interest and take-up among officers. A relatively short time was available, and the number of officers re-engaged was not large, because many of those currently retiring had already made other plans. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, people often plan for their retirement many years in advance and make arrangements with their families, so one would not necessarily expect a high take-up in the early stages.

What is encouraging for the forces taking part is the level of interest among officers approaching the 30-year mark. Although only about 20 officers were re-engaged during phase 1, the indications are that it is worth proceeding with phase 2. We hope to see a higher take-up as the scheme is tested further.

The phase 2 pilots will be run on a wider basis from now until 31 March 2004. We have written to all 15 forces that expressed an interest in phase 2, inviting them to participate. We will use phase 2 to assess the scheme in more detail, to discover whether it attracts the right calibre of officer, whether the retained officers are put to good operational use, and whether, as far as it is possible to tell, the participants would have left the service but for the scheme.

Subject to final confirmation, phase 2 will operate on the same unfunded basis as phase 1, but most of the forces applying have indicated that they would be prepared to participate in the pilot without central funding assistance. One benefit of phase 1 is that it has confirmed to the participating forces that the 30-plus scheme is virtually cost neutral.

The hon. Gentleman made some interesting suggestions, so he is obviously aware that the scheme is not the only answer to the problem of retention. We need to look more widely when trying to encourage officers to stay on, but the scheme promises to be a useful measure in helping management to tackle one aspect of wastage from the police service. If the phase 2 pilots are successful, as I hope and expect them to be, we aim to have the 30-plus scheme rolled out nationally in 2005–06.

I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman a reasonable assessment of the state of play on the scheme, but that is not all that we and the Association of Chief Police Officers have been doing. He asked what role officers coming back in this way might play. In the course of establishing the forces' interest in the proposal, ACPO has identified a number of possible roles for retired officers—a study that the hon. Gentleman suggested should be done.

I shall list some of the categories that have been identified so far; indeed, the hon. Gentleman has already referred to some of them. They include working as investigative assistants, inquiry officers or scene guards; being a part of house-to-house inquiry teams; acting as statement takers or homes indexers; working in major incident rooms or in casualty bureaux; evaluating DNA hits, operating central switchboards or working control rooms; acting as drivers or assessors of recruits; working in data management; and acting as exhibits officers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that such officers would have a wide range of opportunities from which to choose. How individual officers should be deployed will obviously be a management or operational matter, but I hope that he is reassured by the fact that such identification has already taken place and will continue.

That is not all that we have done. I referred earlier to the bureaucracy taskforce, chaired by Sir David O'Dowd, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and driven forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen.

Among many other recommendations in its report, the taskforce explicitly recognised the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman about the amount of valuable experience that is currently lost when a police officer retires, although that is not always the case. As he said, we do not want police officers who have done 30 years of valuable service to stay on against their wishes. However, we must recognise, as he does, that many of them have much to contribute and want to continue doing so. The taskforce considered that they represented a significant resource that should be exploited. It noted especially the potential for developing the use of databases for retired officers and the advantages in being able to call upon such a resource. The examples to which the hon. Gentleman referred of incidents such as the terrible murder that took place in his constituency and a range of other events show how valuable such a database could be.

Some databases already exist at a local level and they are used to provide the police service—often at short notice or in the short term—with access to retired police officers possessing particular skills to help to meet unusual demands. The taskforce specifically recommended the establishment of a national database of retired officers. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary accepted the recommendation and we are currently working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers to make progress on it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to commercial organisations that are already involved in the work, and a number of such organisations already supply individual forces with retired officers through local arrangements. They may be interested in extending the scope of the service that they provide to a national level.

ACPO found that many forces already employ retired officers in a variety of ways—I have mentioned some of their roles—some through their own networks; others employ commercial organisations for that purpose. Usually, officers are employed among full-time civilian support staff but there is a range of other opportunities that are already being taken up: they are employed on casual, temporary contracts in circumstances when, for example, there is no time to employ new members of staff or where that would not be appropriate because the job will be of limited duration. The identification of such roles is an evolving process and we expect it to continue to develop over time. Policing is a skill and an evolving science and we expect the identification of such roles to develop along with it.

Many police officers retire happily and have no wish to return. However, if they want to come back we must ensure that mechanisms are in place to allow them to do so. One key blockage has been the particular nature of the pension. Pensions are often inflexible, not only in the police force but in many other occupations. The work that we have already done has introduced a new level of flexibility. As I said, we are at an early stage in piloting the scheme—


The Minister has given a helpful and comprehensive reply. Before he sits down, however, will he address the specific issue of why the crime fighting fund cannot be used to facilitate recruitment of the type that he described?


We are at too early a stage for the process to take place. We are turning round policing after many years of decline, as the hon. Gentleman said. Investment is coming through and we must ensure that the crime fighting fund is used properly. Unfortunately, matters progress relatively slowly, because we must make sure that we get things right. I understand his frustration. However, the early signs are that the scheme will be successful and that it will be rolled out nationally. We must then consider the most appropriate way to fund it.

We are committed to funding police forces so that they can maintain adequate levels of recruitment and retention.

The hon. Gentleman need not worry that the funding will not be there if there is a need for it. We must ensure that there is an appropriate case for that funding. The early signs are what he would have expected and hoped for: there is a case for the scheme to continue but we have to make sure that there is a demand for it and that it is the most appropriate use of the funding. We are not ruling anything out at present but we must be certain that there is a case to be made for it.

We must take into account not only the pension but the other things that need to be done, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel reassured that we have taken steps to address those needs. I assure him that if further need for action is identified in future, we will take it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.