HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc22-30WH

11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

I rise to introduce a serious debate on a matter of great concern to many Members of Parliament. Perhaps I may break with tradition by acknowledging the presence in the Gallery of Mrs. Tracy Walker, the widow of PC Ged Walker. No amount of debates, Acts of Parliament, meetings with party leaders or anything else can achieve what we would all wish for—turning back the clock on the events that have taken place—but I hope that Mrs. Walker sees today that Parliament takes her tragedy very seriously indeed.

I would also like to put on record Parliament's tribute to PC Ged Walker. He made the ultimate sacrifice in losing his life—as so many of his colleagues are prepared to do, today and in the future—to maintain law and order and to ensure that our streets are safe. There are many lessons to be learned and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), Mr. and Mrs. Walker's Member of Parliament, is here today. He has, on behalf of Mrs. Walker, been foremost among those pressing the case repeatedly and I know that he will continue to be so. Although my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) can be here only to pay their respects, their presence is a measure of the importance that this debate has for us in Nottinghamshire. Other colleagues have also expressed their support for the holding of the debate, which I have been lucky enough to introduce.

PC Gerald Walker should be alive today. He was killed in my constituency in January last year while trying to stop David Parfitt, a drug user and convicted robber, driving off in a stolen taxi. PC Walker suffered head injuries after being dragged along by the speeding car and he died in hospital. Parfitt was out of prison on an early release scheme. As he had breached his release licence more than three months earlier, he should have been back behind bars.

The inspector of probation, Rod Morgan, was asked to inquire into the tragedy. Indeed, I am pleased to note the presence of the director general of the probation service, which, again, underlines the importance of the case. Professor Morgan reported back around four weeks ago with a series of recommendations, and he is certainly right to highlight the need for cleaner and swifter co-ordination between prisons, probation and police. I gather that the Home Office, local police and probation officers have all welcomed and accepted his key recommendations, but we must go further to tackle the immediate and the more deep-rooted problems that this tragic case has revealed.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab)

Before my hon. Friend moves on to the more general issues, perhaps he will say how Mrs. Walker and the public can be confident that the promised reforms, which were requested or demanded in the report, will be implemented. Does he agree that the probation service needs to ensure that its staff are fully trained in respect of the new regulations? Is it not essential that an explicit review of progress be conducted to ensure that such commitments are being met? Is it not also vital that the probation service receive adequate funding to discharge its responsibilities?

Mr. Allen

I agree very much with all the points that my hon. Friend makes. I should say again how assiduous he has been in pursuing all aspects of the case, and I suspect that his assiduity and that of fellow Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament will not diminish as the months go by. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that the lessons are learned. I know that my hon. Friend and I will pursue that aspect of the case, and I am sure that my other hon. Friends from Nottinghamshire will do so as well.

In addition, I look forward to the Minister's winding-up remarks. I am sure that she too is keen to ensure that the report does not gather dust and that the recommendations made will be followed through. I think she knows us all well enough to know that we will continue to chase this up and aim to ensure that the recommendations are implemented so that the lessons can be learned.

One of the immediate lessons that we need to consider from the case is this: when a prisoner's licence for temporary release is breached, as when Parfitt tested positive for cocaine use, the offender should be returned to prison immediately. I know that there are difficulties with that and that it would not be easy. None the less, the person being tested should be required to wait in the testing area—the office, centre or whatever—until the results come through. As I understand it, a straightforward swab test is involved and the results can be delivered very quickly. An immediate decision could then be made, perhaps on the authority of an assistant chief probation officer, either to release that person back on licence or to ensure that that person is taken back to prison immediately. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw nodding, and we all know that he has great experience and expertise in this area.

All would benefit from the certainty and immediacy of such a procedure. It would also help to reduce the horrendous work load and bureaucracy referred to in the Morgan report. That is clearly one reason for probation officers labouring under an immense burden about which we can only sympathise. They are trying to clear up all that paper and some clarity on the issue would help everyone.

Dr. Palmer

I want to put it on the record that Mrs. Walker and a number of PC Walker's colleagues are frustrated by what they see as the elusive nature of the responsibility for what happened. It needs to be accepted clearly that this is not just a question of excessive work load. Specific mistakes were made by specific people.

Mr. Allen

I am confident that that is the case, and I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks. Perhaps one or two suggestions that I shall make later will address some of those points specifically.

If the person who is in breach is not on the premises, the police should be told immediately by the probation officer responsible, informing a named police officer who would be responsible for the service, and an arrest should be made without delay by local officers familiar with the offender. The probation service and the Prison Service should perhaps pilot the employment of enforcement teams to return those who breach their release conditions, thereby creating a unified service less prone to the communication breakdown identified in PC Walker's case. An alternative might be seconded police officers who are dedicated to enforcement and detention when a breach occurs.

There are a large number of specifics, which I am sure the Minister will address in her winding-up speech. I am very pleased that we have this Minister, with her expertise in drug testing and enforcement, here to respond to the debate.

The lessons go far beyond the immediate responsibilities for the bureaucratic practices and poor interfaces revealed by the Morgan report. The Government, Parliament and the judiciary need to look at themselves if another such tragedy and a thousand smaller ones like those that happen every day and never come to public attention are to be avoided. For example, I have written to the National Criminal Justice Board asking it to address the deceit that still passes for sentencing policy. I have yet to receive a reply, so I look forward to receiving one without too much further delay.

Sentences should be honest and comprehensible, not only to criminal justice professionals, but to victims, witnesses and taxpayers. When judges give a one-year prison sentence, plus one year out on licence, they should not announce it as a two-year sentence, as happened in the Parfitt case. That practice, which is often abetted by sloppy media reporting, diminishes public confidence in the criminal justice system and it should be addressed by the new Sentencing Guidelines Council, the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We must bring back public confidence in sentencing. This is not a plea for heavier or harder sentences; it is just a plea to be honest with the public about what sentences mean. People should not need a legal dictionary to understand what a judge is saying when sentencing an offender.

In addition, the Government, at the highest level, must review the wholesale retreat of public service provision from the front line, especially in the outer-city estates. A rethink is needed on the policy of short-term savings, which result in a massive economic and social cost. The drive to pay state benefits directly to individuals is leading to the closure of post offices, which removes a pillar that supports the outer-city shopping precincts. That is echoed in this case by the flight of local probation officers from local communities, the consequent loss of networks and informal multi-agency working, and an erosion of local knowledge and sensitivity. The new criminal justice boards, which have been set up on a county-wide basis, need local one-stop shops, rather than huddling together away from their customers and the public. Let us get those services back out on the estates, face to face, where they are needed and where people understand them. It is absolutely pointless passing Acts against antisocial behaviour while stoking up its causes with other policies. We must have joined-up thinking in this area.

National policy made by the Government and the civil service must reconnect with on-the-ground delivery. We need to give clarity to officers—in this case, officers who had to deal with half a dozen different drug orders—on when an order is breached and the expectations of enforcement. That applies equally to the failure of national policy to involve communities practically in community sentencing, of which all of us in this Room have seen evidence. We must make antisocial behaviour orders work. Despite national intentions, there is some confusion in the Nottingham magistracy about whether hearsay evidence from the police can be accepted and whether a high level of criminal proof, rather than a lower level of civil proof, is needed to demonstrate a breach of an antisocial behaviour order.

It may seem a long way from the tragic death of a police officer to the inadequacies of the British constitution and how the Government work, but if the Government allowed Parliament to do its job the two-way street involving local best practice informing good national policy and vice versa could be unjammed. Of course, the Government should make policy, but they should hand back law-making to Parliament, enabling it to do its rightful job of conducting proper legislative scrutiny to turn national policy proposals into practical law.

Pre-legislative scrutiny should be done online, so that practitioners, victims, communities and others can participate in making better, more practical law together. I note the attendance today of Nottinghamshire's chief probation officer. It is inconceivable that those involved in the process for framing early release and drug-testing orders would not have benefited massively from listening to practitioners and consumers—perhaps a death could have been avoided. We should not depend on entrepreneurial Members of Parliament chasing the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers to clean up defects in legislation long after it has been enacted.

There should also be a proper process of post-legislative scrutiny to ensure that the policy operates as intended in the light of experience. There are local lessons to be learned. Indeed, there are lessons to be learned by all of us—including Members of Parliament, the Government and the judiciary—from this awful case, which occurred in my constituency and involved the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. What is not in doubt is that lessons must be implemented from the front line, by practitioners such as local probation officers and police officers, right up to the Head of Government—the Prime Minister. If those lessons are not learned—I give the Minister a guarantee that we will follow this through—the death of a brave local police officer will be a greater tragedy than it already is.

Thank you for allowing me to introduce this debate today, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Once again, I hope that it stands as a small tribute to the life of PC Ged Walker and the tireless efforts of Mrs. Tracy Walker to ensure that we all learn something from this awful tragedy.

11.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for securing the debate. I am grateful for the attendance of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who have now left the Chamber. I also acknowledge the presence of Mrs. Walker here today.

The spur for the debate, as we have heard, was the tragic death of PC Gerald Walker, known as Ged to his family and friends. PC Walker, an officer of the Nottinghamshire constabulary, was killed in January 2003 by the offender David Parfitt, who was then unlawfully at large following his recall to prison for a breach of his parole licence. That recall was triggered by a succession of failures to comply with the terms of his licence, including missed appointments to attend the probation service for testing for the presence of class A drugs, and a number of positive tests for such substances.

Following David Parfitt's conviction for the manslaughter of PC Walker, my hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins)—who is responsible for correctional services—and the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety ordered an inquiry into the events leading up to and following the tragic killing of this brave officer. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary cannot be here today, because he is engaged on other parliamentary business, but he has spoken to me and the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety and he will try to be here for the end of the debate and to meet Mrs. Walker if she wishes him to do so. He has told me that he would like to take this opportunity to express the Government's condolences over the death of this dedicated officer in such tragic circumstances. I offer my own condolences to Mrs. Walker and her two children.

On 25 March, Professor Rod Morgan, who was then Her Majesty's chief inspector of probation, submitted to the Under-Secretary his report on the inquiry into PC Walker's death. The report identified a number of failings at local operational level and in relation to the national policies that underpinned local practice. The chief inspector was of the view that if practices had been handled differently, they could have resulted in the earlier revocation of Parfitt's parole licence and the possibility of his earlier arrest and return to prison. Professor Morgan's report includes 10 recommendations that he believes would, if implemented, reduce the risk of similar failings arising in future and, in so doing, would contribute to the greater safety of the public. The Under-Secretary laid a copy of the report in the Library on 25 March, together with a detailed action plan setting out how the police, prison and probation services will implement the inquiry recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe asked how that would be followed up. The Under-Secretary has asked the director general of the national probation service to be personally responsible for reporting the delivery of change in line with the published action plan, and has set a challenging deadline of this October for that to happen. I am sure that, once that report is provided, there will be other opportunities for hon. Members to raise issues.

In the opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North reflected the thrust of the recommendations of the Morgan inquiry, but he rightly asked us to look further at the environment that contributed to the circumstances leading up to PC Walker's death.

The Government have always made it clear that we will not tolerate criminals who prey on society, and we have taken measures that are having an impact on crime. Overall, crime—as measured by the British crime survey—fell by 25 per cent. between 1997 and 2002–03, but we cannot be complacent. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been forthright in saying that prison is the right place for those who present the greatest risk to the public, either because they have committed serious sexual or violent crimes or because they are prolific and persistent criminals. Equally, if we are to be successful in bearing down on crime, we need to have in place a range of tested models that support offenders in addressing their criminal behaviour. I know that only too well from having to deal with those offenders who, because of their drug addiction, create a huge amount of crime. We have in place programmes to address that problem by providing treatment to try to get such offenders off drugs, and therefore to reduce the crime rate. However, it is a challenging situation; and there is no short-term solution.

Mr. Allen

I thank the Minister for generously giving way. To underline her point, she may be aware that more than 60 per cent. of offenders over the age of 18 who are held overnight in Nottinghamshire test positive for class A drugs. That is an appallingly high statistic. In that context, will she consider focusing some activities on drug testing orders? There seems to be a plethora of such orders, but, without excusing any actions, it is easier for people to operate with a more tightly defined and focused number of drug testing orders.

Caroline Flint

It is certainly the case that we need to consider how the orders operate. The new National Offender Management Service will consider how better to address the criminal behaviour of individual offenders, and will also consider the use of the generic community order, which could have drug treatment and other associated drug elements attached to it. However, we must make clear that whatever laws Parliament passes have to be implemented in a way that people understand, including the probation officer and the police officer on the beat.

Whether the offender serves his or her sentence in the community or in prison, the public must have confidence that the criminal justice system is operating effectively and with proper regard for their safety. That is why local implementation is so important. My hon. Friend pointed out the thuggish and antisocial behaviour that increasingly blight our town centres and out-of-town areas and which cause real concern to many. We must deal with those concerns, as well as pressing down hard on crime itself. He also pointed to several ways in which that pressure could be made more effective.

My hon. Friend spoke also about pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, and of a later parliamentary review of the effectiveness of legislation. The Home Office is constantly looking at various issues—I in my area, and my colleagues in theirs—including how DTOs are working, how different parts of the country seem to be handling such matters differently and possibly having better results, and what we can learn from good practice.

My hon. Friend rightly identified several issues aimed at establishing confidence in the criminal justice system. For example, he mentioned sentencing, which is important. Transparency in sentencing can have a great impact on the public's understanding and confidence.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 imposed a general statutory duty upon courts to give reasons for, and to explain the effect of, the sentence passed. The general duty consolidates and strengthens the various requirements that are currently scattered throughout different sentencing statutes. That duty requires the court to explain in open court and in simple language why a particular sentence was considered appropriate.

The court will also be required to explain the practical effect of the sentence passed. That explanation will set out how the sentence is actually structured—for example, how long the offender will be required to spend in prison before being considered eligible for release; what requirements the offender must adhere to; and what will happen to the offender should he breach his sentence. Those explanations will enable the offender and other interested parties, including victims, to understand why a particular sentence was chosen and how it will operate. I hope that that will promote public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The introduction of the Sentencing Guidelines Council will also encourage greater transparency and consistency in sentencing. The council will be independent and chaired by the Lord Chief Justice. It will aim to produce a more robust and comprehensive set of guidelines for all courts, enabling them to approach cases from a common starting point.

My hon. Friend's reference to the strict enforcement of licence conditions is relevant here. The effective and rigorous enforcement of breaches is critical if the courts and the public are to have confidence in community-based provision. Compliance with licence supervision is, I am pleased to report, generally good at around 89 per cent. However, when a licence is breached, action must be taken quickly and in accordance with the probation national standards. As the Morgan report identifies, that was not done in David Parfitt's case.

There are clear lessons that must be learned from the awful events in question. The probation service, and other enforcement agencies, including the police and magistrates courts committee enforcement staff, are already working with the national criminal justice board to review all enforcement practice and to see where improvements can be made. I shall make sure that a copy of today's debate, with my hon. Friend's points, is made available to those agencies.

The review will examine whether the various agencies have the necessary powers to ensure that enforcement is effective. Closer working links, more effective communication and a better local understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the various criminal justice agencies are fundamental to better working and, ultimately, improved public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Issues to be considered include local access, and the way to provide such access is the subject of debate. Perhaps I may take the probation service as an example. When the 54 probation services were integrated into a single national probation service of 42 areas, in April 2001. the new national service found that it had a portfolio of more than 1,300 properties. It recognised the need for an improved offender management environment and set out a commitment to try to provide accommodation fit for that, and suitable for the staff, in the work that they wanted to do for the people whom they support, or whom they monitor, if they are on contracts. The service also recognised its duty to its staff to provide a safe workplace.

In response to those changing service delivery needs, increased offender contact and more active intervention, the accommodation needs of the service have undergone a period of continuous, careful review, led by the local probation area's assessment of operational needs. However, even if one does not have an office on one's doorstep—and there is not one in my constituency—this is a matter of local access, relationships and good communication. A Member of Parliament may want to know where to go to find answers to issues raised in surgeries, but the issue of access affects the wider community as well. That is just as true in this context as in the work that I do with drug action teams.

Mr. Allen

The Minister is very generous in giving way again. I have mentioned to her that when I began as a Member of Parliament there were at least three different probation officers, in their own local offices, in my outer-estate-based constituency in Nottingham. I could pick up the phone and have an informal discussion with those officers, and it would often involve social services, housing or other departments. Through that informal network it was possible to take positive steps to help offenders and to help the community make sure that offenders' treatment was robust and adequate. That no longer happens and I no longer have that relationship with the probation service.

Will the Minister consider the fact that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far towards consolidation and centralisation and that we should be looking at a wider dispersal of people to the front line, where the problems are—and where the public whom we need to serve are, too?

Caroline Flint

We have representatives here from Nottinghamshire probation service, and I am sure that they have listened to what my hon. Friend has said.

The area that we are considering is complex, and deals with a complex group of people. The work in which I am directly involved concerns people who commit offences because of their drug addiction, and in some parts of the country probation officers work in buildings with treatment providers: perhaps that does not happen 9 to 5 every day, but there is a connection there. That is also part of how we deal with the problem.

In some ways, it is not a matter of the offenders coming to the professionals; it is a question of professionals—whether they are probation officers, police officers, the people who provide treatment if drugs are involved, or others who can deal with social housing needs, employment or education—identifying ways to engage people who may not turn up for appointments, as in the case that we have heard about today, and how that should be followed up.In this complex area of work, the key is trying to ensure that different individuals work together across agencies. Sometimes that will mean that several agencies occupy one building.

My hon. Friend raised several issues such as breach of antisocial behaviour orders, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety will write to him about that with some good news.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the debate. There are some wide-ranging lessons to be learned from the death of Ged Walker. We need not only to learn from this one case, but to be constantly vigilant about the policies and laws that we pass in Parliament, and how they are implemented. Constant scrutiny and evaluation is needed, without undue bureaucracy, so that we make sure that policies are working and are understood by those who implement them.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.