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10.21 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I appreciate the way in which he made his points. As he acknowledged, and would expect me to point out, it is not appropriate or right for me to comment on a specific case which is before the courts. However, he raised an important and interesting question--as he did in the written question that I answered on 3 November--upon which he has elaborated in the debate.

The investigation of sexual attacks on children is an extremely important part of police activity, and it must be handled with the greatest care and sensitivity. The Government are determined to ensure that the criminal justice system is effective in protecting children from those who might harm them--that includes improving the way in which child witnesses are treated.

A key principle in dealing with children as victims or witnesses is to ensure effective partnership between the police and social services. Area child protection committees provide a framework in which that participation and partnership can take place. Parents and victims should themselves also be fully involved in the process wherever possible; their views and choices must be respected.

The partnership approach, which we established and formalised in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, is fully endorsed by the Government and is reflected in the work of police forces throughout England and Wales. It is on that basis that I deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

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My hon. Friend is correct to say--I confirm it--that it is certainly good practice for child victims, or their parents on their behalf, to be offered a realistic choice of examination by a female police surgeon. In the second of his concluding points, he asked that ministerial guidelines be issued, which would require a statutory obligation to request and expect that children have that choice.

I understand, and appreciate, the legitimacy of my hon. Friend's demand, but he will realise that we can implement such a principle only when we are sure that it can be fulfilled. I shall refer later to the statistics and surveys that he mentioned. I am prepared to confirm that it is good practice for that choice to be offered, but I am not able to commit the Government to the introduction of ministerial guidelines that would require that to be the case. The demand is important, and I shall set out some of the ways in which we might deal with it effectively.

That good practice should be possible in the majority of cases, but some forces have no--or few--female police surgeons, as my hon. Friend pointed out. I shall refer to the data in a moment. In many cases, victims and their parents will feel happier about examination by a male police surgeon once they have had the opportunity to talk the issues through. In a sense, the most important factor is to ensure that the input from the police surgeon is high quality and sympathetic. Many examinations can be carried out by, or in partnership with, a paediatrician, who will often be female. However, none of those important qualifications invalidate the thrust of the point made by my hon. Friend. We shall consider that matter.

What is the national picture? The truth is that there have been difficulties in recruiting and retaining female police surgeons and there are a wide variety of reasons for that. Some relate to the unsocial hours, some to the working environment and some to the issue of breadth of experience that my hon. Friend mentioned. His third point on the guarantee of flexibility in training for different disciplines is important. As he said, many forces believe that all police surgeons should cover the whole range of issues that may arise. Establishing more flexibility may be worth considering in that regard, but it would require a significant change in practice in the police service across the country. The fact that my hon. Friend has raised the issue has put it sharply on the agenda.

I come to the figures to which my hon. Friend referred. The survey of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which was reinforced by his own research, revealed that many police forces have a high proportion of female police surgeons. For example, more than a third of the police surgeons in Bedfordshire, Surrey and Leicestershire are women. Some police forces have no female surgeons. The survey suggested that three forces had none; and 41 out of the 43 forces responded to it. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it showed that, across England and Wales, more than 17 per cent. of police surgeons are female. Therefore, it reveals a wide variety between police forces; some have a significant proportion of female police surgeons while others have very few or none. That was a fair point for him to make.

The first of my hon. Friend's final three questions was about the completion and publication of a national database. I shall consider his request in discussion with ACPO and others to see to what extent we can have a

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wider and more informed debate on the issue, which has been given greater profile by this debate. I understand why he wants more data, but he will understand that I am not able to answer yes or no to his question from the Dispatch Box. However, I assure him that I shall discuss with ACPO and the inspectorate whether it will be possible to publicise the data more fully and provide a comprehensive assessment.

As my hon. Friend said, each police force is operationally independent. Therefore, we as central Government do not have data that is universal across the whole country on a variety of issues about which there is general concern. For very good reason, we have been loth to publish partial data. That is why I have been qualified in response to my hon. Friend's question tonight and why I was qualified in my written answer on 3 November. However, I shall certainly consider with ACPO and the inspectorate whether we can provide more data in the way that he requests.

The central facts, however they are published, are as my hon. Friend set out. The general proportion of female surgeons in police forces across the country is 17 to 18 per cent. and that figure ranges from more than a third in some forces to zero in others. That is the picture and all that greater data will reveal is a clearer mapping of the proportion in each force.

My hon. Friend also referred to some broader issues. It is a fact that retaining female doctors has been very difficult for forces at a time when some of them have been struggling to maintain an effective overall police surgeon service. In some parts of the country, the right way to deal with that problem has been a major issue. There have been problems in achieving full geographical coverage and 24-hour availability, both of which are real demands; in providing the breadth of expertise that my hon. Friend mentioned; and with the total cost of the service. A small number of forces have gone as far as to contract out the service to the private sector.

Mr. Alan Simpson: Does my hon. Friend feel that it might be helpful if the questions that he goes away with after the debate include looking at those police authorities that have been able to ensure that over 30 per cent. of their police surgeons are women, how they have gone about doing that, how they have managed both to recruit and to retain those people, and whether there are models of good practice that other areas with no women police surgeons should be directed to follow?

Mr. Clarke: With the exception of one word in my hon. Friend's intervention, I completely agree. It is right to say that there is good practice to be learned, and to understand how recruitment procedures should operate. The one word is "directed" because, at the moment, the Home Secretary does not have the power to direct police forces on this and many other matters. We can offer guidelines, to which my hon. Friend has referred, but direction is not one of the powers.

I am probably alone in the House in watching "Dangerfield" from time to time, but we are talking about many of the issues that are raised on television evenings and weekends: flexibility, the difficulty of 24-hour availability and geographical cover. Those are the things that we see on our screens--the theatrical elements, each of which have important implications.

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The need to review at national level key issues of the type that have been raised by my hon. Friend was recognised by the establishment of the Home Office working group on police surgeons. That has proceeded relatively slowly over recent years, but I believe that it should report in the early part of next year. I give him the assurance that the substance of what he said not only in the question that I answered on 3 November, but in the debate, will be taken fully into account by the working group in its report, which we will then be able to discuss. Among the issues to be addressed are training, organisation and the arrangements for providing a service at force level. The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is, of course, important and substantial and needs to be addressed.

My hon. Friend mentioned pay. The establishment of new national arrangements to negotiate police surgeons' remuneration is a positive development.

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There is a wide range of other issues, including how child witnesses should be treated, how examination should be conducted, how videos should be used, how the steering group can move matters forward and how victims of child abuse can be dealt with, but the central issue that my hon. Friend has raised--the availability of female police surgeons in forces throughout the country--is important.

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