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Mr. Blunkett: I can certainly underline my hon. Friend's tribute to those who have been employed, without whom we could not have achieved the turnround that is now taking place. I shall have a word with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the open cheque book that my hon. Friend requires.

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Another aspect of the Queen's Speech consists of the police reform measures. To achieve the consensus that we all seek in terms of delivering a reform agenda--that consensus will have to range right across the police ranks and to those who work to support the police forces across the country--we need to accept that rapid progress will need to be made. We need a modernisation programme as much for the sake of those working in the service as for those who rely on it.

The disparities that exist between force performance are not acceptable. The disparities in some high-profile but probably peripheral matters such as sickness absenteeism, which varies by a factor of 80 per cent. across forces areas; the rate of medical early retirement, which varies between 5 and 58 per cent; and delivery measures, which we need to examine, all lead us to believe that change is needed. That is change not only in regulations and management but in the perspective on what the police force can do by working with others. We are therefore establishing a new standards unit, which will work with police services throughout the country, concentrating especially on the basic command unit. It will work with the police on spreading best practice, identifying management and delivery problems, scrutinising the way in which work on the ground gels with wider crime reduction partnerships and with our other policies, for example, on drug prevention and drug problems.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Do those changes include unilaterally sacking chief constables? On what basis did the right hon. Gentleman flex his new Home Secretarial muscles earlier this week to give a thinly veiled instruction to the Sussex police authority to sack the chief constable? What does that mean for the future of independent police authorities, which are responsible for operational matters? If the right hon. Gentleman is taking responsibility for operational matters on himself, will he take personal responsibility for the loss of 273 police officers in Sussex in the past four years?

Mr. Blunkett: I hope that the renewed morale and motivation of those in the Sussex service will lead to good recruitment and considerably improved outcomes. That is the intention of senior personnel in the force who wish to effect that. I shall not make a statement in answer to a question from the hon. Gentleman. Suffice it to say that I worked within my powers. I did not sack the chief constable of Sussex. I suggested to the police authority, which will receive a report from Lord Carlile next week, that, after three and a half years, it would be helpful if the matter were resolved. I am glad that the chief constable helped us to do that. The case emphasises the importance of an independent police complaints system, which we shall introduce in this Parliament. Not only independence, but speed and effectiveness of operation are important.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about bureaucracy. One of the standards unit's tasks will be to examine the current process, from the moment of arrest through charging and the criminal justice system to conviction. At present the process is euphemistically described in Home Office parlance as attrition--I hope we shall find a better word, and one which means something to people outside--which means bureaucratic

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delay: the process to which I referred earlier in answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I hope that we can reduce that bureaucracy.

I was pleased to accept the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs that we should monitor immediately the way in which a police constable's average day is bedevilled by form filling and procedures that must be followed. They include not only updating technology, which, for many forces, is stuck in the 19th century, but the actual processes that constables have to undertake. We will do that because it will both lift morale and speed up the system to ensure effective outcomes.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): My question refers to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Does he agree that three and a half years is far too long to wait for action after the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed, innocent man? Does he further agree that it took his involvement for the chief constable of Sussex to act? Will my right hon. Friend consider further inquiries into the James Ashley case to gain the best information on reforming the complaints system?

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done over the past three and a half years with hon. Friends representing the areas covered by the Sussex force. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs will be meeting her and the family concerned on Monday. I hope that, together with the Carlile report, the continuing work of the Police Complaints Authority and the considerable help of the police authority itself, we will be able to make sense of the matter without a further public inquiry.

I am very keen--this is the answer to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)--not to go through the niceties of process, but to get action from every level to ensure that we deal with cases fairly and openly, and that people on the ground know that police forces are addressing themselves to the fair, just and safe policing of their areas for the sake of everybody in those communities.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to the hon. Member on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I have listened with great interest to what the Home Secretary has been saying, particularly about the Police Complaints Authority. His comments will be most welcome in Wales. However, he has not yet said anything about the degree to which the powers will be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. Given that this is a debate about home affairs and the constitution, I was wondering whether he was planning to indicate the degree to which the Government intend to devolve such powers to the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall be discussing those matters with the Secretary of State for Wales and other colleagues. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in the meantime setting out where we are on that point.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Blunkett: I shall make a moment's progress and then give way again.

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We have also taken responsibility for the drugs unit from the Cabinet Office and will be integrating delivery and policy in a way that I hope will dovetail with our drive against organised crime. We have already said--I simply repeat it--that the job of the police, like that of the intelligence service, is to concentrate on the trafficking and pushing of category A drugs and their dangers in the local community. We shall be evaluating the experiment that Commander Brian Paddock of the Lambeth division is undertaking in London.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Although many in Sussex understand that there is considerable disquiet about the way in which the Hastings shooting occurred and has been subsequently investigated, there is also disquiet about the way in which the Home Secretary appears to have sacked the chief constable by press release, or encouraged that to occur. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that his tenure as Home Secretary will not be characterised by instructions to police authorities and the diminution of their powers, and that he recognises that people who serve police authorities well have a genuine role to play? Their role, as well as that of the chief constable, has been undermined by his action.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall discuss with police authorities how they can do their job better and more quickly and be more accountable than some of them are at the moment. The job of Home Secretary is not to protect police authorities but to protect the public, and while I am in the job, that is what we will do.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I congratulate the Home Secretary warmly on his appointment and I wish him success in discharging his responsibilities.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the former Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who told the House in a written answer that

If he does agree with his hon. Friend on that score, why does he not accept that since Labour came to office, the 60 per cent. rise in resignations from the police service, the cut in police numbers of 1,600 and the dramatic reduction by more than 6,000 in the number of special constables constitute a damning indictment of his Government's record?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I do not accept that at all. Getting 1,353 additional recruits in the last 10 months of last year was a good indication that progress was being made.

I shall spell out in a moment our intentions regarding open and transparent targets--in fact, I shall do so now so that we are clear about where we start and where we are going in terms of police numbers. We have a commitment to 6,000 extra recruits which will be achieved by March 2003. However, it should be absolutely clear that police recruits and police in post are not one and the same. Although we will fulfil the manifesto promise on police recruits, I am keen to set targets also for police in post and full-time equivalents.

Let us assume that there are 125,500 police in post now and that we rapidly--by autumn--reach the number that the Opposition always use which, if memory serves,

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is 127,158, the figure in spring 1997. In our manifesto we promised the greatest number of police in post ever--128,280. Let us say that we manage to achieve that by next year. Let us then assume--the previous Home Secretary mentioned this during the general election campaign, but it was not in our manifesto, nor is it a public service agreement target--that we reach at least 130,000 police within the lifetime of this Parliament.

I would like us to do better than that. If we do and if I am still Home Secretary when we do, I shall set a new target. I shall want the crime fighting fund to be renewed, because it was that fund and the direction given by the previous Home Secretary and his Ministers that achieved the uplift in numbers. The relationship between the chief constable, the police authority and the Home Secretary must be a positive one, because if Parliament wants more police and wants them on site, in the streets, available, accessible, there to protect against crime and the fear of crime, we must work together to ensure that that happens. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

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