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Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I appreciate why the Minister wishes to trade statistics going back to before 1997, but will he answer directly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)? Does he agree with Sir John Stevens' statement in relation to the whole criminal justice system, or does he believe that Sir John Stevens got it wrong?

Mr. Denham: We recognise the commissioner's concerns, which have been expressed not only by him. I had discussions this week with the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who is worried about elements of the criminal justice system. However, let us remember that we are dealing with different issues, not just one set of problems. There is the issue of what happens to young offenders. Another debate is about serious criminals and the way in which criminal courts conduct their hearings, and there are issues about disclosure of evidence and disclosure of defence. The Government are dealing with those issues by saying that we need to reform the whole criminal justice system. Therefore, as I shall say later in my remarks, reforms are needed in the police service.

We recognise that reforms are needed in the sentencing system, which is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, while he was Home Secretary, commissioned the Halliday report on sentencing, on which we have consulted recently. That is also why the report by Sir Robin Auld on the structure of the court system was commissioned. We are considering how to bring about changes as a result of the issues raised in those reports. However, we need to consider the matter as an end-to-end

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reform of the criminal justice system. That means reforms to sentences and court procedures, speeding up parts of the system and reforms to the police service. We acknowledge the debate that has taken place over some months, but we have led that debate by saying that we must discuss how the criminal justice system operates and how it can be made more effective in every part of its work.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I would tend naturally to agree with much of what the Minister has said. Having paid him that compliment, will he explain why, despite what he said about the need to reform, the Government have abandoned the criminal justice Bill that was due to be introduced in this Session of Parliament and that was heralded in the Queen's Speech? It was designed—I suspect that it would have had cross-party support—to address many of the shortcomings that Sir John Stevens and others have identified.

Mr. Denham: I know that the hon. Gentleman will recognise in private if not in public that my Department has undertaken a substantial programme of legislation this year, including a major Bill to take necessary and urgent measures to tackle terrorism, that was not and could not have been envisaged at the time of the Queen's Speech. However, we made it clear that we will publish a White Paper setting out the nature of our proposed reforms to the criminal justice system. That will be followed by legislation, although it has not been possible to present it to the House in this Session. There is no diminution of our commitment to introduce reforms of the criminal justice system. The hon. Gentleman will recognise why we are working to our current time scale.

We have touched on youth crime, but there is another challenge for the police service and others. Probably every hon. Member would tell me that antisocial, yobbish and loutish behaviour is a real difficulty for many of those whom we represent, whatever the nature of our constituency. In some areas at least, the police service has perhaps at times considered the issue to be beyond its remit. Responsibility for tackling antisocial behaviour cannot be laid entirely at the door of the police service, but good, high-profile, visible and accessible policing led by officers in the community who solve problems with the community undoubtedly has a major role to play.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): My right hon. Friend knows that 75 per cent. of people in prison were permanently excluded from school. He also knows that, from September, the Government are introducing the obligation on all excluded children permanently to attend a pupil referral unit. Does he agree that preventing such children from receiving only five hours of education, roaming the streets, getting into trouble with drugs, stealing mobile phones—

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): And pagers.

Geraint Davies: Exactly. Such children are unable to get back into mainstream education and end up in jail, so the changes will have a major and lasting impact on reducing youth crime.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right. Money has been made available for the change, because the Government

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have a good record on investing in public services. We want to ensure proper education provision for those who are excluded full-time from school and to avoid contributing to crime problems, so we must make available what is necessary for the good management of schools. Providing a good education is one way to deal with those problems.

Despite real achievements over the past two years, we acknowledge that we still face real challenges. Before Christmas, we published the White Paper, which sets out how policing must develop in the 21st century. Key elements of it are being implemented and others, subject to the decision of Parliament, will be enacted in the Police Reform Bill.

Our proposed reforms have received a broad welcome, inside and outside the police service. They are the outcome of more than a year's work and consultation with the police service, its staff organisations and the Association of Police Authorities. The need for reform is not in doubt, nor is the real direction of reform, although elements will always be controversial with some people.

Reform is needed because, although crime has fallen, it is still too high. Fear of crime remains stubbornly high, although the chance of being a victim has fallen. Too few criminals, including serious criminals and persistent offenders, are brought effectively to justice. Antisocial behaviour must be tackled. As in almost every organisation we can think of, public or private, performance and achievement vary; some parts work better than others.

The aim of police reform is to support the police service in its key jobs of tackling crime and criminality, reducing crime and the fear of crime and tackling antisocial behaviour, and to raise the performance of all parts of the service to the standards of the best.

There are two main strands to that work. The first is making the most effective use of the record number of police officers in England and Wales. This Government reversed the long-term decline in the number of police officers. The Labour Government's crime fighting fund has made sure that we are now on track for record numbers of police officers this spring, and for more than 130,000 by April next year. That is by far the largest number of police officers ever in England and Wales.

The work has been backed by resources—a 10 per cent. increase this year and another 6 per cent. increase in the coming year. That is a substantial and growing investment in the police service. Of course, as we move towards 130,000 police, we must make the best use of every single officer.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): It is a great achievement to be able to return to the police officer levels that the Government inherited, having had five years in which to do it. In Sussex, whose constabulary has been the hardest hit in England and Wales, there have been 273 officers fewer than in 1997 for some time. When will we get back to the 1997 level?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman does not understand his history. The cut in police numbers began in the early 1990s under the Conservative Government and was pursued, allowed and encouraged for a lengthy period. We have invested in the crime fighting fund, so police officer numbers are going up across the country.

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That significant achievement has been recorded because we reversed the previous Government's policy of taking no interest in police numbers and earmarked money, through the crime fighting fund, to ensure that officers were recruited. He would have done better to give us the credit for the significant change in direction that we have achieved.

Next year, we will have 130,000 police officers and we must make the best use of every single one. Last year, "Diary of a Police Officer", a report commissioned by Ministers, showed that 43 per cent. of an officer's time was spent in the police station. Of that, 41 per cent. was spent preparing prosecution files and paperwork.

The taskforce that we set up to tackle waste and bureaucracy, headed by the former chief inspector, Sir David O'Dowd, will report to Ministers, initially in March and then in July. Over the coming year, we shall want to drive forward that work to free up the largest number of officers that we can from red tape, bureaucracy and inefficient ways of working so that they can be in the community—visible, accessible, tackling crime, where the public want to see them.

One way to make better use of officers is to make better use of support staff. The number of civilian support staff has already grown under this Government—to 56,644 in September 2001, which is over 3,500 more than in March 1997. We will now give them new powers: to take on roles that do not need the full range of powers and responsibilities of a fully trained, professional, sworn police officer; to take on more custody and detention duties; to take more responsibility at the scene of crime; and to escort prisoners.

We want to enable the police service to bring in specialists—in information technology and finance, for example—as investigators with the necessary police powers of investigation, working alongside police officers. In the investigation of crime, we will be developing a more specialised, more experienced and more professional cadre of police investigators and bringing in new expertise that is not readily available to the service at present.

It is not only in those specialist roles that support staff can be used effectively. The public want to see people with authority in their communities. Above all, of course, they want to see police officers. That is why we are committed to record numbers and to making those officers more visible and accessible, and why we want to increase the number of specials. They not only provide a valuable addition to the strength of the police service, but represent, in an important way, the wider reality that we will never fully tackle crime unless ordinary men and women in every community are prepared to stand up and be counted. Specials are a particularly important expression of that.

As, for example, the Metropolitan police have argued strongly, not every patrolling duty, minor public nuisance and traffic duty needs to be carried out by a fully-fledged police officer. The development of community support officers will give the police service a new flexibility to meet new needs and to ensure that police officers can be deployed in the most effective way.

There are other people already working in the community, as neighbourhood and street wardens or as security staff in shopping malls and on industrial estates—

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people with whom the police already work. We shall strengthen that relationship, enabling them with—and, of course, only with—the approval of the police to exercise new powers as part of an extended police family.

Making best use of the time and commitment of police officers means supporting them at work through better IT and better working conditions. It means supporting them if they fall ill through the development, for the first time, of a truly national approach to occupational health. It means a better and fairer pay system.

At this point, I would not be surprised if hon. Members pointed out that Police Federation members, in a fairly substantial turnout, recently voted against an agreement that their national leadership reached with the official side of the police negotiating body in December—I thought that I would mention it before hon. Members did.

That result was disappointing, if not a surprise, but it is important to remember the outcomes that we and the employers' side seek. The police need a better pay package to make the vast majority of officers better off. That is why we are prepared to invest substantially in an agreement that brings real reforms.

Reforms, too, are needed to reward the experience, expertise and competence of the most experienced officers, and to recognise that not all jobs are the same and that years of service, rank and hours of overtime are not always the most satisfactory way to reward officers for the difficult and demanding jobs that they do. The reforms also recognise that a reliance on overtime for the income of officers and as a substitute for the best management of staff time is neither good for the service nor for officers themselves.

The pay agreement is now in conciliation, led by the independent chair of the PNB. Agreement will no doubt require flexibility on all sides, but I believe, as I hope the House does, that the aims that we have set out are right, and that we should seek an agreement that, whatever the detail, will achieve them.

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