The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House that its Address of 3rd April had been presented to Her Majesty; and that Her Majesty had been pleased to receive the same very graciously and had given the following Answer:
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): While individual members of the North Yorkshire force have made representations and attended the meetings organised specifically for that purpose, there has been no recorded approach from the North Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation. We have, of course, been in constant contact with the federation and in negotiation with it through our officials on the Police Negotiating Board. There have been a number of specific meetings with the chairman of the federation. Last Wednesday's Budget has given us a facility not only to intervene more effectively in terms of street crime, but to assist forces in the development and delivery of the modernisation process.
Miss McIntosh: While I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply, can I share with him the dismay of the North Yorkshire Police Federation about his trying to impose changes in pay and conditions on its members without proper negotiation? I assure him that the police reforms are dear to the heart of the North Yorkshire Police
Mr. Blunkett: I am enthused to learn that the North Yorkshire Police Federation, which has not been in formal contact, is enthusiastic about the reform agenda. We are all enthusiastic about that agenda on behalf of the public, who want an improved, effective and less variable service. I refute entirely the allegation that there have been no negotiations. There were negotiations with the federation until 27 December. Heads of terms were signed and a consultation was then undertaken by the federation as the trade union for members of the work force who fall within the relevant salary category. Following that consultation, the rejection was made, and three further conciliation meetings were held subsequently. At the end of this week there will be a fourth such meeting, in which I hope that we can reach agreement.
Mr. Syms: There is real anger among Dorset police officers that the Government want to turn them into centralised form fillers rather than local crime fighters. Will the Government think again about the centralising aspects of the reforms?
Mr. Blunkett: I am slightly mystified, as we have no intention of centralising the operation of police on the beat in the community. In fact, it was we, at the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, who undertook the "Diary of a Police Officer" survey. It was we who revealed that 43 per cent. of the time was spent in the station and who suggested halving the number of indicators so that we could reduce the number of targets expected from the police. It was also we who brought across the former commissioner from New York to instil the importance of community and targeted policing and talked to former Mayor Giuliani about what had worked in New York. We are involving ourselves directly in achieving the sort of reform that will improve the police service, on the back of the substantial increase in numbers that this Government have brought about.
Hugh Bayley (City of York): Does the Home Secretary agree that one of the reforms most badly needed is reform of police pensions, because the cost of pensions bears much more heavily on some police authorities than on others? Its effect on North Yorkshire is especially heavy. Will my right hon. Friend make proposals for reforming police pensions, and if so, when might we expect an announcement about this important reform?
Mr. Blunkett: We indicated in the White Paper that we believed reform to be necessary, but that it had to come first in respect of variable performance, over- regulation and outdated practices, not least because Governments of a variety of persuasions have fought over the years to try to get to grips with a system under which, in many areas, almost a fifth of the total police budget is used for servicing the pension. I hope that anyone who comes up with a bright idea about how to reform the pension will be heard in due silence, if the proposal would not either cause people to want to leave the force very quickly and take advantage of the existing rate, or preclude them from wanting to remain in the service more
Vera Baird (Redcar): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a further category of urgent need for police reform was revealed by the damning report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary published on 8 April, which showed the half-hearted way in which rape cases are investigated by police in the United Kingdom? This contributes to a strikingly low conviction rate: only one in 13 complaints result in a conviction. If my right hon. Friend has not yet discussed that critical and urgent need for reform with the police, what plans does he have to do so?
Mr. Blunkett: I have not had the opportunity of doing so with the Association of Chief Police Officers, but I have done so with the Attorney-General, who is very exercised by the statistics and, therefore, by the reality that many people experience. At his suggestion, we will set up a joint working group immediately, to work with him and with the police and criminal justice system to see whether we can bring about a dramatic improvement.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Secretary of State has earned a solid reputation for speaking directly and not mincing his words. Would he accept that one lesson to be learned from the recent consultation on police pay is that policemen sometimes thought that that created an atmosphere of antagonism, which earned the Secretary of State a rebuff for measures that many people regard as necessary? Would he reserve his antagonism for the Chancellor of the Exchequer? That would be extremely welcome.
Mr. Blunkett: No, I reserve my antagonism for the villains who we are all intent on catching. I reserve praise for the Chancellor for the Budget last Wednesday, andfor the resources that were released for secure accommodation and prison places and for tackling crime and for counter-terrorism, all of which I hope the House will strongly welcome. The distribution of those resources will be announced shortly.
I also want to reinforce heavily the backing for the police for the work that they are engaged in across the country. With an extra 4,500 police officers over the last two years, we now have an opportunity to build on the improvement in morale and to invest in catching and convicting more criminals, in preventing more criminals from reoffending and, above all, in creating a safer society in which hatred, prejudice and fascism can be thwarted.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): In the Home Secretary's list of things that he has done, he omitted to mention that virtually all of them simply involved undoing the actions of his predecessor. What would the Home Secretary tell the inspector of police to whom I spoke last week who wanted to increase community policing in the city-centre area for which he was responsible? His city-centre police station had to deal with 100 shoplifters each month, and he estimated that each case took four hours. That is equivalent to 10 officers permanently occupied with dealing with shoplifters. How much more effective would policing have been in that
Mr. Blunkett: The simple answer is, "A lot better." If there is any dispute about the need to get officers out into the community doing preventive work, I have not heard it. As I saw in Nottinghamshire on Thursday, tremendous strides are being made, in co-operation with business and commerce, to get the police out on the main streets as we are doing in the safer streets campaign in London and the anti-robbery campaign across the 10 forces. The police are using closed circuit television to apprehend those engaged in shoplifting and other crimes of robbery, and local communication links such as two-way radio with the shopkeepers to take action on the street to prevent those crimes from happening. That is what the anti-street robbery initiative is about. With the co-operation of chiefs of police at local level, who have, and will continue to have, operational control, we can achieve a dramatic change in preventing people from committing crimes in the first place.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth): The Home Secretary is doubtless aware of the serious concern among police officers in Scotland over the pay and conditions negotiations and their perception of how those were handled. Some 94 per cent. voted against the heads of agreement, although I am pleased to hear today that conciliation is ongoing. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify what will happen if no satisfactory agreement is reached pursuant to the conciliation? Will the matter go to arbitration?
Mr. Blunkett: Should we be unable to find a solution through conciliation, it is open to any of those participating in the Police Negotiating Board to refer the case to arbitration, which would be the next step. I hope that that does not happen. We clearly have a disagreement remaining on the major issue of how to get overtime payments down in order to redeploy the resources to front-line policing on a more rational and planned basis. If we can solve that problem, I feel certain that the conciliation process will succeed.