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Chief Constables

2. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): If he will make a statement on the operational independence of chief constables. [47061]

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): The police are under a duty to enforce the law, but chief officers have wide discretion in how they apply their resources to achieve that. No Minister or police authority may instruct a chief officer of police on whether or how they should act in relation to a particular case or individual. The House knows that the measures being sought by the Government to tackle persistent poor performance do not alter that principle.

Chris Grayling: The Minister is aware that among those who have raised concerns about the reform

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proposals are chief constables themselves, who believe that they intrude significantly on their operational independence. He is also aware that bringing the senior people—in this case, the chief constables—on board quickly is essential in developing any process of change. Why has he failed to get them behind his process of change?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, last week, the Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the amendments that the Government introduced in another place. Sadly, that message was not heeded by all parties there, but we listened and responded, and our response has been welcomed.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): Is not our constitutional provision that there should be no political interference or interference with the operational performance of the police sacrosanct, and have not the Government made that absolutely clear? Will not the power be used very exceptionally—once in a blue moon? Does my right hon. Friend understand the criticism? The chief executive officers of our major industries and the heads of public services are out of the door if they do not perform. What is the difference with the police? I cannot understand the argument for it; can my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Denham: My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. Of course it is right to listen to the debate about operational independence—indeed, that is why, for the first time ever, the principle that I set out earlier has been stated in the Police Reform Bill—but another issue must be taken into account. What do a Government say to a community, a town or an inner-city area that for a long time has not received the quality policing and, therefore, the protection from crime, criminals and the fear of crime that it deserves? In such circumstances, surely Ministers who stand at the Dispatch Box must be able to say, "If necessary, we will act." That is precisely what the Bill sets out to achieve. Everybody should understand that the Opposition parties that oppose the proposal are saying to such people, "We will not lift a finger to help you, no matter what problems you face."

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister referred to the Government amendments introduced in another place, but was it not disingenuous to fail to recognise that the only reason for their introduction was pressure from Conservative Members in another place? Do not the Government recognise that what remains a concern for chief constables and for many in another place and on these Benches—clause 5 of the Police Reform Bill—will lead only to increased centralisation and still gives the Home Secretary power to interfere in what chief constables want to do? Having made welcome changes in response to pressure from us, will he go further and accept what we are saying about clause 5?

Mr. Denham: As I understand it, the Conservative party has said that it does not want clause 5 in the Bill, and it has no intention of ever doing anything about the problems of policing a particular community, no matter how deep-seated they may be.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to use the centralisation tag. The Government are working with the police to deliver what they want. They said that they wanted more

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police officers, and we have provided the resources that have delivered record numbers of police officers—there will be 130,000 next year. The police said that we should cut down on the things that hamper them in their fight against crime, so we have introduced video identity parades to replace the old-style parades that took weeks to organise and enabled people to evade being brought to justice. They told us that we should speed up the courts, so we have halved the time that it takes for a young offender to go from arrest to sentence. They told us, in London in particular, that they want community support officers to free other officers to fight street crime. The Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, far from backing the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is not here to answer for the Opposition parties.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I represent a community of exactly the sort to which the Minister referred. It has been historically let down by its chief constable and its police officers have work loads much greater than those of other police officers in the same police authority. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that communities such as Slough which—on any statistical analysis—expect their police officers to work twice as hard as other police officers in the same police authority, get a better standard of policing?

Mr. Denham: I believe that the whole package of police reform measures will enable the problems of particular communities and towns to be tackled not just through the powers that we seek in clause 5, but through greater flexibility in the way in which the police are rewarded, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just referred. All policing jobs are difficult and demanding, but some are even more so. That should be recognised in the employment and rewards of police officers. The whole package will make it much easier for the police service and chief constables to address those problems.

Police Morale

3. Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): What recent assessment he has made of police morale. [47062]

13. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What recent assessment he has made of police morale. [47073]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): We created an extra 4,578 officers in the period from March 2000 to January this year; we have established a new occupational health service; and we have provided a one-third increase in capital investment for this coming year to enhance the conditions in which officers work and the technology that they use. We have slimmed down bureaucracy, and we have made a commitment to having 130,000 officers by this time next year. As a result, we can all look forward to officers catching more criminals and being able to protect us more effectively. We will ensure that they know that they are valued, and feel that they are valued, and that their morale improves all the time.

Mr. Lidington: Surely the Home Secretary agrees that the optimistic assessment that he has just given the House

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would be regarded by the more than 800 officers from the Thames Valley alone who attended the lobby and rally in central London as at best a fantasy compared with the reality that they experience. Does he realise that one of the chief causes of low morale in our police service has been his intemperate and hectoring language towards hard-pressed officers in all parts of the country? Does he now regret describing our police as wreckers?

Mr. Blunkett: I would, but I have never used that word. I have never described the police as wreckers privately, publicly, on radio or in writing or to any journalist. When Opposition Members, like some journalists, put words into my mouth, they should ensure that they get them accurate.

Bob Spink: Over the past two weeks, I have met the Police Federation, the police associations, police officers and sergeants on the beat day and night in my constituency, and I have spoken with senior command officers in Essex. They all tell me that police morale is at dangerous levels. Does the Home Secretary realise that, if he continues to pursue his policies of centralisation and putting civilians on the street with police powers, the morale of the police will be driven lower, to even more dangerous levels? Will he pull back from those ill-thought-out reforms?

Mr. Blunkett: First, the only civilians who are, or who will be, put on the streets with police powers are the Specials. We are not proposing to give community support officers a replica set of police powers.

Secondly, the police themselves want support and back-up work. The Metropolitan force in particular has asked us for that. Anyone, in this place or the Lords, who votes against that proposition should answer to the public and to the locality—and to the Commissioner and the other chief constables who they rightly say should have operational control—as to why they want to take away the power and right to have the operational control and the support for full-time, trained officers, many of whom are on the beat because we have put an extra 4,500 on the streets over the past two years.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Nottinghamshire last week, where he saw a force that was not having a crisis of morale but working hard, in partnership with others, to tackle some real problems. However, one issue that affects the morale of the police is the fact that persistent offenders are constantly bailed by the courts, which undermines the good work that the police often do. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that his proposals to deal more effectively with persistent offenders are speedily implemented?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I confirm that the morale of the force was very high. Steve Green, the chief constable, is an excellent leader and manager who is doing a first-rate job with officers in a service that has been reorganised since 2 April. That is enthusing all of them with a new vigour and commitment.

Secondly, yes, we shall put in place the recommendations that I made last Tuesday. The order has been laid in respect of intermediate cases that did not previously result in remand for those on bail. Furthermore, the Chancellor's Budget enabled me to set

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up additional places—2,300 remand and prison places—over the months ahead. That will enable the courts to do the job that we all want done so that repeat, continuing, prolific offenders are put out of harm's way until they can be dealt with through the courts and properly convicted.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Has my right hon. Friend noticed that there has been no year duringthe past 10 when those representing, or purporting to represent, the police have not declared police morale to be at an all-time low? Has he also noticed that the number of recruits to the police is at an all-time high, and that there is no difficulty in attracting recruits? Does he consider that odd?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I consider it very odd indeed.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the factors depressing police morale in London and the south-east is that, despite recent improvements in housing allowances, many police officers have to commute long distances because of the shortage of affordable housing? Does he share my concern about the fact that the Metropolitan police in particular are continuing the policy introduced under the last Government of selling off police housing? Is he monitoring that process and giving guidance to the authority about the proper policy to pursue?

Mr. Blunkett: We were pleased to be able to join the national health service in using its low-cost co-ordinators to find accommodation and identify property suitable for renting. We are using the new programme for travel costs brought in by my predecessor. That has been a tremendous boon to those working in the Metropolitan area—sometimes to the detriment of forces just outside, as people find that it is attractive to be able to travel into the area. Of course, I am happy to raise with the Metropolitan police authority and with the Commissioner any concerns expressed by hon. Members, in the expectation that, within their operational jurisdiction, they will listen to those concerns.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my right hon. Friend accept Labour Members' appreciation for his work to improve police morale at all levels through discussion and dialogue with officers? Does he believe that more aids such as CCTV—particularly portable CCTV, which will help officers in small urban areas—would greatly boost police morale?

Mr. Blunkett: Together with up-to-date, 21st-century equipment and the complete review in which we are engaged, the process through which police officers make charges and secure subsequent convictions and the spreading of excellence across the country will ensure that best practice can be available to all. Of course, that process is backed up by the measures that I described earlier, which will reduce sickness absence and support those who work day in, day out at the sharp end, including the rewards in the new reform package. They will provide specific bonus payments for those who do the most difficult tasks in the most difficult circumstances at the most difficult time of the week.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The Home Secretary will doubtless agree with the apparently

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unanimous view of the House that nothing would raise the morale of the police more than the feeling that they are, as he said earlier, out on main street fighting crime in the community. But have not the bureaucratic measures introduced by this Government during the past five years contributed to the feeling among police officers that they cannot do so? As one community constable said, they face

Moreover, even if the Home Secretary did not use the word "wreckers", criticisms have been expressed about the police's belief that they are consistently denigrated—an impression that drove them to lobby the House. Has not the combination of those two factors done more to undermine police morale than anything else?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I do not agree. I am sorry that we cannot give the hon. Gentleman a round of applause for his rhetoric, but it bears no resemblance to reality. Officers lobbied the House—in most cases, perfectly reasonably—because they were concerned that the package of measures would lead to too many losers and not enough winners, and in particular because they were concerned about premium payments on overtime rates. That is what the conciliation process is seeking to address, and I think that a solution will be found.

Because of increased numbers, better technology, the spread of best practice and the demanding of better from all forces so that the performance of the best can be matched, people in our communities will experience better security and safety, and will be able to believe more readily statistics showing that crime has fallen. Above all, they will be prepared to invest further in crime reduction and policing, because they will see that it is worth while. That applies not only to those who are subject to the worst criminality in our most deprived communities, but to those who are negotiating the spending review.

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