Tony Wright accordingly presented a Bill to provide for fixed-term parliaments: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 134].
[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 200102, on the Police Reform Bill, HC 612; Thirteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, HC 646, and Fifteenth Report from the Committee, HC 706, Session 200102, on the Police Reform Bill.]
The Bill has been considered in some detail in the other place, and today we have had the welcome and valuable report from the Home Affairs Committee. Nothing is more important to local communities than the ability to live free from crime and antisocial behaviour, and to live without the fear of being a victim of crime. The effectiveness of the police service is critical to achieving that aim. Up and down the country, dedicated and professional police officers do a difficult, and sometimes dangerous, job well, as we have seen in the past week with disturbances at a football match, the local elections and the May day demonstrations.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early, but it is usual for the Home Secretary to introduce a Bill of this magnitude. The Minister has not said where the Home Secretary is or whether he is ill. If so, we all send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery, but if not, his place is here.
Mr. Denham: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked me to introduce the Bill this afternoon, having worked on it in great detail. Of course, it is not unusual for Home Office legislation to be introduced by Ministers other than the Home Secretary.
Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It really is extraordinary for the Home Secretary not to be present in the Chamber. As I said earlier, if he is ill we all wish him a speedy recovery, but if he is not ill he should be here as the Cabinet Minister in charge of this major legislation. I do not disparage the Minister, for whom I have a high regard, but the Home Secretary's place is in the Chamber when a major Bill is being introduced.
The Bill reflects the Government's commitment to ensuring that the police service is able to do its job as well as it can be done. It underpins the police reform that we have already developed with the police service. Our aim is to continue the reduction in crime; to reduce the fear of crime itself; to improve conviction rates and to target persistent offenders; to tackle antisocial behaviour; and to ensure public confidence in the police service.
Ahead of the legislation, we have already begun to put in place changes that do not require primary legislation. As part of our commitment to reform, we are providing the extra investment the police service needsan extra £1.6 billion in the three years to 200304. In addition, as part of the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last week that a further £87 million would be made available to the police this year for counter-terrorism and an additional £67 million to fight street crime.
Police numbers are at their highest level ever, with an increase of more than 3,000 in the nine months since March 2001. We are well on track for the Government's target of 130,000 police officers by spring 2003. The police standards unit was established in July 2001 and has already played a key role in co-ordinating between the police service, the Home Office and other agencies in developing the current campaign against street crime. We are making the best of the new technology available to the police service. The DNA database now contains more than 1.6 million profiles and the number of matches to scenes of crime was nearly 60,000 in the year to March 2002. We are rolling out Airwave and have overhauled the police information technology organisationPITOto ensure effective delivery of police information technology.
We are cutting the bureaucracy that ties up police time, making it possible for the first time to carry out identity parades by video, and introducing the pilot video recording of interviews, which will begin tomorrow in four police forces.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister referred to rolling out Airwave. When does he intend to reply to the written questions that I tabled on 26 March about the delays to the roll-out of Airwave? Is it not the case that many forces, including my own in Cambridgeshire, will suffer many months' delay because the contracts are not being fulfilled by MmO2 and the roll-out is way behind schedule?
Mr. Denham: I was not aware that there were outstanding parliamentary questions from the hon. Gentleman, but as soon as this part of the debate is concluded I will make inquiries as to where the replies are. I know that I have signed off some, and I will pursue that point.
As with all major contracts, there have been teething problems at the outset of Airwave. However, forces such as North Yorkshire, which have been at the cutting edge, have reported its tremendous effectiveness. I believe that the development of Airwave across the police service will be a significant contribution to modern communications.
We have made clear our determination to tackle the decline in the number of specials, giving them a clearer role in the police service, improving the way in which they are recruited and deployed and giving them greater
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Bearing in mind the very useful work undertaken by special constables, who will, I believe, be known as auxiliary officers from now on, would it not be better to extend their use and perhaps even remunerate them to meet the Government's goals?
Mr. Denham: I do not believe that there are any proposals to rename specials as auxiliaries. Auxiliaries is a term that the Metropolitan police force has used in the context of community support officers, which I am sure we will come to in due course. I do not believe that the House or, more importantly, the police service is faced with a choice between the development of the special constabulary and of community support officers. They are different rolesspecials are, at the core, a volunteer service, whereas community support officers would be paid officials. Specials have the responsibilities of sworn constables but CSOs would not. I believe that we can look to a future in which both can play an effective role in carrying out policing and public order duties.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Following on from the question of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), how far have the Government got in considering having part-time posts for fully qualified and trained police officers who may be past 50 or whose family commitments do not allow them to work full-time? I understand that many people would be interested. Is that likely to be possible within the next year?
Mr. Denham: I was just about to say that I hope that we are close to concluding a new agreement on police pay and conditions through the police negotiating body which will reward officers better and more fairly and give police managers the flexibility required to deliver an efficient and effective policing service that is responsive to changing operational needs. The agreement should also provide greater flexibility in the hours that police officers work, which I think would go some way towards what the hon. Gentleman wants.
We have made it a statutory duty of local authorities to work with the police service to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour. We are also putting in place a comprehensive package to tackle street crime in the 10 forces with the worst problems.
These and other measures have had an impact. Crime has fallen overallaccording to the British crime survey, it has fallen by 21 per cent. since 1997. However, we are not complacentthere are still more than 5 million recorded crimes. Figures for some types of crime, particularly street robbery, rose over the past year, although in the first eight weeks of the Metropolitan police's safer streets campaign, there has been a reduction in the number of street crime allegations compared with 2001 levels. Only one crime in 10 results in a conviction, and the fear of crime remains high.
The challenge is to work with the police service to ensure that the rising number of police officers, the record resources available and the best of science and technology are used to the best effect. We must ensure that forces co-operate effectively together, make certain that the police receive the support that they need from the wider criminal justice system, make sure that best practice is identified quickly and spread and implemented appropriately across the police service, and raise the standards of forces' performance to the level of the best. That is the purpose of the Bill.
I want to outline the main elements of the Bill and, in doing so, highlight the areas where the Government intend to bring forward amendments to introduce new elements into the Bill or deal with amendments made in another place.
Part 1 is about driving up standards across the police service to the level of the best. There is, of course, already much good practice throughout the country, but the police service has not been as effective as it might be in capturing excellence and ensuring that forces learn from the successes of others. The Audit Commission has identified variations in performance that cannot be explained simply by differences in work load or by the varying circumstances faced by forces.
Part 1 is about raising standards to the performance of the best. It does three things. Through the national policing plan, it will create a coherent national framework designed to ensure that all forces are working effectively together in pursuit of excellence. It will create a framework for the promotion of best practice and ensure that some basic essential elements of policing are approached consistently. It will enable action to be taken in the rare cases where performance is shown to be persistently poor. It will do that by building on the existing tripartite structure of the police service. Throughout, it makes clear the importance of consultation with key organisations, including the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Nothing in the Bill creates a national police force; nothing destroys the tripartite structure; and nothing can lead to the micro-management of forces from Whitehall. Those who want to make such claims would do better to concentrate on the issue about which the public are concerned: how we can ensure high-quality policing in every community.