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House of Commons

Monday 27 October 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Numbers

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What recent assessment he has made of the balance between the number of police officers and police administrative support staff. [134158]

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): At the end of March 2003 there were 63,105 police staff, which is 32 per cent. of total police service personnel. This is a record number of police staff, working alongside a record number of police officers.

Andrew Selous : Is not the Minister concerned that the 7,700 extra police employed by the Government are so much fewer than the 9,600 extra administrative support staff? Would not it be better severely to reduce the paper filling and audit endured by our police officers so that

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instead of nearly 10,000 extra administrative staff we had the 40,000 extra police that the Conservatives would provide?

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman must learn to get his sums right. There are an extra 9,000 police officers, not the 7,000 to which he referred. The extra police staff are certainly not pushing paper. They are investigating officers, detention officers and escort officers. There is also a record number of nearly 2,000 community support officers, who are helping us to provide high-visibility, front-line policing on our streets, which is what the public want.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): What effect does the Minister think that the recent revelations of racism in a number of provincial forces will have on recruitment, especially among ethnic minorities?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend raises an important and extremely difficult issue. We are doubly determined to tackle racism, and I hope that record numbers of people from black and minority ethnic communities will continue to join our police service—I understand that Greater Manchester police force had a record number of new recruits in its most recent intake. That is why it is vital that we root out racism wherever we find it and ensure that people with racist beliefs have no place whatever in our police service.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Does the Minister accept that it is a disgrace that 41 per cent. of a policeman's time is tied up on paperwork and that we want much more done to get our police out on the streets? With that in mind, will she support me in calling for all police on the beat to be issued with palmtops and mobile technology so they can be seen doing their work,

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rather than being back in the station? Does she also accept that this is the age of techno cop, not paper-clip cop?

Ms Blears: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his first Question Time as home affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. I am sorry to have to tell him, however, that we have been there, done that. We are well on the road to introducing technology. I visited Wrexham police a few weeks ago. They have hand-held computers and personal computers in the cab so that they do not have to waste their time going back to the office to fill in forms. Video identification services are being rolled out across forces and we also have NAFIS, the national automated fingerprint identification system. Much more technology is now involved. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy visiting forces in which technology is beginning to make a difference.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Arising from what the Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas), is not it a fact that had it not been for the undercover work of Mark Daly, people with outrageous racist views would have been kept in the police force? Should not the BBC and, in particular, the reporter be congratulated on the public and civic duty they undertook? Will the Minister explain why it was felt necessary for very senior Home Office officials to write to the chairman of the BBC before the film—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman goes beyond the terms of the question.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend mentions the television programme, which I watched. I was shocked, sickened and outraged by what I saw. However, the new assessment procedure introduced in May this year tests recruits' attitudes to race and diversity in seven different ways. Since that was introduced, 79 potential recruits have not got a job because they failed the diversity part of the test. We will ensure that that new form of assessment for recruits is rolled out across the country, as fast as possible, to ensure that we weed out people with abhorrent and deep racist views.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): We welcome the increased number of police officers, even though the figures show that they are being paid for by council tax increases rather than by the Government. Last week, the Minister said in Westminster Hall that there would be an increase in spending on the police of 4 per cent. next year to include formula spending, the specific grant and Home Office direct expenditure, yet the Association of Police Authorities says that it needs an increase of 6 per cent. just to stand still. Is it right? If so, by how much will council tax go up, or will we see fewer police next year?

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman is well aware, from our debates both in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall, that police funding is a top priority for the Government. Over the past three years there has been significant extra investment, amounting to an increase of some 25 per cent. in support for the police. We are

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delighted that that has led to record numbers of police and community support officers, and more visibility in our policing.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are due to make an announcement on the police settlement in mid-November, and we are doing everything that we can to maximise the support that we can give to police authorities. However, I say to police authorities that we expect them to analyse their budgets very carefully to justify any increases to their local communities, and I am absolutely sure that that is what they are determined to do.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Hard-working police officers in the Medway towns met me and my colleagues to express their alarm, and that of their communities, about phone boxes being blown up by fireworks. They welcome the new powers in the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, but will my hon. Friend look at the fact that the police can search people for drugs, cigarettes and tobacco, but not for fireworks—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too wide of the original question.

Exercise OSIRIS II

2. Patrick Mercer (Newark): What progress has been made in promulgating the lessons learned from exercise OSIRIS II to other (a) regions and (b) local authorities. [134159]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): Our early view is that the elements that we planned to test in this exercise worked well, but of course there are lessons to be learned from it for all the people and agencies involved. We aim to make the key findings public before Christmas.

Patrick Mercer : I am grateful for that answer, as far as it went. It took the Government 104 weeks after 11 September to try such an exercise, and clearly it took place only in London. When will similar exercises be planned and implemented in places such as Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be very well informed about what was going on prior to that exercise. There have been five major exercises since 2000—before the events of 11 September—as well as a raft of table-top and middle-level exercises. The exercise programme for both the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear resilience programme and the counter-terrorist strategy includes a wide range of exercises; there will be another seven over the next six months on the CBRN element alone. I am confident that the agencies, the private sector and other

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Departments are being brought together both frequently and effectively to test the various elements of our extensive programmes.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Do any of those future exercises include a simulated biological threat attack; and if not, why not?

Beverley Hughes: There are certainly exercises designed to test the planning and framework arrangements for biological attacks. One of the seven exercises that I have just referred to tests the plan for a specific biological attack involving smallpox, as well as a range of other chemical agents.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Minister will be aware that I represent a constituency on the fringes of London. One of my great concerns is that, when I talk to local authority chief executives, they seem to have little real, detailed understanding of how they would have to respond in the event of a major incident. What steps have the Government taken to ensure that those who might be on the fringes of a major incident, and might therefore suffer overspill effects such as the movement of people, are brought into the loop and well versed in what they might have to do in such circumstances?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point because, as he rightly implies, it is not sufficient simply to have well co-ordinated arrangements at the centre for Departments and major national Government agencies; it is extremely important to make sure that there is linkage and co-ordination at regional and local levels. He is right: on the scene, it will largely be local authorities and their counterparts who will respond first.

There is a detailed structure at regional level to ensure that that co-ordination takes place, and local authorities are engaged with us in a series of exercises. An exercise called "Counterbalance" brings together local authorities and their regional and national counterparts to go through those issues. We have also issued guidance to local authorities, and we are now consulting them on a revision of the existing guidance on the CBRN programme. Finally, we are undertaking a mapping exercise with local authorities, through the regional structures, to assess exactly what progress they have made towards implementing the plans that we are helping them to institute.

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