Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Chairman: Mr Gieve told us in July that the Home Office new building would no longer be big enough to accommodate all the staff. All the staff who were involved in the original units were going to go there and the numbers have grown. Can you tell us by how many the number of staff now exceeds those the building was planned to accommodate?

  Mr Blunkett: I am sure John Gieve will be able to give you a more specific answer. I think the difference that has occurred is that when the planning process took place for Marsham Street way back in the 1990s the National Probation Service was still decentralised. The organisation of prison and probation into a more coherent working unit had not been envisaged. Their presence outside the core building, which is what is going to take place, provides a logic and it provides us with additional space for those things that we have expanded.

  Mr Gieve: We are still some way from moving into Marsham Street. Our forward projections will be affected by two reviews that we have going on at present on how many headquarters staff we should have. I think it is true that over the last few years we have built up staff at the centre as we have been taking on new responsibilities for delivery. We are now looking at whether that has gone too far, whether we need more regionalisation, and we are engaged with Sir Michael Lyons on his relocation review so there may be some implications for that too.

  Mr Blunkett: I would be very keen to get people into the regions. I think it is very important and the closer people are to the sharp end the better.

  Chairman: Perhaps you could provide us with some figures.[2] It would be particularly interesting to compare the growth in the number of policy officials, administrators and so on with the growth in numbers of front line police officers or other people doing front line jobs in the service. I do not expect you to have those figures at your fingertips.

  Q21  Bob Russell: I wonder if I could take you back to some of your earlier answers to the Chairman dealing with the judiciary and Anti-social Behaviour Orders. Would you agree with me that no matter how good the legislation, whatever the intentions are, however hard the police and local authorities work to get people into court, that counts for nought if the judge or recorder fails to deliver? What are you doing to ensure that the judiciary live in the real world?

  Mr Blunkett: The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and I, when he was a minister in my Department, met with the Judicial Studies Board and talked through the important programmes for training and in-service work with all levels. We have had very positive meetings, both nationally and across the country, with the magistracy. We have also ensured—and this is why the idea of a community justice centre in each area is very important—that the most important learning curve of all is if the prosecutor at local level, the probation service and the judiciary do meet the community. They go out to the community; they hold fora with the community; they learn not just what the community thinks but also inform the community about the general decisions they take and why. This is a two way process and I hope that will start to work.

  Q22  Bob Russell: Will you give an assurance that you will redouble the efforts of the Home Office and yourself to encourage the judiciary to take more note of community feelings? Would you not accept that when the judiciary fails the community the community loses faith in the whole democratic process, law and order and so on? They lose faith that anything is going to be done when out of touch judges just ignore all the evidence put before them.

  Mr Blunkett: I shall judiciously avoid your invitation to be pejorative about this. I think developing a system where victims' statements are presented, where all those involved in the criminal justice system become closer to the community, where the voice of the community can be heard, apart from being rabble rousing, has a very beneficial effect in terms of the judgments made. It also is beneficial—and all the evidence reinforces this—in getting the community to understand the difficulties and to be willing to be part of the process, including reparation and positive help in terms of avoiding reoffending and integrating people back into the community.

  Q23  Bob Russell: I look forward to the improvements. The expenditure tables in the departmental report suggest that the growth of the resource budget will be significantly slower between 2003 and 2004 to 2005 and 2006 than it was in the previous three years. Are you confident that your funding will be adequate, given the budgetary pressures from factors such as prison overcrowding, counter-terrorism measures and asylum applications?

  Mr Blunkett: Of course we have added in additional resources on counter-terror of £330 million since the spending review. We have also had additional allocations in budget settlements for prison and probation and I am very pleased about that. They have to be added into the equation. I would be misleading the Committee and myself if I did not say that next year in particular will be very tight, but tight on the back of continuing expansion, with an expansion over the last three years alone in the centrally funded element of the police service of 27%, which is unprecedented. Then, there is investment in the criminal justice system where we are investing £600 million plus in the information technology elements of the system and the enormous increase, by necessity, that we have spent on immigration nationality, the figures of which are distorted by the way in which the original settlement was made, on the grounds that it was not possible for the Treasury and the Home Office at the time to estimate accurately. Therefore, a base level based on the 2000 settlement was £403 million, when everyone knew that, because of the numbers coming in at the time, it was going to be at least double that.

  Q24  Bob Russell: If the budget is tight, would you anticipate having to go to the Treasury to ask for more?

  Mr Blunkett: I have never hesitated to go to the Treasury when I thought there was a justifiable case. We would need to do so with the evidence, with the certainty of being able to deliver effectively and with the proof of the resource being applied, leading to a substantial improvement. I have to do that for the next spending review which will take place next year.

  Q25  Bob Russell: The other side of the coin is if the drop in asylum applications continues will the savings made on the asylum budget be available to other areas of Home Office activity or will the Treasury want it back?

  Mr Blunkett: One of the benefits of three year spending reviews and the dialogue you have just described is that the Treasury, quite rightly from their point of view, are very quick to build in anticipated improvements, and therefore savings, in the resource available to you. I would love to be able to simply say, "Give us a budget and if we can save on it I will switch it into another area." That would suit me down to the ground, but that is not the way that government works.

  Q26  Bob Russell: You have not yet reached agreement with the Treasury on the future size of the immigration and asylum budget?

  Mr Blunkett: We have an indicative budget which we are working to.

  Q27  Bob Russell: Are you looking for surplus or deficit on that?

  Mr Blunkett: I am looking for savings in every single area that I can apply more effectively in better processing, in improved integration and in greater security, because this is an ongoing programme. I do not think there is a minister that does not believe that we are only at the beginning of a process here.

  Q28  Chairman: If you were to continue to be successful in reducing the number of asylum seekers and to save money on the indicative budget, you are not assuming at the moment that, for example, that money will become available to invest in additional prison places or to take the pressure off overcrowding?

  Mr Blunkett: No, I am not.

  Q29  Janet Anderson: A series of reports on community cohesion were published in the wake of the serious disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001. As a Member of Parliament for the constituency next door to Burnley, this is something that I do take an interest in. The Cantle Report made 67 recommendations to improve community cohesion, covering a range of issues. What progress has been made in implementing those recommendations and how is this being monitored?

  Mr Blunkett: On a national level, those things which were to apply to prevention have been substantially put in place. Hence the considerable improvement over the last two summers in particular in terms of the investment in diversionary activities, in engaging the local authorities and the community in looking at their own area and being part of the solution. It has varied enormously in terms of the three areas that were mainly affected at the time of the disturbances in June/July 2001. Bradford has made substantial progress in terms of the development of the action plan. Oldham has made some limited progress. Despite the resources that we have centrally put in—I think just over 300,000 this year—to Burnley for the work in creating an infrastructure for them, we are still concerned that there is very much more to be done. Of course, for metropolitan areas, they have a larger budget and a bigger staff and it is easier for them to do than it is for a district council in a county area. I think we should bear that in mind. However, I do think that much more progress needs to be made. We made it clear at the time that we could provide the national framework. We could provide advice and support. We could provide the resource. We could reach across government to ensure that this is not an issue for the Home Office but for the whole government locally and centrally. We cannot allow issues at local level to simply be dealt with by national government. As ever, we would be accused of taking over centralisation, and rightly so, because it would lead to a kind of nannying which allowed people to believe that they did not have to change at local level; they did not have to get a grip on the problems facing them. They could rely on us doing it for them. I still think that we have some progress to make in making sure that that view is understood.

  Q30  Janet Anderson: Are you saying that, despite the Government putting in fairly substantial resources into local authorities—I think you said 300,000 into Burnley—you are concerned about a lack of progress in Burnley?

  Mr Blunkett: I am concerned that we are still some way off a situation that we would all be comfortable with in terms of the kind of leadership and change at local level that will make a difference in changing the culture, the views of local people and in particular, which was an issue that was raised by Cantle and a parallel report that the Chairman of this Committee produced, the issue of parallel lives, of communities that lived alongside each other rather than with each other, that went to school separately, were housed separately and felt they were separate. I think integration with diversity demands that we are able to tackle those problems. All of this needs to be seen on the back of other, massive resources going in on regeneration and the like. Those need to be used to change the central core of what is taking place, rather than believing that it is the peripheral issues of holding public meetings and the like that will change people's view of the world.

  Q31  Janet Anderson: I thoroughly agree with that. In East Lancashire, we are benefiting hugely from being a pathfinder authority for housing renewal. The Government is putting millions of pounds into that and we are very grateful. Could I take you on to the question of citizenship and some of the recommendations that were made in the Cantle Report? Do you think we are any closer to understanding what it means to be a British citizen?

  Mr Blunkett: I think Professor Sir Bernard Crick's report has assisted us in knowing what we have to do to encourage people who are prepared to take on citizenship to fully understand the rights, duties and obligations that go with it and to be able to equip themselves better to take that on. I am going to ask Bev Hughes to comment as well because she has been working with me both on the social cohesion and citizenship side. My view is that the very diversity that we have in our country is a strength and therefore, contributed to that diversity, adds to what is known as and becomes a British citizen and will therefore change over time. That is why understanding our laws, our democratic processes, what it is to be a good neighbour and have respect for others, which are all in the report, is something that I sought to put in place when I was the Education Secretary for the development of citizenship and democracy in schools. I would hope that we would be able to expand through adult learning and adult education into the population as a whole, not just those who are taking on citizenship willingly.

  Beverley Hughes: I know you have a particular interest in Burnley. As well as being a housing market renewal pathfinder, they are now part of the east Lancs community cohesion pathfinder programmes which very much arise from the Cantle Report. I think that will give Burnley a great deal of support and assistance, working with other East Lancashire authorities, to take forward their community cohesion plan. There have been various ideas put forward as to whether we should have a national debate about what it means to be British. How do we start to encourage people to think about how we on the one hand value diversity but, at the same time, come to some consensus around the common values and principles about living in this country that we all share. I feel that much more important than a nationally led debate is the work that is going on at local level in many of these authorities. It is through the practical implications of both the Denham Report and work that Cantle and the panels of experts are doing that there is really innovative work going on now in many of these local authorities. For example, linking schools together. The students in respective schools have hitherto had very little contact, so bringing young people of different communities into really close contact with the police for discussions, finding ways of mediating through the community support teams that we are funding; issues of difference and potential conflict between people in different communities. Some of those mediation schemes are really important vehicles for people starting to discuss at very local level. What are the things that are different about us—because we have different cultural backgrounds? What are the things that unite us—because we are all Bradfordians or we all come from Oldham? It is around that kind of question at local level that I think some of the best work is really being done here.

  Q32  Janet Anderson: Can I finally ask about the language tests that are being proposed? I understand there is a proposal that people will be tested on the basis of individual progress rather than achieving a common standard. Is there likely to be a minimum standard?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, there is. We expect people who have not reached level one on the ESAW to do so. We wanted to encourage people who were at that and who could progress to take up that opportunity. Obviously people who have reached level three and above would not be expected to improve on previous best, although all of us strive on occasions to do so.

  Q33  Mr Clappison: Can I turn to crime, please? The latest crime statistics show a welcome reduction in offences of robbery and one or two other categories of crime as well. They also show an increase in violent crime, a significant increase particularly in the number of rape offences and drug offences. That increase in violent and sexual crime is worrying, is it not?

  Mr Blunkett: I think any statistics that indicate a rise are very worrying. I would like to take the two sets of statistics alongside each other. The British Crime Survey does not indicate a rise in violent crime but the National Crime Recording Standards do. The reason for that is because the Association of Chief Police Officers, in conjunction with Her Majesty's Inspectorate, changed, quite rightly in my view, the transparency of the collection of statistics so that previously undocumented occurrences are now having to be registered and therefore are counted in the statistical database. This does not account for all the changes but it does account for why some very low level activity on Friday and Saturday nights is now being recorded. I want it to be recorded because I want to see what we are going to do about it. If people are being intimidated, if yobbish behaviour on the back of binge drinking is to be tackled, we need to know what the scale of the problem is and we need to be able to make a judgment as to whether we are getting somewhere. It is different in terms of rape. When I made the statement on domestic violence, I drew the point out that there has been a change in the way that the services, including the police, deal with those reporting rape. Therefore, the incidence of reporting has increased. People have increased confidence in doing so. I would be deeply disturbed if I believed that the statistics indicated that rape is on the increase, as opposed to confidence about doing something about it.

  Q34  Mr Clappison: In the interests of transparency, can I take the first of those and try to make it as transparent as possible? What you are saying therefore about violent crime is that yobbish behaviour is being reported as violent crime and that is driving statistics up?

  Mr Blunkett: I am saying that, yes.

  Q35  Mr Clappison: That does not really cast a very good reflection, does it, on the Government's anti-social behaviour policies since it came into office and all the legislation which has been passed which we have heard about, the Anti-social Behaviour Bill which was passed in 1998 and all the rest of it? There is a lot more to be done.

  Mr Blunkett: It would cast a bad reflection if we were comparing like with like. That is why I said, "Let's draw a line on the way in which we adjust statistics" so that from April of this year we can make a judgment as to whether, year on year, those changes are up or down. In the end, what you have to have is a statistically trusted method. You have that with the British Crime Survey. Whether people like the British Crime Survey or not, whether it includes all crime—and it does not—it does reflect more accurately, because the sample is now greater than it was—it is the biggest of any sample survey in the world—whether there has been a change up or down. You can argue about 1% here or there, but it does reflect that. Crime recording does not and did not. Not only that, but the more confident people are, the more police we have on our streets. I think all three political parties are totally committed to this. There is not a party political issue here. The more we have on the streets, the more visible and accessible they are, the more likely it is that people will report. We have to try and have a sensible debate about how we square the circle on this so that if government's policies are not working government can be held to account. If police practice is not working, we can change the practice at local level by using comparative data and persuading them to change their practice. If the statistics have changed, we take account of that. It is just an honest debate about it that I seek so that we get a drubbing and we are in the dock for doing something badly, but we do not when the statistical database has changed.

  Q36  Mr Clappison: Do you accept the perception which is widely held, certainly amongst my constituents, that anti-social behaviour is getting worse and that there should not be an increase in it; there needs to be a reduction in the present high, unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, I share that view entirely, which is why we have set up the Anti-social Behaviour Unit and why we have chosen to bring forward the anti-social behaviour legislation and strengthen the powers of the police, environmental health and housing officers. It is why we have indicated that we think that other measures at local level in terms of substantial investment in reducing truancy and absence from school, because this all adds to the picture of people disengaging from the community; and why getting a grip on both drugs and alcohol is very important. Shortly we will need to bring forward a programme for alcohol abuse because that is a direct driver of the kind of behaviour you and I were just talking about a moment ago.

  Q37  Mr Clappison: Turning to drugs, the statistics for drugs are up significantly as well, up 16% on the national crime recording standard. Do you accept that statistic or do you want to qualify that as well?

  Mr Blunkett: I think that the police intervening—and I hope the new powers in terms of crack houses help with this—means they are doing a better job. The research in terms of what happened in Brixton a year ago demonstrated that when the police prioritise and concentrate on picking up class A pushers and the organised criminals behind them they can have a very dramatic improvement in the number of criminals picked up in that area. We have had this drive for arrest referral for the individuals who are picked up to be referred into treatment. I would praise the police for what they have done in enhancing that. The statistics we are looking at in terms of the usage of drugs in different age groups show that there is a stabilisation. I hope that, when the statistics have been refined, we may even find that there has been a reduction in class A drug usage.

  Q38  Mr Clappison: Certainly there is a perception that there is far too much drug abuse in society.

  Mr Blunkett: We can agree on that as well.

  Q39  Mr Clappison: Can I put another perception to you as well from members of the public, which I think is borne out by your own officials? They feel that far too few of both drug pushers and other types of criminal are brought to justice. The Permanent Secretary acknowledged to us in his evidence last July that the figure was low and that even if the target of 1.2 million crimes for which an offender is brought to justice is achieved by 2005-06 this would still only amount to 10% of crimes as recorded by the National Crime Survey. That is not very good, is it?

  Mr Blunkett: I have made it clear publicly that I think detection, the work that is done on ensuring that the evidence is properly presented, the whole nature of the criminal justice system, should be aimed at getting at the truth and ensuring that those who are perpetrating crime are convicted and those who are innocent should go unblemished. I think that the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill will help with this. Otherwise we would not be passing it. I believe that better practice at each stage of the criminal justice system is required, a reduction in failed trials, late guilty pleas that ensure that witnesses are no longer prepared to turn up for the umpteenth time, the way in which witnesses are treated—all these things help to ensure a conviction. I also want the statistics to reflect—I saw this when I was in New York—the outcome and not just the conviction so that we can register where we have stopped someone reoffending and being reconvicted, not just that we have a notch on the totem pole. That is why arrest referral and the treatment of drug users is so important because we want them to stop using drugs, not simply punish them for having used them.

2   See Ev 20-21. Back

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