Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Rt Hon David Blunkett, Secretary of State for the Home Department

  Following my evidence session before your committee on 11 September I undertook to write on a number of issues that couldn't be resolved at the time.

  At the start of the meeting I undertook to write to Ann Widdecombe regarding the alleged break out of asylum detainees from the Immigration Removal Centre in Dover and the issue of illegal working in King's Lynn. Beverley Hughes wrote to you on these matters on 20 October ahead of her evidence session before the Committee the following day and I will not repeat them here.

  Bob Russell raised the issue of suicides in prison and the apparent reduction in the installation of safer cells from 2,700 last year to 800 this. Hilary Benn's Written Answer to Bob Russell of 20 January last year confirmed, "To date installations have been carried out to provide 2,100 adult male and 610 juvenile and young offender safer cells. In addition a further 880 adult male safer cells are planned to come on line in 2003-04". This was in answer to his Question covering deaths over the previous five years. The very small reduction in suicides in the last 12 months indicates a stabilising of the situation but we accept there is much more to be done.

  To place in context the numbers of safer cells being introduced across the prisons estate, this needs to be seen in the light of the Prison Service's strategy to develop new policies and practices to reduce prisoner suicide and manage self-harm in prisons. Safer cells can complement, but not replace, a regime providing care for at risk prisoners. Increasing the number of safer cells and making safer cell and reduced risk cell furniture more easily available to establishments should be seen as useful tools to support at-risk prisoners, rather than policy objectives in itself.

  Over the past few months the emerging policies have been reviewed in consultation with partner organisations and agencies, taking into account pilot project evaluations and research findings, including the results of an independent review of safer cells by the Jill Dando Institute (JDI). The Prison Service Investment Board, who considered the JDI report, has recommended that the use of safer cells remains valid and investment in them should continue as previously planned.

  In the meantime, the number of safer cells planned for installation during the next 12 months remains as 122, with a further approximate 1,100 due for installation in 2005 as part of the construction of the new prisons at Peterborough and Ashford.

  You asked us 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.

  Staff numbers for the Home Office Group are published annually in the Annual Report (tables 6(i) and 6(ii) in the 2003 report), but these do not distinguish between those carrying out policy, administrative, front line, or indeed other functions, for example inspection. We also collect data on staff on a regional basis, but the number in the central London headquarters has only been collected through ad hoc exercises. The data is, therefore, insufficient to provide a precise answer to the committee; however, we can supply the following:

  In 1996-97 the central Home Office (excluding IND) numbered some 4,100 full-time equivalent staff, including secondees and agency staff. A review conducted in September last year identified that there were 4,715 staff on the same basis. During that time there has been considerable change within those totals, with machinery of Government changes and a focus on front-line delivery to reflect policy developments such as the creation of the National Probation Directorate.

  The Immigration and Nationality Department grew from 5,330 to some 15,000 in June last year. This is because of the transfer of responsibility to the Home Office of asylum support and Work Permits UK, the expansion of managed migration policies and the increase in the number of asylum seekers. You will know we had to considerably increase the number of caseworkers employed by IND to deal with the failure of the computer system and the backlog we inherited from the previous Conservative government. I am pleased we have now done this so the backlog is the lowest for a decade and 80% of new initial decisions are now reached within two months, compared to 20 months in 1997.

  Over the same period, the Prison Service grew from 38,420 to 45,500. This reflects the growth in the prison population from (55,250 to over 74,000). At the same time, we have carried out a sustained programme of investment in the Probation Service to develop far more effective community punishments and reduce re-offending. We inherited a Probation Service that was grossly understaffed for the vital function it performs for the public and have increased its staff by 4,300 (from 14,700 in 1997-98 to 19,000 in 2003-04). Of course, with regards to the central prison and probation staff in London we are examining decentralisation as part of the Government's overall approach to devolving staffing to the regions and localities as I announced in my statement to the House on 6 January this year.

  Finally, as you will know, we have substantially increased police numbers from 127,160 in 1997 to a record 136,390 officers at the end of August 2003. This increase has been widely welcomed and supported. This does not include an additional 2,000 community support officers, recruitment for which commenced in September 2002.

  The committee also asked about how far the number of Home Office staff exceeds the figure that 2 Marsham Street was planned to accommodate. When Best and Final Offers were invited in 1998, the number of staff in the non-IND Home Office in central London and the Prison Service headquarters was expected to reduce to 2,920 by 2001. Marsham Street will now accommodate some 3,450 staff. In September there were some 3,750 Home Office headquarters staff in central London, including the National Probation Directorate, and 1,330 staff in the Prison Service headquarters. As indicated in my statement to the House referred to above, the creation of a unified National Offender Management Service will allow us to substantially slim down headquarters' functions and where appropriate decentralise.

  The final outstanding issue relates to the analysis of Sections included in Home Office legislation but not enacted. You stated that you believed there to be about 250 Sections not implemented in legislation passed since 1997. Research from our Department Library and Legal Advisors has shown 197 sections. Although I do not have access to the methodology you used, I assume the discrepancy is most probably an outcome of trying to simplify a very complex answer, such as whether a Schedule is counted as one even if it has, for example, six paragraphs not in force. In evidence to the Committee I stated that seven parts of Bills had not been implemented. I would like to clarify that the figure I gave referred specifically to key Parts within the five main Criminal Justice Legislation Acts passed since 1997 and not to all Bills passed since that date.

  There are, of course, good reasons why not all legislation is put in use immediately; I am keen that wherever possible, legislation looks ahead to problems that need to be addressed and that through consultation and proper planning, we implement laws in the most effective way.

  For instance S.64(1) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 that extends police powers in certain respects will not be implemented until High Court Rules governing the Section have been made. As you know, there are also sections of the Police Reform Act 2002 which are not yet in force concerning the establishment of the new Independent Police Complaints Commission which will begin operating in April this year. The relevant sections of the Act will come into force on 1 April. There are some further important sections of the Act not yet in force concerning powers to suspend chief officers which are presently subject to negotiations on a protocol with the Chief Police Officers Staff Association, a provision you agreed during the passage of the Act.

  Equally, sometimes powers are held in reserve until certain situations arise. An example in this respect is in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 where there is a provision to penalise the newspaper industry if they reveal the identity of a juvenile offender—as this event has not occurred the power has not been used.

  Occasionally there are unintended consequences within Acts that, despite extensive scrutiny, were not anticipated. For example S.38 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 was intended to bring the law up to date and to allow the police to deal more effectively with crackhouses. Subsequently the Government carried out a consultation exercise and many respondents from the homeless and treatment sectors felt they would be liable to prosecution if Section 38 was implemented, Ministers and officials worked closely with colleagues in other government departments in finding a practical way forward. The result is the new powers in Part 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 which grant the police the power to close premises being used for the unlawful supply, use or production of Class A drugs where there is associated nuisance or disorder. Following commencement, the use of the anti-social behaviour powers shall be considered and if necessary Section 38 reviewed.

7 January 2004

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