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9 Nov 2004 : Column 227WH—continued

Police (Arrest and Charging Times)

3.30 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): It is my view that we could effectively increase the amount of time that police officers currently spend on the street by 25 or 30 per cent., and today I should like to explain how. First, I pay tribute to the people who work as police officers and prosecutors for the Nottinghamshire constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service. They do an excellent job and I am indebted to them for their advice in briefing me on this speech; any mistakes and the policy I am about to articulate remain entirely my own.

I come to the subject as the result of a specific incident. As part of my police parliamentary scheme, I did a shift—7 am to 4 pm—in a Nottinghamshire police response car. During the day, which I understand was typical, we dealt with just two cases. The first was a minor neighbours' altercation, which I was surprised to see given the priority of a response vehicle visit. However, the second case was responding to an emergency call to arrest an 18-year-old who had smashed a window in a hostel. The officer located the youth on the street and with great skill calmed him down, persuaded him not to run, and put him in the car under arrest. The arrest was made at 11.43 am. That was the end of the officer's day on the street. He spent the rest of his day until he finished his shift at 4 pm processing the arrest.

Surely the role of an expensively trained, experienced response officer using a costly vehicle—I understand that it is £38,000-worth of Volvo plus all the kit—should be to arrest the individual, bring him to the custody section and give a full statement relevant to his specific involvement. The prisoner and the consequent development of a prosecution file should then be handed over to an appropriate responsible individual so that the front-line officer can within no more than an hour or so be back on the street, using his skills and equipment to do the job we all expect of him or her.

Instead, in this instance, the officer had to do the following—I accompanied him every step of the way, so   this is a first-hand account. First, he presented the prisoner to the custody section, helped to fill out the appropriate forms, removed possessions and put the offender in a cell. Secondly, he requested a colleague to get a statement from the people at the scene of the offence. He later had to chase this up and, at the request of other individuals in the chain, require further details on the colleague's statement. Thirdly, he had to type up   his own statement. No copy typist is employed. At one point, three fellow response officers, out of four on duty in the division that day, were doing similar tasks in the police station—one-fingered typing while their vehicles remained parked inside the police station. An experienced copy typist, picking up procedural niceties as they went, could retrieve hours of street time for officers.

The statement, which was now one of several pieces of paper beginning to form a prosecution file, then had to be checked by the largely civilian case progression office. Those working in that office do not take responsibility for a case; they critique the paperwork, requesting additions and changes. That necessitated the officer in
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this instance revisiting the prisoner downstairs in custody and contacting colleagues to collect and collate further information—including, remarkably, being asked to provide the precise dimensions of the window that had been smashed. We then had to visit the arrest investigation team, which is composed of police officers. They, too, requested the officer to undertake various actions.

I was never given a convincing explanation of why a separate CPO and AIT were needed, especially since neither relieved the officer of responsibility for the case. The officer then had to wait in a queue of other officers, who no doubt could have been better employed, to present the file to the Crown Prosecution Service. At that point, the shift ended. I am therefore not sure whether further work was requested by the CPS on another day, or whether there were additional links in the chain that we were yet to reach, because we all went off duty at 4 o'clock.

Police officers have told me that that was a typical experience—indeed, most cases are far more time consuming than that one, which was a very straightforward case, in which the individual had admitted his guilt on arrest and there were no time-consuming care or medical issues. I shall write to the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety about the care and medical issues rather than delay the hon. Members by detailing them today.

When my colleagues and I say to the public that we have more police officers in Nottinghamshire than ever before, which is absolutely true, the public respond, equally correctly, by asking, "Well where are they?" Perhaps the case I have outlined provides part of the answer. It also raises a number of questions.

First, let me say that CPS charging in stations is a very welcome development. No one was satisfied with the previous charging regime, in which the preparation of case papers was often sloppy, many cases were lost when they went to court, and an incredible amount of time of officers, prosecutors, witnesses and others, including victims, was wasted. However, in putting the process right, we must be careful that the pendulum does not swing too far the other way. Why do the police have to complete such a full file in cases such as the one I described? Do regulations need to be made more flexible so that the CPS is empowered or instructed to do   a minimal fast-track file in such cases? Lengthy processes might mean fewer arrests and fewer cases going to court. If only those cases with a 70 per cent., rather than a 50 per cent., chance of winning go ahead, the objective of a higher percentage of cases being successful in court will, of course, be achieved; but if that Government target is achieved at a cost of fewer criminals going in front of the courts and of taking more police off the streets, it will be too high a price to pay.

Secondly, what is the Home Office's expectation of front-line officers? Should we, as one senior police officer told me, expect arresting officers normally to be their own case progression officer? If so, we should be frank with those officers and the public and stop pretending that more officers mean more visible and active street policing, when it does not mean that.

Thirdly, what is the cost of police time? Let us suppose that every officer uses half of his or her time in the way that I described—I was told that the case was
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typical. If so, of Nottinghamshire police's £168 million budget, how many millions go on getting case papers "CPS ready", as the jargon goes—£20 million, £30 million? Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much it actually costs in Nottinghamshire. I am sure that she will write to me if she does not have the figure to hand. Should the CPS be billed for such work or continue to get a massive hidden subsidy from the police budget, suffering no financial cost and therefore having no incentive to speed up or shorten the process when appropriate, as some police officers contend it does. Let us face up to and allocate the real financial costs as well as the operational costs of running the system as we do, so that we can at least make honest judgments about whether it should be done like that, whether it happens by accident, or whether there is a better way to do it if we intend to release the time of front-line police officers.

When the constabulary asks for yet more officers, it seeks public support by implying that extra personnel would be out there on the estates, tackling antisocial behaviour or arresting villains. If, in fact, half of any   additional officers' time is to be spent on file preparation, we should be told; otherwise such a claim could be portrayed as an inadvertent manipulation of the local press. If, however, we expect police station managers to get arresting officers back out on to the streets at the earliest opportunity, the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs need to be very clear about who takes responsibility for case progression once an arresting officer has made his statement and put the offender in custody. Should that responsible person be a civilian, a retired police officer, or some sort of specialist police case progresser?

No national blueprint has been developed for how to do the administrative support work in the custody suite, so all forces have to invent their own wheel. Most of the work does not need police officers, but chief constables are severely constrained from reducing the number of police officers to pay for more people to work in that field. A specialist grade of professional investigator seems to be an obvious solution. Alternatively, might the CPS itself take on the task after arrest and be directly, honestly and openly funded to employ its own staff for case progression?

Before any of the more radical solutions are considered, the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs must now demand that better informal liaison be created between local police officers and local CPS prosecutors. Both sets of people whom I   encountered were working incredibly hard and are   deeply committed to their jobs, yet the degree of misunderstanding between them is massive. Although much can be done at county and divisional level, real progress will be achieved by informal interaction in the canteen and the corridor, which must be generated and promoted.

My attempts to facilitate that at local level have drawn the response that this is "political interference." However, the consequences of failures in the criminal justice system are simply too important to my constituents to be allowed to escape effective scrutiny and accountability, not least by Members of Parliament. The criminal justice system is not some private club of professionals who hide behind professional or judicial independence whenever a question is asked, instead of   confidently engaging in dialogue and explanation.
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Recently, the criminal justice system has been most successful where it has a human face: beat officers, the   drug abuse resistance education project and community-nominated work for young offenders have all been fought for or developed locally, all have a human face, and all involve someone who is known to the public. The least successful aspects of the criminal justice system are those where public interface is shunned or resented. However, public involvement and consultation will fail if they are centrally imposed targets—boxes to be ticked rather than deeply felt and systematic local engagement.

All those involved in the criminal justice system are facing massive cultural change. It is often deeply uncomfortable, but at least we are trying at local level. I commend the efforts of all those on the local criminal justice board, the Crown prosecutor in Nottingham, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire and many others who are at least trying to come to terms with the problems. I wonder if the centre can say the same. The criminal justice system must be re-united with the public whom it is meant to serve, just as police officers must be enabled to do the job that we expect of them.

3.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : I join my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in thanking his local police, Crown prosecutors and the whole team who keep the community that he represents safe. My colleagues and I welcome his efforts to shed the light of public opinion on community safety and to form and build relationships between partners in community safety.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend secured this important debate on the day that the Home Secretary announced the White Paper on police reform, in which we make clear our commitment to spreading effective neighbourhood policing. That type of policing engages not only the officers but the community and community support officers—some of whom, as my hon. Friend knows, I met in Beeston police station—in providing a service that is focused on the needs of us, their customers. We also make clear our determination to modernise the work force—my hon. Friend made some proposals in that respect—and our recognition of the fact that we need greater involvement of communities and the public in holding the police to account. My hon. Friend has described his efforts to obtain that, and I hope that he will be reassured that that is a clear and substantial part of our ambition set out in the White Paper announced today in the House.

Part of my hon. Friend's concern is about administrative burdens—the paperwork and inefficient working practices that keep police officers away from their fundamental job. Although we must emphasise that keeping records is an essential safeguard in the criminal justice system, providing protection for practitioners and the public, we must consider how we can ensure that process-driven requirements place the minimum burden on our police officers. That is why we are establishing a strategic framework to enable police officers to focus on their key role of tackling crime and providing reassurance to the public.

My hon. Friend raised several important points about the statutory charging scheme. The first phase of a new scheme that requires Crown prosecutors to make the
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charging decision in all but the most minor cases is in many places beginning to replicate the significant benefits achieved in the pilot scheme. According to the latest data from the Crown Prosecution Service, the scheme is demonstrating the potential to bring a further 30,000 additional offences to justice each year. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned that that might not happen in his area. I am citing national data, but we need to make sure that we achieve our ambitions in every area.

Charging is just the first step in the new prosecution team approach being adopted by the police and the CPS. The prosecution team ethos means a joint approach by both agencies to improving performance and bringing more offenders to justice. The shadow scheme, under which CPS duty prosecutors have provided advice to police officers on how an offender should be charged, has been judged a success. Measures introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 mean that it is now a legal requirement for the CPS duty prosecutors to make those decisions as police force areas migrate to the statutory scheme. My hon. Friend's area is at a relatively early stage of that migration.

Police have generally welcomed the opportunity to work with the CPS at the early stage of investigations. They see the value of the development of a prosecution team approach with colleagues in that service to ensure that they have the strongest possible cases to present to them. However, I recognise that the processes and the way they work are the real test of whether every area is delivering value. The aim is to establish processes for referral to senior managers in both police and the CPS in the event of disagreement, and those processes are designed to work speedily, but the key consideration is ensuring either that offenders are brought to justice, or that the appropriate method of disposal is achieved.

The aim of early consultation with the CPS is to add value to the charging process. My hon. Friend rightly raised his concerns about the engagement of police officers in what he referred to as getting case papers "CPS-ready", but I would like to think that we have introduced an important structure of closer working for the benefit of the criminal justice system. Its aim is to improve efficiency and effectiveness and, crucially—I know that my hon. Friend and the police and the CPS in his area share this ambition—to bring offenders to justice. I   acknowledge that my hon. Friend has constructive proposals on local case handling, involving clarity of responsibility between police and the CPS, case progress support, and specifying a defined point at which cases should be handed to the CPS. Those are important views, which support the concept of team working that I know he welcomes.

My hon. Friend sort of asked us to produce a blueprint for how the system should work everywhere; he is frustrated that police areas sometimes feel as though they are reinventing the wheel. However, one of the things that pilot schemes have shown is that one size does not fit all. We need to ensure that the impact that charging has made on performance is developed area by area. We want every area to increase the number of cases in which detection leads to successful prosecution. We do not want things to fall off the trail or cases not to be pursued. We want to make it easier to achieve success:
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from the moment that a police officer engages with a criminal, we want to move as fast as possible from detection to successful prosecution and sentencing.

Like me, in 1997 my hon. Friend put through many of the doors in his constituency a pledge card committing us to bring offenders to justice more speedily. We have made significant progress on that pledge. The scheme has the capacity to make much more progress, but we must be sure that it works in detail. In my hon. Friend's area, there will be an assessment of the data in January 2005 to determine the impact of statutory charging on sanction detection rates—that is, what number of cases are successfully prosecuted.

My hon. Friend made a number of proposals about work force modernisation. Our prisoner processing units aim to provide an appropriate level of expertise in dealing with arrests, including specialist prisoner handling staff who can be assigned to receive prisoners from uniformed officers, who will then be free to return to normal patrol or to conduct specific enquiries regarding the suspect. In some cases—for example in the Wiltshire constabulary, which piloted the scheme—the increase in officer availability through their not having to deal with so many detainees reveals that the time spent on preventive street patrols was increased from 22   per cent. to 27 per cent. When well handled, it can work. I understand that my hon. Friend is concerned that it has not worked well enough. However, while I was in his area, I met a number of CSOs. One powerful feature of that team was that they are not withdrawn from the street. While we are getting the process right, we are ensuring that street patrols are being delivered in his area.

We are committed to reducing unnecessary paperwork of the sort that keeps police off the streets. As I have indicated today, that is being taken forward in a number of ways. We are looking at ways in which officers can remain on the street and deal effectively with offenders, including the introduction of fixed penalty notices to allow the officer to get back on to the street more quickly.

In Nottinghamshire, the police and the CPS went live with the new charging arrangements in July. The new arrangements represent a significant cultural shift for    both organisations. The charging programme board remains fully engaged with each of the statutory charging police forces and CPS areas, and is engaged in post-implementation reviews in each area. As my hon. Friend knows, when we met officers last week, we found that many of them thought that the CPS was prosecuting only those cases with a realistic prospect of conviction, and that much of the officers' time was spent queuing up for CPS consideration. On that latter point, Beeston and a number of other stations in the Nottingham area use the central Bridewell court. That results in officers travelling from their station to the Bridewell court from several locations, and there are delays while waiting to discuss their case with the prosecutor. It is an accommodation problem that has resource implications in terms of the number of prosecutors available, but I know that the police and the CPS are looking closely at how to resolve it. The CPS is considering making visits to outlying police stations, but
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we must ensure that it does that regularly enough so that it can provide the accessibility that the officers require.

The second and crucial concern is that the CPS is being overselective in the choice of cases to proceed to charge and that further inquiries being made at the request of the CPS are on behalf of that agency. I have mentioned the assessment process that will be conducted in January 2005 to consider the impact, both positive and negative, in different parts of the country. We know that new arrangements can result in more efficient use of police and prosecution time and that they can increase the number of offenders brought to justice. We must work together on the board, all of whose members are committed to the process, to ensure that that happens in Nottinghamshire. The issues that my hon. Friend raised, which I know are prevalent in Nottinghamshire, will be considered by the policing bureaucracy steering group on 9 December. There are burdens associated with the charging scheme. That is why the steering group will, with the police, the CPS and the courts, examine how best to deal with those issues.

I galloped through those points because I wanted to make it clear to my hon. Friend that his voice, and that of the people who spoke to me and other Home Office Ministers while we were in Nottingham, play a substantial role in ensuring that we engineer the detail of our ambitious programme to bring more people to justice and get more police on the beat in a way that fits the situation on the ground. My hon. Friend suggested that clearer central guidance might help to achieve that. I suggest that an approach that focuses on key themes and clear central relationships being built up and that draws on the experience on the street, which he so clearly described, is genuinely the best way to deliver the efficiency and effectiveness that we want.
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We have ensured that there are more police than ever before in Nottinghamshire. We have added to their number CSOs. We have created a structure that brings together the police, the Crown prosecutors and other aspects of the criminal justice system more closely than previously. We are in the early stages of some new parts of that relationship and it will not always go wonderfully in every respect. However, we know from the pilots that they can produce radical change that means more offenders being brought to justice and more police having more time on the streets. That is what we are seeking to achieve. Our visit to the east midlands proved my next point more powerfully than all the speeches that Ministers can make: it is from the bottom up, by testing new procedures, that we can guarantee that our ambitious plans are delivered in practice. Creating a single central blueprint creates the risk of not policing individual communities properly.

Mr. Allen : The Minister is being generous in her reply. I know that she is not suggesting this, but it would be perverse if we had less well trained CSOs on the front line because trained police officers were tied up with duties in police stations. Might it not be a good idea to have relatively untrained officers doing the investigation in stations on behalf of the CPS, and fully fledged, well trained officers out on the ground, where we have paid them to be?

Fiona Mactaggart : There is a team approach. On work force modernisation, I accept my hon. Friend's point that civilians could take over some roles that are currently undertaken by police officers. We have made substantial improvements in civilianisation, but we should not reduce the value of CSOs, who have a special relationship with the neighbourhoods that they serve.
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