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Mr. Amess: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many special constables will attend the National Special Constables Weekend on 2527 February, broken down by constabulary; and if he will make a statement. 
Ms Blears: Special constables are volunteers. Forces in England and Wales are inviting all their special constables to make themselves available for duty over the weekend but it is not known at this stage how many will be available for deployment.
Mr. Amess: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what the estimated cost for the National Special Constables Weekend from 25 to 27 February is; and if he will make a statement. 
Ms Blears: Special constables are volunteers who can claim allowances to cover out of pocket expenses incurred in connection with their police duties . There may be some marginal increase in the cost of allowances claimed as a result of having greater numbers of specials on duty over the weekend. These costs and the cost of organising events, marketing, advertising and so on, will be met from within existing force budgets.
Ms Blears: Regulations 4 and 5 of the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2004 define the circumstances in which an officer may be suspended. The decision to suspend officers up to and including the rank of Chief Superintendent is taken by the chief officer of the force; for officers ranked higher than Chief Superintendent the decision lies with the police authority.
Home Office guidance states that the decision to suspend should be taken only when the presence of an officer on duty may be detrimental to criminal or disciplinary investigations or proceedings, or when it is in the public interest to do so. This will normally apply only in cases where the complaint or allegation is of a serious nature likely to result in disciplinary or criminal conviction, and an officer is likely to be dismissed, required to resign or reduced in rank.
In total, 81 of 138 prisons were considered to be overcrowded at the end of December 2004. No prison exceeded its operational capacity which is the total number of prisoners that can be held in an establishment without serious risk to good order, security and the proper running of planned regimes.
Mr. Bellingham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to establish the independent monitoring of (a) performance and (b) market testing in the Prison Service; and if he will make a statement. 
Paul Goggins: Performance testing is used by the Prison Service as a means of improving the performance of underperforming public sector prisons. Market testing is a delegated responsibility of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and can be applied to all prisons, whether publicly or privately managed. Under market testing the bids made in each competition are assessed by an evaluation panel which includes independent members. Performance testing and market testing processes are liable to be the subject of regular scrutiny by Parliament, the National Audit Office, and other independent bodies and there are no plans to establish any additional independent monitoring of these processes.
Mr. Bellingham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to extend (a) performance and (b) market testing within the Prison Service; and if he will make a statement. 
Paul Goggins: Those establishments that have successfully completed performance tests have delivered substantial improvements in performance and value for money. The improvements are evident across a range of indicators, including better regimes with more positive outcomes for prisoners, progression in published performance ratings and in reports from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.
The progress of the five prisons market tested since 1999 is continuously assessed through the operation of the relevant contract or Service Level Agreement. The role of the public sector controllers in monitoring contracts with the private sector and that of the public sector monitors in monitoring Service Level Agreements with public sector prisons is central to the assessment process.
Paul Goggins: Prison governors keep staffing levels under regular review. During the last two years, the public sector Prison Service has been successful in attracting new prison officer recruits. 2,420 new officers were recruited in 2003 (an increase of 50.5 per cent. on 2002), and 1,983 officers were recruited in 2004. Leaving rates are currently less than four per cent per year across the service. There are a range of reasons why vacancies may occur in individual prisons, including retirements, exits, promotions and transfers, and the time taken for the recruitment and training processes.
It is not realistic to expect staffing levels to exactly match the operational staffing requirement at any particular time. However, at 31 January 2005, the difference between the total operational staffing availability in the public sector Prison Service (including officers working contract supplementary hours) and the operational staffing requirement for prison officers, senior officers, principal officers and operational managers was just one per cent (269 full-time equivalent officers against an operational staffing requirement of 25,704). The Director General considers this to be an acceptable operating margin.
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