Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: I do not accept that. I do not think that the judgment is wrong, and it is important to set the changes in a wider context as well as dealing with the specific issues that have been raised, as I shall now do. I do not intend for a moment to patronise either the outside bodies or the Committee, as I think that the issues are important.

Training is a key issue. People need to be reassured that those who will undertake the role will be properly trained and will have the right skills to do the job. National occupational standards are being developed by Skills for Justice. They will form the basis of an integrated competency framework. I know that that is a bit of jargon, but it is an established way of making sure that we can tell which skills are required for the job and how they relate to the tasks that have to be performed. Centrex, the national centre for policing excellence, which developed a doctrine of good practice, is currently developing guidance that will set out how the national occupational standards are to be achieved. It will establish standards not only for the
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new civilian custody officers, but for existing police custody officers. That will enhance the training that is available to them.

I can understand hon. Members' concerns, which is one of the reasons why, if we proceed down the proposed route, I believe that it is important to undertake a number of pilots to see how the staff custody officer role might work. I am keen for the training to relate not just to theory but to practice. I take on board the points that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made about experience and knowledge, understanding how such decisions arise and the ability to react to them. I envisage the pilots involving not only theoretical training, but the shadowing of experienced officers, learning about judgment and getting a feel for the job.

There is no shortage of volunteers for the pilot projects. Police forces are incredibly keen to take advantage of the opportunity to release some of their custody sergeants from the roles that they now fill.

Mr. Mitchell: The Minister says that police forces are incredibly keen, but will she say who, where, why and what? My understanding is that the Police Federation, which represents enormous numbers of a policemen and women, is adamantly opposed.

Ms Blears: In the consultation, the Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Avon and Somerset, Hertfordshire and Hampshire constabularies and North Yorkshire police and Surrey police were all keen to support the changes. Surrey police is one of the forces undertaking a major work force modernisation pilot, redesigning its basic command unit and considering different people doing different jobs in different places with different skills.

Mr. Mitchell: The Minister listed less than 20 per cent. of the police forces in the country; she got seven out of 42, which might be a significant figure. It is important for the Committee to know whether she was referring to the senior management of those police forces in close liaison with the Home Office or whether the main bodies of those forces were consulted. They will have to implement the decision if Parliament gives her the powers that she seeks.

Ms Blears: I understand that the hon. Gentleman will seek to press the matter. I am also aware of the Police Federation's representations to many Members of Parliament communicating its concerns, which are serious. I hope that the Police Federation will take my comments as a general reassurance that I recognise the importance of the role in question, and the need for independence, integrity and status. The job does not simply involve process. Officers need to be properly trained. Part of that training will involve on-the-job experience and learning from experienced officers. I hope that that will reassure the Police Federation, which has genuine concerns about this matter.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I think that the Minister is genuinely trying to address the Committee's concerns. Will she expand her comments on the training? How
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long do the qualifications take to obtain and for how long does she envisage that the shadowing role will take place? However much training somebody receives, it is not until they have experienced a difficult situation in the cells that they can prove whether they are up to the job.

Ms Blears: I understand the point entirely. The amount of training to be given for roles in the police service is a matter for chief constables because it is an operational matter. The purpose of developing the national occupational standards, the framework and the pilots is to explore the issues that have been highlighted. Until we are absolutely reassured that the job can be done properly and in accordance with the legislation, I do not want to take the necessary step. The hon. Gentleman himself said that if the duties are not carried out properly, there will be a defective case file and an ineffective trial. That is not something that the Government want ever to happen. The length of time involved would be an operational matter for the chief constable. The role in question is a serious one that requires proper training and we do not want policing on the cheap. I am not sure what the pay rates will be, but I would imagine that the job will be complex and not likely to be done for a small amount of money.

I can inform hon. Members that 10 forces have volunteered for the pilot study and that two others are in discussions, so a fair range of forces would like to take part.

Vera Baird: Is my hon. Friend saying that, because of the law in PACE, none of the pilots could be undertaken without changing the law? That seems a realistic approach, in fact.

Ms Blears: Yes, indeed. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the remarks that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made in winding up the Second Reading debate about the Northumbria police work force modernisation pilot. That is an extensive pilot, involving £4.5 million over the next four years. The hon. Gentleman is right; that is a matter of extending the roles of other custody officers within the custody setting. It does not get to the heart of the custody sergeant's role, because until we change the law that must still be carried out by a police officer.

The Northumbria pilot has covered everything but the bit that can no longer be done. That has released 91 full-time equivalent police officers to the front line, getting them out of the custody setting. That has been welcomed by not just the officers, but the people of Northumbria, who have more officers on patrol.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the Minister for correcting the record, because I am sure that if she looks carefully at what I said and what Hansard records, she will see that a misleading impression was given to the House of what was happening. I am glad that she has now taken the opportunity to correct that.

Ms Blears: I do not think that that needs a response.

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I am very pleased with the Northumbria pilot. A full report on the work done there is due next year and it looks extremely impressive to me.

There has been a massive increase in the number of police officers. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made that point. It is the biggest ever increase; there have been an extra 12,000 officers in recent years, and because of that, there have been strains and stresses connected with the need for front-line supervision. The service needs to get some sergeants out into the community, supervising the neighbourhood teams, which are an increasing part of the way in which we organise our police service.

Many sergeants whom I have met have told me that one of the least attractive roles is that of custody officer, because it means being stuck inside and not doing the work in which people want to be involved. Getting those officers out is not simply expedience; it is a matter of playing to their strengths. Many of those sergeants do not want to be in the custody office day in, day out. They joined the police to be out on the beat fighting crime and bringing criminals to justice. That is another reason for the process that we have begun.

I hope that with my undertakings to pilot the system, conduct proper training and invest properly, and my recognition of the difficult judgments that people in the role need to make, hon. Members will have a little courage and take a view that accepts that things can be different. We do not have to do things as we have always done them. We can make improvements by doing things differently. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield; as an independent lay custody visitor—a hugely important role carried out by members of the public—he will have seen some of the difficult decisions that are made.

One of the most important things that we can do to free up our front-line police officers is to redesign the custody process. We have said that, on average, police officers spend about 64 per cent. of their time on front-line duties. In the next three years we want to drive that figure up to something like 73 or 74 per cent. That would release the equivalent of 12,000 extra police officers to look after communities. That is why measures such as the one that I am outlining are important to us. Officers say that one of the most frustrating things to them is the time that they spend in custody. They arrest someone and take them to the custody centre, where it takes for ever to get through. Redesigning the custody process is very important.

I have one final comment to make. I am surprised when Opposition Members ask me who is in favour of the change and say that every sane person is against it. I have looked at the report of the Second Reading debate, in which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said:

    ''The Bill outlines plans for civilian staff to be designated as staff custody officers for the purposes of PACE. Subject to the obvious practical concerns about training and supervision, some of which the Home Secretary dealt with in his speech, I support the proposal. We need more police on the streets and less paperwork, and I believe that it will help to achieve that.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1065.]

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I could not have put it better myself. In addition to the Association of Chief Police Officers, Unison and a range of police services, the shadow Home Secretary supports the proposal. I am amazed at the implacable opposition from Conservative Members in the Committee today. I know that they have difficulties with the Identity Cards Bill—they cannot decide whether they are in favour of it or against it—but I thought that we were fairly sure about where the Opposition stood on the Bill that we are considering. I should welcome some clarification. Perhaps hon. Members would like to consult the shadow Home Secretary on the matter.

5.30 pm
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