The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate. She has raised an issue that is of concern locally and to her, and I am glad that she has had an opportunity to raise it in a characteristically forthright way.
Let me give some of the background to the decision to close Bruche and the other training sites that my hon. Friend mentioned. Given the points that she raised and the copious correspondence between her and Home Office Ministers, I should say something about how the decision was made.
Until recently, police probationer training was split between an officer's home force and the Central Police Training and Development Authority, known as Centrex. Once officers are recruited, they undergo two weeks of induction and familiarisation in their own forces. They are then sent to Centrex for 12 weeks' residential training, which is followed by a couple of weeks in their own forces learning about local procedures before they go out on patrol with a tutor constable for 10 further weeks.
That system is now changing. In the summer of last year, five forces began piloting the initial police learning and development programme. That moves stage 2the residential stage with Centrexback into the force. Officers learn in their own force and their own community, often in conjunction with members of that community. That is a huge change in the system and the culture, but I believe that it will help to foster a meaningful connection with police officers in training and the communities that they will serve. It is important for the police service to develop a culture of training and qualification so that we have a fully professional service. I am pleased to say that the Adult Learning Inspectorate has evaluated the effectiveness of the pilots. It considers them to have been highly successful, and welcomes the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff involved in the programme.
Working to identify and address the huge challenges involved in the change, the Government and the police service are rolling the programme out across all the forces in England and Wales. Thirteen forces have already gone live, and nine more will adopt the same
9 Nov 2005 : Column 445
approach over the next five months. From April next year, the remaining 21 forces will be ready to go live. We are changing pretty dramatically the way in which probationer police officers are trained. One of the main consequences of that approach is that officers will no longer be sent to Centrex for their initial training. The last probationer officers to go through the old system will leave Centrex on 26 May next year.
Centrex has a number of sites around the country. Three have been used almost exclusively to provide foundation training: Ashford in Kent, Cwmbran in south Wales and Bruche in my hon. Friend's constituency. There are two other sites, Ryton near Coventry and Bramshill, where Centrex's headquarters are sited. They will continue to be used for other purposes because they are multi-functional sites.
For all those reasons, the chief executive of Centrex and his senior management team have been considering the future needs of the Centrex estate for some time. They reached what I judge to be the entirely logical and sensible conclusion that there was no value-for-money argument for retaining the three sites at Ashford, Cwmbran and Bruche. On 21 July, the Centrex board considered a paper from the chief executive that recommended the closure of the sites. I should explain that the board consists of a number of independent members, including the chair, and includes representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and the Home Office.
The Centrex board agreed with the recommendation from the chief executive that the sites should be closed. Home Office Ministers were made aware of the decision as soon as it was made, and the chief executive then informed the staff. He wrote to staff, spoke to them directly by means of a DVD, and later visited each site in person to discuss the implications with them.
Police staff at the three sites have been given notice that their posts are likely to become redundant by 26 May 2006. On or before that date, up to 175 seconded police officers will return to their forces. Forty of those officers are employed at Bruche, and 40 further police staff at Bruche have been given notice that they are likely to be made redundant. In addition, between 30 and 40 subcontracted workers involved in security, catering and so on face redundancy.
Shortly after the chief executive informed the staff, he contacted Members of Parliament representing the areas affected to make them aware of the announcement. A public announcement was made once staff had been informed, and the head of Bruche training centre also wrote to local residents.
I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that Home Office Ministers apologise for any difficulties or misunderstandings that occurred as a result of correspondence, particularly the letter sent on 13 July by the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). That reply followed a conversation between the Minister and my hon. Friend, in which she raised some of the concerns that she has outlined this
9 Nov 2005 : Column 446
evening. It is true that in that letter, my right hon. Friend said that
Of course, when she wrote that letter on 13 July, that was true. Although discussions were taking place within Centrex, no decision had been taken, and none was taken until 21 September. As my hon. Friend pointed out, such a decision is entirely a matter for Centrex, as a non-departmental public body; indeed, Home Office officials were informed of it only after the meeting on the morning of 21 July concluded. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister has been able to write since and to set the record straight.
My hon. Friend also raised the concern that the timing of the announcement, which was made on the day that this House rose for the summer recess, was such as to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Minister explained in her letters, and in answer to parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend, that the decision was taken by the Centrex board on the morning of 21 July. Quite apart from the fact that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it would have been impossible to make an announcement about a decision that had yet to be taken, it would of course have been wrong to make a public announcement until the staff themselves had been made aware of that decision. My hon. Friend will agree that it would also have been wholly unfair to hold back that decision or any announcement until October, when the House returned from its recess.
Helen Jones: I understand what the Minister is saying, but does he agree that what happened was at the very least unfortunate, and will he give an assurance that the Home Office will do its best to avoid such things happening again in future?
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, because it is precisely the one that I was going to make. This was not in any way an attempt by Ministers to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. However, there is a lesson to be learned here for Government agencies, including non-departmental bodies of this kind. When they are taking such key decisions, they should have half an eye on the fact that Ministers and Parliament may need to be informed, and they should also keep an eye on the parliamentary calendar. Although I cannot give specific assurances about particular bodies, this is a lesson that the Home Office and perhaps other Departments can learn. We need to ensure that a connection is made between decisions taken outside Government Departments, and the importance of Ministers being accountable and able to explain those decisions.
I turn to the future use of the site, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. Rumours circulated that plans were already in place to turn the centre into one for use by asylum seekers. As she has made clearI thank her for doing so in the manner that she didthere are no such plans, as my right hon. Friend the Minister also pointed out. No decision has yet been taken about the future use of the site. The centre will be in use and fully
9 Nov 2005 : Column 447
operational until roughly the middle of next year. It will of course need to be put up for sale before we can know who is likely to purchase it. Only then will we begin to know its possible future uses.
My hon. Friend rightly points out that any future change in use would require planning permission. It is important that both she and local councillors in the area are fully committed to consultation with local residents on any proposals. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her colleague councillors for the assiduous way in which they will follow up this issue.
Finally, my hon. Friend is quite right that the staff of Brucheboth the current staff and their predecessorsshould be commended for the tremendous work that has been done over many years. They have trained many thousands of police officers, who have worked in my hon. Friend's, my own and many other constituencies. We are deeply grateful for that. We owe them a debt of gratitude and all the help and support that we can provide to enable them to find alternative employment. It is important that Centrex adopt a positive and
9 Nov 2005 : Column 448
proactive approach to providing support and help for those trying to find new posts. That will include consulting Jobcentre Plus. I noted my hon. Friend's comments about other local economic development agencies. No stone should remain unturned in our efforts to find suitable employment. Centrex is taking a number of initiatives: paying for a consultant to work with the staff, opening a careers room, offering other employment training opportunities and developing links with other local employers.
In closing, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that every effort will be made to ensure that those who face redundancy can work through this period. Hopefully, with some new skills and new opportunities, they will be able to find local employment. As my hon. Friend rightly says, they have bills to pay and families to keep, so we are obliged to try and help them to remain in employment.