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House of Commons

Monday 20 March 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, the Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Custody Cells (Dorset)

1. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): How many police custody cells there are in police stations and courts in the Dorset area; and if he will make a statement. [59221]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): There are currently 58 police cells and detention rooms available in Dorset. The number of police cells is an operational matter for the chief constable and the police authority.Cells in the courts are under the ownership of Her Majesty's Courts Service and are not a police facility.

Mr. Ellwood: The number of arrests in Bournemouth on a Friday or Saturday night has increased, and by midnight Bournemouth police cells are full, which
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means that people arrested after that must be taken to other parts of Dorset. Will the Minister look into why the 16 serviceable cells that are part of the law courts are unavailable for the police to use?

Paul Goggins: May I begin by congratulating the police in Bournemouth on dealing so effectively with people who break the law, by arresting them in greater numbers? I understand that there are quite ambitious plans to improve the number and the quality of police cells in Bournemouth through a scheme that is being worked up. As I understand it, across the whole police force, 83 police cells will eventually be available. The police have to make an assessment about the facilities that they can afford and that are needed at any particular time, but with plans for more cells to be available and the kind of activity the hon. Gentleman outlined with regard to arresting offenders, his police force seems to be going in entirely the right direction.

Probation Service

2. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress with the planned changes to the structure and role of the probation service. [59222]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): We are preparing legislation to restructure the probation service, which we will bring forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Mr. Gerrard: In the consultation on the proposals, four out of 749 responses were in favour of the restructuring proposed. Is it not a fact that most people were in favour of many of the other proposals in that consultation document to do with the need for partnership working, inter-agency working and so on? Would it not be better to concentrate on the aspects that have support than on the issue of contestability, which will end up with staff in the probation service not supporting what we are trying to do?
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Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman is right that many of the proposals had widespread support. In particular, the concept of end-to-end offender management is almost universally supported as one of the tools that we need in order more effectively to protect the public. We will shortly publish the full report on the responses and Members will then see how we are taking forward the issues that we have identified. However, I have to say to the hon. Member—[Hon. Members: "Friend."] I thank hon. Members for the kind reminder. I have to say to my hon. Friend that we remain of the view that ensuring that the services delivered meet the identified needs, which is one of the key issues in contestability, will more effectively deliver probation services.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister knows that hardly a week goes by without another terrible crime being committed by someone released early from prison. Why does not the Minister provide the probation service and the National Offender Management Service with real political leadership and effective and strategic management? We do not need more legislation. We need the Minister to lead that increasingly demoralised service from the front. When will she get on with that?

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to point out the shocking cases where we have failed to protect the public properly, and he is right to say that it is necessary for the ministerial team to lead the service from the front. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty's chief inspector of probation to produce a report following the tragic incident in which Messrs. Hanson and White were responsible for the murder of John Monckton. We have committed ourselves to implementing in full all the recommendations of Her Majesty's chief inspector, and we will make another report to the House about further action that we will take to improve public protection.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not the case that the proposals that the Government are considering were taken wholesale out of the Carter report, and that without any consultation, debate or testing, they plan to implement them without reservation? Is that not a fragile base for major restructuring, and does it not sound the death knell of a publicly accountable probation service in its 100th year?

Fiona Mactaggart: I do not quite understand what my hon. Friend is claiming, because he will have heard his hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) speak earlier about our having received more than 700 responses to our consultation and the fact that we will shortly publish that. A claim that we are ramming through reforms willy-nilly without public consultation on them is frankly not well founded.

I suggest that my hon. Friend awaits publication of the results of the consultation, which will give a clearer direction on how we plan to implement the proposals, and also the forthcoming publication of the contestability prospectus, which will show how we intend to roll out change so that we can ensure that we
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get the best of being able to offer these services to public contest and not merely decide that we know all the answers before we put them into practice.

Police Restructuring

3. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): What representations he has received on the proposed merger of the Essex police with neighbouring forces; and if he will make a statement. [59224]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Home Office received a business case from Essex police force and police authority in December, as well as a large number of other submissions, including, recently, a letter from a number of Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, to which I shall reply today. Since then, Home Office officials, together with experts, have been assessing the various options outlined in that business case to determine which are operationally and financially the most viable.

Those assessments are now complete, and based on them, I announced earlier today by way of written ministerial statement that I am minded to merge Essex with Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to form a strategic force. I am meeting representatives today from those forces and authorities to consider taking forward the option for police that will in my opinion be of greatest benefit to their communities. I will invite the police authorities concerned to respond by 7 April and will then make a final decision on how to proceed in these areas. Clearly, we will continue to have discussions with all key stakeholders, including Members of this House.

Mr. Francois: There will be both anger and dismay in Essex at today's announcement, not least as it transpires that both Kent and Hampshire are being allowed to stand alone, but apparently not us. Can the Home Secretary confirm that the police authorities of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex have offered him a voluntary merger on a Beds and Herts and Essex stand-alone basis? Why did he reject that voluntary offer, which was put to him directly by the police authorities themselves?

Mr. Clarke: As I said, I will discuss later today with representatives of the police authorities and the forces the options for the region. In particular, the reason why we decided on advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary not to go along the line of the Beds-Herts voluntary merger, along the lines the hon. Gentleman suggests, is that its professional assessment is that such a force would not have the capacity to deal with the protective services level that is necessary to protect their people, and by extension, people of the wider region, including those in Essex.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): As the only Labour Back Bencher in Essex, may I say to the Home Secretary that I hope he will think again and acknowledge that there is still an opportunity for me and others to persuade him? The inspectorate would not have taken into account wider Government policy on the Thames Gateway. As a Back Bencher, I am sick and tired of trying to support the ODPM's policy for a Thames Gateway, only to see other Departments go in
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the opposite direction. I have had enough. I think it is time we had a coherent policy from this Government, so that they sing from the same song sheet as they expect me to do. I think it is time we had one Essex—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think the hon. Gentleman was as well to quit when he was ahead.

Mr. Clarke: I shall certainly try to keep going, even if I am not ahead.

The fact is that we made it clear from the outset that our strong preference was to respect Government offices for the regions boundaries in the reorganisation that we did. I say to my hon. Friend that that was one consideration about looking at the Thames Gateway approach, as he advocated. I can give him the confirmation that he wants. We are now in the process of going down a line that could take up to four and bit months for people to make their representations about the proposals that we have. I have no doubt that representations will be made; he has just indicated that he will be among those making representations. Of course, I shall take those representations seriously before coming to the final decision and laying an order before the House.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Many people find it difficult to believe that the Home Secretary will take representations fully into account, because they regard his decision today as completely ignoring the numerous representations against the proposals that his Department has already received. Will the Home Secretary give me a categorical answer to this narrow question: if Essex were to have a properly run referendum on whether it should remain as a stand-alone authority or whether it should be merged, and there were an emphatic vote for a stand-alone police force, would the Home Secretary be prepared to accept the verdict of the people of Essex?

Mr. Clarke: I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical answer, which is no. It is my duty to consider policing protection for the whole of the country—for Bedfordshire and for Hertfordshire as well as for Essex—and that is the basis on which I will examine all the proposals. That is the basis on which I considered the Essex situation, and it is the basis on which I consider all the situations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that whatever views are expressed, I shall take them seriously, but when I consider the policing of the country, I will not be bound by a proposal to hold a referendum in a particular force area that does not look at the wider needs of the whole community.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Home Secretary explain the logic by which Kent on one side of the Thames should remain as a single force while Essex on the other side should be amalgamated with Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, when there is no logical community of interest between, for example, Colchester and Leighton Buzzard? If the case for Essex is as good as that of Kent, why is Kent being left as a stand-alone force while Essex is not?
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Mr. Clarke: I can explain the logic, which I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not grasped. In the south-eastern region, in which Kent is located, there is one set of relationships between forces and their capacity to deal with protective security, and there is another set of relationships in the eastern region. The decision did not involve a comparison between Essex, Kent, Hampshire or any other force; it involved looking at the overall protective security requirement for policing in each Government office region, which is the appropriate and correct stance for us to take.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Just more than a year ago, a joint Home Office-strategy unit report warned that

Why has the Home Secretary ignored the warning in his own report?

Mr. Clarke: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be surprised to hear that I regard the considered view on policing of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary as carrying greater weight than that of the Prime Minister's delivery unit, however expert it may be. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is my duty as Home Secretary. By the way, the Prime Minister's delivery unit would not claim to conduct a rigorous assessment of policing in the same way as Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. My job—as I have done it—is to ask Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to make its assertions, which is what it has done and which is where we stand.

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