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House of Commons

Monday 15 October 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Time

1. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes police officers to return to their beat after making arrests. [157277]

2. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes police officers to return to their beat after making arrests. [157278]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): We are delivering a wide range of measures to enable officers to return to their beat after making arrests more quickly, from better working practices in custody suites to a new £50 million fund to give the police access to 21st-century crime fighting technologies. One such innovation is the 1,000 new mobile computers that we intend to roll out this year, followed by a further 10,000 more next year. Those units, which reduce unnecessary trips back to police stations, have been shown to increase the time officers spend on front-line duties by up to 54 minutes per officer per day.

Lynda Waltho: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I spent part of the summer working with the West Midlands police, and at every level, from superintendent to custody suite, the issue of form filling was raised time and again. Can she reassure me that once information has been put into those computers, there will not be a requirement to repeat and repeat the process? Overwhelmingly, the frustration expressed to me by officers was that they had to repeat the same information on form after form.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am glad that she has been able, through the parliamentary police scheme, to spend time with officers on the front line. One of the major benefits of the mobile and hand-held machines that we are making much more widely available to police forces and individual police officers is the ability not just to enter information, but to have it ready populated into forms, which can then be much more easily transferred into
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other forms or case file preparation. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks; that concern is one of the reasons for the extra £50 million capital investment in this area.

Rosie Cooper: In congratulating Lancashire constabulary on coming top of the policing results last week, will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes for police officers to return to the beat after making arrests? That is a particular problem in my area.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the excellent progress being made by the Lancashire force, which, of course, came at the same time as we were able to publish the police assessments showing that progress is being made across the board in improving policing. She is also right to say that it is important for the increased numbers of police officers, supported by police community support officers and increasingly by civilian officers, to be able to focus their attention on the front line, and be visible and accountable, as local communities want them to be. That is why it is important that we are investing in the increased use of technology, and why we have asked Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary, to look specifically at bureaucracy and what we can do to free up police officers so that they can focus their attention on the front line. We welcome Sir Ronnie’s interim report; we will look closely at his recommendations and at how he develops them in his final report, which we are expecting early next year.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I can tell the Home Secretary that those of us who practise in the criminal courts know that many of the records made are never seen again, and are basically designed to protect the reputation of the police authority against complaints. Given that, I suggest that an awful lot of the records could simply be dictated by an officer on to a secure tape, and not subsequently transcribed unless there is some form of complaint or inquiry. That would save a great deal of time.

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very interesting suggestion, and one of the areas that police officers have identified as time-consuming is case file preparation. That is why considerable progress is already being made in London through the implementation of new guidance on how that progress can be sped up—for example, by saving about an hour and a half in the preparation of each case file. Given that we have made a commitment to look further at how we can extend that process, and how we can make more progress in that area, I am sure that Sir Ronnie will want to consider carefully the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s proposal.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Some of us are sufficiently middle aged to have practised in the courts before the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Appropriate arrests are right, but so are appropriate convictions. Before the introduction of the Act, defence counsel could often secure acquittal simply because police officers had not had the time to write up their notebooks properly and ensure that they got everything in order. When cases came to trial, there were therefore various gaps. There has to be a balance. If we are to
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secure convictions, the paperwork has to be done correctly; otherwise we pay the penalty in the Crown court, down the other end.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman’s words are wise. Of course, as well as the improvements that we hope and believe that we can make to case file preparation, we are also currently considering a review of the provisions of the 1984 Act, precisely to get the balance right between ensuring that convictions, when appropriate, can be secured, and reducing any bureaucracy that is associated with that Act. We have been working on that since March, and have already had many positive suggestions, which we will consider how to introduce.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): F division of South Wales police, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), has introduced a new scheme for prioritising calls to police headquarters so that priorities 1 and 2 go to response teams, priorities 4 and 5 go to community teams and community support officers, and priority 3 calls are picked up by whoever has spare capacity. That prioritisation has reduced the amount of paperwork and previously wasted response time to calls. Could that scheme be taken up by other police forces throughout the country?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which Sir Ronnie Flanagan also made. Sometimes, changes in business processes—for responding to the public and for carrying out policing—can be as effective in helping to free up time as a straightforward look at paperwork. My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal and describes an interesting experience; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would want to consider carefully how it can be shared more widely across the country. As my hon. Friend makes clear, it all depends on the increasing availability of police officers who are focused on our neighbourhoods. That is where neighbourhood policing, to which we are committed and which already covers three quarters of the country, has an important contribution to make.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): After 10 years, five Labour Home Secretaries and five red tape reviews, the police still spend more time on paperwork than on patrol. To the amazement of beat officers, Ministers claim that they have abolished 9,000 forms. Given that the Government have got “previous” on dodgy data, will the Home Secretary today publish the list of those alleged 9,000 forms?

Jacqui Smith: I thought that it would not be too long before the practical and sensible approach that hon. Members of all parties had taken to this issue was destroyed—and I did not have to wait long.

We want to ensure that our increased numbers of police officers spend the maximum amount of time on the beat, doing things that are important for communities. That is why we have not only made changes, including removing forms, but asked Sir Ronnie to examine the matter carefully and ensure that we make even more progress. I note that the police performance assessment framework results published last week show that the amount of time spent on front-line policing has increased
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for the third consecutive year. Not only we, but—more importantly—the communities that the police officers serve will welcome that.

Police Bureaucracy

3. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of progress in reducing police bureaucracy. [157279]

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary suggested, we have made good progress in reducing police bureaucracy, with improvements to, for example, working processes, work force modernisation and using new technology.

Mr. Carswell: What plans does the Minister have for making police forces more locally accountable to ensure that the time police spend on the beat can be determined according to local requirements?

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman knows that one of the key strands of Ronnie Flanagan’s review is local accountability. He has not waxed lyrical on it in the interim report, but he will by the end of the year, or January. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about accountability, he is welcome to submit them to the review; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would welcome his input.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Would not one of the best ways of securing such efficiencies be to give officers the incentive of a reasonable pay settlement this year? Will the Minister remind us of the state of play in the arbitration process, and does he not agree that it is only reasonable for the outcome of arbitration to be binding?

Mr. McNulty: As my hon. Friend will know, the arbitration panel is due to report on 2 November, and it would be entirely unreasonable of me to pass judgment on any aspect of the settlement while it is being dealt with by arbitration.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Can the Minister explain how police bureaucracy has reached such a point that a nine-year-old boy in my constituency fishing out of season in a royal park had to be subjected to the full process of caution, a stop-and-search procedure and the issue of statutory forms in order to be advised to fish at another time of year?

Mr. McNulty: I always take Liberal Democrat renditions of particular stories with a pinch of salt—[Hon. Members: “Renditions?”] Yes, renditions, extraordinary or otherwise. However, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the case, I shall certainly look into it.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does the Minister accept that one of the worst examples of police bureaucracy is the requirement for a senior officer to spend a great deal of time on an appraisal before a suspect can be closely monitored? Such a procedure was thought unnecessary before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998.

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Mr. McNulty: Again, I am not entirely sure that I understand the import of the question. I should have thought that full assessment of whether people should be duly monitored in custody was quite important. If I have missed the point, perhaps we can talk about it afterwards, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and the House receive a full response.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): In the past week the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has said that it is absolutely ridiculous that it now takes two officers an entire tour of duty to process just one arrest, because of Government-imposed burdens. Yet rather than dealing with the bureaucracy, the Government’s solution is to give cautions to violent criminals and issue penalty notices like parking tickets. I do not know whether this is “Life on Mars”, but are not Ministers simply living on another planet?

Mr. McNulty: Sadly, I thought that I could trust the hon. Gentleman far more than I could trust the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when it came to the rendition of particular speeches. That is an utterly unfair characterisation of what I thought was a very good speech by the commissioner, which followed the grain both of what Sir Ronnie has said and of what we have already done, and intend to do, about bureaucracy. I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who needs to decide what planet he is on.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Last year in Surrey, just over 8,000 burglaries were reported, and only 800—10 per cent.—were detected successfully, which means that a burglar had a 90 per cent. chance of getting away with it. Does the Minister agree that that is an appalling figure, and does he think that bureaucracy may have something to do with it?

Mr. McNulty: I think that across a range of crimes, detection rates could and should be significantly higher than they are. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps in remiss fashion, forgot to mention that Surrey has an outstanding force, as was shown by the performance framework last week. None the less, collectively we—central Government, local government and all agencies—need to do more about the detection of all crime, not just burglary in Surrey.

Replica Firearms

4. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): What steps are being taken to tackle the use of replica firearms in criminal activity. [157280]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): As of 1 October, measures from the Government's Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 were introduced which emphasise the Government's determination to crack down on the problem of replica firearms. They include making it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms, increasing the maximum sentence for carrying any imitation firearm in public without reasonable excuse from six to 12 months, and ensuring that only persons aged 18 or over can purchase such replicas.

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Stephen Hesford: I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said so far. The Rhys Jones murder shocked Merseyside and other areas. Some replica firearms can be reconverted to live firearms. We do not know yet whether that process was involved in the Rhys Jones murder, but the murder certainly seems to have been related to rejuvenated firearms and gun culture. In Merseyside, the Liverpool Echo is running a campaign—rightly, in my view—on what more can be done about the link between firearms, replica or otherwise, and gang culture. What further observations can my right hon. Friend make about that issue?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right to say that the murder of Rhys Jones was tragic, and very serious for his community. We all hope that the case will be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. He is also right to say that the case identified something that I had already spoken to the House about in July—our need to focus on serious violence, particularly that which relates to guns and gangs. That is why I have made available £1 million and set up the tackling gangs action plan, and I am pleased that the deputy chief constable of Merseyside police, Jon Murphy, is now leading that work. We are increasing activity in the neighbourhoods in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and London where most gun and gang-related violence occurs. As a result of the way in which local police forces, local authorities and my Government colleagues have engaged in that work, I am optimistic that we will see important results very quickly.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I welcome the action being taken against replica guns, but will the Home Secretary say something about the number of real guns being smuggled into the country? Why are there nine times as many customs officers now dealing with cigarette smuggling as there are dealing with the illegal trade in real guns? Will she assure the House today that any new national border force will have real police powers and the necessary resources to deal with this awful trade in such dangerous weapons?

Jacqui Smith: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have asked the Serious Organised Crime Agency to prioritise investigating the illegal firearms trade, and I am content that that is happening. I am pleased that, as a result of the cross-Government work that is part of the tackling gangs action plan, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has agreed to prioritise intelligence gathering about, and catching, those who are importing firearms. Through the work of those organisations, and the Border and Immigration Agency, in tasking the new unified border force that we will be putting in place, we will be able to have a bigger impact than previously on the international trade in guns, which has achieved a new priority in the work of all those agencies.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): The whole House appreciates the extra measures concerning replica guns, but might there be a real strengthening of border controls so that people know that if they purchase guns legally abroad, it will be illegal to bring them into this country?

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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, I hope that he is reassured that the agencies involved in the trade and border control of guns will be upping their game in this area. Secondly, he raises an important point about the availability of imitation and replica firearms in the rest of Europe. This country has the toughest firearms legislation, and it is right for us to lead the way, as we are in Europe, in trying to strengthen the European weapons directive to cover the production and sale of realistic imitation firearms in other European countries where they can be too easily bought and brought into this country. I pay particular tribute to Arlene McCarthy MEP for leading that work in the European Parliament.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): After the tragic death of Rhys Jones, the Home Secretary made the extraordinary claim that

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