Bruche Police Training Centre

– in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North 8:32 pm, 9th November 2005

After the excitements of today, my hon. Friend the Minister and I come along like sweepers-up after the Lord Mayor's procession. I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the closure of the Bruche police training centre and its effect not only on the people who work there but on those who live in the surrounding area.

The training centre at Bruche has been a feature of Warrington life for a good many years. It provides the residential stage 2 of foundation training for probationary officers. It is a large site that caters for the needs of several police forces and employs, I believe, 60 people directly, with about 55 working for contractors. I say, "I believe", because it has proved extremely difficult to get accurate information from Centrex on such matters. There are also 70 police officers stationed there, as well as about 10 security staff.

Because of the position of the site in the midst of local housing, the prospect of its closing became a matter of concern to staff and to people in the area when it appeared that changes to police training meant that recruits would no longer be sent for residential training at regional centres. However, it has proved extremely difficult in the run-up to the announcement of closure to get accurate information about what Centrex plans to do. I had raised the matter on several occasions, but I reverted to it with a number of parliamentary questions, which I tabled in July last year because the staff from the centre had approached me, greatly concerned about their future.

Unfortunately, answer came there none from the Home Office. I wrote again in August and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I received a reply on 18 November. It stated:

"It has not proved possible to respond to my hon. Friend in the time available before Prorogation."—[Hansard, 18 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 2080W.]

That is extraordinary. If the Home Office cannot answer a simple question in more than four months, I worry about the rest of its work. On 26 November that year, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, in which she apologised for the delay and said that the Home Office had lost sight of the questions over the summer months.

The letter raised more questions than it answered, however. It said that the matter had been given detailed consideration over the summer. If that was true, I do not understand why I did not receive an answer to my question in November. The letter was unenlightening in other respects. It said that Centrex had been discussing what should happen to police training with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and other stakeholders. I am never sure what "stakeholder" means. It is one of those words that, like some of Lewis Carroll's verse, means whatever one wants it to mean. The letter mentioned neither the trade unions at the centre nor the staff. They were not mentioned in a parliamentary answer that I received later that month.

I was approached again by the staff, who were concerned that they could not get information about what was happening. I tabled another question to ask who had been involved in the meetings and what options for the future of the centre had been discussed. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be pleased to hear that the Home Office answered that. I suppose that that is a step in the right direction. However, I was not much further enlightened because, again, there was no mention of what was happening or of any negotiations with the staff. That is unacceptable. The staff have families to keep and bills to pay, just like the rest of us.

I know that the Home Office will say that that was the responsibility of Centrex, but it cannot be shrugged off in that way because, after all, Centrex is a non-departmental public body which manages public assets and has strong links to the Home Office. If no one at the Home Office asked what steps were being taken to consult and inform staff, they should have done so. They should be reminded that we are in the 21st century with a Labour Government, and it is unacceptable to treat people in that way.

The failure of Centrex to be open about what was happening caused a great deal of consternation in the local area. The centre is set in the middle of a lot of local housing. Rumours circulated about what would happen to it. That allowed some evil-minded people to spread the rumour that it would be turned into an asylum centre. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety quashed that rumour in a letter to me on 13 July this year. However, the anxieties remain and they need to be tackled.

Not only was Centrex less than open about its plans, it sometimes actively misled people. In November last year, it told the Warrington Guardian, my local newspaper, that the centre was "absolutely not" closing in 2006. In the same letter on 13 July, in which my right hon. Friend dealt with the rumour about the asylum centre, she wrote that

"there are currently no immediate plans to close the Bruche training centre."

A week later, on 21 July, Centrex sent out an e-mail at 6.4 pm—only four minutes after the House had risen for the summer recess—announcing the closure of three training centres, including Bruche.

I find it astonishing that a public body should behave in that way. I can think of no explanation for that other than a desire to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. That is not surprising when Centrex and the Minister—presumably relying in good faith on what it had told her—previously said something entirely different. Centrex also wrote to me on 21 July announcing the closure. In that letter, it responded to a letter that I had sent to it on 26 June. However, it responded to it in a postscript, which I am afraid is typical of the kind of dismissive attitude that my constituents have had to put up with all the way along.

I am sorry to say that that kind of attitude extended even into parts of the Home Office. When I rang the private office of the Minister of State the day after the announcement, I received what I can only describe as a curt dismissal. I asked to speak to the Minister and was told that she was in her constituency. When I suggested that her staff contact her—she was in Salford, after all, not Timbuktu—I was told that I should write in. To her credit, the Minister did telephone me, albeit a week later when I was no longer around. However, I have to say that I have never before encountered that sort of behaviour from the private office of a Minister. It is entirely unacceptable for Centrex and the Home Office to behave in this way when we are talking about people's livelihoods and the future of their communities. I hope that this can be prevented from happening again.

I wrote again to the Minister on 26 July—there has been a lot of correspondence on this matter—to ask why I had been told that there was no immediate prospect of the centre closing, when in fact the announcement was made a week later. I also raised my concerns about what I saw as an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. The answer that I received was very revealing. It said:

"Given the timing of my letter and of the announcement, it would have been more accurate to have said that no decision had yet been taken."

It certainly would. However, I give Ministers credit by assuming that, if they sign a letter, they will have checked the facts and that that is what they have been told. We need to know what happened to change matters between 13 and 21 July. Until that is cleared up, we are all left with the impression that Centrex has been, and is continuing to be, less than frank about its plans.

I was also concerned about what was said in that letter about parliamentary scrutiny. It said that the decision to close the centre had been taken at the Centrex board meeting on the morning of 21 July. It went on to say:

"The timing of the announcement relates only to the timing of that decision."

But it does not. If the decision was taken in the morning, I can see no reason to wait until just after the House had risen for the recess to announce it. I have asked for the reason, and I was told by the Minister that she was

"certainly clear that Centrex had not timed the announcement to avoid parliamentary scrutiny".

If the Home Office is "certainly clear" about that, it needs to give me the information as to why, because I have not had it, and neither have the people I represent.

I received a letter dated 5 September, signed by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Andy Burnham, in the absence of the Minister of State. The explanation that I was given was that

"it would have been unacceptable either to make an announcement before the board had made a decision or to delay the announcement until after the parliamentary recess."

Frankly, that is Home Office gobbledegook. A decision cannot be announced before it has been taken, and no one suggests that it can. However, there was an alternative—a third way, if you like. It could have been announced when the House was sitting.

I am equally concerned that that letter shows an unacceptable attitude towards parliamentary scrutiny. It goes on to say:

"I do not believe that it is an announcement that needed to give consideration to parliamentary timetables".

I beg to differ. When my constituents are losing their jobs, and when decisions are being taken that will affect a whole area, it is not only the right but the duty of their Member of Parliament to raise the matter in the House. My constituents would expect no less. I am very disappointed that any Minister should think differently. That was a most unfortunate turn of phrase to use.

Because of all this, and because of the way in which Centrex has behaved since the announcement, it is difficult to have faith in what it is doing. I still have staff approaching me who are very demoralised about what is happening, and people who live in the area are deeply concerned. The chief executive of Centrex wrote to me in August to say that he had briefed the staff on what was happening, and that he had set up a programme board. He did not, however, answer any of the points that I put to him about what was happening to the staff or about the future plans for the site. He told me that I would get information about those matters at the appropriate time. I happen to think that the appropriate time to answer queries from a Member of the House is when they are asked, not when some unelected person decides to answer them. That is treating my constituents with a fair amount of contempt, which is unacceptable.

Since then, Centrex has not engaged with the local council's redundancy support service, the job centre or our economic development authority, until yesterday, when it sent an e-mail to the council in response to an e-mail that had been sent weeks earlier, saying that it looked forward to working with Warrington borough council. It is a miracle what getting an Adjournment debate can do, but I would prefer not to have to have one every week to ensure that that process continues.

The sad thing is that we have a good record in Warrington of getting people into jobs following redundancy, but engagement between all the partners involved is needed. If I make a comparison with what happened when Marks and Spencer closed a call centre in my constituency, there was immediate engagement with all the partners in the area, and we had a lot of support from my right hon. Friend Mr. Byers, who was then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I expect a public body to do no less than that.

I want to turn to the future of the site. As I said, it is surrounded by housing, with only very limited access. When it was transferred to Centrex, I understand that the written-down value was £3 million. It might now be worth much more, depending on the future use of the site. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can tell me what will happen to any windfall profits from that, whether local people will be able to benefit in any way, and whether any of that will be used to help to find jobs for the staff involved.

There is a further problem, however. As well as the rumours that have circulated about this site, there is a real concern about over-development in the area, which I believe is well founded. The adjoining roads already have a lot of traffic problems. For any future development at the site, we need proper community engagement. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in one of the numerous letters that we exchanged, the date of which now escapes me, that she was

"keen that there should be proper community engagement" in any future planning application. I would like to see that keenness translated into reality, however. Although I know from the parliamentary answer of 17 October that Home Office officials and Centrex have had discussions about the future of the site, there has been no contact with the local planning department, let alone with people in the community.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will accept that this matter has so far been very badly handled. It has not increased confidence, either in the staff or the community, about what Centrex will do in the future. We now need to put that right. I hope that he can assure me that he will ensure that Centrex now engages with all local partners in order to make sure that the proper procedures are in place to find jobs for people who are made redundant at that site. Far from dismissing concerns raised with it, I hope that it will now engage with the local community and have a proper discussion on what should happen there in future, so that whatever is done with the site, it can be for the benefit of the local community and not to their detriment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 8:49 pm, 9th November 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 2—the residential stage with Centrex—back 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 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 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 evening. It is true that in that letter, my right hon. Friend said that

"there are currently no immediate plans to close the Bruche training centre".

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.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

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?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

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 clear—I thank her for doing so in the manner that she did—there 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 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 Bruche—both the current staff and their predecessors—should 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 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.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Nine o'clock.