Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:58 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State (Criminal Justice and Offender Management), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 1:58, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I am happy to write to noble Lords about the detail of the consultation that we had with the authorities. The noble Lord will be aware that the primary responsibility for this would have been with my right honourable friend Hazel Blears. I do not today have the details of exactly how the consultation was carried out, but I would be happy to write to noble Lords about that, so that there can be a better understanding.

One has to understand the context in which consultation takes place in these circumstances. One does not want improperly to interfere in the way in which the police authority operates. The police may want to consult the public in that regard. We can make suggestions, but it would be invidious if we were to be prescriptive. My impression—I make it clear that it is an impression—is that there was an informed and constructive debate, which is the key to the success of a reform programme of this scale.

We also have to put this against the background of the enormous investment that has been made into policing in this country since 1997. On a like-for-like basis, expenditure on policing supported by government grant across England and Wales has increased since 1997 by 27 per cent in real terms and by 53 per cent in cash terms, or by over £3.7 billion. We have seen a 35 per cent reduction in overall crime since 1997 and the fact that the chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest since the British Crime Survey began in 1981 is an indication of the hard work that has been invested by all in the system to deliver those results, which have been achieved through partnership.

I want to touch on one of the issues raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, in relation to how the police operate with the Crown Prosecution Service and what we are doing about training. One of the consequences of the partnership working is that the CPS is now responsible for charging, which means that the police have available to them some quite expert legal advice on a continuing basis. The whole idea of learning together and sharing information is becoming embedded in the way in which we work, because we have discovered that in that way lies success. I want to reassure noble Lords about that.

I add in response to the pertinent point that the noble Viscount made that the service should reflect the people whom it serves. We have invested considerable effort in trying to make sure that that occurs. I give an absolute assurance to the noble Viscount that the energy that we have invested in that will continue. We wish to see a better representation—the 7 per cent, which would better reflect the communities that are being served.

Under the current 43-force structure, the police service has made significant strides, as everybody has identified, in dealing with level 1 volume crime. Success at this level has been driven by strengthening local policing, which is structured around the basic command unit and which will be preserved. My noble friend Lord Mackenzie is absolutely right in saying that the basic command unit will deliver the face-to-face local policing with which ordinary members of the community are likely to interface. He is also right to say that the strategic overview is not likely to be something that the individual citizen on the street will be too exercised about, provided that the quality of the policing is there. Therefore, because of our commitment to build on achievements at the local level, as demonstrated by a commitment to provide dedicated, visible, accessible and responsive neighbourhood policing to all areas by 2008, the public will get the advantage referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, when he said that if you take something away, you have to make sure that people get back something real, positive and effective. We are absolutely determined to do that.

Notwithstanding the success that we have all celebrated this afternoon, attained through our overall reform programme, we are committed to further improvements to develop a police service fit to tackle the complexities of 21st-century crime. We understand that the criminal landscape has changed significantly over the 30 years of the current policing structure. There is a clear professional acknowledgement of the need to address the changing landscape by addressing gaps in level 2 protective services.

As noble Lords know, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary highlighted those, but the findings were stark; it is easy to forget how stark. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, rightly spoke about that from her experience, but we need to take those findings seriously. They indicated that less than 6 per cent of more than 1,500 big, organised crime gangs are targeted by police in a year. The majority of forces did not have fully resourced specialist murder units, and only seven out of the 43 forces deploy Special Branch alongside neighbourhood teams and capture community intelligence. These are all due to the lack of capacity and capability within the current police force structure to tackle effectively level 2 crime.

To address this, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has recommended the development of strategic forces in order to equip the police service to provide effective level 2 protective services, which include serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism, domestic extremism, civil contingency and emergency planning, critical incident management, major crime, homicide, public order and strategic roads policing. I am pleased to be able to say that because I know how passionate my noble friend Lord Simon is about those issues, and rightly so.

The strategic forces across England and Wales must possess the necessary capacity and resilience to respond effectively to serious crime or public disorder incidents when they happen. Equally importantly, they are to be more proactive in countering organised criminal networks by gathering the intelligence needed to understand and pre-empt their activities. This reform will lead to significant change in the 43-force structure in England and Wales. However, HMIC has demonstrated that this can be achieved with minimal impact on the local national network of 248 basic command units. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that our commitment to local accountability—local delivery—through those 248 basic command units remains resolute and unchanged.

We believe that this reform is necessary to preserve and strengthen achievements made in neighbourhood policing. Local people will experience an improvement to their local policing. The creation of strategic forces with sufficient capacity and resilience to deal with major investigations or public order incidents will help safeguard local policing by reducing the need to abstract officers and staff from neighbourhood policing teams. Indeed, we hope that by 2008 every neighbourhood will benefit from a dedicated team. Every resident will know the name of their local bobby, see them on their streets and will have their telephone number and e-mail address. The noble Lord, Lord Imbert, who I do not see in his place, will be able to rejoice, we hope, in seeing the local bobby back in his place, notwithstanding the changes that we have had to make to the structure over time, as my noble friend Lord Mackenzie.

The ongoing consultation process and today's debate have been useful in raising a number of key issues, notably timescale and consultation, a theme that ran through a number of contributions. I will also try quickly to touch upon collaboration and federation; strategic and local accountability, precepts, start-up costs and the use of resources.

I have already said a little on timescales and consultation. I invite your Lordships to consider that we believe this challenging timescale necessary if we are not to subject the service to prolonged uncertainty, which could lead to loss of morale and a distraction from its core task of protecting the public. We cannot allow that to happen, so we need to press ahead as quickly as it is sensible to do so.

Many of us have talked about collaboration and federation for a long time. We also need to bear in mind what Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the head of HMIC, said. He describes the existing collaborative arrangements as woefully inadequate and notes that they fail to deliver sustained resourcing for preventive or developmental work. A comprehensive step change is now required in the way level 2 is policed. This will be demonstrated in the years to come by the creation of strategic forces.

We take advice given to us by HMIC very seriously indeed, because it is the foundation or cornerstone upon which we rely for so much. It must also be the case that some level of federalism would be valuable, but this cannot be a substitute for strategic forces. Federation as proposed would be an added layer of bureaucracy. It would avoid some of the real issues of clarity of responsibility and accountability which have to be resolved on a day-to-day basis. Any federated or collaborative option would have to demonstrate that it could overcome these obstacles and deliver the same or greater gains of efficiency and effectiveness as the strategic force option. Both federation and collaboration would also undoubtedly incur costs, which have not as yet been explored. The restructuring will not lead to the eradication of borders. There will still be a need for strategic forces to collaborate with each other to tackle level 2 crime. That will be fundamental.

I am aware of the concerns raised that a move to strategic forces will lead to a loss of public accountability. We have been working with the Association of Police Authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others to address this issue by strengthening the governance and accountability arrangements, both at force level and at basic command unit level. We will continue to do that with ever greater energy.

The Police and Justice Bill, contrary to what has been said in this debate, will not inure to the disadvantage of the independence of the service. We think it will assist to a large degree.

Much has been said on precepts and I know that there is concern. I must reassure noble Lords. We have been working very hard on those issues. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—that there had been a 40 per cent increase anticipated in the precept cost as changed—is not accurate. The truth is that that authority is one of those minded to change. The noble Lord referred to Northumbria. It would involve a small increase for Northumbria, but a reduction for Cleveland and Durham. Notwithstanding that, Northumbria still thought that it was a very good thing to do. We thought that that was an accurate assessment.

Noble Lords mentioned start-up costs. We recognise that they may cause difficulties, which is why we came forward with £125 million to support it. Of course, resources will be important.

I have a plethora of very detailed answers to all the other questions raised. If I had another 20 minutes I would doubtless be able to delight your Lordships with a full explanation of each and every one of them. I apologise for not having the advantage of doing so. I will certainly write on all those issues that I have not had an opportunity to explore.

This is an important point in our development and we have to reform. That reform has to take place now because we need a service that is fit for purpose, fit for the 21st century and fit for the people whom we are privileged to serve.