The clause downgrades the authorisation powers from superintendent rank to that of inspector. The inspectors central committee and the Police Federation are concerned about that because of the extra work load that will fall on inspectors. Figures given recently by the Minister show that the number of inspectors has fallen by 272 and the number of chief inspectors in England and Wales by 121 since March 1997. Those figures appeared in Hansard on 8 February, at column 663W.
The Kent county constabulary inspectors' branch expressed the same concern in a letter to me. The letter states:
``The reduction in numbers is not matched by any reduction in our members' workloads; indeed a parallel reduction in the numbers of Superintendents has resulted in increased responsibilities for fewer inspectors. Overstretching and overloading management does not make for good decision making or effective leadership.''
Will the Minister explain how inspectors will meet the challenge posed by the Bill of meeting extra responsibilities with fewer men?
We are uncomfortable with the idea of a downgrading of the rank of the police officer who must make the decision to delay the defendant's being allowed to notify someone of where he is and of his arrest. It is one of the issues that was considered comprehensively in the context of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Logically, it would be given comprehensive consideration if the Bill addressed the structure of the police to a significant degree. The reality is that the police have different capacities at different levels.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to figures on the number of inspectors. Inspectors have a particular concern about restructuring in the police, the number of inspectors in relation to the number of superintendents and so on. In different parts of the country, such as Northern Ireland, there is a different balance of people at different ranks.
We are uncomfortable with the Government's proposal being within a narrow review of certain issues. This part of the Bill is about changing the facility for dealing with people after they have been detained. That does not necessarily require a change in the status and rank of police officers, although I recognise that that gives the Government more flexibility. However, the burden is on the Government to justify it. Until they have done so, we are minded not to support the proposal.
I also want to voice my concerns. I presume that the matter under discussion will arise only in rare circumstances. Therefore, the rank should not be downgraded to inspector. The structure of a superintendent in charge of a division within the Metropolitan police, or a chief superintendent in charge of an area that aligns with a borough, is roughly duplicated throughout the rest of the country. On the rare occasions when, having arrested someone, the substantial step of keeping that person in isolation is taken, it would be appropriate for the commanding officer of the particular police division to be informed. I look forward to hearing whether the Minister can convince me otherwise.
I am slightly surprised by the anxieties that have been expressed. It is right to articulate the trade union anxieties of the Police Federation and inspectors council, and it is good to discuss them in Committee, but the proposal is an important development.
We favour more flexible and delayered management arrangements to place increased responsibility in the hands of police officers who are lower down the formal rank structure. We believe that that is characteristic of developments throughout public services, and it is a good way to proceed. We believe that allowing authorities to be granted by lower-ranking officers would speed up decision-making processes to the benefit of everyone involved.
Inspectors play a central management and command role in today's police service and already take on a wide range of PACE decisions. They are often the officers on the spot and are well placed to make decisions that may be urgent in an operational context.
We recognise that, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, it is important that decisions be made by officers of sufficient seniority to ensure that they are made on the basis of suitable knowledge, experience and authority. However, we believe that inspectors are likely to have a much more immediate knowledge of individual cases and will add that to the knowledge that they have acquired as inspectors, and the experience and authority that we believe puts them in an especially good position to make such decisions.
On the more general points about police numbers, there are significantly more inspectors than superintendents, which widens the ability to deal with the circumstances. Without returning to the party political badinage that goes on about the matter, police numbers in all forces are increasing after a long period of decline. However, I rest my argument not on that but on my belief that it is positively beneficial to have people of the rank of inspector—serious people—making key decisions with which they have the experience to deal and of which they know and understand the particular circumstances. We want to encourage and develop that trend throughout the police service to provide more flexibility in such aspects, as in other aspects of public service and life.
That is the reason behind the change. As I have said on several occasions, I understand the argument for a different, holistic approach, but I make the case that the best may be the enemy of the good.
Not often, as the hon. Gentleman implied earlier. The criteria for delay have not been changed. They relate only to serious arrestable offences and situations in which reasonable grounds exist for believing that notification would lead to interference with evidence or witnesses or alerting other suspects not yet arrested. He is right to say that we do not envisage authorisation being widespread or significant. Nothing in the Bill changes the criteria involved.
The hon. Gentleman's correct point does not devalue the importance of giving inspectors that authority. He mentioned in a rather commanding officer-type way that the superintendent should know what is being done in particular circumstances, which is correct. However, that is not the same as the superintendent doing it. Whether a commander of a London borough has such information relates to the force's management structures as much as simply specifying that everything must be referred to that level. I rest my case on the general proposition that to develop such experience at a wider range of responsibility levels in the force will be positively beneficial.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.