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I do not think that that needs a response.
There has been a massive increase in the number of police officers. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made that point. It is the biggest ever increase; there have been an extra 12,000 officers in recent years, and because of that, there have been strains and stresses connected with the need for front-line supervision. The service needs to get some sergeants out into the community, supervising the neighbourhood teams, which are an increasing part of the way in which we organise our police service.
Many sergeants whom I have met have told me that one of the least attractive roles is that of custody officer, because it means being stuck inside and not doing the work in which people want to be involved. Getting those officers out is not simply expedience; it is a matter of playing to their strengths. Many of those sergeants do not want to be in the custody office day in, day out. They joined the police to be out on the beat fighting crime and bringing criminals to justice. That is another reason for the process that we have begun.
I hope that with my undertakings to pilot the system, conduct proper training and invest properly, and my recognition of the difficult judgments that people in the role need to make, hon. Members will have a little courage and take a view that accepts that things can be different. We do not have to do things as we have always done them. We can make improvements by doing things differently. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield; as an independent lay custody visitor—a hugely important role carried out by members of the public—he will have seen some of the difficult decisions that are made.
One of the most important things that we can do to free up our front-line police officers is to redesign the custody process. We have said that, on average, police officers spend about 64 per cent. of their time on front-line duties. In the next three years we want to drive that figure up to something like 73 or 74 per cent. That would release the equivalent of 12,000 extra police officers to look after communities. That is why measures such as the one that I am outlining are important to us. Officers say that one of the most frustrating things to them is the time that they spend in custody. They arrest someone and take them to the custody centre, where it takes for ever to get through. Redesigning the custody process is very important.
I have one final comment to make. I am surprised when Opposition Members ask me who is in favour of the change and say that every sane person is against it. I have looked at the report of the Second Reading debate, in which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said:
''The Bill outlines plans for civilian staff to be designated as staff custody officers for the purposes of PACE. Subject to the obvious practical concerns about training and supervision, some of which the Home Secretary dealt with in his speech, I support the proposal. We need more police on the streets and less paperwork, and I believe that it will help to achieve that.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1065.]
I could not have put it better myself. In addition to the Association of Chief Police Officers, Unison and a range of police services, the shadow Home Secretary supports the proposal. I am amazed at the implacable opposition from Conservative Members in the Committee today. I know that they have difficulties with the Identity Cards Bill—they cannot decide whether they are in favour of it or against it—but I thought that we were fairly sure about where the Opposition stood on the Bill that we are considering. I should welcome some clarification. Perhaps hon. Members would like to consult the shadow Home Secretary on the matter.