[holding answer 11 May 2006]: Following the announcement by the previous Home Secretary (Mr. Clarke) on 3 March of his intention to merge the four existing forces in the West Midlands region into one strategic force, we are now in the four- month period for objections to be formulated by the police forces, police authorities and local authorities involved and submitted to the Home Secretary by 2 July.
The strategic objectives set by the previous Home Secretary (Mr. Clarke) were based on the considered evaluation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. It is clear that the present strategic structure of our police service is not fit for purpose in many ways and so the status quo is not an option. The strategic goals outlined by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the work done so far point us in the right direction.
Restructuring of the police service is about strengthening policing and ensuring that all police forces across England and Wales have the required capacity, capability and resilience to provide the most effective policing to the communities they serve. The number of police officers in each strategic force and how they are deployed is a matter for the chief constable concerned.
We are committed to basic command units including neighbourhood policing being at the centre of the new strategic police forces providing local policing to local communities. The proposed new strategic forces should reduce the likelihood of abstractions of patrol officers to major and high profile investigations.
We are undertaking to increase the time spent by police officers on front line duties. At the end of 2003-04 63.6 per cent. of police officer time was spent on front-line duties. We have set a target for an overall improvement to 72.5 per cent. by March 2008.
Joint police and Crown Prosecution Service Witness Care Units (WCUs) were piloted in 2003 in 5 areas, Gwent, Essex, North Wales, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands. An independent evaluation of these pilots found that witness attendance at court improved by nearly 20 per cent. and that there was an overall increase of six per cent. in victim and witness satisfaction. It also showed that the number of trials which had to be adjourned as a result of witness difficulties decreased by 27 per cent. and that there was a 17 per cent. reduction in ‘cracked’ trials where the witness withdrew their statement or did not attend. There was a 10 per cent. increase in the number of ‘positive’ cracked trials where the defendant entered a late guilty plea.
Building on the success of these pilots, Witness Care Units were rolled out across all 42 criminal justices areas in England and Wales under the No Witness No Justice project. Full coverage was achieved in line with our target of December 2005, with 165 Witness Care Units now in operation.
Although relatively new, Witness Care Units have already demonstrated their effectiveness. The number of trials that did not go ahead as planned because a witness did not attend was reduced from a national average of 908 in September 2004 to 727 in August 2005, a decrease of almost 20 per cent. In those cases handled by Witness Care Units, the witness attendance rate has increased from 78.5 per cent. in the 3 months before WCUs went live to 84 per cent. in August 2005.
A sustainability plan for the project is currently being developed which will provide a detailed analysis of the benefits of Witness Care Units, taking into account savings in time for the police, prosecutors and court officials, reductions in cracked and ineffective trials and savings in legal costs.
The Government met their target to have full national coverage of Witness Care Units by the end of 2005. There are now 165 Witness Care Units in operation across every criminal justice area in England and Wales.
Witness Care Units are a vital part of the Government’s drive to improve support for victims and witnesses. Witness Care Units, jointly staffed by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, have helped to move the criminal justice system from a concept of partnership to a reality, where Government, agencies and practitioners work together to deliver better services for the public.
It is important that witnesses are valued, kept informed and looked after whether or not they are called upon to attend court. Witness Care Units ensure that witnesses receive a more thoughtful and tailor-made service, with their individual needs considered from the time a statement is first taken by the police. If the case proceeds to court, witnesses will have a single point of contact to keep them up to date on how the case is proceeding, if and when they are required to give evidence and what the final outcome is.