Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 February 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Police Funding (East Midlands)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Claire Ward.]

I begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting this subject for debate this morning.

The issue of police funding affects every constituency in the east midlands. As I understand it, it does not divide the Labour, Conservative or even the Liberal Democrat parties this morning. The issue seems to be of regional importance. This morning, the Chamber is full of hon. Members from across the region, in particular from my own county of Leicestershire; I see my hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) and for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) would have wished to be here. Unfortunately, other duties have kept them away. I see my friend, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), in his place as well. Many Members are here. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), of the Front Bench, for his presence and to the Minister, both of whom will respond in due course.

Alongside continual improvement, the critical issue for us across the east midlands is funding. The financial situation facing the east midlands remains stark. All five east midlands police authorities face a significant budget shortfall for the financial year 2007-08. I see the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd); Derbyshire is £3.2 million short. Leicestershire is £3.4 million short. Lincolnshire, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) speaks, is £4.3 million short. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) is here; Northamptonshire is £4.9 million short. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is also here; his county of Nottinghamshire is £4.5 million short. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) is also present, as is the hon. Member for Broxbourne—[Hon. Members: “Broxtowe!”] I meant the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). The Mounties will get their man, do not worry.

Those figures make a total of £20.3 million. The east midlands also contains some of the most underfunded police forces in the country; all receive less funding per capita than the national average. As a whole, the region is on average in the bottom third of police authorities for expenditure per head of population, a situation that has existed for at least a decade and has been a problem under successive Governments. Medium-term financial projections put the shortfall in the region of £129 million.

I should acknowledge my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), as well as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire. My right hon. Friend has also taken a keen interest in what we are discussing.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, my county colleague, for giving way. A week or two ago, I was present at the making of the police precept for Leicestershire at the police headquarters at St. John’s. It is clear that this year the gap has been bridged from reserves and resources, but they will have gone by April 2008. The key issue is that we must have an improved formula and settlement 12 months hence. Otherwise, the east midlands forces will have significant difficulties. Is that not true?

It is. As the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), has said, Home Office spending needs to go back into the comprehensive spending review. Until that is done, many of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned, or will mention, will continue.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on securing this debate. He is right to point out that funding is the crucial issue. He alluded to the figures involved. In simple terms, an average £174 is spent per person in England on police forces; in the east midlands, the figure is £143, 18 per cent. below the national average. Spending in the east midlands ranges from £126 to £158 per person. Until the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety deals with that essential point, we shall simply make no progress on policing in our region.

My hon. Friend’s figures speak for themselves, and I hope that in due course the Minister will have some sort of answer to his points.

In 2005, the east midlands police authorities commissioned an independent study, which was carried out by Rita Hale, an expert in local government policy and finance. The study shows that, between 1995-96 and 2005-06, their combined income rose more slowly than inflation—by 23.8 per cent., compared with 28.3 per cent. When assessing gross police spending in 2005-06, the study found that the average for England was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, £174 per person. When spending in the region is expressed as a percentage of the average, it is clear that all five police authorities suffer in comparison with the rest of the country. Derbyshire’s spending was 78 per cent. of the average. Leicestershire’s was 84 per cent., Lincolnshire’s was 72 per cent., Northamptonshire’s was 79 per cent. and Nottinghamshire’s was 90 per cent.—on average, they were 82 per cent. of the national average.

My hon. and learned Friend should be congratulated, first, on securing this important debate and, secondly, on articulating the important issues in such an informed way. The statistics that he has just highlighted pinpoint the fact that Lincolnshire, even of the five police authorities in the east midlands, has the lowest per capita spend, at £126 per head, and the lowest spend as a percentage of the English average, at 72 per cent. That is causing particular tensions, given the increasing population, which has grown by 10.6 per cent. in the past decade. Per head of population in England and Wales, the difference between Lincolnshire and the next lowest spending force equates to £11 million. A disparity of that magnitude causes immense problems for the chief constable and police authority in delivering efficient policing in Lincolnshire. I hope that when the Minister comes—

Order. I should say to the hon. Gentleman that interventions must be brief. Will he bring his remarks to a close?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out those stark figures. I believe that his county has the fourth fastest population growth of the 39 English police force areas. It also happens to have received the second or third lowest grant, per head of population, in the country.

One moment. Lincolnshire is a large rural area. It suffers from all the problems of sparsity of rural areas in Leicestershire, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth and I represent, and in Derbyshire, which my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire represents. However, that is not to say that we are happy to ignore the difficulties of inner-city Leicester, Nottingham or Derby. We understand that across the country, places such as Birmingham, Liverpool and London will have equal claim to central Government resources. However, we are after fairness. We do not wish to be better funded than anywhere else, but we do not see why we should be less well funded than anywhere else.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is being extremely generous in allowing interventions. I apologise for not being able to attend the entire debate.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Home Office assessment shows that our region needs higher spending, and that the presence of floors has so far made it difficult to adjust to that? There is no point in having assessments if one does not make progress towards them.

The hon. Gentleman asks a complicated question in a complicated way. The Minister will be able to deal with it later without even a flicker of confusion. In so far as I understood the hon. Gentleman’s point, I probably agree with it.

I refer briefly to some other points made by the Hale report. It also found that police authorities whose populations were growing rapidly tend to receive lower per capita increases and central Government support than those with similar characteristics whose populations were growing more slowly. That is important for us in the east midlands because the region’s population grew much faster than that of England as a whole between mid-1993 to mid-2003—by 4.1 per cent. compared with the national average of 2.7 per cent.

That is palpable in my own area of Harborough. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 1992, the town of Market Harborough had a population of approximately 12,000 or 13,000. Now, it must be in the region of 20,000. I promised to give way to my hon. Friend.

I am building on my hon. and learned Friend’s head of steam. Is it not a fact that the botched proposals to amalgamate police forces in the midlands vastly irritated the problem and made it much worse? Many of the current funding issues could be resolved if all that money had not gone down the drain. In my own area, we could have had extra police officers on the streets of Market Bosworth right now. What does he say about that?

My hon. Friend’s points about the amalgamation of our five police forces into one east midlands police force are well made. Unfortunately, it took the Government a little while to wake up to the reality of the situation.

Our region stretches from the outskirts of Manchester at the top end of Derbyshire; in the south, to the outskirts of Milton Keynes, at the bottom end of Northamptonshire; and from the Leicestershire-Warwickshire border in the west to the North sea in the east. The Government are obsessed with regionalism and central control, but if they want to carry out policies that are fuelled by such obsessions, they must learn what is happening on the ground in our communities. Having learned the lesson—I hope—of the failed experiment of the amalgamated police forces and, in the meantime, having wasted a great deal of management time, police officer time and, more to the point, public money, perhaps they will accept that the wasted money should not be an excuse for not funding properly our police forces across the region. As I said, we are after fair funding, not more funding than other people. We simply want to be treated on an equal basis.

Would my hon. and learned Friend further point out the differences between various counties? For example, Nottinghamshire gets £132 million in grant, which is equivalent to £127 per head on last year’s figures, as opposed to Derbyshire, which gets £105 million, or £106 per head. That means that the people of Derbyshire are paying more in their council tax for their police service. Derbyshire’s police service charge at band D last year was £135, as opposed to Nottinghamshire’s at £132.

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct to point to those figures. As Conservatives, he and I of course wish to keep a tight rein on public expenditure—that is not in dispute.

I shall just finish this point and then come back to the hon. Gentleman.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree about the figures, whatever the actual numbers in pounds, shillings and pence. Can he explain—I do not think that he can—why it is fair for his constituents in Derbyshire to receive police funding at 78 per cent. of the average national spend? Can the hon. Member for Bassetlaw explain why it is fair that Nottinghamshire receives only 90 per cent.? Can the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire explain why Leicestershire should receive only 84 per cent.? Can the Minister explain any of those figures? I hope that he can.

By asking me a question, the hon. and learned Gentleman invites me to intervene, but I shall keep my comments to what they were going to be and attempt to catch your eye at a later stage, Mr. Bercow. In the light of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s remarks about keeping tax and expenditure within reason, it would be helpful if he were to outline the exact increases in expenditure on the police service in the east midlands, and, in terms of value for money, what the trends have been for burglary rates, for example, during the past 10 years.

I am sure that that would be helpful, but I shall not detain myself by going into such detail. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be here until 11 o’clock in order to furnish us with that information. I want to move on to deal with some of the more practical consequences of the funding problems in our region.

There has been much discussion in recent years about police community support officers. The Government promised in their various manifestos and effusions that 24,000 PCSOs would be recruited by the end of next year. As a result of the funding arrangements in our region, the promise simply will not be kept. The Government do not seem to be too keen that we should know about the promise, and they certainly do not want us to know that they will not keep it.

My county of Leicestershire currently has 155 PCSOs. The recruitment target of 350 for the county, as set out in the Government’s manifesto, has been reduced to 229, so we will have a net loss—delivery as compared with promise—of 121. The net loss for other counties is 128 for Derbyshire, 84 for Lincolnshire, 75 for Northamptonshire and 149 for Nottinghamshire. The Minister needs to respond to those figures.

I understand from speaking to members of my police authority that not only Leicestershire but other police authorities in the region have fully taken on board the concept of PCSOs. Local communities have seen the benefit of those officers’ work in support of the police. I note in particular South Wigston in my constituency, where PCSOs assist the police in treading the streets, preventing antisocial behaviour and ensuring that unruly gangs of youngsters do not get into trouble.

However, the funding basis is not sustainable. It is predicated on efficiency savings, which are already inadequate to balance the books, and partnership funding, which is restricted by budget deficits in local government. Current funding levels provide for 16,000 PCSOs across the region at 75 per cent. of their pay. That runs the risk of undermining the initiative and will lead to a debilitation of local policing as support is not provided at the anticipated levels.

What about medium-term financial projections? The five forces within the region have tried to wind the clock forward, to make some projections for budgets up to and including the financial year 2010-11. The projections were developed on the basis of a consistent set of resource assumptions: central grant support increase at 2 per cent., which many of us may think is somewhat optimistic; annual precept increase capped at 5 per cent.; general price inflation at 2 per cent.; pay inflation at 3 per cent.; and continuation of the PCSO grant at 75 per cent.

Even on those assumptions, we will be left with a funding gap that will be the equivalent of 800 officers across the region. If the Minister is prepared to stand up and say that by 2011 our region will be 800 police officers short, he is a braver man than I am. The consequence of that Government policy will hit hard in our region, and we ask the Government to take that on board.

The two main drivers for the plans for regionalisation of the police, which were aborted, were savings by the central authority on back-office functions, and the funding gap for protective services. However, has not the east midlands shown itself to be a beacon region? The east midlands special operations unit has achieved a great deal in recent months, but its central Government funding runs out on 31 August 2008. We can demonstrate to the country how co-operation and collaboration between forces can best be carried out, but that vital initiative needs funding security in the medium term. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree with that?

I think I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and the Minister will have heard it as well. I hope that he will take it on board. Partly because I have been extremely generous in allowing others to intervene on me, I have taken up your time and patience, Mr. Bercow. I shall draw my remarks to an end.

Our region faces a stark choice, as does every region, when it comes to the expenditure of public money. If the Government wish to maintain their borrowed reputation for being effective on matters of law and order—if the reputation was ever deserved, it is extremely tarnished—they, too, must make stark choices. Those stark choices involve being fair to the police authorities and people of our region. We understand that there is no such thing as free taxpayers’ money and that resources have to be carefully marshalled and husbanded. We understand, too, no matter which party we come from and which part of the region we represent, that fairness is something that the British people expect and understand. At the moment, we are not getting it. I hope that my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen throughout the Chamber will support me in asking the Government to be fair to the east midlands and its police authority.

Several hon. Members rose—

Order. It might be helpful for right hon. and hon. Members to know that I intend to call the winding-up speeches from the Front Benches at approximately 10.30 am. Several hon. Members have let me know either just now or in writing that they would like to catch my eye, so with moderate succinctness they should be able to contribute to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing the debate. It is an important subject on which, as he has rightly said, there is a great deal of consensus. By and large, his speech invited consensus—he strayed into occasional political rapier thrusts, but not much more than that.

I want to concentrate on only one aspect of this large subject—regional partnerships and the concrete steps that can be taken to improve their longevity and effectiveness. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has mentioned, the original reasons behind the proposals for a regional force for the east midlands as a whole or for two larger sub-regional forces were the need to address the shortfall in protective services in the region and to try to ensure that resources were redeployed from the back-office functions of the police forces into the front line. That was the theory behind the idea.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I was not a supporter of the proposals at the time, mainly because I felt that they did not do what they said on the tin, as I said to a number of local meetings that I attended on the subject. I would have endorsed many of the proposals, if it had been clear that they would have improved the quality of protective services for my constituents and had demonstrated means of saving substantial sums of money over a reasonable period of time. Neither of those objectives were enshrined in the proposals that we had to consider. A variety of other things were missing, too, but I shall not go into those.

Let me turn first to the issue of protective services. The O’Connor review highlighted the shortfall in protective services in the east midlands. I think that it is generally agreed—I shall refer to an august opinion that I have obtained privately that backs this up—that the shortfall in protective services is greater in the east midlands than in any other part of the country and that its remedy deserves greater priority. That is in part because the east midlands has no large city base on which protective services are likely to have been developed in the past. We do not have a location such as Greater Manchester, London or the big north-eastern cities on which we can base our expertise and where we can have a solid core of experienced officers who are used to tackling such crime. That is to our merit, to some extent. We have not been troubled by the scale of organised crime and terrorism that has been faced in some other parts of the country, and so there has not been the call to develop such services, but none of us is unrealistic enough to think that that could long continue.

We recognise that there are threats among us and from outside the region that we should counter. It is reasonably obvious from an analysis of the region that significant threats are likely to be present—a young man who was educated in my constituency was a suicide bomber in Israel. One cannot say that simply because an outrage has never been committed in the east midlands, it is not likely to happen. I am pleased that the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers responded to the obvious shortfall by putting £8 million of funding into the regional initiative. The east midlands special operations unit, which has already been referred to, is based in Ripley and was established at the end of last year. It has already done some sterling work.

The funding is secure only until 2008. One of the purposes of the debate should be to make clear that that funding is required for the long term and that to expect it to be absorbed into the mainstream budgets of the individual police forces that serve our constituencies is wholly unrealistic. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough has already set out the budgetary constraints that the forces will face in the long term to absorb the impact of the regional unit. It has been established that that is quite impossible and would mean disabling an important process. The unit does not simply address counter-terrorism requirements. As hon. Members, especially the Minister, will know, I have taken a particular interest in cash machine robbery and assaults on people delivering to shop retail units in my area and elsewhere in the region. The regional unit has spent a good deal of time tracking the organised criminals involved in such violent criminal activity.

I have mentioned the august opinions of others. I had the opportunity to speak to Sir Ronnie Flanagan at a private event a few days ago, and he strongly endorsed the need for the east midlands to have priority in securing additional protective services. He made the confident assertion that he could not see how the funding could be turned off in 2008, and I hope that he is right. He is certainly a senior and well-respected adviser to the Minister, and I hope that he has the Minister’s ear on that matter.

I have had private discussions with the Minister on sharing resources, and he has complimented the region’s forces on co-operating on addressing the need to assemble projects that will save money in the longer term. Most of those who have managed large organisations, as I have, know that reorganisation to achieve substantial savings normally has initial costs. In that circumstance, the Home Office ought to make a budget available to forces that produce high quality business cases for resource sharing and partnership so that they can secure initial funding to start the initiatives that they have researched. At the moment, such resources are not available. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity offered by the debate to say that such initiatives, which are based on a solid track record of savings in all the east midlands forces over the past few years, will be supported by his Ministry.

My hon. Friend talked about information and communications technology services by implication when he mentioned back-office functions. He will be aware of the bid that the forces are making for links and a gateway, which would cost £400,000 in the first year and less than a third of that in the following years to facilitate access to core systems, to develop new applications and to provide business continuity across all five east midlands forces. That is a worthwhile initiative. Speaking as someone who was an information and communications technology manager in the public sector over a long period, I think that it could work.

Speaking as someone who was an IT director in the private sector, I, too, endorse that. Such projects are exactly the kind of things for which we should be seeking additional resources.

I conclude by congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Harborough on his speech, and I endorse all that he said about the underfunding of forces across the region. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond supportively.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing this important debate. It is not the first on this issue and I doubt whether it will be the last.

For a long period, there was a group of councils known as the F40 group. The councils had historically been underfunded, and the group campaigned for a long time to get the message across to Governments, both previous and present, that they needed to change the funding formula in order to recognise the problems. The east midlands counties were part of that group and took part in the campaign.

The five east midlands counties have been badly hit. They have been badly underfunded for many years, and it has had a cumulative effect that must be tackled. It affects not only the police but fire services and councils. Derbyshire, one of those five counties, has been particularly badly hit over the years. You can imagine the joy, Mr. Bercow, with which those councils and regions heard in 2006 that the Government had accepted their case and that they would rework the formula, because they recognised that some areas were being unfairly underfunded as a result of the workings of the formula.

However, for 2006-07, the financial year that will come to an end in three or four weeks, and 2007-08, the financial year that will start on 1 April, the Government are saying, “This is the money that you should have to deliver your police, fire and council services, but we are not going to give it to you.” The Government tell us what we need in order to deliver the services that they say we must deliver, and they will criticise us if we do not—for instance, in respect of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary baseline assessments—but they are not going to give it to us.

That obviously plunged many people into deep gloom. They thought that they had won the case and that they would be able to improve services, but although there was some increase in funding the brakes were slammed on. For example, the average amount that Derbyshire was not getting from the Government for the police, even though the Government said that it should have it, was about £5.5 million a year.

What are the prospects for the future? We are coming up to the three-year common spending review round for the three years after 2007-08, and we are being told that, in every field of Government spending, it will be a tight phase. Even the health service has been told that it will receive some increase above inflation, but nothing like what it has received in recent years. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other Departments have been planning on cuts of between 5 per cent. and 7 per cent. or on funding being below inflation. If, in 2006-08, the first two years of the new formula, the Government are saying, “This is what you should have, but you cannot have it”, what hope is there that things will improve during the three years of the next spending review?

The situation is even worse than the hon. Gentleman describes. Although the comprehensive spending review results have yet to be announced, the Home Office has already come to an agreement—a no-growth budget. That highlights the fear expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that if things do not change we could lose 800 police officers in the east midlands.

Exactly.

In the 31 January debate in the House on the police grant, three Derbyshire MPs—one Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat, which was me—asked questions on the matter. The Minister effectively said, “Don’t complain. Grin and bear it.” He said that overfunded authorities would lose out if the underfunded ones were given the money that the Government say is needed to deliver the services that they insist are delivered—things that the public rightly expect, such as policing. During that debate the Minister said:

“I ask people to resist the notion that there are winners and losers”.

Three minutes earlier, however, he had said:

“for every loser there are gainers.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2007; Vol. 456, c. 240-41.]

He slightly contradicted himself.

The east midlands police forces, fire services and council services are losers. They have been losers for many years. They thought that the new formula would bring that to an end and were then told that it would not. There are losers for every winner, and the east midlands is a loser. Derbyshire suffers particularly badly in most of those areas—I shall deal with this in detail a little later—and the services are underfunded according to the Government’s criteria.

To add insult to injury, under the HMIC baseline assessments, which the Government use to judge whether a force is good or bad, efficient or inefficient, Derbyshire is judged against forces such as West Mercia, which is at the top of our group. According to the formula, West Mercia gets £10 million more a year than the Government say is needed. Derbyshire gets about £5.5 million less than the Government say is needed. That is a gap of £15 million in police funding. Derbyshire is therefore being judged against a highly funded police authority and is told to grin and bear it and not to complain. That is remarkable.

Derbyshire is the fourth worst funded police authority in England and Wales. As we heard from the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, Derbyshire police receive 78 per cent. of the national average per head of population. Within the east midlands, all five counties are poorly funded, but if Derbyshire had the same funding as Nottinghamshire, itself an underfunded authority, Derbyshire could put 240 more police on the beat tomorrow. That is comparing two poorly funded authorities, let alone the better funded authorities elsewhere in the country.

Almost weekly, constituents come to me or write to complain about police response times. They have phoned the police, who may have arrived 30 minutes or two days later, or not at all, simply sending a letter with a crime number. I can explain to my constituents why that is. I have been out on patrol with the police a number of times. I have been out with the response cars and with the Transit van at 2 o'clock on a Friday night or Saturday morning when the clubs are turning out. I have been out with the traffic police, I have been out with a beat police officer—although chunks of Chesterfield still do not have beat police officers—and I have been in the control room where civilian controllers take 999 calls. I have seen the stacking system whereby people have to judge which calls are the most urgent, given the limited resources, and which can be stacked at the bottom of the list. Although crimes are involved, some are more serious than others, such as when someone has been injured, a robbery is in progress or a fight is taking place on the street. As to the person whose car has been stolen from outside his house, well, the police might get around to that two days later because they do not have the manpower to respond immediately.

I can explain that situation because of my personal experience, but it is a long process. One can explain it only to so many individuals. I am then asked why Derbyshire police are so understaffed and underfunded. Without adequate funding, Derbyshire police and all police forces in the east midlands—we are all in the same position—cannot turn the words about being tough on crime into reality. We need people on the ground to deliver.

Matters have been made worse because, as we heard earlier, the 280 police community support officers that were promised have been cut to 160. That cheaper version of the policeman still has a considerable effect when patrolling the streets, but we are not even getting that. [Interruption.] The Minister says that it is not a cheaper version. Of course it is. The officers are paid less, are less well trained and do not have the same powers, and if they apprehend a criminal they can hold him only for half an hour until a policeman comes to arrest him.

As I said, many of my constituents say that they often cannot get a policeman to come within two days, let alone 30 minutes. Community support officers have a good and visible effect, as we see on the streets of London. However, they are not fully trained or fully qualified police officers and do not have the same powers. Even then, their number has been cut nearly in half, as we heard in recent Government announcements.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said that one east midlands force is using reserves to plug the gap caused by the serious funding shortfall. Derbyshire is in the same position. We heard that, by the end of next year, that force will have no more reserves to plug the gap; Derbyshire can probably manage another two or three years before it runs out of reserves.

Derbyshire’s chief constable and the chair of the police authority wrote an open letter to Derbyshire MPs on 6 December, in which they said:

“As available resources become exhausted…the constabulary faces serious challenges to maintain existing services…There is a very serious prospect that within three years we will be forced to make substantial cuts in police officer numbers, or PCSOs or possibly even both”.

That authority has been underfunded for 20 or 30 years. It is already the fourth worst funded, and it is looking to make substantial cuts to an already unsatisfactory force. However, despite the constraints of underfunding and understaffing, Derbyshire police authority is judged by the Government to be very effective. Imagine what it could do if it was funded at the national average level, let alone above it.

Derbyshire and east midlands forces, as hon. Members have described, are not led by authorities that complain. Derbyshire is judged to be efficient, and there are five police authorities that work together on certain levels of policing—for example, there is joint work on level two policing. Therefore, the authorities are not simply luddite dinosaurs who say that they do not want to change or work together. They are doing all the right things, but they are chronically underfunded.

I shall finish with a quote. On 22 February the police authority announced a 5 per cent. above-inflation increase in its share of the council tax to try to make up for Government underfunding—it has done so for a number of years in a row now. In the 22 February edition of the local weekly paper, the Derbyshire Times, the chair of the police authority, Janet Birkin, is quoted as saying:

“We would have expected our full grant entitlement—an extra £5.7 million from the Government—but we have been short-changed in order to protect better-off authorities”.

A Home Office spokesman is quoted as saying:

“All police authorities continue to receive their fair share of available resources”.

They do not. In the east midlands, five police authorities do not receive their fair share and have not done so for many years. In 2006, the Government said, “Yes, you are right; you should have more money, but we will not give you your fair share”. That is an inequitable position and I do not see how the Minister can defend it.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on initiating this debate and on reminding the Minister of the number of east midland MPs who are here from all three political parties. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet and there are no divisions among us. We are making the same point because we have all been briefed over a long period by our own chief constables and police authority representatives.

Nottinghamshire police force set its budget last week. It was a tough time for the police authority as it had to make hard choices about priorities. The budget shortfall was £4.5 million, which the authority has met—as other hon. Members have said—in part by using reserves and in part by changing priorities. The real problem is that although police authorities in the east midlands in 2007-08 can manage the situation, in future the scale of the problem will be even greater. Unless there is a change in the budgeting mechanism, there will be real difficulties in the future. In Nottinghamshire, police numbers stand at a record level. The police are backed by new police community support officers, who are funded by the Government. I do not disparage what PCSOs do; they are part of the community and a visible presence on our streets. Indeed, in Nottinghamshire, crime is falling for the fifth consecutive year. We have achieved a lot, but the outlook is challenging.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) raised the issue of ceilings and floors. I do not complain about funding formulas; there has to be a funding formula. What I complain about is the funding formula not being properly implemented. The floors mean that, in the current year, Nottinghamshire loses out by £5.1 million and the five police authorities in the east midlands lose out by £20.3 million. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, that issue was discussed in length during the police grant settlement debate on 31 January 2007. In that debate the Minister said:

“I cannot say today how long the taper on floors and ceilings will remain in place”.

He went on to say:

“I know that there are frustrations; there is some disquiet, and a debate is needed on the whole issue of police funding. The Lyons report will ensure that the subject is debated, at least in part.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2007; Vol. 456, c. 240-241.]

It is clear that hon. Members from the east midlands, chief constables and police authorities want that debate. It is also clear that there needs to be a resolution of that debate. Perhaps the Minister could tell us when the Lyons report will be produced as some of us have been waiting a long time for it? The story is that it will be published before Easter, but I have heard other rumours that the report might be delayed yet again.

The essential point made by all hon. Members is that if there is a funding formula, it ought to be implemented and that people are losing out because that has not happened. It is important to us all to move towards a funding formula. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough and other hon. Members have talked about the disparity in funding per head of the population in the east midlands compared with the English average. I have had discussions with Home Office Ministers over many years about that point and I think that the Home Office recognises that the east midlands is relatively disadvantaged. The problem has been accepted by the Government, but what puzzles us is that there does not yet seem to be a solution.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) rightly spoke about the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, “Closing the Gap”. He was right to say that the Home Office and HMIC analyses show that protective services in the east midlands are the least robust in the country. That report has proved to be an incentive for change in the east midlands. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough took us on a guided tour of the east midlands, which is the size of Belgium. It is a big area and police authorities in that area know that they must make progress, and in fairness they are doing so. Police authorities are meeting regularly and the five police authorities are trying to set up a joint sub-committee to take joint decisions about the regional agenda. That is a big step forward. The five police authorities are also funding a small team to look at where regional gains can be made. There is a cost to that, which police authorities say will be £2 million over two to three years.

Such proposals look to the future and use existing resources that could be used on the front line now to try and make long-term savings. In a sense, it is a spend-to-save agenda, which the Government support. The police authorities have commissioned KPMG to introduce proposals for back-office savings to increase the regional agenda, bring the threads together and take us forward as a region. That is good work, which the Minister and his officials should reinforce.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire talked about comments made by Sir Ronnie Flanagan. I say to the Minister that there is an open invitation for him to come and see the east midlands special operations unit. Many of us have seen it and know that by working together at a regional level we can make significant progress. We accept that the unit has just started, but as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire said, the grant aid runs out in August 2008, so it is not too early to discuss the future of it. If the Minister came to look at EMSOU, he would have the opportunity to talk to people in the east midlands about the progress made on the regional agenda. I have been impressed by the way in which the five authorities have come together.

Hon. Members have talked about a shared ICT system. Clearly, reducing back-office costs is a way to make progress. The Minister will also know that there is talk in the east midlands of a money laundering and confidentiality unit. Again, bringing the authorities together in the east midlands to try to tackle issues on a regional agenda is the way forward. He was wise to move away from the notion of regional police forces, but he is also right to encourage police forces in regions to work together, and that is exactly what is happening in the east midlands. I want him, his officials and the HMIC to get behind those initiatives. We may not in the short term be able to do a great deal about changing the funding formula, but it is possible in the short term to use the east midlands as a demonstration model of regional co-operation. All the MPs there are co-operating, as are the five police authorities and the chief constables.

The Minister wants to make progress on the regional agenda. Why does he not back some of those initiatives? I am thinking of EMSOU, the ICT initiative, the money laundering initiative and the fact that the team in the east midlands is making progress on trying to find savings on a regional agenda. That is the Minister’s agenda. It is a shared agenda. I hope that he will take up the invitation to visit EMSOU and engage in a discussion with colleagues from the east midlands about the regional agenda, because it is an agenda that we need to tackle and are tackling. I hope that he will reflect on the points that have been made on both sides of this Chamber and produce proposals, however difficult that might be, for change and extra resources for the east midlands.

Given the time, I will not take any interventions, but I have to start by saying, “Woe is me.” I have been hearing about the dooms and glooms of the east midlands, the desperate state of things, the cuts in PCSO numbers, people being taken off the streets and removed from such duties and the terrible underfunding—one would almost suggest, given the tone of the debate, that it is reductions that have taken place. Well, if the east midlands is Belgium, Bassetlaw is the Antwerp of the east midlands. Half the population wish that they were not in the east midlands and the other half did not realise that they were in the first place. Rather ironically, even a Member as learned as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) put the northern boundary of the east midlands in Derbyshire, even though a quarter of the land mass of Nottinghamshire, entirely in the Bassetlaw constituency, is to the north of Derbyshire. That is a relevant point because we are on the Yorkshire border. If people are asking for increased taxpayers’ money for the east midlands, they must also suggest where that money should come from. Let me put it firmly on the record that I would not like to see any reduction in police funding in south Yorkshire, because that would have a significant spillover effect on my constituents.

When I hear some colleagues from various parties represented in this Chamber speaking, it makes me think about the health debate, because north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire have been underfunded in that respect for 50 years, and when the Government do something about that, we see questions such as question 1 at Prime Minister’s questions today from a Liberal Democrat whinging about the situation in Oxfordshire. Where will the money come from to ensure that proper money is put into north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire if not from places that have been relatively overfunded in respect of the health service, such as Oxfordshire?

The same applies to the police service. Those who are saying, “More to the east midlands,” as I am, need to say where the money will come from, but I am not hearing suggestions for cuts elsewhere in the country. I would be interested to hear at a future stage precisely where else the Conservative party and Liberal Democrats suggest that there should be a reduction in police numbers.

I can suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister where the money for increased funding for the east midlands should come from. He will have read my pamphlet on drugs treatment, published by the Fabian Society, and the issue is dealt with in a significant section of that pamphlet, using the Bassetlaw experience, in which the police, along with the health service, have been key partners. That has meant that crime has reduced very significantly, not only in Nottinghamshire but particularly in Bassetlaw and in Worksop. Indeed, the reduction has been greater there than elsewhere in the country. The reason is that we have a coherent drugs strategy, which saves the taxpayer vast amounts of money.

Merely by spreading that model to the rest of Nottinghamshire, we would be able to fund the sort of increases in police spending that the police and the police authorities are demanding. Taking the model to the east midlands and beyond would create such a pot of gold that it would also, on my calculations, fund the health spending in both directions—keeping the overspending and bringing the levels for the other areas up. That is a specific suggestion that the Minister should consider.

We need to analyse the police output. If we consider the time since I was elected to this place, we see a rather different picture from that painted today. That is not because I was elected; I suspect that it is because previous, Conservative spending plans have ended and new Labour plans have come in. We see an increase in Government grant of about £50 million for Nottinghamshire. I was elected in 2001, when actual police expenditure was £140 million; it has now gone up to just under £180 million. On my crude mathematics, there is a real increase above inflation of 10 per cent. There has not been a reduction in police spending; there has been an increase in police spending. There are 160 full-time equivalent new police officers in Nottinghamshire. In my drugs pamphlet, I have suggested ways in which money could be taken without increasing the tax burden, but others who are suggesting that increased spending is needed in the east midlands need to say where that money would come from. Otherwise, by definition, it will come from reductions in police spending elsewhere.

I have other interesting statistics that should be placed on the record. There has been a reduction in the total number of crimes in Nottinghamshire. The figure is down in the period since I was elected from 160,000 a year to 138,000 a year. Burglary is down from 16,400 to 10,400. Those are significant reductions in crime, but let me describe the development that I find most astonishing. When I was elected, I found that people’s main complaint was, “You ring 999 for the police, but you can never get through. You can never get hold of them.” Two or three years in, it became, “You never see a police officer.” Now what I hear all the time is, “Police officers are not stopping offenders on the street,” by which they usually mean kids cycling through on bikes and people parking on pavements and double yellow lines. That is an interesting change in the complaints that the general public raise with me.

Let me give the figures for 999 calls in Nottinghamshire, because that is perhaps the best barometer of how the public feel about crime. There were 367,000 calls in 2002, 309,000 in 2003, 292,000 in 2004, 271,000 in 2005 and 262,000 in 2006. We can argue about whether definitions of crime and whether fixed penalty notices are altering statistics. Doubtless the Minister could give a robust definition and statistics for all recorded crime, but I am talking about the public’s perception or fear of crime and what they are identifying as crime, and the numbers in Nottinghamshire have come down significantly every year. That is because we have a police force that is higher performing and that is significantly better funded.

I hope that the Minister will consider the issues raised in this debate, but the public will not lose the clear message that there is more money, there is a more efficient police service and crime is coming down.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Bercow, for calling me as the first Member to speak in the debate who does not represent a constituency in the east midlands. However, I did live in Nottingham for four very pleasurable years. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on speaking so forcefully on behalf of the people of Derbyshire. Indeed, I congratulate all hon. Members present whose interest in this subject extends to staying here for the duration of our discussions.

It is true that the funding per head for police in the east midlands is lower than the national average. In 2005-06, the average spend per head of population on the police was £174 across the country as a whole, but £143 in the east midlands, so there is a significant disparity.

I take on board the points that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that he sought fairness and parity for his constituents, but I have yet to hear a Conservative Member whose constituents receive more funding per head for police than the national average argue that they also seek parity. Given that the hon. and learned Gentleman is a party spokesman on Home Office matters, that issue could be explored further in this debate, including by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman.

I acknowledge that the Home Office has increased overall police numbers. It is accurate and reasonable to note that spending on the police has increased in real terms across the country as a whole and that that has translated into more police officers being employed now in England and Wales than in 1997. It is also fair to say that that increase has been less marked in the east midlands than in other parts of the country. In the past five years, the number of police officers has increased by 8.7 per cent. in the east midlands—so there has been an increase—but by 18.5 per cent. in London. I can therefore see why some people in the east midlands might, despite being grateful for the increases that they have received, feel that their treatment has been relatively disadvantageous compared with other parts of the country.

Let me explore some of the reasons for the underfunding and some of the wider issues that affect the east midlands and other parts of the country. Hon. Members have talked about the malign effect of the Government’s aborted programme for police force mergers. I do not have a special attachment to 43 as a magical number for police force strength across England and Wales, but my party and I were certainly unpersuaded of the merits of creating enormous regional police forces, as was envisaged, of which there would have been one for the whole of the east midlands.

The proposed south-west region that would have covered my constituency stretched all the way from Stonehenge to the Scilly Isles. That is a vast area. Indeed, Tewkesbury, which would have been in the region, is closer to Scotland than it is to Land’s End. The Government were proposing gigantic, monolithic regional police forces that would have been remote from the people whom they served, more unresponsive and less accountable. Also, considerable cost was expended first on exploring those options and then on pulling the rug from under the process.

There is merit in co-operation. As was observed earlier, there is not a very big city in the east midlands, and consequently some of the protective services there are perhaps in a less developed state than those in Greater Manchester or London. There is scope for greater co-operation between the police in Nottingham and Leicester, for example, but that fact falls a long way short of making a case for a regional police force for the east midlands, which would have all the disadvantages that I have touched on.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw rightly made the point that those who champion the cause for more police funding ought to identify potential areas of saving elsewhere in the Home Office budget. I shall introduce him straight away to an area of saving for which the Liberal Democrats have argued for a considerable time: the Government should not go ahead with the proposed identity card scheme. I understand that the current cost—this is way before ID cards have been introduced and simply involves employing people at the Home Office to consider all the pitfalls that will inevitably arise from introducing them—is £97,000 a day. That is just on investigating the possibility of introducing them. There is a lively debate about the likely cost of introducing the scheme, if and when we get to that point, but I do not think that anyone disputes that it will run into several billions of pounds.

Our contention has always been that ID cards should not be introduced in the UK. We are the only one of the three main parties that has consistently taken that view. Our belief is still that that money would be better spent on visible community policing in our neighbourhoods, so that people could see the effects through reductions in crime and antisocial behaviour. Frogmarching elderly ladies from their village to the nearest ID iris-scanning centre—

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that he is entitled to animadvert to, but not dilate upon identity cards? I feel sure that he will now bring his remarks into order.

I take that point, Mr. Bercow, but to a village in the east midlands, having ID cards would not be as effective a use of money as putting more police visibly on the beat in counties such as Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

Another area that has been touched on is PCSO numbers. The Government introduced PCSOs, and I do not pretend that their numbers have not increased since then. I agree that they have a useful contribution to make. Clearly, they provide a more cost-effective method of community policing than fully fledged and trained police officers, and they provide reassuring visibility for people in the east midlands and elsewhere. As long as they are a supplement to and not a replacement for the regular police, most people welcome them.

None the less, the Government gave a cast-iron promise in the Labour party manifesto that there would be an increase of 24,000 officers—including in the east midlands—if the Labour party secured a majority in the general election. After the election, that number was revised to 16,000, and that has had an impact on all five of the east midlands counties and across the country as a whole. That is no reason to detract from the Government’s achievements in introducing PCSOs, but the Minister should acknowledge that there is great cause for concern as a result of police authorities having to change their plans abruptly because of the sudden cut in the promised number of additional PCSOs.

This has been a valuable and interesting debate and a welcome opportunity for Members who represent constituencies in the east midlands to bring their concerns to the Minister’s attention. I look forward to hearing his response.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing the debate and on defending so robustly the interests of his constituency and the east midlands police forces. It has been a most edifying debate, in which I am grateful to be able to intrude. I have learned a great deal about the relative latitudes of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. I have also learned about the Bassetlaw experience; that is something that I feel every time the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) speaks. I shall return to some of his comments shortly.

The fear that my hon. and learned Friend expressed reaches across the national stage and is felt in all of the 43 police authorities in England and Wales. It is not just a reflection of current funding pressures; it is about their fears for the future, which arise because the Home Office budget will effectively be frozen in a year’s time. The Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers have predicted that, as a consequence of that and of the fact that their own costs will run ahead of inflation, there will be a funding gap by 2010. Their most optimistic projection of the gap is £633 million nationally, although their realistic projection is £966 million—or getting on for 10 per cent. of the entire police budget.

Warnings have been issued by representatives of police organisations and by police authorities about the consequences of that scenario. There is already a flattening off in the rate of recruitment of police officers. The latest figures showed a reduction in their number for the first time in several years. We have heard about the reduction in the promised recruitment of police community support officers—a promise that was made as recently as 2005, in the Government’s manifesto. The cut will mean 557 fewer PCSOs in the east midlands.

There has also been a loss of £70 million that was promised for neighbourhood policing. The Government have still not explained exactly where that money has gone. Last week, money that had been top-sliced for amalgamations was apparently being returned to police authorities, but when one examines the figures one sees that it appears that £25 million has been held back by the Government as a result of funding pressures in the Home Office. Those problems are occurring despite the fact that local people have paid considerably more for their policing. For example, the band D precept in Derbyshire has increased by 165 per cent. since the Government came to power.

Against that background, police forces face significant contemporary challenges. As we have heard, those include the need to invest in improving protective services, which are weak in the east midlands, and to respond to the demands of the public for neighbourhood policing and for police officers on the beat. Police forces will have to respond to those challenges.

I have three points to put to the Minister about the issues arising from this situation. First, there has been a substantial increase in resources for the police, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said. Until now, that has allowed the recruitment of additional police officers and PCSOs. All of us welcome that additional recruitment, but I should point out that much of it has been paid for by the local taxpayer through their council tax; their share of the burden of policing has doubled under this Government.

The question is whether the increases have been sustainable. There is concern about the go-stop financing that the Chancellor is now inflicting upon the Home Office. There is also the question of whether it was wise of him to exclude the Home Office from the comprehensive spending review; it has simply been removed from that and told that the money is to be frozen. Given the background of the various challenges that I have described, not to mention the security challenge that faces this country, that matter should be reviewed.

The second issue relates to protective services. We have heard about the encouraging co-operation that is taking place in the east midlands. Such co-operation will be important not only in ensuring that protective services can be developed, given the fact that amalgamations are not going to happen, but in providing a potential source of significant savings, particularly given that the sharing of services will extend into back-room services.

I detect little national impetus on the programme for sharing protective services and sharing services generally. That was the force of the criticism made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). There has been little Government drive towards that aim since the collapse of the mergers—indeed, the Government appear to have been at sea since then. The Minister should update us on how he proposes to drive that both in the east midlands and elsewhere.

My third point is that much of what the police will be asked to do over the next three or four years, against the background of very tight financial settlements, is predicated on forces being able to achieve significant savings as a result of things such as work force modernisation. That is made explicit in the Treasury paper published in December last year, which said that police forces would have to achieve double the current levels of cashable efficiencies and that savings of up to £250 million a year could be achieved by forces through, for example, better management of overtime and through other work force modernisation programmes.

Again, I detect little national impetus towards those programmes. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on where the Government have reached on pushing forward the pilots for work force modernisation and on ensuring that the momentum continues, so that police forces are able to make the kind of changes that will ensure that resources are available to meet the budget shortfall and that there can be an investment of police officers on the front line, which is where all of us and the public want to see them.

My fear is that there has not been a national impetus on either of the key questions that I have mentioned: developing the shared protective services agenda; and developing savings through work force modernisation that can result in efficiencies and in the investment of police officers on the streets. Indeed, we need to protect the number of police officers currently on the streets.

If I had to make a prediction, it would not be an optimistic one. My fear is that as a consequence of the relaxation of the crime fighting fund, which the Government stealthily announced—or, rather, did not announce—just before Christmas, and under which police forces can now reduce police officer numbers if they wish, the savings will not be achieved and there will start to be a reduction in police officer numbers. There will not just be the reneging of the pledge on PCSOs; there will also be a reduction in officer numbers. That process has started to happen in some forces, and my judgment is that, unless things change, it will happen over the next few years in forces up and down the country.

That is not just my own judgment; it is reflected by police professionals. Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, has said:

“This is a trend we will see continue because the financial position for forces is very serious. The only way they can balance the books is lose staff.”

The Minister, Labour Members and all other hon. Members might like to reflect on something. I suspect that the police are about to experience the same thing as has happened in the national health service. Despite big spending increases and the commitment that the Government have made to those public services, they have reached the position where significant cuts have to be made to balance the books. If that happens to the police, it will be very uncomfortable for the Government.

The solution lies in the Government’s hands. I hope that the Minister will tell us how he will be able to drive forward the agendas of savings and sharing services that can prevent the scenario that I have outlined.

This has been a reasonable debate, and I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing and opening it.

I am minded to say that this is almost, like I believe Ernie Bevin once said, “Déjà vu all over again.” Two days after I was appointed to my post, I had the great pleasure of attending a debate in Committee Room 14 on police mergers in the east midlands. Many of today’s dramatis personae were present then, and they were making equally erudite, or, in some cases, less than erudite, comments.

We owe it to ourselves and to our police forces, almost as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was suggesting, to have a temperate debate. Such a debate should not be laden with doom and gloom. It should not be ahistorical or out of context. Massive strides have been made over the past 10 years by our police forces, including those in the east midlands, and that should be recognised. Do difficulties lie ahead? They may do, depending on one’s view. Are there issues to be addressed on funding and finance? There certainly are; I alluded to that in the debate on the police grant report. We owe the public and our police forces a proper discourse on such matters, rather than straying into a sixth form debate, because they are serious. I am not blaming the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), because his points were fair enough. I want to discuss three matters: context, finance and then some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

There may be difficulties ahead for the five east midlands forces. We must look at the context of the past 10 years. There have been huge and significant increases in central Government grant for all those forces over the past 10 years, ranging in cash terms from 40 per cent. to 55 per cent., and in real terms from 10 per cent. to 22 per cent. Interestingly, at the same time—not instead of—there were increases in the precept, and I shall return to that.

As I said during the debate on the police grant report, it cannot be right for the vagaries of history and geography, and past political administrations, both locally and nationally, to dictate police resources, whether funded centrally or locally, in such a disparate way throughout the country. I am not saying that there should not be vagaries because of local conditions and circumstances, but the service is essentially universal and, whether in Cornwall or Cumbria, it should be at approximately the same level. I am not entirely sure that funding per head is—bogus is too strong a word and I am trying to think of a more gentle word, but it is not in my nature—an entirely accurate way of grasping the disparities, and disparities there are, as I said last week.

The funding per population figure is not fair, partly because of the Met, which receives all sorts of funding, as everyone recognises, for national purposes above and beyond local purposes. The national elements should probably be removed from the Met’s pot for a fairer assessment of funding per head in London, so that it is based on local and regional policing rather than national policing. None the less, however crude a measure, it goes to the disparities in funding for what should be a normal service. I do not start from the premise that the funding position is clear. I am not responsible for the Lyons review, but I am told that its report is coming soon—so is Christmas. We have waited a long time for it, and I think it will be instructive when it does come, but that is in the gift of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

This debate and others have prompted questions, and I do not demur from people’s right to put their case for their constituency, local constabulary and so on. That is right and proper, but it should be in the context of funding and the number of officers, which are rising by 12 or 13 per cent. in most cases. Strangely enough, there was no rise in Lincolnshire, and I shall return to the difficulties there with which we are trying to help.

Importantly, next year’s funding for police community support officers and neighbourhood policing will rise by 36 per cent. or more in each and every constabulary. We can debate the point about 24,000 or 16,000 PCSOs, but there has been huge investment this year in neighbourhood police funding and PCSOs, and that will increase by 35 or 36 per cent. next year.

Crucially, today’s policing includes support staff who work with the police, and the number is rising by 32 per cent. in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and up to 78 per cent. in Northamptonshire, against a backdrop, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, of a significant reduction in crime throughout all five forces. None the less, issues remain.

I agree with the encrypted assertion of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) that he was told on the quiet that in risk assessment terms the east midlands was in some difficulty with its protective services. That is right, which is why we have provided funding to the tune of £8 million for the east midlands special operations unit. I shall be more than happy to visit it.

Whatever the outcome of the merger debate, it is significant that it has drawn together more readily than would have been the case without that debate the five east midlands forces, which have started talking seriously to each other. I am impressed by the progress in that regard.

I have had considerable discussion, both nationally and locally, with individual forces on taking protective services forward and filling the gap. Last October or November, I sent a letter indicating the Government’s general direction and had a huge meeting of chiefs and chairs, which almost everyone attended in November. On 14 February, I sent out an 11-page missive—it is called my Valentine’s day letter—to all forces explaining broadly where we are and where we need to get to. There have been similarly impressive advances throughout the country, not least with the four Welsh forces talking to each other, and considerable appetite, spirit and enthusiasm for the collaboration that, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs implied, is necessary to move forward.

As it happens, this debate is timely because, next Monday, in a hotel near Gatwick, which is not a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I shall meet the 14 forces that want to take forward the next stage of work force modernisation. Again, he is right in saying that that is crucial to the future of policing.

I return to the underlying point that all hon. Members made about funding. It is important to consider the matter in the context of hugely significant resources and the huge outputs of those resources in terms of crime. It cannot be right that in 2006-07 some people pay £72 in police precept for a band D property while others pay £210 or £220. That disparity in local contributions for what should be a universal service is wrong. Equally, the funding formula was based on each area’s needs in the context of historic funding and taking account of precisely the local vagaries and disparities that make the service other than universal. Essentially, it should be funded on a universal basis. Hon. Members are right to say that we need the funding formula to deliver what it says. I do not apologise for damping and a transitional period to get there. It is interesting that four of the five forces in east midlands lose, but Northamptonshire gains marginally with £600,000 or so.

I want to get to a stage where the funding formula reflects the national part of the contributions. I repeat what I said during the police grant debate that we need a substantive debate on resources, not just on the overall cake. We have got the debate right on the national portion of core funding, let alone additional grants. It is more about how that formula will eventually deliver. There remains a debate about the local tax base specifically for policing and whether there should be a disparity in precept, and equally a disparity in the contribution that that precept makes to the overall budget. In some cases it is barely 20 per cent., but in others, particularly in the south-east, it is more like 50 per cent. Let us have that debate. I am willing to engage with everyone in the east midlands and beyond in that debate in the coming year. I accept that next year and subsequent years will be even more difficult.

I welcome the freshness of the debate, and hope that consensus will emerge on policing and how to finance it in the 21st century.

MSC Napoli

It is now just over five weeks since the MSC Napoli was beached in Lyme bay, and the incident gained notoriety when scenes of people descending on to Branscombe beach and carrying off the contents of some of the broken containers like an army of worker ants appeared on television. Since then, many people have raised serious questions, not least about why a ship in the Napoli’s condition was ever allowed into British territorial waters, and particularly those opposite the Jurassic and Triassic coast, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Speculation about the reasons for choosing Lyme bay will remain until the Government lay out the sequence of events and the chronology behind the decision-making process. Many of my constituents have asked why the ship could not have been towed to Falmouth or, indeed, France. I have been able to reply only with the information that I have been given, which is that the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention, Robin Middleton, suggested that the ship might well have broken up had she been towed to Falmouth, France or, indeed, Portland—the chosen destination—rather than beached in Lyme bay. At what point in the rescue operation was it decided to beach the Napoli in Lyme bay? I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me whether any other location was considered at the time.

I am concerned that such an incident should not blight East Devon’s coastline in the future. I am particularly keen, therefore, that the marine accident investigation branch investigation should be thorough and swift. Is the Minister satisfied with the inquiry’s terms of reference?

Will the Minister disclose the level and quality of the environmental advice that the Secretary of State’s representative sought and received before deciding to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Has he commissioned an environmental impact assessment of the marine environment, and especially Lyme bay’s coral reefs and bird life?

The distressing scenes on the beach, to which I have alluded, would have been avoidable had the police immediately been made the lead response agency. As the Minister knows, only one road leads down to Branscombe beach, and it could have been sealed off straight away. What, therefore, was the quality and level of liaison between Dorset police and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary when it was decided to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Who did the Minister expect to take the lead on emergency planning—the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or Devon and Cornwall police? Why did the latter take so long to respond to the fears and concerns of Branscombe’s residents?

Will the Minister and the Receiver of Wreck accept that they misunderstood the law relating to property washed up onshore and that that led directly to the disgraceful scenes that we saw on Branscombe beach? What steps are being taken to ensure that the law is clarified, and if necessary updated, to prevent a similar situation in the future? I am not suggesting—heaven forbid—that there should be more laws, because we already suffer from too many regulations, but the existing legislation warrants close examination to ensure that scenes such as those that we witnessed are avoided in future.

Will the Minister clarify when the marine White Paper will be published and debated? It has long been promised—I think that it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—but it is difficult to get any information from any Department or other source on what it will be about. I will be most grateful if the Minister could give us some information on that point.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the members of 771 Squadron at RNAS Culdrose demonstrated their professionalism and heroism in extremely difficult circumstances when they evacuated the Napoli after it had foundered off the Lizard in my constituency? And does he also agree that the Government really need to review whether it is appropriate to privatise a search and rescue service that has demonstrated that it is very much fit for purpose?

The behaviour of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is a credit to that organisation, and the issue was raised in the House when the Minister made a statement about the Napoli. I obviously know and fully support the work that is done at Culdrose, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question when he responds to mine.

Will the Minister tell us what impact the marine Bill would have on this incident and what impact marine spatial planning has had on it? Will the Bill specifically address the question of shipping and ship-to-ship transfers in areas such as Lyme bay? In the past, we have had a problem there with ship-to-ship transfers of quite heavy Russian crude, and we have been concerned about the issue for some time. Again, we now need reassurance.

Looking forward and being positive, we need help to get out the message that Branscombe and the surrounding area are open for business—I spend quite a lot of my time there, and I can assure people that they are, as I have said in the House, open for business. Getting that message out would help to restore the day-visitor market and even increase it above normal levels, and we need the press to support and communicate that message. We shall need help in influencing the media if we are to generate income from day visitors in the run-up to Easter.

There is an immediate need for an initial contribution of £30,000 towards the cost of promotions, advertising and marketing to restore the area’s image and to generate renewed and new inquiries and bookings for local businesses and the local economy. That marketing is scheduled to take place in late March. Malcolm Bell, the chief executive of South West Tourism, has written to the ship’s owners or insurers, Zodiac Maritime Agencies Ltd, on behalf of the MSC Napoli incident tourism support and recovery group, which is a coalition of local interests, to request such funding. I hope that many of the lessons that were learned in the aftermath of the devastation caused by foot and mouth to the local economy are now turned into good practice and that the moves that I have described are, indeed, evidence of that. People are coming together to get help, and I am trying to support them. I therefore ask the Minister to support their appeal.

On payments and compensation, will all the costs incurred by Dorset county council and East Devon district council be reimbursed by the Government through the Bellwin scheme or an emergency grant? We need to ensure that an as yet unknown amount is found to compensate specific businesses for their loss of trade as a result of the incident—the value of the losses will be established over the coming weeks and months. The insurers might wish to form a joint claims-handling task force with the group and agree a non-litigated claims-handling and verification process. Help in making the insurers act speedily would be greatly appreciated. What assistance can the Minister give in that regard?

The rumour mills have been working overtime ever since the incident first occurred just over five weeks ago, and I hope that the Minister will use the time offered by this debate to nail some of the rumours, which do nothing to help anyone. There is a rumour and some concern that the ship owners and container owners will be dealt with first by the insurers and that there will be no money left over to meet claims lodged by others. Will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that that will not happen, that all claimants will be dealt with equally, that the pot will not run dry and that all claims will be properly and fully compensated, if that is what is decided?

The real dilemma arises from the fact that that the insurers will, hopefully, settle a claim, at least for the business losses and, it is to be hoped, for the promotional work, but that that may take weeks or even months, which we do not have with Easter coming up and the tourist season upon us. The regional development agency should be able to provide, either directly or through South West Tourism, funding via a refundable grant mechanism to provide cash flow for the promotion work and help individual businesses with cash-flow problems or additional bank and interest charges. Will the Minister contact the South West of England Regional Development Agency and ask it to co-operate in that?

Finally, on my own behalf and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has been closely monitoring events from his perspective, I thank the Minister again for keeping us regularly informed. I also thank the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for its useful daily updates. I have no doubt that following his statement yesterday the Minister will want to inform the House of the current situation with respect to the MSC Napoli, but it is clear that all the people involved in the handling of the incident have done an exceptionally fine job—particularly some of the overseas contractors on the beach in Branscombe, who have been working tirelessly round the clock. I pay tribute again to all those involved in what could have been a horrendous incident off our shore. It is clear that the environmental damage could have been much worse and that there are important lessons to be learned. Some serious questions require answers and assistance is needed for those adversely affected by this regrettable incident.

I think that this is my first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, so welcome to the Chair and congratulations on your appointment to the Chairmen’s Panel. I want to begin my remarks by congratulating the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) not only on securing the debate and representing the views of his constituents, but on his constructive approach to what must have been a very uncomfortable incident. I thank his constituents, too, for the understanding that they have shown. That also applies to his parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has also been very understanding, and who, were it not for fate and the winds, might have found the Napoli in his constituency instead. I am grateful, and I shall do my best to answer the questions that have been raised.

First, I will deal with an issue raised in an intervention by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Harmonisation of the helicopter service would have made no difference to the quality of the rescue. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to keep an open mind. He will be involved, as a key stakeholder, in the development of any decisions that are made as we move forward with the process in question. However, whatever happens and whatever is decided, the RAF will still be an integral part of the new service. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that the same rescue would have been carried out under the new or the old arrangements. If we cannot guarantee that, we shall have to make different decisions, because it is fundamental that we should preserve the quality of the service.

Returning to the questions asked by the hon. Member for East Devon, which I shall answer as thoroughly as I can—I am grateful to him for giving me notice of some of them, so that I can address them in my comments—I share his view that the environmental damage from the incident would have been far worse without the action that was taken. I am confident that the decisions that were made by the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention, Mr. Robin Middleton, have been of vital importance in limiting the impact.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to outline the decision-making process that led to the beaching of the MSC Napoli. The English channel is an area of joint Anglo-French responsibility, and once it became clear on 18 January that the Napoli was in difficulty, the Anglo-French joint maritime contingency plan, usually called the Mancheplan, came into effect. As a result of that, the initial operation to bring aid to the ship was led by the French authorities in liaison with SOSREP. An on-scene investigation of the condition of the Napoli was carried out, which revealed that the ship was in danger of breaking up. Had the ship broken up and sunk in open water, there would have been a huge release of oil with little hope of containing it, resulting in widespread and long-term damage to the coastline. UK and French authorities therefore carried out a full assessment of all harbours that the ship could potentially be taken into.

The need for a place of refuge and its location are always driven by the circumstances of an incident, including such factors as the weather, the geographical whereabouts of the incident, the size and condition of the vessel and the potential threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. Taking all those factors into account, the French authorities were unable to identify a suitable place of refuge on the French coast within about 200 miles, and it was feared the ship would not survive that long. All the other options were on the UK south coast, from Falmouth to Portland. A full risk assessment was carried out to determine a location providing the best shelter and chance of survival, and for the offloading of oil and hazardous cargo.

None of the main ports had sufficient depth of water. Chart datum depths for the deepest ports, Falmouth and Plymouth, showed about 15 m depth with maximum tidal height at Falmouth of 5 m, getting less further east. The vessel’s stern draught at that time was 17 m and was thought to be increasing. The Falmouth harbourmaster reported that the vessel could have anchored outside the harbour, but that Falmouth did not have the capability to handle and store containers. In any case, transit to Falmouth would have exposed the casualty to severe stress, because of the direction of travel and the state of the sea. The weather was extremely bad, with reports of a 5 m swell and a forecast of severe gales. There was no safe option to enter any south coast port.

A decision was therefore taken to find an anchorage with good shelter from the south-west winds. The most suitable option was Portland, because it would have provided the best shelter combined with good access to port facilities and later the potential opportunity to move the ship into the inner harbour. It also meant that the vessel would be towed in a direction that would minimise the stress on the hull during the passage. Unfortunately, the continuing severe weather resulted in a further deterioration in the ship’s condition and necessitated the decision to beach the ship in Lyme bay. In taking that decision, SOSREP consulted environmental and local groups.

Such a rapidly developing incident requires firm and decisive leadership, which placed limits on the extent of the consultation that was possible. SOSREP has the power to make unilateral decisions in such cases, where they are required. I am satisfied that the decision to beach the ship in Lyme bay was the correct one and that the environmental consequences would have been far worse had SOSREP not acted so decisively. I am also entirely satisfied that SOSREP acted for the best and, given the urgency with which he had to make decisions, I encourage people to stop trying to second-guess him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, exercised at leisure, and SOSREP had decisions to make in a short space of time during an emergency.

Since my oral statement to the House on 1 February, work has continued on removing oil and containers from the Napoli. Virtually all the heavy fuel oil has now been removed, with only small residual amounts left in hard-to-reach spaces. Removal of diesel oil continues. I am pleased to say that the risk of a major oil pollution incident with the potential to cause widespread environmental damage has therefore passed. Meanwhile, work on removing containers from the ship is continuing as quickly as the prevailing weather conditions will allow. As of Monday evening this week, all 853 deck containers have now been removed and work has commenced on removing containers from the holds. Since the Napoli was grounded, 114 containers have fallen overboard. We do not believe that the contents of any of those present a significant risk to either human health or the environment. It is likely that a small number of additional containers could be lost, depending on future weather conditions, and plans are in place for their recovery should that occur.

Where containers are found on the beach, coastguard rescue teams and contractors go on site with security officers and the police to ensure that the area is completely shut off to the public. The police are warning the public that they will use their powers to arrest anyone attempting to remove articles from beaches. The normal arrangements for the recovery of wreck material through voluntary salvage do not apply in the case of the MSC Napoli, now that comprehensive salvage contracts have been placed by the owners of the ship and the consigners to recover all items from the vessel, including those lost overboard and washed ashore.

On 23 February, we received reports that debris from the cargo of the Napoli had washed ashore along the coastline from Bournemouth to the Isle of Wight. Local authorities are being advised to contact the shipowner’s contractor for shoreline clean-up. Vessels equipped with side-scan sonar continue to search for those containers that were lost overboard and are believed to have sunk. Despite some disruption from severe weather, the work is proceeding well and several containers have already been located.

With regard to the scenes of looting on the beaches in the days following the grounding of the Napoli, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions concerning policing, with specific reference to the role of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary and Dorset police. Chief constables are operationally independent, and it is for them to decide how to manage operations and the response to such incidents. The lead role from an emergency planning perspective was undertaken in accordance with the Government’s established and practised procedures for responding to emergencies, which are set out in the Cabinet Office publication “Emergency Response and Recovery”.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency led the offshore response, with the police leading the onshore activity. Those two aspects were co-ordinated from Portland maritime rescue and co-ordination centre and the police headquarters at Exeter respectively, involving a wide range of other agencies as appropriate. Close liaison was maintained throughout between the police and the MCA. In addition, I am led to understand that a multi-agency “silver” command centre was also established by Dorset police at Dorchester in support of the wider operation. The response was in accordance with locally developed plans. As the hon. Gentleman expects, there will be a review of issues that arise to ensure that any lessons are learned for the future.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that we misunderstood the law relating to property washed up onshore. The actions of many of the people who came to Branscombe after the beaching of the Napoli showed that what they were doing could not be categorised as salvage and was essentially looting. That compelled the Receiver of Wreck, MCA colleagues and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary to reassess the situation, and to invoke the receiver’s power under section 237 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to use force if necessary against anyone who refused to hand over recovered wreck material or attempted to conceal or keep possession of it.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the draft marine Bill. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading work across Government to finalise the marine Bill White Paper and hopes to publish it in March. There will be a 12-week consultation period following publication, during which anyone with an interest will be invited to comment on the proposals. I am sure that he and his constituents will want to make comments.

As I explained in the House on 1 February, a marine Bill would have made no difference to the incident in question. The UK authorities would still have dealt with it in precisely the same way. Decisions taken by SOSREP are already taken on the basis of detailed information that has been assembled pre-event, which includes a partial inventory of the UK’s coast providing a generic analysis of locations that could become a place of refuge for ships in particular circumstances. That information is assembled and kept up to date by the MCA and can be viewed on its website.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me to provide information about ship-to-ship transfers. It is our intention to put in place secondary legislation to regulate such operations within the limits of the UK’s territorial sea. I note what he has said about our having too many regulations already, but those regulations are in preparation and there will be a consultation on them in due course.

The hon. Gentleman asked about arrangements for compensation, which I understand is of great concern to his constituents. Claims for property and environmental damage caused by the Napoli are governed by the liability provisions set out in the 1995 Act in respect of damage, and the international convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims 1996—commonly known as LLMC—in respect of cost recovery. Section 154 of the 1995 Act provides strict liability on the shipowner for oil pollution damage caused outside the ship by the contamination, for the cost of preventing or minimising the damage, and for any damage caused by the preventive measures taken—for example, the removal of heavy fuel oil from the bunker tanks and preventive measures taken to minimise the threat of pollution. The proper mechanism to recover costs associated with a liability, where one is established, is the LLMC, which entered into force in May 2004. It established a framework of rules and duties on shipowners, including the right of shipowners to limit their liability according to the tonnage of the ship. In the case of the MSC Napoli, the limitation amount will be approximately £14.5 million.

There is no right of direct action against the insurer in the case of the Napoli, so claimants must submit their claims in court. I am led to believe that the owner of the Napoli has agreed to establish a limitation fund in the UK. Claims for damages must be submitted through the courts. Claimants who believe that they have eligible claims may submit such claims for the judgment of the court, but such claims may include those for property damage, as well as for clean-up and cargo. It is for all claimants to determine, after taking appropriate legal advice, whether they have a legitimate claim to pursue, and for the courts to decide whether to accept those claims.

The allocation of money from the limitation fund among the various claimants is a complex legal matter that has occupied the Admiralty court on numerous occasions. As a general rule, claims subject to limitation under article 2 of the international convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims do not preclude claims presented by the property owners. However, all claimants will be treated in proportion to their established claims. If the amount of money claimed from the limitation fund were to exceed the amount in the fund, all claims would be paid on a pro rata basis. Ultimately, that is a matter for the administrator of the limitation fund and the courts to determine.

The House might also be interested to know that the UK has ratified the international convention on civil liability for bunker oil pollution damage 2001. It is expected that the convention will enter into force some time during 2008. It provides a strict liability and compulsory insurance requirement, including the right of direct action against the insurer. That means that claimants need not prove fault and that eligible claims need not go before the courts before settlement. Another developing International Maritime Organisation instrument pertinent to the Napoli case is the wreck removal convention. The Department is actively engaged in the negotiations on that, which will come to fruition at a diplomatic conference in May this year. The instrument will provide similar compulsory insurance and direct action provisions to those contained in the bunkers convention.

The hon. Gentleman raised the Bellwin scheme, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I understand that three of the local authorities involved with the incident have made initial contact to register an interest in making a possible claim under the scheme. Obviously I cannot prejudge the outcome of any claim, but if the local authorities concerned can identify costs that are eligible under the published Bellwin criteria, their application will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

In the wake of such an incident, it is understandable that questions will be asked about the cause from an early stage. There has been much speculation whether the Napoli was seaworthy following her earlier beaching in 2001. Ships are required to undergo periodic surveys of their condition in much the same way as motor cars. Ships are also subject to inspection when calling at UK and other ports. Ships that are found to have major defects can be detained in port until the defects have been rectified. However, it would not be appropriate to speculate on the causes of the Napoli’s structural failure at this time. A full investigation will be carried out by the marine accident investigation branch. That investigation will not take the form of a public inquiry. Lengthy and costly formal public hearings are considered an inappropriate way of conducting modern accident investigation.

I hope that I have answered most of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. If I have not, and if he wants to write to me when he has studied the transcript, I shall be more than happy to try and do better. I again express my gratitude to SOSREP, as well as to all those who were involved in rescue, salvage and recovery operations. It is thanks to their efforts that there was no loss of human life and that the impact upon the environment has been far less severe than it would otherwise have been. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be understandably uncomfortable with events, but I hope that they come to accept that everything has been done for the best, and I very much hope that none of them will be left out of pocket. On a personal note, if I ever get a few days off, I look forward to coming to Branscombe again with my family to see them.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Bichard Inquiry

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, in what I hope will be an interesting and informative debate about the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. I shall concentrate on the first two recommendations, which relate to the provision of a police central intelligence computer system and a national system for cross-referencing that intelligence.

The debate that I have been lucky enough to secure this afternoon follows on from the first time that I raised the issues, just over one year ago on 8 February 2006. Today, I hope to update the House on issues relating to Bichard’s first recommendation, and in turn listen to the Minister’s response and gain an update on Home Office progress in meeting those recommendations.

The points that I made when I first raised the issue in 2006 can be summarised as follows: in June 2004, Sir Michael Bichard reported to Parliament in the aftermath of the Soham murders; despite the fact that he called for the urgent implementation of a computer intelligence system, there were delays in achieving those recommendations; the proposed business plan for achieving the system was also somewhat delayed; the costs of implementing a system escalated throughout that period; it appeared that the system the Home Office wished to introduce was becoming far too complex, and that simpler and cheaper systems, which were more readily available, could have been used to meet the Bichard recommendation; and systems could have been set up as an interim measure and could have been up and running much more quickly. One year on, we are still in roughly the same situation—we still do not have a national police intelligence system. Incidentally, we should not forget that the first plan for a national police intelligence system was suggested 10 years before the Bichard inquiry in 1994, so in reality we have been waiting some considerable time for the system to be developed.

I shall go through a chronology of events since the Bichard report, explaining where we are in relation to his recommendation and how the Home Office has tried to meet it. Unfortunately, because the matter relates to computers and computerised systems, a bit of jargon is involved. However, wherever possible I shall try to explain some of the more complicated acronyms.

The Bichard report was published in June 2004, and Sir Michael stated that it was his intention to reconvene his inquiry six months after the report’s completion in order to assess the progress made on the recommendations—it goes without saying that the Government had accepted the recommendations. The first recommendation was that

“a national system for England Wales to support police intelligence should be introduced as a matter of urgency.”

It called for the Home Office to take the lead and to report

“by December 2004 with clear targets for the implementation of the system.”

The second recommendation stated that the “PLX system”, a cross-referencing intelligence system

“which flags when intelligence about someone is held by particular police forces, should be introduced in England and Wales by 2005.”

As you may well remember, Mr. Bercow, during the inquiries into what happened in Soham, Cambridgeshire police force made inquiries of Humberside police force to try to obtain intelligence on a suspect in that murder inquiry. The intelligence was not forthcoming, and Bichard’s recommendations were designed to address that issue.

The Home Office produced a progress report six months later in December 2004 outlining the steps that it had taken to date to meet the recommendations. The Home Office said that

“there has been a comprehensive buy-in across all 43 police forces in England and Wales to the IMPACT programme.”

IMPACT stands for information, management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking of intelligence.

It was decided that the programme would be delivered in stages, from 2005 until its completion date, which was originally suggested as 2007. The report said that

“in the interim, the PLX system was on track to provide an index of individuals about whom information is held by police forces.”

The first version of that system, known as a national nominal index, was to be available from March 2005. It was plain from the outset that a clear timetable had been set for what is now a complicated system. It is clear now that that timetable was wildly optimistic.

In January 2005, the Bichard inquiry reconvened to assess the progress that had been made in meeting the recommendations. Sir Michael acknowledged the Home Office’s advice that the business case would not be considered until September 2005, and that it had been downgraded to an “outline business case”. However, he still called on the Home Office to ensure that a national IT system was delivered “on time, by 2007”. It is now clear that that timetable will not be met.

The Home Secretary, in a written ministerial statement published on 15 March 2005, acknowledged Sir Michael’s comments and agreed to issue two further progress reports in six and 12 months’ time. So, in November 2005 the Home Office issued a second progress report, announcing that the IMPACT nominal index, the cross-checking reference system, would

“start rolling out to forces’ Child Abuse Investigation Units from December 2005”,

but that it would not be completed until July 2006.

That is important because the cross-referencing system, the IMPACT nominal index, was designed to cover all aspects of police work. However, even by July 2006 it was available only in child abuse investigations. The index did not cover any other aspect of policy work, such as crime or motoring offences, and it related only to child abuse investigations. It is obvious that the progress made in achieving those systems was limited.

The IMPACT programme also assessed another system called the cross-regional information sharing project, or CRISP. That project had been developed by Cumbria police, along with some others, to allow police officers directly to access information held by other forces without having to contact the force holding the information, which was the case with the IMPACT nominal index.

To explain it more simply, I shall return to the example that I used the last time we debated this subject. Under the index system, if a police officer in South Yorkshire were to enter my name into his intelligence system, it might flag up my name in another police force area—Essex, for example. The system would tell the police officer in South Yorkshire that my name was held by Essex police force, but it would not tell them exactly what that information was. The police officer in South Yorkshire would then have to telephone Essex and ask for the information record to be provided. In doing that, the information record from Essex would be sent to Yorkshire, thereby duplicating the information held on the system.

The index system would simply flag up that that information is available. The idea of CRISP was to put all that information together in a central system, so that when the officer in South Yorkshire inquired about my name, it would not only show that intelligence was held about me, but would say exactly what it was and allow the officer to access it there and then. Unfortunately, neither of those systems is fully operational at the moment. It is worth saying that the initial estimates for the funding of the CRISP and IMPACT nominal index system were £163 million.

The business case that I mentioned should have been presented in March 2006—already a year overdue—and when it was, it confirmed that the completion date for the IMPACT system had moved from 2007 to 2010. A year ago, I raised all those issues during a debate in Westminster Hall, and the then Minister, who is now the Minister without Portfolio, confirmed that the IMPACT system was a series of “interim, incremental programmes”, leading to a bigger programme by 2010. The first step was the nominal index, available to child abuse units, and the next step would be to roll out the CRISP system so that eventually, by 2010, we would have a police national database—the all-singing, all-dancing model envisaged by Bichard—which would deal with every aspect of police intelligence.

The Home Office made a statement in April 2006 in which the Minister at the time gave an overview of the final business case. She said that the Home Office had a very clear vision of the IMPACT programme. She stressed that the programme would meet the Bichard recommendations, improve police performance and operational efficiency, and make considerable savings. By the time of that statement in April 2006, the cost estimate had increased to £367 million. Although neither aspect of the system was anywhere near fully operational, the cost estimates had more than doubled. The Minister also stated that the Home Office would focus on the continued development within police forces of the CRISP database system to give them the capability to extract data from local force databases in a format that they could use.

I raised the issue in June 2006, at Prime Minister’s questions. The Prime Minister stated that while the full IMPACT recommendations would not come in until later, data-sharing arrangements should be in place from the end of 2007. He said that the Government would look at how they could speed up the recommendations and added that, if necessary, they were perfectly happy to reconvene the Bichard inquiry.

In September 2006, the IMPACT programme supplier newsletter was published. It is one of the most recent publications from the Home Office on the progress in achieving the IMPACT system, and it highlighted a number of changes. The most significant was that the system would now hold only a minimum amount of information. It would still mean physical contact with the police force or other organisation in question in order to access the intelligence referred to. It also stated that the roll-out to child abuse investigation units throughout the country had only just been achieved. Again, there had been delays, even within the minimalist approach to the interim national index. The newsletter also confirmed that by mid-2007—in two or three months’ time—an interim data-warehousing capability based on the CRISP software would be deployed, allowing direct, inter-force access to intelligence records. However, it also said that

“the functionality which will be delivered by IMPACT…is necessarily constrained by the current state of development of the…product and the work required to ensure that it is fit for purpose”.

In the newsletter, certain doubts were apparent in relation to the development of this programme, and there were questions about whether it could be developed in the way envisaged by the Home Office.

An independent technical review of the IMPACT technology choices then took place, which was intended to take stock of the approach at that stage. It stated that the programme team would be contacting a range of suppliers to seek advice and views ahead of a supplier day this winter.

The Home Office answered a series of questions about the IMPACT system in October 2006. It stated that it had yet to give approval to the programme to contract for the CRISP service or to initiate procurement of the police national database as it was awaiting the outcome of further work that was due to be considered in March this year. It also stated that accountability for the IMPACT programme would change in April this year and that the programme would be part of the new National Policing Improvement Agency. Not only were there further doubts about whether the system would be commissioned by the Home Office, but there was also a change in ownership of the product, which will move into the new agency that should come into being in April.

At this point, the Home Office had begun inviting tenders from industry for some of the work to be done on the data-warehousing system and improving the nominal index. It appears that a number of sources within industry have reported that the Microsoft Corporation, on whose software the system is based, has said that the CRISP system is not sufficiently robust to scale up to the size required for a national database. A test showed that after loading 1.5 million records on to the system, the response times for a search were of the order of 20 minutes. If we consider that a national intelligence system would contain something like 7 million vehicle records alone, we can see just how big a delay there would be if the system were scaled up and used nationally.

There are some considerable questions about the whole IMPACT system. We have the IMPACT nominal index, which is the indexing system, and it already contains 43 million entries. Given that this country has a population of 60 million, it is easy to see that there is a lot of duplication on that system. Every time a record is accessed from the index, it is of necessity duplicated. It is available only for child abuse investigation units, and it has not been rolled out into any other aspect of police work. On top of that, the CRISP system will be the data warehouse and hold all the records to enable police officers to access them as and when they wish. As I have mentioned, however, there are now doubts about scale and whether it can go ahead.

In my speech last year, I mentioned that there were alternatives, the first of which was the Scottish system. Scotland had that system fully up and running in 2004. Sir Michael Bichard considered that system, but he was persuaded against it because he was informed that it could not properly evaluate intelligence, which was clearly wrong because it can. The system is used in the whole of Scotland, and one or two English forces use it, too. Last February, we were told that the cost of scaling that system from Scotland out to the rest of the UK would be £55 million and that it could have been done in 13 months. If we had started scaling it out at the time of my debate, we could have looked forward to its coming into being next month.

The Scottish system was developed by a company called ABM, which has been interested in the issues, as they relate to its field and it is interested in whatever business it can tender for as part of the IMPACT scheme. I pay tribute to its group managing director, Alistair Luff, who has provided some of the information that I have cited today. When I contacted him recently to get an update on the current situation in respect of his company, he told me that it was taking no further part in dealing with IMPACT, that it is not anticipating tendering for any other such work and that it had, in effect, been warned off taking any further interest in the police system.

Here we are, with a cost estimate of £367 million for a system that does not exist, yet last year we could have paid £55 million for a system that would have been up and running in the space of a year. Obviously, other companies take an interest in the field of computer intelligence, one of which is Memex. I had not been aware of its existence until it contacted me after my debate of February last year. A Memex computer intelligence system is used by the Metropolitan police, the British Transport police, the Los Angeles police force and the new Iraqi police force that is being developed. British Transport police liaises with 14 other police forces in this country that are also signed up to the Memex system. British Transport police is our only national police force. It deals not only with fare dodging, but security issues, especially in respect of what has happened in the capital in the past two years, so there is a serious element to its involvement.

Metropolitan police has been using the system for some years—let us bear in mind that the Met deals with 30 per cent. of the UK’s total intelligence. Add to that the intelligence with which British Transport police deals, and we can see that the Memex system, which is fully compliant with the Bichard recommendations, is dealing with a third of this country’s intelligence. During the delays and problems of the IMPACT system, the Memex system—the Metropolitan police system—has been up and running and working well. As I have said, it already covers a third of this country’s intelligence.

I had the privilege of seeing the Metropolitan police system in operation in the service’s new buildings in Earls Court. My hon. Friend the Minister, a London Member, will know more about Metropolitan police systems than me, and I urge her to take a look at the system. She will see in operation a police intelligence computer system that meets all the requirements of Bichard and is fully up and operational.

In conclusion, I ask again why we are persisting with the IMPACT system, which appears to reinvent the wheel, when much cheaper commercial systems are available and could be implemented over a much shorter time scale. As I have mentioned, the responsibility for the system will pass to the National Policing Improvement Agency in April. I suggest that that offers a good opportunity for a complete review of the whole system with a view to considering whether there is an easier, cheaper and faster way to meet the Bichard recommendations.

I am grateful to you for calling me to participate in this debate, Mr. Bercow. Let me start by making three observations before I get to the substance of my contribution.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) not only on raising this subject but on pursuing and taking an interest in it for an extended period, and, as a result, accumulating wisdom that he shared with us this afternoon. It is an immense credit to him that he should have continued to take such a diligent interest in this very important subject. Inevitably, I shall go over some of the ground that he has already covered. However, I do not wish to speak for as long as he did; I fear that I shall not speak with the same degree of expertise either. None the less, I shall go over some of the key points, if repetition adds emphasis.

My second observation is that the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were particularly harrowing not only for people in this country, but internationally. People were disturbed and distressed by what happened. Of course, the people immediately connected with the case—most particularly, the parents of the two girls—are uniquely affected by what happened. However, even people who had no link with the family, or even with Soham or Cambridgeshire, will remember the case for the remainder of their lives. It is particularly important that we should have the opportunity to discuss it and its ramifications in this House.

Thirdly, I pay tribute to the work of the Bichard inquiry, which is widely regarded as having reached many balanced and thoughtful conclusions, which are informing our debate.

In a spirit of trying to reach helpful outcomes rather than of being confrontational or partisan in any way, let me raise four particular areas of concern with the Minister. I shall then give my concluding thoughts about possible ways forward and conclusions that we might draw from those areas of concern.

The first that I wish to bring to the attention of the House is that the IMPACT programme—the programme for shared intelligence, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central has already discussed at length—will not, I understand, be complete until 2010. There is some doubt about whether even that completion date will be met. The deadline for the full business case promised by the Government has been and gone, and we still have only an interim business case, rather than a full one. The programme is greatly delayed and I should be interested in the Minister’s views on whether we can speed up the implementation of that programme and her response to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there may be alternative ways of reaching the same desired end point, although by a different route.

The second problem that I wish to raise is linked to the first one: the level of co-operation and consensus required from police forces across the country to implement programmes of this sort. Co-ordinating separate budgets to serve both local and national interests would present a formidable undertaking, even for a well-resourced commercial enterprise, but for the police service, which must also negotiate with local authorities and consult the wider population, in addition to dealing with the Home Office itself, the scale and complexity of the challenge is even greater. I would be interested to know how much progress the Minister thinks the police services and authorities across the country are making, and whether some forces are making much greater progress than others. If that is the case, what could be learned by those who are less proficient?

The third problem that I wish to raise is that, as I understand it, the police are still taking up to six months to record convictions and acquittals on the police national computer, even though the target is 10 days. There is a huge disparity between a 10-day target and taking six months, in some cases, to record relevant information on the computer. The Metropolitan police have been less than exemplary in this regard. An internal Met report stated that it took 185 days for 75 per cent. of court results to be inputted to the computer. Sir Michael Bichard stated:

“Police performance on putting data on to the PNC about arrests and summons in particular has not improved significantly or, in some respects, at all. That has been a long standing problem and it is disappointing that after all this time, more has not been achieved.”

There will be legitimate public concern about procedures not being followed as speedily and diligently as they should be. Obviously, if a significant period is allowed to lapse between an offence taking place and a conviction, and the records being updated, there is considerable scope for repeat offenders to fail to be caught by the procedures that are intended to prevent them from offending again.

The fourth and final problem that I wish to raise involves the procedures for vetting adults who work with children, particularly in the education sector. I understand that staff already in post and those who have worked with children for up to three months beforehand are not vetted. The chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board has criticised the Government for failing to give schools the ability to vet retrospectively. I realise that there may be issues, concerns and considerations to be balanced, and I may touch on them shortly, but I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on whether the existing mechanisms to protect children in schools and other institutions of that type are sufficiently robust to deal with the potential threat that is posed.

Further to those concerns, let me make three more observations. First, the Liberal Democrats support the Bichard inquiry fully, and we very much hope that the Government can address the four problems that I mentioned and any others that are raised by Members such as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, who has taken a particularly close interest in the matter.

Secondly, we welcome the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 but recognise the concerns expressed in some quarters that over-zealous vetting procedures could discourage someone from working with children and vulnerable people. It is worth stating at this point that we all share the horror about what happened in the Soham and other high-profile cases, but we also do not want to create a situation where millions of law-abiding, decent and well-intentioned people are discouraged from working in entirely beneficial ways with children and young people because they feel that the mechanisms for vetting them are too onerous, burdensome or intrusive. Of course, a balance must be struck. The Minister will be acutely aware of her responsibility and that of the Government to protect children; none the less, it is worth paying some regard to that balance when they deliberate on it.

Thirdly, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Bichard inquiry found that the Data Protection Act 1998 presented no obstacle to Humberside and Cambridgeshire sharing information on Ian Huntley’s previous record. The Government need to act, but they should not regard all the measures and mechanisms that exist to protect the public from undue interference in their private affairs, or the basic liberties of the citizen, as being in some way burdensome to the Government. We must respect the fact that there is a private realm and that information can legitimately be kept secret by the individual.

As with my previous point, there is a balance to be struck between the rights of the individual to live his or her life without feeling that the state is prying unnecessarily into their affairs, and the need to ensure that there are no barriers to the police and other authorities sharing legitimate information that could prevent awful cases such as the one that we are discussing this afternoon. I realise that where the line is drawn is not always perfectly measurable and that there may be some scope for debate. The difficulty for the Government and anyone who is tasked with making such decisions is to try to ensure that the balance between protection of the individual and protection of the liberties of citizens is struck in such a way as to maximise both, and not necessarily to think always that there is a trade-off between the two.

There must be greater efficiency in the way that forces pool and share data, and we must consider whether the mechanisms that have been pursued to date have produced the desired results. We must either speed up the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations or develop better recommendations whereby we may achieve the desired outcomes of the inquiry but by different routes, and we must be cautious about achieving balance.

I have confidence that the issues will be addressed as soon as possible, given the determined manner in which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central maintains interest in these matters, and the Minister and officials in the Home Office acting entirely in good faith in their desire to achieve a satisfactory conclusion that will protect the public. I know that the Minister will take my view that that is what the people directly affected by the Soham murders and the country as a whole expect and demand of her and her Department.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on initiating this debate, which certainly is timely. I also congratulate him on maintaining the pressure and ensuring that the Government are held to account for taking forward the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) about the delays, and I associate myself with his remarks about what initiated the Bichard inquiry in the first place. The appalling murders in Soham moved the entire nation. The consequence was that fundamental failings in the ability of our police forces to share information were exposed.

It is worth reminding ourselves that when Bichard reported in June 2004, he said that it was a matter of urgency that greater intelligence sharing and a national IT system should be introduced. Two and a half years later, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, there are still substantial delays, and 2010 is the earliest date for full implementation. As The Guardian reported in June 2006, the cost estimates have doubled over the past year, with some estimates taking us into the region of £2 billion. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about where we are with the programme, as well as what the latest cost estimates and the timetable are. In particular, I should like to know how the National Policing Improvement Agency budget affects those issues and whether it has yet been settled. The agency will be charged with driving the programme forward, and the resources available to it will plainly have a great effect on the Government’s ability to carry out the Bichard recommendations.

Rather than rehearsing many of the points that hon. Members have very effectively made, I want to introduce some new considerations for debate, because the Bichard inquiry and the subsequent failure to take forward its recommendations have demonstrated that there are some real issues here, but the House has not debated them sufficiently.

The first issue is the security of the data, should it finally become available to all police forces. After all, the data not only relate to convictions, but include other data held by police forces and may also come from intelligence systems. Police databases may include entirely unsubstantiated information, leads, suspicions or details of people who are of interest to the police, as well as information provided by the security services. Data will therefore be of tremendously varying quality, and much of it will identify individuals who do not necessarily have a criminal record or feature on any of the other databases held by the police or other agencies, such as the DNA database or the fingerprint database.

That raises questions about the ability of other forces to share such data and the security protocols that are being put in place to ensure that data are properly used. Plainly, a national database could be a powerful tool in the fight against crime, and we all accept Bichard’s conclusion that the failure to share intelligence contributed to the awful events in Soham. Although we understand the need for a national database, however, I am not sure that we properly understand the extent to which it will change the way in which the police operate. There has been only a belated debate about the national health service database of patient records, with people starting to question the use and availability of those records throughout the country only once things were under way. It is therefore important that we debate the issue before us now, so that the protocols that will need to be put in place are properly discussed.

The second issue that arises as a consequence of the recommendations is whether there is sufficient national impetus to drive such police IT projects. Frankly, I am reaching the conclusion that there is not. There are obviously strong arguments for joining up the information communication technology systems used by different police forces, but that has been extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Part of the reason for that is that the 43 forces have historically procured their own IT systems and been geographically isolated—they have had their own fiefdoms in some cases—which means that their systems are not always compatible. I am not convinced that there is much momentum behind reform of the police IT market, and the shared services agenda, which is taking off in other parts of the public sector, certainly does not seem to be taking off in anything like the same way among the police.

In its document “Transforming Criminal Justice”, the CBI notes that, to date, police engagement with providers has been fragmented, and that is particularly true of the IT market, where a number of niche players have dominated. For example, approximately 26 out of 37 forces in England have different crime and control systems, and similar fragmentation is found in the core human resources and crime systems.

Previous national projects have failed to take off, including HOLMES2, which was designed to be used by the police service to run major crime inquiries and casualty bureaux after major incidents. Only three forces have the electronic document management system necessary to interface with HOLMES2, and even the second-largest police force—West Midlands—is unable to afford a management system link to it. That is despite the fact that the database has been operational since 1989.

That chronic lack of co-ordination was exposed by Bichard, who described it as “an unhappy position”, and that led to the proposals for IMPACT. However, IMPACT is a hugely ambitious programme, given that the police IT market is highly fragmented and dominated by a number of niche players. As I said, 26 out of 37 forces have different crime and control systems. There are also more than 15 different HR systems in England and Wales and more than 10 different providers of crime systems, and several forces run their systems in-house. The information systems strategy for the police service—an Association of Chief Police Officers programme that attempts to set out a common architecture for police ICT services—will enable individual forces to procure systems that would be able to talk to each other. Significantly, however, that programme is not mandated.

IMPACT will therefore have to operate in a fragmented environment. I can, of course, see the sense of IMPACT, which will warehouse forces’ custody, case, call management, contact, intelligence and crime data. It will also include the national databases, including convictions and the sex offenders’ register, and make them available to all forces. However, it will eventually bring together 100 million pieces of data. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, the sheer scale and ambition of the project is one of the contributing factors to the delay that has taken place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a noticeable difference between the approaches that have been taken in England and Wales and in Scotland. The Scottish intelligence database has enabled the sharing of information between all eight police forces there, which have access to 90 per cent. of the intelligence that is gathered. Interestingly, that has brought about a cultural change in Scotland, with police officers using intelligence more proactively. Before the intelligence database was implemented, a relatively small percentage of Scotland’s police officers submitted intelligence, and there was no mechanism for feeding the results back to officers, which many considered a black hole. Even if officers’ intelligence did result in an arrest, they would rarely hear about it. Since the implementation of the database, however, more than 70 per cent. of police officers in Scotland have actively submitted and researched intelligence, and that figure is growing as officers see how their intelligence has helped other officers.

That demonstrates not only that a national database plays a significant role in ensuring that we have the protections that we seek post-Soham, but that it is a crime-fighting tool, which will improve the way in which police officers work and their motivation. An effective system would therefore plainly have enormous advantages beyond simply the efficient management of data.

What conclusion can we draw, then, from the failure to drive the national database forward? One is, I think, a standard conclusion about the way in which Governments tend to procure major projects of that kind. The hon. Member for Taunton and I attended a seminar recently examining those issues, including Government failures to procure. The central conclusion of that seminar was that it is uncertainty on the part of politicians who procure, and a lack of clear specification, that causes subsequent problems in the delivery of projects. However, there are also, plainly, resource implications that must be addressed if forces are to be held to the promises and undertakings given in the Government’s response to Bichard.

A radical suggestion would be that police budgets, instead of allowing the individual procurement of IT systems, could be top-sliced. That would certainly ensure compatibility across all police forces and allow the exploitation of economies of scale. However, that would take us into a huge project, involving the unnecessary redundancy of perfectly good systems; and it would produce a one-size-fits-all ICT system that would stifle innovation and prevent forces from tailoring their systems to specific needs. If that is not a realistic possibility, the onus is on the Government to ensure that there is much more effective central strategic direction of the use of ICT in police forces.

It is no longer acceptable that the different approaches that police forces have taken—the fiefdoms, the individual purchasing of systems and so on—should continue. In many respects there has been far too much Government interference in local policing. Attempts to direct policing and to set targets have interfered with officer discretion at all levels and distorted professional activity. In other ways, however, the Government have had insufficient drive to ensure that individual forces co-operate more effectively. We talked this morning about the lack of progress on the sharing of services and work force modernisation. In relation to ICT the story has been the same.

We cannot go on holding debates year after year in this place at which we observe that the timetable for the implementation of a national intelligence database has continued to slip and that the costs have continued to rise. It is important to get a grip on the matter, tie down the specifications, deal with the security issues, understand the cost implications and make resources available, if it is going to happen. If it is not going to happen, alternative arrangements must be investigated, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central suggested. The project is too important for the fight against crime and the protection of the public for the situation to be allowed to slip any further.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on raising these important issues for discussion, and I very much appreciate his continuing concern.

My hon. Friend will agree that in accepting all the Bichard inquiry’s 31 recommendations, the Government have risen to meet a substantial and challenging agenda of work. I am grateful for the opportunity to update all hon. Members on the Government’s position on the Bichard implementation work generally—the subject of my hon. Friend’s debate—and, specifically, on questions about the progress of the IMPACT programme. Today’s debate usefully complements the regular reports to Parliament made by successive Home Secretaries, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making a further report to Parliament in the spring.

I want to reaffirm from the outset that the Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bichard recommendations and to ensuring that the necessary resources to do so are made available. The Government have been working hard for several years to make the protection of children an absolute priority. The work to set up the necessary arrangements to achieve that, including developments under the Bichard implementation programme, demonstrates our clear commitment. As my hon. Friend has explained, the Bichard inquiry report raised serious issues. We all recognise that it triggered, through its 31 recommendations, a complex but necessary programme of work to improve the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, which is why the Government have persisted in driving forward a complex and ambitious programme to address the shortcomings that Sir Michael Bichard highlighted.

Much of the hard work has been done behind the scenes, but I assure hon. Members that there has been no lessening of effort as a result. I shall focus first on some of the achievements so far, and then on the implementation programme. Of the 31 recommendations, 21 have been either fully or substantially completed. Naturally the remainder, the larger and more complex projects, are taking longer to implement fully, but work has been no less vigorous. None of the work streams should be viewed in isolation. The fundamental aim is to minimise risks to children and vulnerable adults through co-ordinated and robust systems and actions. We remain committed both to the spirit of Bichard and to carrying out all the recommendations, which requires careful assessment of the interdependencies and a fully joined-up approach across Government and delivery agencies such as the police, education, health and social services. It also includes taking tough but sensible decisions about resources and making continuing efforts to change working cultures and support frameworks and processes.

We have achieved significant and solid progress since June 2004. We have already presented to Parliament, as I have said, three comprehensive progress reports. Although there has been slippage in some areas, the robust nature of that reporting again shows our clear commitment to delivery. I make it clear that we remain fully committed to achieving the changes that all have agreed are required, even if the plans for putting them into practice have, necessarily, evolved during the life of the programme to take account of emerging realities. A clear example is the substantial programme to enhance information and intelligence management across the police service—the IMPACT programme.

The IMPACT programme was launched to provide an integrated approach to the improvement of police information management through business change, supported by the appropriate information technology. I emphasise the notion of business change—this is not just about getting the appropriate information technology. The baton will now pass to the new national policing improvement agency from April 2007 to ensure that it is police-led and that it delivers what the police need. My hon. Friend has raised the issue of the agency and the ownership of IMPACT. I reassure him that the NPIA will be a non-departmental public body and a police-led organisation, which will be its strength. That will ensure that it delivers what the police need. Ownership will be where it should be, with the police. The NPIA is committed to delivering IMPACT and the business change that it represents, as well as the IT systems needed to support it.

An initial review of police information technology procurement was completed in 2004, and after careful consideration by Ministers it is now feeding through into the wider work to develop the NPIA on track. We are already working with the shadow agency and Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, who is heading it up. Its work is impressive, and we will see significant improvement as it gets up and running from April 2007.

While the Minister is on the subject of the NPIA, can she tell us whether its budget has yet been set? Is she satisfied that there will be sufficient provision in the budget to ensure that the IMPACT programme can be delivered to the original specified timetable?

It is no secret that there is pressure on Home Office budgets, but I am confident that the NPIA will be able to deliver its programme. As I have said, the next progress report on the issues that we are discussing will take place in the spring, and we expect an announcement within a few weeks about the detail and time scales for the development of IMPACT and other technological issues. Further information will be available shortly, but I am confident on that point. We remain committed to fulfilling all 31 of Bichard’s recommendations.

As I have said, I am confident that the NPIA will be able to fulfil the work programme that it is setting.

I am grateful to the Minister for her further explanation, but can I press her on the specific question whether the NPIA’s budgets have been agreed?

I shall have write to the hon. Gentleman about whether that agreement has formally been reached. I reiterate that I am confident that the NPIA will be able to carry out the work programme that it has set.

Points were raised about the quality of data and data exchange. Work to improve the quality of data on the police national computer has been ongoing. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, which has embedded the monitoring of forces’ timely input of data and the quality of their data into its baseline assessments, continues to work proactively with any forces that experience difficulty. The project to achieve the direct input of court results through the police national computer has been reinvigorated, but it remains challenging. The development of automatic resulting from the courts to the police is dependent on a number of factors, including streamlining the complex business process and having the right information technology in place. Nevertheless, the roll-out of the XHIBIT system to Crown courts was completed on 31 March 2006, which is enabling faster updating of court results to the PNC.

The initial roll-out of the Libra infrastructure to all magistrates courts was completed in 2003 and the further roll-out of the infrastructure is pending Department for Constitutional Affairs and Court Service evaluation of the outcomes of the experiences to date. That clearly concerned Sir Michael, and we had hoped that improvements would be achieved sooner. The new case management system is now running in 16 courts, with another seven courts planned for this quarter. We have seen improvements to the Criminal Records Bureau vetting procedures, which include developing and implementing a quality assurance framework in partnership with the police service to standardise the disclosure processes across all forces. The CRB has reported that the majority of forces have now implemented the quality assurance framework following delivery of training with the remainder to be completed by the end of the financial year.

In April 2005, the CRB also issued revised guidance to all registered bodies, further strengthening the disclosure application process. This is an appropriate point to reply to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), who has raised points about CRB checks on staff who were in place before 2002 or teaching staff who have not changed their place of employment since that time. Checks were introduced in 2002, and from then it was strongly recommended that new appointments to the school work force who will work closely with children should be CRB checked.

There has never been a requirement to CRB check school staff who were in the work force before 2002 and who have stayed in continuous employment since then, but such staff must all be checked against the Department’s list 99, which is the list of individuals who are barred from working with children in education settings. Checking against list 99 incorporates a check against the Protection of Children Act 1999 list of individuals who are barred from working with children in other settings.

Today, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced that the revised list 99 regulations have been extended so that a greater range of offences will result in automatic inclusion on the list. They will include those who have received cautions as well as those who have received convictions for sexual offences against children. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and clarifies the requirement for CRB checking.

In April 2005 the CRB issued revised guidance to registered bodies further to strengthen the disclosure application process. Under the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, we have enabled the CRB to seek access to relevant information from a wider range of appropriate data sources for vetting purposes. Those sources include the Serious Organised Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs. That will further strengthen the vetting regime.

Most significantly, the establishment of a new integrated vetting and barring scheme for those working with children and vulnerable adults should be borne in mind. The scheme has passed to the Home Office following Royal Assent for the legislative framework. The Home Office is now working closely with the Department for Education and Skills and the CRB to establish the independent barring board, a new body that will manage all discretionary judgements under the scheme. That is due to be implemented in September 2008.

We have made some significant progress, but the real challenge is that the changes must fit together with subsequent developments in a consistent and co-ordinated way. New business processes for information sharing must spread consistent good practice but manage and present information in a way that supports the needs of the new safeguarding arrangements and protects vulnerable groups effectively. The Government look to all the agencies and stakeholder organisations involved to reaffirm their collective, long-term commitment to working together effectively to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

I turn now in more detail to the work that is being done, and to the points at the heart of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central. On the subject of the IMPACT programme, the key strand of work is on the development of new national information-sharing capabilities across the police service. The IMPACT programme is charged with delivering seven of the recommendations made by Sir Michael Bichard, but it has a much wider remit to tackle the root causes of the problems that led to the failings in the use and sharing of information and intelligence across the police service identified in Sir Michael’s report. The programme aims to transform the ability of the police service to exploit its intelligence and other operational information much more effectively, which will enable it to manage and share its information more efficiently. Most importantly, it will progressively improve the service’s ability to prevent and detect crime and to protect the public.

Change will not be achieved by the introduction of technology alone. We do not want to introduce technical fixes to operational problems that fail to deliver the promised benefits, which is why the impact programme is determinedly a business change programme. The aim is to change the way in which the police service manages and shares its operational information. The process will be enabled and supported by technical solutions that are carefully designed with specific operational processes in mind and matched to those business processes.

The IMPACT programme is delivering that capability incrementally, giving the police service time to develop its business processes in a way that delivers the benefits. The programme has learned from past experience. The big bang approach to rolling out new capabilities seldom delivers the promised benefits. The Government have learned across the piece from numerous programmes that introducing technology with an incremental build de-risks programmes and is by far the safest way to proceed.

In that context, I can report substantial progress on the impact programme over the past year. Just over 12 months ago, the programme delivered the IMPACT nominal index, to which my hon. Friend has referred, to the child abuse investigation units of each of the 43 forces in England and Wales, thus fulfilling our commitment to implement Sir Michael Bichard’s second recommendation. However, I want to pick up my hon. Friend’s point about the INI being used primarily in child abuse cases. Child abuse cases amount to about 80 per cent. of inquiries, but the INI has been used to support other inquiries and has been trialled in other areas. On the advice of ACPO, we have not yet rolled it out more widely due to the likely demand caused by inter-force inquiries. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend, but we must bear in mind the purpose behind the programme.

The INI enables an investigating officer in any force to establish whether another force holds information about a person of interest and where that information is held, which is an entirely new operational capability. Previously, unless information about a person of interest was held on one of the central systems, such as the police national computer, or unless the investigating officer had some particular reason to approach another force, the information would have been invisible to him. Given that most operational information is held in local force systems, that was a serious deficiency.

My hon. Friend has spoken about duplication. He has suggested that the existence of 43 million records would result in a lot of duplication on the INI, which is not the case. There will be more than one record per person, if a person has come to the attention of the police more than once, whether that involved the same force or different forces. Some people rightly have multiple records on the INI.

I wish to pursue that matter a little further. The index system, by necessity, has to duplicate the record that it is searching for. If a police force uses the index system and a record is flagged up as being available in another force, the only way to obtain it is to duplicate it. Every time an inquiry goes ahead, that piece of information will be duplicated. Clearing the system of old information will keep it under control, but by necessity it lends itself to duplication in any event.

I take my hon. Friend’s point, but I do not think that the index system duplicates the record in the system. However, he knows that we are taking the first steps and that we wish to move towards the sort of system that he outlined earlier, which is the journey that we are on—there may be some disagreement about the journey itself, but there is no disagreement about where we want to go. However, I note what my hon. Friend has said. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why we are on the journey.

In accordance with the priority highlighted in Sir Michael’s report, we have concentrated deployment of the system in police child abuse investigation units, and it has proved to be extremely valuable. It has opened up some significant new lines of inquiry for the police, and since the INI was launched the volume of information on the system has doubled.

We now have more than 45 million named link records, and the police have made more than 106,000 enquiries on the system, of which around 80 per cent. relate to child protection. More than 10 per cent. of the child protection checks have resulted in requests to other forces for access to their information, and in a third of those cases the officers involved assessed the information that they received as being of direct relevance to their inquiries. We estimate that in more than 600 of the child protection cases that the police dealt with last year, the information that they uncovered using the INI led them to take significantly different decisions, which must indicate a real improvement in the level of protection that the police can now offer to vulnerable children.

The remit of the IMPACT programme was originally limited to forces in England and Wales, but it has attracted much interest from other policing agencies, who are now influencing its development. By the end of March, Scottish police forces, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British Transport police will be able to link up to the INI, and a number of other policing agencies are in line to gain access to the system during the next year. That will increase the number of records on the system to more than 50 million. That will not only help decision making within police forces and enforcement agencies, but enhance the CRB’s vetting process, as it has access to the same records.

I am pleased to report that the IMPACT programme has just been awarded the central e-government award for team excellence for delivery of the INI. It was also highly commended in the technology category of the civil service awards for 2006. That recognises the success of the programme in working with its partners to deliver real business benefits. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in congratulating those involved.

Where the INI is already delivering major benefits, it is the first step in our plans to provide new capabilities in an incremental and modular way. The INI provides an index to nominal records in local force systems. We now want to provide access to the records themselves and to extend the information available to include objects, locations and events as well as people.

There is a software application that enables information to be pooled for access by all forces connected to it. A new common data scheme also exists, which enables information from myriad different systems to be shared in a common format. CRISP, the cross-regional information sharing project, is designed to be an interim solution and the data scheme will provide the long-term basis for information sharing across the police service. The programme has taken over responsibility for developing and testing the software and the data scheme. The latter is now ready for service and forces are in the process of extracting the information from their systems and transforming it to be loaded to a central data warehouse for sharing.

The programme is now in dialogue with potential commercial suppliers to host and support the delivery of the system. However, a problem has been encountered with the software itself, to which my hon. Friend referred. Tests using large numbers of records have revealed that the response time for search operations is unacceptably slow. Following investigation and consultation with potential suppliers and the wider IT industry, it was concluded that it is likely that a new search engine will have to be incorporated into the application. The cost and delivery implications are currently under investigation, but unfortunately it means that there will inevitably be some slippage in the time scale for deployment of the system.

The programme has also made significant progress towards the development and introduction of the police national database, which is a single source of operational policing information, linking information held on local systems with that held on the police national computer and other national systems.

I have reported on the development of the IMPACT programme and the progress made with implementing the first and second recommendations of Sir Michael Bichard’s report. My hon. Friend also referred to the technology available in Scotland’s police system and to the Metropolitan police. The Scottish system makes available what we would call intelligence—information that has been evaluated. We want to make both information and intelligence available, so we will need a different functionality from the Scottish system. That is the ambition. We hope also to have the ability to link that to the PNC, which holds the conviction data. That would provide a one-stop shop for information and is a different system from that to which my hon. Friend referred. Police forces in Scotland and elsewhere are interested in the system that we are developing.

Sir Michael Bichard’s fourth recommendation was on securing the future of the PNC, which is crucial. Earlier this month, the PNC application was successfully loaded on to a new hardware platform by the police IT organisation, following a project sponsored by the IMPACT programme. That will ensure that the PNC remains resilient and fully functional until it is replaced by the PND. As I said, the IMPACT programme is not just about installing new IT systems, as helping the police service to deliver the business change needed to exploit those capabilities effectively and to get the best out of its information assets is also crucial to the success of the programme.

The statutory code of practice on the management of police information, which came into effect in November 2005, underpins all the projects. In March last year, ACPO published detailed guidance that provides the practical detail required to ensure compliance with the code of practice. The national intelligence model, the code and the guidance provide the core of the business change agenda to be delivered by the programme and will improve the way in which, and the consistency with which, forces manage, share and exploit information.

The hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and for Taunton made good points about the 43 separate police forces and how there have been different levels of co-operation over the years. Those forces could indeed purchase their own 43 different systems should they so require. A positive outcome of the debate on police force mergers last year, however, was the realisation among forces of the need to co-operate more effectively, not least on protective services. The NPIA will, of course, be a further catalyst for closer working while also recognising the independence of local forces and their police authorities.

During the past year, the IMPACT programme has worked with forces to help them to implement the requirements. A comprehensive capability assessment was completed last summer, and as a result, all forces will have the plans, policies and infrastructure in place by the end of next month to enable them to achieve full compliance across all business areas by December 2010. More recently, the programme has been managing a peer review process to establish the state of preparedness in individual forces. Inevitably, there remain some significant challenges to overcome, but most forces recognise the breadth of change needed to achieve full compliance by 2010. They have responded positively and have either put or are putting in place the resources needed. The results of the reviews are being fed back to forces and used to focus the effort provided by the programme to support compliance activity. I am pleased to report substantial progress on the IMPACT programme, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it remains a complex and challenging process.

The programme requires a significant investment of resources by the Home Office and by forces. We have, to date, already invested more than £70 million in the IMPACT programme. We have discussed the considerable pressures on the Home Office budget at present and we are engaged in a fundamental review of our expenditure plans. We remain fully committed to delivering the aims and objectives of the IMPACT programme, and are conscious that ACPO has rated it as its core priority. There are no guarantees that the programme will not have to share some of the cost savings that we must make. However, there are guarantees that we will meet the 31 recommendations.

In accordance with good practice, the programme has been continually evaluating all the options that would allow it to deliver maximum value to the police service within difficult budgetary profiles while capitalising as much as possible on the investment made by the Home Office and police forces. Ministers will shortly review the outcomes of the latest evaluation and we shall announce our conclusions.

I hope that I have covered the points raised by hon. Members. We have had a good and wide-ranging debate on a very important issue that remains a priority for the Government, the Home Office and ACPO.

Illegal Logging

I hope that voting in the House will not cause too much disruption to this very important debate on what needs to be done to end illegal logging. By way of introduction, I want to say how pleased I am that my hon. Friend the Minister is in his post, following in a long line of Ministers who have done a huge amount to combat illegal logging.

Let me remind hon. Members how important timber procurement is. Our forests are the jewel of the planet and their value simply cannot be calculated. Millions of people depend on them and they provide a rich habitat for wildlife. Eighty per cent. of the orang-utan’s habitat has disappeared in the past 10 years alone. Perhaps most importantly, our forests provide a carbon sink. The total amount of carbon stored in forests is 50 per cent. more than in the atmosphere. Degradation of our forests creates 2 billion tonnes of emissions a year—25 per cent. of all man-made emissions. It is clear that deforestation could be catastrophic for humanity and for our planet as a whole. It is a development and humanitarian issue as much it could be an environmental disaster. It is important for me to explain at the outset that we have a mutual reliance on and therefore a responsibility for our forests, including rain forests.

I think that we are all aware of the damage that is being done. I want to thank in particular those who have played a part in increasing public awareness of the issue over the years, including non-governmental organisation campaigners, who sometimes have even risked their lives to move the issue high up on the political agenda. We have a debt of honour to them: we must ensure that the action needed to outlaw illegal activity altogether is taken. There has been a breakthrough in the past five years. I warmly welcome the Government’s recognition that forests are under threat and the subsequent action and recognition that the UK has an important role on the issue. Indeed, the UK has played not just a part, but a leading role internationally.

Let us make no mistake: the trade in illegal timber encourages unsustainable forestry practices. It depresses market prices by 6 to 17 per cent. and clearly undermines legitimate operators. I can vouch for that, having just come from a meeting with representatives of the wood panels industry and having been in contact with representatives of the “Wood for Gold” campaign. They and many others repeatedly make the point that illegal operations undermine the rule of law in many producer countries.

Today’s debate is timely, not least because the European Union consultation currently under way closes next week and because it is now five years since the Johannesburg world summit on sustainable development. At that summit, it was recognised that the UK Government have a particularly important role in taking a lead domestically and internationally, and through the EU and the G8. In the past few months, there has been publication of the Stern report, which more than anything has drawn a strong link between climate change and deforestation. It has also impressed on us the fact that time is running out; we must deal with the issue urgently. The Department for International Development has led the way in establishing a role for the forestry industry in respect of international development policies.

Despite all that progress since the Johannesburg world summit, the UK still imports 3.2 million cu m of illegal wood. We are the largest importer of illegal wood in the EU; 6 to 7 per cent. of the wood products that we import are illegal. That amounts to £700 million a year. I want the debate this afternoon to concentrate on how we can stop the trade in illegal logging and ensure that the issue stays at the top of the agenda.

Early-day motion 132, which I tabled, is on illegal logging, and it has signatures from more MPs than any other EDM currently on the Order Paper, so there is a huge number of MPs who I am sure would be here if they were not debating important legislation in the main Chamber. I therefore feel that it is right that we are revisiting the issue today, particularly as it is about a year since the report on sustainable timber was published by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, whose Sub-Committee on Sustainable Timber I chaired. I am very glad to see here the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), given his links with the Environmental Audit Committee. He speaks for the Opposition on these issues. We have been following carefully the Government response to that report. The debate is about reminding the Government that it is time for an update and asking what they will now do—what they will aim for over the next five years.

I want to concentrate briefly on legislation in relation to illegal logging. I understand that the Minister sees the EU as the preferred route for legislative solutions. Those of us who have examined carefully the FLEGT—forest law enforcement, governance and trade—programme and the voluntary partnership agreements applaud the people responsible for those measures. I have said repeatedly that I welcome the political leadership that the Government are providing in Europe. I also welcome the £24 million that DFID has obtained from the Treasury and committed to many of those voluntary partnership agreements. It was clear from the evidence that the Select Committee took that many developing countries depend on that as they go forward. However, the FLEGT programme and the VPAs have shortcomings and should not be seen as the only way of dealing with this issue. I want them to be seen as paving the way for further action in pursuit of a total ban.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), a former Environment Minister, attended the Select Committee, he said:

“I think ultimately that is where we should get to.”

He was referring to a ban on illegal timber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate and I congratulate the Government, who have done a lot of good work in this area. Does she agree that one of the biggest problems with the voluntary partnership agreement is the lack of a proper audit trail and that, until we have legislation in this area, we will never be able to track back properly to see where the illegality starts, where it continues and who makes the money from it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is spot on: we do need such an audit trail. He has highlighted a point that I want to make later—there is not one simple, single solution to all this; we need progress on all fronts, in one direction, all at the same time. Certainly the voluntary partnership agreements could be much more effective if there were such an audit trail, but there again we are not going to get that. The situation is a bit like that with the Government’s recent statement on housing, setting out that they want all homes to be carbon free in 10 years’ time. We need to be setting out now the direction of travel for the regulations that are needed, so that everyone connected with this has time to put in place step by step the different measures that are needed.

One matter that the Government have been considering is the possibility of a Lacey-style Act, which I think at one stage was being considered in Germany. Certainly we heard evidence to the effect that that type of legislation could be adopted in the EU in such a way that World Trade Organisation rules would not be contravened. I would like to hear from the Minister how thinking on that issue has moved on. With the WTO, it is perhaps a question of just saying, “Right. This is the action we’re going to take and we’re going to go ahead now and do it.”

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very worthwhile debate; it has our wholehearted support. She has just made a point about the similarities with going carbon neutral. There are very real and understandable reasons why it is difficult to go immediately to being carbon neutral. There are genuine reasons why people would have to employ fossil fuels—for heating by gas, for example. However, there can be no excuse and no justifiable commercial reason why anyone should now be using illegally logged timber. We must make that very clear.

I partly agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I refer him to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). If people do not know what they are using because they do not have the proper certification and there is no audit trail, they might well have no excuse—other than that they do not know what they are using and there is no traceability in respect of the journey from the producer country right the way through to the point where the sale took place between the developer or the commissioner of construction work and the supplier of the timber. The issue is putting in place the whole series of steps that will make all those things possible.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is, for the reasons she gave, extremely timely. The discussion reveals the need for legislation—crucially, rapid legislation—not only because it would enable the audit trail to be constructed effectively, which it currently is not, but because, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, we have to give a powerful signal that this practice is no longer acceptable. Legislation would provide a means of enforcement, and it is the most powerful way in which we can signal that, culturally, this practice is no longer acceptable, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has so cogently stated.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he has done a huge amount of work on this issue over many years, of which I am sure that his constituents are aware. He is right to say that we cannot have one thing without the other. We have had five years since Johannesburg, but progress has been slow and painful. We have started to put in place different initiatives such as the voluntary partnership agreements, and now that we have done that we can make a step change and go a lot further and faster. We can have a situation regarding illegal timber that we could not have dreamt of having five years ago. Now that certain things are in place, we can change the pace. If today’s debate does anything, I want it to signify that all those Members who signed my early-day motion, such as my hon. Friend, are absolutely insistent that we must go full steam ahead to get what we need. In that respect, will the Minister tell us whether the Government will contribute to the EC consultation and whether that will be made public? Will he be consulting regarding what goes forward? Perhaps we can use the debate as a basis for that.

Does the Minister believe that the VPA process will stop illegal timber entering the EU? Does he recognise that there will be gaps in the VPAs, with circumvention, for example, and that we have to do it all together in one go? Does he believe that certification could be used to prove legality? Does he recognise that legislation could complement the VPA process?

Will the Minister set out which of the four options that are up for consultation he believes should be taken forward? Having spoken to a number of people, including at Chatham House, I believe that we might need an amalgam of the four options in the European paper that is out for consultation. The Government need to work urgently with non-governmental organisations and the industry to find a way of putting forward a ban that makes sense.

Order. As there is a Division in the House, I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, until 4.28 pm. However, if all Members present are back before then, I shall be happy to resume the debate earlier.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

It is most difficult to keep the thread of the debate at a time of interruption. I hope that we will not have further interruption, but it might be appropriate for you to relay information about this situation back to the Administration Committee, Mr. Bercow. Perhaps we need to have voting facilities in Westminster Hall for occasions when debates are going on both here and in the main Chamber.

I was discussing what assurances the Minister can give us. I wanted to end that section of my speech by saying that irrespective of what he is able to do on illegal timber, it is important that he tells us what he can do on the social aspects of sustainable timber procurement, because that is a vital issue.

On public procurement policy, our Government have the ability and responsibility to develop a market for legal and sustainable timber. As I have said, I applaud all that they have done, including their commitment to buy legal and ideally sustainable timber, and in particular the establishment of the Central Point of Expertise on Timber Procurement—CPET. My concern, however, is that performance across Government has been very variable. There has been a good response in some Departments, but a haphazard one in others. I understand that there has not been a perceptible increase in demand for certified timber from suppliers.

I want to concentrate on what we can do to put the spotlight on procurement policy in every respect. Will the Minister say to what extent the Government recognise the importance of adequate data as the foundation for a successful procurement policy—a point that was ably raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills)? In addition, what is the point of having a target if we cannot properly verify it? That was brought to our attention by the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry. Why were no targets for timber procurement included in the new sustainable procurement targets for the Government estate set in June 2006? There may be a target, but is it being properly verified?

With the launch of the sustainable action plan in June 2006 and the new sustainable procurement targets for the Government estate, have there been any developments on how to obtain proper data to verify those targets? What further measures has the Minister taken to strengthen central procurement? Does he agree that there is no place for illegal timber in any public procurement project? What progress is he making on the new local authority engagement strategy? To what extent are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government working together on a comprehensive strategy for all councils to advise and train their procurement officers?

A further issue concerns the Learning and Skills Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. To what extent is the subject being included in the new qualifications for construction workers, so that everyone has an understanding of where sustainable timber fits in? Overall, what potential is there better to synchronise public sector procurement strategy throughout Europe?

Finally, while preparing for this debate, I spoke to the Olympic Delivery Authority. The Government have said that they intend the London Olympics to be the greenest ever. The most recent policy statement sets out not just a principled way of moving towards the procurement of sustainable timber, but a framework through which industry, NGOs, the Government and everyone else can work together to provide an exemplar of best policy. If the Minister can tell us today how those initiatives are being taken forward and how he is playing an international leadership role in the wider negotiations through the G8 and the follow-up to the world summit on sustainable development, perhaps we can make real progress in imposing the ban on illegal timber that is needed, as well as the other action plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) will know how delighted I am that she secured this debate, not only because of its importance, but because of the work that she has done in her various capacities in the House over a number of years, not least in the Environmental Audit Committee. She has been committed to the matter for many years, and I am delighted to respond to her questions.

My hon. Friend talked about accelerating progress in addressing the legality of wood supplies coming into the UK. I want to make it clear that progress is accelerating. That is critical to my message today.

My hon. Friend spoke of the incalculable value of forests. That may be incalculable, but the $15 billion lost each year by some of the poorest countries in the world through illegal logging is calculable. That is the extent of the problem that she has put before us. Some of the poorest people in the world lose the most. More than that, 20 per cent. of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change, come from deforestation. That is a measure of the social importance of the issue. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend raised it in those terms today.

In both procurement and the wider control of wood supplies, sustainability absolutely remains the Government’s goal. Verification of legality—we spoke much about legality in the debate—is simply the first step and an indicator of sustainability. It is not an alternative to it.

I shall now address some of the points that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members raised. We are pursuing three main courses of action: public procurement, partnerships with producer countries, and a complementary, comprehensive EU law review.

My hon. Friend referred to CPET, which reviewed the five forest certification schemes that were first addressed in 2004. Three schemes made changes to their requirements to meet the Government's criteria. CPET is focusing on the implementation of our policy by the UK public sector. There have been training workshops—my hon. Friend spoke of the need for training, and she is absolutely right. That training is not simply in central Government; it is to spread CPET’s work to local authorities throughout the country, many of which would like to participate with us in their procurement policies, but do not know how to do so. That is why we made CPET experience available more widely to them.

CPET has also embarked on visits to Departments to monitor application of the policy, and to offer advice. It is assisting by promoting harmonisation of policies in the EU. I am pleased to report that Denmark and the Netherlands are both advising public sector organisations in their countries to use CPET's advice on which schemes should be accepted by them as guarantors of sustainability and legality.

There are some differences between the Government's policy and that being adopted by some member states. In particular, our standard contract requirements exclude reference to the protection and well-being of forest-dependent people. My hon. Friend made that point, and the UK has been challenged on that. We are a signatory to international agreements on sustainable forestry that recognise the importance of protecting forest-dependent peoples' rights and customs, so that challenge is understandable. We are seeking further advice on procurement law, and will change our position to include relevant social criteria if we are confident that it would be appropriate and legal to do so.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Governments of Denmark and the Netherlands concluded that that was appropriate and legal. Our previous legal advice is that that would not be appropriate or legal, and we are considering whether to revise that and whether we can press it further.

My hon. Friend seeks a deadline; I seek an outcome. She knows that I am as keen as she is to press ahead, but I do not even pretend to understand lawyers’ minds, or the length of time it takes them to deliberate. I see a lawyer standing in the Chamber, no doubt to remonstrate with me.

Alas, I am not a lawyer, but I am concerned about the speed of progress. I want to pick up on the pressure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) is putting on the Minister. Does he accept that speed is of the essence, because while the threat of legislation exists but is not realised, illegal logging is likely to escalate, and even more of the world’s forests will be lost? Speed really matters, so can he assure me that the Government have taken account of that?

Yes. The development of a discerning market for legal and sustainable timber requires institutional and market processes to work together. The UK has continued to support co-operation with the timber trade, especially in getting messages to the supply chain that legal timber is now required. Much has been achieved—that has been acknowledged in this debate—but I am determined that there must be a serious step change in Government procurement and in our actions to address illegal and unsustainable timber production. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks that the Government and I recognise that time is of the essence. As the Environmental Audit Committee noted in its most recent report on sustainable timber, there is an absence of targets and reliable performance measurement. I expect to be able to make an announcement on the issue before Easter 2007.

Persuading UK local authorities to adopt responsible timber procurement policies has proved to be challenging. I share the EAC’s disappointment that the majority of local authorities continue not to adopt such policies. As local sustainable development policy is devolved, it is not appropriate for the Government to be too demanding or critical in that respect. However, that is why we have commissioned Chatham House to examine the timber supply chains of some local authorities in the north-east, and to show other authorities how responsible timber procurement can be achieved. That is also why we made CPET’s expertise available to local authorities throughout the country.

I can report accelerating progress in restricting the trade in illegal timber on two fronts. The negotiation of partnership agreements with producer countries under the EU’s forest law enforcement, governance and trade programme, or FLEGT, is developing apace and things are at last moving on the potential development of complementary measures at an EU level. Malaysia and Ghana have started formal negotiations, and Indonesia will do so next month. We anticipate that several more countries will confirm their intention to proceed with negotiations by the summer. The length of negotiations will vary, but we expect the first partnership agreement to be signed by the end of this year. The Department for International Development is supporting negotiations in Ghana and Indonesia. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North remarked, the UK has allocated £24 million over the next five years to tackle illegal logging through that process.

Progress in negotiating partnership agreements has been good to date, but partner countries must see a defined market for legal and sustainable timber to give them both first-mover advantage and a long-term future for their forest products. Our procurement decisions must assure partner countries that we are providing such a market. That is why the UK public procurement policy will accept FLEGT-licensed timber.

My hon. Friend spoke at some length about options for comprehensive control of illegal timber at EU level. The Government have been pressing for serious exploration of options for further legislation at the EU level. Progress has been disappointing, but there are now clear signs that progress is picking up pace. The European Commission opened a public consultation on options on 20 December last year. It is important to stress that those options are presented in outline. The Commission has made no formal proposal to the Council of Ministers. Detailed work must be done to ensure that any future legal instrument represents good and enforceable law.

However, it is time for serious, mature and more detailed debate about the options to begin. Of particular interest are proposals to make the import, export and commercial transfer of timber products illegally logged in their country of origin, illegal in the EU. That approach, which relates to the remarks that my hon. Friend made about a Lacey-style Act, has a number of merits. It is not discriminatory against imports, but does discriminate against illegality wherever that occurs, and places a duty of due diligence and a risk of prosecution upon anyone who deals in timber. Such an approach also avoids the need for mandatory and complex paper trails to accompany all timber shipments. That said, there are a number of legal issues to be explored with care before a firm view is taken, as I am sure my hon. Friend realises.

My hon. Friend mentioned imposing a ban on illegal timber imports, which some have proposed, as opposed to the Lacey-style enforcement that I have described. A ban would mean new legislation to prohibit the import of timber that was not accompanied by proof of legality. There are a number of problems with that, which I hope she will take on board and understand. A ban would be based upon the assumption that most illegally logged timber originates outside the EU, which could fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules. A ban would impose a considerable and unnecessary administrative burden upon the vast bulk of legal trade. Evidence of legality for import might also be regarded as having the same status in the market as FLEGT-licensed timber, which might have higher production costs. That would reduce the incentive for timber-producing countries, which are some of the very poorest, to enter partnership agreements to improve their governance and sustainability, and their processes for achieving that in future. A ban is one of those ideas which sounds effective, attractive and simple, but it is not. The Lacey-style approach that my hon. Friend discussed is the better way to go.

In conclusion, all in this debate want to see healthy and sustainable forests and a healthy and sustainable timber industry. The Government are firmly committed to using Britain’s influence as a timber-consuming nation. I believe that we are on the point of making substantial progress on procurement, on legislation, both domestically and in the EU, and on aligning our partner countries throughout the world to achieve those objectives.

Bogus Charity Collections

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate on an issue of great and growing concern. I hope that we will have a positive and productive debate, and I welcome the interest in the issue that the Minister has shown already, not least when we had a chat about it in Members Lobby last night.

People are increasingly familiar with the fliers that appear through their doors from time to time requesting donations and mimicking the appearance of charity fliers, but which are in fact issued by commercial collecting companies. However, the issue goes much deeper than just misleading advertising, and involves large-scale theft by organised criminal gangs. According to the Association of Charity Shops, the activity costs charities in this country between £2.5 million and £3 million a year, which is a lot of money in the charitable sector. I will outline the background to the issue, the problem of misleading fliers and what powers the Office of Fair Trading and the Advertising Standards Authority have to combat them. I will also detail the shocking scale of the theft that is taking place and suggest how policing can meet the challenge of tackling the root causes of the problem.

The first bogus charity company that came to my attention was Helpmates Ltd. A constituent of mine received a flier requesting “urgently needed” donations of clothes, shoes, handbags, sheets, towels and more. The flier assured the reader that they would be sent “to the third world” to be “worn again”. Understandably, my constituent was angered to see a company trying to cash in on people’s charitable good will by putting out a leaflet that clearly implied charitable rather than profit-making motives. I raised the case with one of my local newspapers, which was interested in the story. I took the opportunity to put across useful warnings about checking for a registered charity number and giving donations only to recognised and reputable charities. I also tabled one early-day motion in the previous Session and another in this Session—early-day motion 127, which I hope all hon. Members here will sign if they have not already done so. The motion condemns the practice of Helpmates and other such companies, and has so far attracted 52 signatures.

From there, the situation snowballed. As a result of my early-day motion, but also through an article on my website and the wonderful power that is Google, I started to receive e-mails from people throughout the country with tales of similar companies operating in their areas. Regional press stories followed, and to date I have been in contact with people from East Dunbartonshire, St. Albans, Somerset, London, Bristol, Hampshire, Fife, Gosport, Perth, Dorset and Tunbridge Wells. Often people wanted to spread knowledge about scams in their area, so that others would be not be confused and give to such companies. Mostly, however, people were looking for advice on what could be done to stop such companies from operating in that way in the first place. Often people had been caught out themselves, realising only later they had donated to a bogus charity. They were understandably upset, angry and outraged that their spirit of charity had been taken advantage of for other people’s selfish ends.

The fliers distributed by bogus charities are generally of a type. They refer to an urgent need for donations, describe the destination for those donations as third world countries and give the distinct impression that the appeal has a humanitarian motive. The less unscrupulous fliers may contain a company registration number—not a registered charity number, although some people may well be confused between the two, which is sometimes the point of including a company registration number. Fliers will sometimes also include a company mobile number. Some fliers might even say in small print at the bottom that the organisation is a commercial collecting company rather than a charitable venture.

The power to regulate what is printed on such fliers lies with the Advertising Standards Authority. It is well aware of the problem, but has had only limited success in tackling it. The ASA’s misleading advertising directive disallows advertising that

“deceives or is likely to deceive the persons to whom it is addressed or whom it reaches.”

I contacted the ASA about the Helpmates flyer, and I was told that because it contained a company registration number, as well as a section of small print saying:

“Helpmates Limited is a commercial collecting company,”

it therefore adhered to the ASA guidelines and the complaint could not be pursued. However, the letter went on to say that the ASA faces many problems clamping down on the likes of Helpmates.

The ASA is a self-regulatory body; it relies on the co-operation of advertisers and media owners to enforce its adjudications. However, when leaflets are produced and distributed with no third-party involvement, media owner or advertising, but by somebody who just printed a flyer, the power is effectively useless.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. The problem is crucial to many in the community, and agencies are trying hard to combat it. Have any agencies that have been in touch with the hon. Lady also contacted the police so that they can do something about it? I have tried, and to date they have been unsuccessful.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He makes an important point, which I shall come to later in my speech. The police should be involved in the matter, but it is often difficult to get them to take it seriously as theft.

The ASA has problems even when it upholds complaints. For example, in the case of one company, Kraslava Services Seven, the ASA found that despite a complaint having been upheld against the company, it simply continued to print and distribute its leaflets. There was nothing the ASA could do. To pursue legal action, it passes such a case to the Office of Fair Trading. However, the OFT does not have a good record of prosecuting bogus charities under the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988, mainly because the illegitimate actions of the companies make prosecutions very difficult.

The companies effectively operate outside the law. They regularly move premises from one area to another, and they can often be traced only by a mobile number, which can be changed at short notice. The OFT therefore finds it difficult to trace the people responsible for the publication of leaflets in the first place. I should be keen to hear from the Minister whether he has any suggestions on ways in which the OFT might operate more effectively against bogus charity collection companies.

The Charity Commission is the regulator for charities in England and Wales. Its Scottish equivalent is the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on the forthright way in which she is setting out her case. She mentioned the Scottish charity regulator, which is, incidentally, based in my constituency, and which I congratulate on its work. A member of my staff here in London received a flyer last week from the Straightforward Company. The company makes it crystal clear that it is not a charity, but it helps remove household clutter and it provides employment for people. Does the hon. Lady agree that the pressure that charity regulators and hon. Members are bringing to bear is having a beneficial effect?

I welcome that intervention. That is true to an extent, and certainly with the less unscrupulous companies. They have started putting their company registration numbers on their leaflets, and in some cases, they have started prominently saying that they are a commercial collecting company, that that is their aim and that they make money from it, which is very welcome. However, it does not deal with the more unscrupulous companies that decide that faking charity status is the easiest way to secure donations and to make profits.

The Charity Commission and the OSCR play an important role, but they will not solve the problem on their own. The Charities Act 2006 is new legislation; it will come into force in 2009 and it should, in theory, help with the issue. It has greatly expanded the commission’s regulatory role. In respect of door-to-door collections, it has taken responsibility for issuing public collections certificates, which will be needed before any collection can take place.

The Liberal Democrats broadly welcomed the Act, but we pointed out that although it transferred a raft of new responsibilities to the Charity Commission, the extra resources needed to cope with them did not follow. Given the acknowledgement that the law regulating charities was not well enforced before the Act, we are worried that although it gets things right in theory, in practice the commission will have difficulty carrying out its extra duties without additional resources. Does the Minister accept that the Charity Commission’s lack of resources must be addressed? What discussions has he had to try to resolve the problem?

One might hope that because the new charities legislation requires the certification of door-to-door collectors, bogus companies will find it harder to operate their scams. However, if the Charity Commission cannot set up the infrastructure to properly vet collection certificates applications, some bogus collection companies could slip through the net, obtain the certificates and continue with their misleading work. Basically, the 2006 Act is welcome because it provides the commission with the power to fulfil its role effectively and act against those companies, but without the resources to match, it will be a blunt weapon.

Companies misrepresenting themselves through false advertising is a real problem, and it causes difficulties for the authorities that try to clamp down on it. However, a more serious crime lies behind those operations: the outright doorstep theft of charitable clothing donations. The criminals behind those thefts target legitimate doorstep collections, arriving shortly before the genuine collection and helping themselves to the bags of clothes and goods left out on doorsteps.

I have had discussions with Clothes Aid, the fundraising and collection company that has an exclusive contract with Great Ormond Street hospital for children, and carries out fundraising and collections for other charities, including Alder Hey children’s hospital. Clothes Aid has compiled a dossier on the organised nature of clothes criminals at work. It contains the details of almost 100 different bogus companies conducting illicit clothing collections. Several such companies are operated by the same few criminals, including one individual, known to Clothes Aid, who operates more than 25 different bogus companies.

Clothes Aid, taking matters into its own hands, has begun using motorcycle patrols to catch the thieves at work. Two riders patrol collection areas in London when they expect thefts to take place. They then call the police if they see a theft, and they provide the community with a visible reassurance that its donations will reach their intended destinations.

The temptations for thieves are obvious. It is estimated that 1 tonne of second-hand clothing can fetch more than £500 on the black market, and that each week, more than 50 tonnes of donated items are stolen. Between 20 and 30 vehicle loads of clothes stolen in this country arrive on foreign shores each month, and the losses are huge. Great Ormond Street alone loses an estimated £300,000 a year through stolen donations. That £300,000 would go to the hospital, but it does not. It is the equivalent of 4,000 new syringe pumps or one and a half mass spectrometers, which are used to research the causes of childhood diseases such as leukaemia and diabetes.

The issue goes beyond bogus collection companies. For the criminals, it is a lucrative operation, taking place throughout the country in a highly organised and systematic way. And as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) suggested, we need an improved policing strategy to combat it.

Last month, the Clothes Aid team out on their rounds witnessed stolen clothes being unloaded to a warehouse in Romford. They contacted Havering police, who did respond. They attended the scene, arresting 10 gang members and impounding six vehicles. However, when the police could find neither accommodation in cells nor translators to communicate with the gang members, they were all released without charge. I hope that the Minister accepts that that is a regrettable situation, and that such a story cannot and should not be repeated if we are to tackle the problem.

It is understandable why local police forces have problems. They struggle to find the resources to combat antisocial behaviour and other local crimes, and communication between different regions is often limited. A regional police force will have limited success against a gang that operates in a wider geographical area than comes under the force’s remit. A higher level of policing is needed to crack the organised crime.

Last year, the Serious Organised Crime Agency was established, and it promised to bring new vigour to the fight against organised crime. The Liberal Democrats welcomed it, but we noted the importance of ensuring that it had sufficient funding to enable it to fulfil its role properly. Rightly, its top priorities are drug and human trafficking, and it gives lesser priority to high-tech crime, counterfeiting and firearms misuse. However, donation theft is also an organised crime. I understand that it does not have as high a profile, but it could and should come under SOCA’s remit. Is SOCA doing any work in this country or abroad to combat such organised theft?

When such organised crime happens, there is also the question of what else is going on. I am keen to know whether the Minister has concrete evidence of links between the organised theft of clothing donations and other forms of organised crime. SOCA is dealing with the level 3 crimes—international organised crimes of the most serious nature—and local police are dealing with level 1 crimes that happen in the community. However, I am not convinced that we have an effective middle tier to deal with level 2 crimes, which are typically inter-regional and require co-operation between different police forces.

Regional crime squads were abolished by the Government in 1998 and replaced by the National Crime Squad, but that has caused problems when different regions have had to work together. In recent correspondence with the Home Office through a local MP, Clothes Aid raised the problem of organised donation theft. The Minister’s reply to its letter mentions the new powers contained in the Charities Act 2006, as well as the powers held by the OFT. However, the reply did not acknowledge the serious and organised nature of the crimes taking place, or the need for new policing perspectives to tackle it. Is the Minister aware of any plans to reintroduce the regional crime squads that were around before 1998? Will he raise that issue with his hon. and right hon. Friends in the Home Office to find a way to improve the effectiveness of the police response to that problem? Without such an effective policing response, the criminals involved will continue to fall between the cracks in the system and get away with the most cynical and heartless of crimes.

In conclusion, I am grateful to have been able to highlight this important problem, which worries my constituents in East Dunbartonshire and people throughout the UK. ASA guidance and the powers held by the OFT to police the peddlers of misleading advertising material are important in a limited context, but the scope for extending them is perhaps limited. The new powers given to the Charities Commission are welcome and they might bring about changes for the better, but only if the Commission has sufficient resources.

Is the hon. Lady aware of anyone who has been convicted and charged, and if so, what sentence was passed?

I am not aware of any convictions, but there have been occasions where there was an opportunity for them, such as in the case I outlined earlier where the opportunity was spectacularly missed. Perhaps the Minister will have further information on whether there have been any convictions so far.

A greater concentration of minds is needed on the issue of policing to deal with the criminal gangs carrying out this widespread theft. An inter-regional approach would seem to be the logical middle way. The crimes that I have described do not have as high a human cost as drug trafficking and their financial impact is not as great as the most serious forms of fraud, but the victims that they target—charities and the beneficiaries of charity work—are some of the most vulnerable in society. Theft from the children of Great Ormond Street should not be happening full stop, let alone on the scale that we are talking about here.

In a wider sense, such crimes make us all victims, because they threaten our charitable institutions and our trust in giving. The legacy of failing to tackle such thefts and of failing to allow people to give to charities without fear that their donation is funding criminals will not only be damaging to charities’ work; it will be a loss of trust, good will and charitable spirit among the public as a whole. Once lost, that is something that will be very hard to win back.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your wise counsel, Mr. Bercow?

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. She spoke eloquently about an issue on which she has been campaigning for some months and her speech was very well made. As she said, she put down a well supported early-day motion last October that helped to raise awareness of the issue.

The issue is important because it relates to maintaining public trust in charities, which is vital in our society. For the benefit of hon. Members present, I shall explain the Government’s approach to the issue and some of the plans that we have in train. It is important to distinguish three different types of activity. The first type consists of activities that clearly break the law such as outright fraud, where companies claim to collect for the developing world but do not do so, and theft from doorsteps, about which I know the hon. Lady is concerned. The second category comprises companies that do not explicitly claim to be charities, but use misleading literature, of which she provided examples, to give the impression that they are. The third area, which, to be candid, is the most difficult to deal with, is that of organisations that are openly commercial but do not make it obvious to consumers or the people who are supplying clothes. I shall say a few words on each of those issues.

First, on the subject of outright fraud and theft, there are fake charities, fake collections that adopt the names of real charities, and collectors that steal clothes left on doorsteps. We have cause to be optimistic about what is possible in that area. The Fraud Act 2006 came into force on 15 January. It gives trading standards officers and the police greater powers to act against that type of abuse. As the hon. Lady said, we need to be vigilant and to look for ways to improve how organisations can work together, but good work is going on between law enforcement officials.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) asked about prosecutions. In the west midlands recently, trading standards officers and police arrested six people: four at the end of January for circulating a leaflet about a fictitious charity in Lithuania that was accompanied by a picture of children in Africa, and two on 1 February, for distributing a clothing collection leaflet that contained a number for a real UK charity with which they had no connection. Action is being taken, and the Fraud Act helps in that regard.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of thefts, and she talked about the case involving Great Ormond Street and Alder Hey hospitals. I understand that Clothes Aid, the company she mentioned, is working with local trading standards officers and the police successfully to catch and to prosecute thieves who pick up collections meant for charities.

The hon. Lady talked about the role of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and its core functions in this area. We have to understand that SOCA has huge issues to deal with, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking and major international fraud, and it is also involved in dealing with international terrorist financing. I say that not in any way to minimise the issue that she raised. SOCA’s position is that it is happy to co-operate with police forces that approach it in order to tackle such issues, in cases where it can be of assistance. I shall return to the issue of co-operation between SOCA and the police in a moment.

I turn to the second problem that we must deal with, which is that of misleading adverts. As the hon. Lady said, legislation exists that should help us deal with the issue. The misleading advertising directives give the Advertising Standards Authority the powers to adjudicate against deceptive advertising, and any organisation that ignores adjudication by the ASA may be referred to the Office of Fair Trading, which also has the power to investigate misleading leaflets.

I shall just say something about the Charity Commission. The Charities Act 2006, which is now coming into force, strengthens the licensing requirements for charitable collections of goods. It may interest hon. Members to know that there is potential for action and tightening up in that area. The 2006 Act requires the licensing of door-to-door charitable collections, which should enable local authorities to identify and to report bogus collection activities more easily. However, it is important to make it clear that the commission is responsible only for regulating organisations that claim to be charities. It is not responsible for regulating commercial organisations. When it is approached, it can and does make referrals to local trading standards and the ASA. As I say, having a register of charitable organisations that collect door to door will, I hope, make local authorities more alert to such issues when they are reported to them.

Action has been taken on misleading advertising in respect of this issue, but I acknowledge that there is more to be done in ensuring proper co-operation between the different authorities. We need to acknowledge that, as the hon. Lady said, the companies involved are often fly-by-night operations that are difficult to pin down and to enforce action against. They can change their names, and it is hard to track down the individuals concerned. There are no easy solutions to that issue, and it would be misleading to say that there are. However, when we debated the 2006 Act, we said that, following its passage, we would consider how better to co-ordinate the activities—

I fully understand what the Minister said about the difficulty of tracking down the people responsible. However, those people publish a mobile telephone number. Could they not be traced through that?

There are definitely attempts to do that, but it can be hard to track down individuals even in those circumstances. However, the point is well made.

We plan to bring together all the different agencies that work on the issue—the ASA, trading standards, the Association of Chief Police Officers, which obviously has a role, the Office of Fair Trading and charity sector representatives—to investigate whether there are better ways to tackle the problem raised by the hon. Lady and the one to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) so eloquently drew attention in an intervention.

I welcome the news that there is a plan to bring together all the stakeholders on this issue. Is there some idea of the time scale for such a meeting? When is it likely to take place?

It will take place in the coming months; I shall keep the hon. Lady and other Members in this debate in touch with the progress on that.

Thirdly, the best defence against bogus collections is consumer vigilance—the hon. Lady expressed that well in a press release that she issued on 13 October. That is partly due to the difficulties in tracking down bogus collectors, but also because sometimes the organisations will be conducting legitimate business. I do not think that anyone in this debate is calling on us to ban any organisations from operating for profit.

We need to do a better job of helping people to tell the difference between giving to charities and to legitimate commercial companies, so that they can make the choice about which they give to. I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that it is to be welcomed that the Charity Commission and the OFT have recently started a public awareness campaign, about which she may know. Over the Christmas break, the Charity Commission worked with a number of hon. Members and secured 40 articles in the regional press that drew attention to precisely the issue that we are discussing. A separate Charity Commission campaign, “Safer Giving”, received widespread coverage in national newspapers and on the radio.

Earlier this month, the Charity Commission, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, or OSCR, and the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland—the UK’s three charity regulators—joined forces to issue guidance and to raise public awareness on how to make an informed choice when asked to give on the doorstep. I say to the hon. Lady and to my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee, West and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North that any suggestions that they have about how hon. Members, local newspapers and members of their communities can help to raise awareness of the issue, and about how the Charity Commission and others could be involved, would be very welcome.

In the final few seconds, will the Minister touch on what more the police could do and how we could get a better response from them on this issue?

That will be discussed when we meet ACPO as part of the discussions that I talked about.

To sum up, we believe that the right approach is being taken: enforcement action in cases of fraud or theft; referral of misleading advertisements to the ASA and OFT; and the promotion of messages of safer giving. We want to do more, which is why we will convene the relevant authorities. Above all, we recognise the importance of charity collections to the charity sector and a generous society. The hon. Lady has raised important issues, as have my hon. Friends. I hope that she and they accept that the Government take such matters seriously and are acting on them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Five o’clock.