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Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I support the Government amendments which will be extremely important in delivering better crime prevention to all areas of the United Kingdom.

I shall set my remarks in context by quoting from "Policing a New Century: a Blueprint for Reform", which included a statement from the Audit Commission. The commission noted:

The report continued:

Few people would find such variation remotely acceptable. I represent an area where the amount spent on policing is significantly higher than in many other areas, yet our detection rates are consistently low. I have great difficulty in explaining that to my constituents.

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Contrary to some of the views expressed in the debate, police officers or chief constables will not be dismissed on a whim. They will be dismissed, or asked to resign or retire following a period during which they will have failed to come to terms with the difficulties that they experience in their community and to deliver good policing services.

We must find ways of removing from post people who are inefficient and ineffective. The notion that the tripartite system of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, police authorities and the Home Office achieved that in the past is farcical. There have been few cases of dismissal of chief constables in the UK.

Chief constables should be looking to the Home Office. After all, the Home Office is called to account for the failure of police authorities throughout the country, yet it has little impact on the performance of those authorities.

I welcome the Government's proposals on the removal of chief constables who are failing. Many areas of the country would benefit—as they would have done if we had introduced such a measure many years ago.

Mr. Denham: We have held a useful debate on a set of amendments on which we agree—I look forward to the debates on amendments on which we disagree.

I shall take in turn the points that were raised. It is worth reminding the House that for almost 40 years Governments have had the power to initiate the retirement of chief police officers. There is nothing new in that. Some contributors have spoken as though the Home Secretary was taking some new centralising power.

The new elements in these provisions are, first, the ability to require a chief officer to resign rather than to retire. As we discussed in Committee, the provision is based primarily on the fact that chief constables reach that rank substantially earlier than they used to. Police officers always appear to be getting younger, but chief officers genuinely are younger than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Therefore, it does not seem appropriate to require someone who might be in their early 40s to retire and receive the benefits of a pension.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) referred to the financial issues. We undertook in Committee to work them through with the staff associations, because appropriate provision will obviously have to be made for those who have to resign.

Mr. Hogg: Does the Minister accept that the course of action chosen will have substantial financial implications for the police authority? Therefore, there is a good case for discussing with the authority which of the two courses should be taken.

Mr. Denham: I am not sure that a decision about the appropriate action should be taken on financial grounds. However, the nature of the provision to be made in such circumstances will, of course, be discussed with the CPOSA, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities.

The new elements include the Bill having procedural safeguards on retirement and resignation that did not exist before. We have also discussed suspension, and it has been suggested that the Home Secretary will have an

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untrammelled power to suspend a chief officer on a whim. I shall not go through the legislation in great detail, but it makes very clear the circumstances in which a chief officer can be suspended. First, he can be suspended by a police authority when it has considered—or has decided to take—action leading to resignation or retirement. There is an important initial stage in the process. The same is true when the Secretary of State initiates action. The possibility of suspension comes into the frame only when a decision has already been made to take measures leading to retirement or resignation, when serious consideration has been given to such measures or when they have been implemented but the chief officer has not yet resigned or retired.

The Bill makes it clear that the test to be used by the police authority or the Home Secretary is the maintenance of police confidence. Action will be taken to suspend a chief officer if that is necessary to maintain public confidence. Although the wording is slightly different, that is essentially true whether the police authority or the Home Secretary takes action. Therefore, it is not an arbitrary power. The suggestion that it was such a power was made not by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), but by other Members who have spoken in the debate.

Norman Baker: To return to the point about public confidence that was discussed in Committee, does the Minister not recognise that if a Home Secretary or Minister rightly or wrongly publicly decried a chief constable, that could lead to a loss of public confidence in that officer who would automatically then be suspended by the police authority because public confidence had been eroded? If confidence had been eroded, it would be difficult to imagine the circumstances in which it would be restored so that the officer could return to duty.

Mr. Denham: I recognise something in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but the possibility of an officer's career being damaged by action initiated by the Secretary of State has existed ever since the 1964 or 1966 Act first gave the Home Secretary the ability to act with regard to a chief officer. If the Home Secretary is considering action, a danger must be present, and I do not believe that we have introduced something significantly new in principle.

Members have reasonably asked about the protocol. The Select Committee on Home Affairs had hoped that the negotiations on the protocol would have been completed before Report—in an ideal world, I would have shared that hope—so that we could discuss them. Discussions are continuing this week between my officials and the CPOSA. If it is possible to conclude those discussions in time for Lords consideration of the Bill, we will make every effort to do so. However, I cannot promise that. It is important that negotiations take place between the Government, the CPOSA and organisations such as the Association of Police Authorities rather than occurring in the pages of the national press.

5.30 pm

Mr. Paice: The Minister is right. He has introduced safeguards when chief officers are required to retire, but he has not addressed the problem of safeguards when

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someone is suspended. There is nothing on such safeguards in the Bill; and the draft protocol, which I have been fortunate to see, makes no reference to them. Many hon. Members said that suspension is extremely damaging, whatever the outcome. The Secretary of State can require suspension and there is no option of a third-party appeal to him. What safeguards will the Minister introduce on suspension?

Mr. Denham: The suspension power comes into effect when circumstances are moving towards action to require a chief officer to retire or resign on either the Home Secretary's or the police authority's initiative. Suspension in those circumstances is seen as an immediate action and response to maintain public confidence. If all the procedural safeguards that are in place for a resignation or retirement are applied to the suspension process, the danger is that that process becomes the hearing on resignation or retirement. The power becomes unusable and the ability to get the right balance between maintaining public confidence and fair treatment of the chief officer is upset. How we handle that process needs to be the subject of discussion on the protocol, and I am sure we have some way to go before that is in a satisfactory form.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): If the protocol is a work in progress, why was a copy of it shown to a journalist from The Times before it was shown to some hon. Members, including specialists who serve on the Home Affairs Committee?

Mr. Denham: I have no idea. I am reasonably confident that it did not come from any source within the Home Office or any Minister associated with the Department. I believe that copies of the draft protocol are fairly widely available in the police service. Chief constables have told me that they have had sight of it, although I have no reason to believe that any of them shared it with The Times. The matter will have to remain a mystery.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) asked whether there is a legal definition of efficiency or effectiveness in this context. The answer is no. It has not been defined in law, nor has there been a definition in law—certainly not in primary legislation—of operational matters, although the noble Lord Denning referred to a description of operational matters in a judgment 20 years ago. Other parts of the Bill exclude certain decisions from the powers of direction that may be made by the Home Secretary or a police authority, as set out in a new clause.

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