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Mr. Letwin: As that formidable list amply confirms, we are in the presence of a Government who have made considerable progress towards a position for which we have long argued in relation to the Home Secretary's efforts—originally in clause 5—to control the operations of police forces and parts of police forces.

We strongly welcome the Government's move; what we must ask now is whether it is sufficient, and I have to say that I do not think it is. I hope that the spirit in which

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we engage in today's discussion will be reflected in further consideration by the Government once the Bill returns to the House of Lords, whence it emanated. I also hope that we will reach a consensus in a very few days, and that it will achieve what both we and the Liberal Democrats have sought to achieve throughout. Indeed, that is consistent with the Government's explanation of their intentions. That fact alone gives me hope that we will reach a consensus.

I should make it clear at the outset that I do not wish to press new clause 1, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, to a vote, given where we stand today. Rather, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will find the means to allow the House to vote on amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 111, which can stand for the other amendments to the Government amendments.

We are talking about a matter that relates in part to practice and in part to principle. It is important to restate briefly the principle at the heart of the matter and to rehearse the reasons why, from the point of view of practice, the Government have not come quite close enough to establishing the principle in law. The fundamental principle that we are dealing with is the operational independence of chief constables. The Minister and the Home Secretary have repeatedly said that they have no intention of compromising the operational independence of chief constables. It is therefore important that we explain what we mean by such operational independence, and why it is important in the sense in which we mean it.

A chief constable holds an office the importance of which has been reiterated not in the past few years alone, but over decades and centuries. In fact, that office stretches back far beyond the beginnings of the formal police forces with which we now deal. The fundamental principle of the operational independence of a chief constable is that a subject of Her Majesty will always be subject to the attentions of those acting in pursuit of enforcing the law, and never to the attentions of those acting in pursuit of a political decree. That is the single most important principle of the rule of law in this country; indeed, it is common ground on which the Opposition, Ministers and Labour Members do not disagree.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in giving way. Will he address the very important question—he may well be coming to it—of the distinction between operational and non-operational? The concept of an operational requirement has been respected by politicians for many years, but is it respected by senior police officers? The boundary between what is and is not operational is increasingly being pushed back. It is not defined in the Bill or in any of the amendments, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will turn his mind to where that boundary should lie, and whether it should be defined in law.

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman is on to something deep and important. It is also very relevant to my discussion, but if I may, I shall make a slight excursion in order to discuss it. I recognise that there is a difference between issues of general strategy relating to a police force, and operational issues relating to, say, the arrest of, or surveillance of, a particular individual. That is an

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enormously important distinction. Of course, a police force's general strategy is not at the core of our rule of law; it is a practical matter, so to speak. However, the assertion of the right of every subject of Her Majesty not to be interfered with on the basis of a particular politically originated attack by the police is at the centre of our rule of law.

I recognise the distinction that the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw between operational and non-operational issues. However, we can see why Ministers have not attempted to define that difference, which is why, despite having considered the issue, we have not sought to do so either. If we could define a proper distinction, we could address at least part of the problem of principle in a way that might have achieved consensus at an earlier stage.

It is difficult to establish a proper definition because strategy melds into operation in a way that is difficult for legislation to disentangle in advance. Let us take the case of a particular frustration that a particular Home Secretary at some future date might have about the prevalence of a particular kind of crime in a particular place. That would be a reasonable preoccupation for a Home Secretary. Local Members of Parliament and others might be lobbying him to do something about the situation, and that situation might affect large numbers of people, which would require the local police force to have a strategy to address it.

A Home Secretary who felt that he could determine the strategies of that police force might reasonably take steps to ensure that those strategies were, in his view, appropriate. However, there might also be specific ringleaders of the disturbance that the locals were complaining about, and the Home Secretary might feel that as part of defining the strategy, he ought to define the targets of the strategy, because otherwise it might be almost impossible to assert that the strategy should be thus, rather than otherwise.

So we move almost invisibly from the strategic, or non-operational, to the operational. I dare not have confidence that we shall be able so to define it—[Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position, seems to be suggesting that he has achieved that miracle. I, however, dare not imagine that we, sitting in this House this evening, are capable of envisaging all the circumstances that could make that definition so slippery.

I should therefore prefer to place my faith—and I hope that the House will do the same—in an effort to distance politicians from all the actions of police forces, both operational and non-operational. That is a sure way of achieving the goal of principle, which is to distance politicians, always and irrevocably, from operational matters.

Mr. Allen: I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but will he forgive me for pursuing the matter a little further? Unless we put into the Bill a definition of at least part of what we all agree is operational and non-operational, the very thing that he fears will happen. Home Secretaries of all political colours will not only set targets, but will ensure that money is allocated to meeting them, so it is almost inevitable that chief constables and local police officers will have to pursue those targets. In that way there is interference, almost by stealth, in the operational

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objectives of local police forces. If we were now to debate honestly what is operational and what is not, the difference would be clearer not only to us but to officers on the ground and senior officers in local constabularies.

Mr. Letwin: I take the force of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but perhaps we should continue that argument at another time. I certainly take his point about grants; indeed, it leads to the argument that I am about to advance. Because of their grant-making powers, Ministers, alas, almost inevitably have at their disposal the ability to exercise considerable direction over the activities—if I may use that neutral term—of the police forces of England and Wales.

I know that the Minister will say that this is merely a matter of offering a helping hand in co-ordination, or some such stuff, but even today we can see that in pursuit of the particular goal of fulfilling the Prime Minister's commitments about reducing street crime by September, a group of Ministers—a posse, if that is the appropriate collective noun—has been put on to the job of trying to ensure that specific bits of specific police forces live up to the standards that the Prime Minister has set them. That was not achieved by the use of statutory powers. Incidentally, it is an interesting question whether that was ultra vires, and that may be subject to review by the judges. However, it is clear that it was achieved by informal means. Things were said or implied that suggested to the police forces concerned that it would be to their benefit to co-operate, and co-operate they have. That could be extended more widely.

5.15 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): The right hon. Gentleman is on the verge of making what I would regard as a very serious allegation—that in some way chief constables in the 10 forces have been intimidated or bullied into taking part in the street crime initiative. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to leave the House with that impression, but it is certainly the impression that he has created in my mind.

Mr. Letwin: I would not say "intimidated" or "bullied", because the Home Secretary and the Minister are much too charming for that. However, the fact is that Ministers have an enormous degree of power over police authorities and forces. Those authorities and forces are not naive. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, they know where the money comes from. Nothing can be done about that and I do not propose that we should suddenly remove the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers from their role in funding police forces. I recognise that that would require long debate and vast reorganisation.

Under current circumstances—and for many years, because present Ministers did not invent the system—Home Secretaries and their Ministers wield vast influence over police forces. That does not have to be a matter of intimidation. Subtle hints about direction from Home Secretaries over many years lead to significant responses

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by police forces. It is from that starting point that we need to examine the likely practical effect of measures in this Bill.

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