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Mr. Letwin: We have indeed had a useful discussion, which justifies the existence of such debates in the House. We believe that it would be extremely productive to discuss subsection (2). Perhaps we can find a route that will establish consensus by constraining the power of direction to being a power of triggering, not a power of specifying. Of course, we shall have to discuss that outside the present congregation, but I hope that we may be on the verge of a solution.

Mr. Denham: That would be helpful. We had understood subsection (2) simply to ensure that a plan leading to remedial measures would be prepared. Indeed, we removed from earlier drafts and clauses a whole set of provisions about targets, performance measures, time scales and so on, which were very much part of the power to direct what was in the plan. I will now sit down for fear of saying anything that could unravel the good progress that we have made in the past half an hour.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I have been happily listening to that interesting and useful exchange across the Floor of the House. From a neutral point of view—if one can call Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches neutral—I perceive the distinct possibility that there could be all-party agreement on how we go forward. The Minister responded thoughtfully. It was the second thoughtful statement by a home affairs Minister this afternoon. To be fair to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), he also approached the matter thoughtfully, so plaudits all round. I am not sure whether the Government's change of heart is based on a conversion to the approach advocated by Opposition Members or on a calculation based on mathematics, a word that the Minister used yesterday in relation to the Henry VIII clause. That may be an academic point, but it is important because it underlies the Government's intentions, and those intentions will affect their legislation and their whole approach to the police reform package.

It seems a long time since we started talking in Committee about the tripartite structure. Hon. Members in all three parties agree that that is important and needs to be retained, but there is division between us on how much weight should be placed on each leg of the tripod. Under the proposed system, the tripartite structure will allow one piece—the Home Secretary—to conclude that two other pieces have failed, then to trigger action. I do not dissent from that, but it nevertheless shows that the tripod may not be evenly balanced.

As the right hon. Member for West Dorset said, when the Home Secretary moved from the Department for Education and Skills to his new post, his initial motivation was his identification of a number of problems that needed to be dealt with and his desire to deal with them in way that meant better policing and less crime. He also brought with him a sense of frustration that when matters

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went wrong he was the one who got it in the neck, but he did not always have the lever to pull—the phrase that he regularly uses—to correct the situation. That is a very human response. However, his subsequent logic has displayed a fundamental error—namely, that if there is a problem the answer is to take more power to the centre. That is not the answer. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) also falls into that trap. There is no proof whatsoever that taking power to the centre will lead to better policing or a better criminal justice system. In fact, devolving power to police authorities, making them more accountable at a local level and involving communities more in the administration of the police and the criminal justice system in their area, might be far more effective in achieving the improvements that we all want.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Just to clarify what I said, I am not a centralist at heart; I believe that people are best directed to run their own affairs. However, I have only to look at statistics for all the police authorities for it to be manifestly apparent that some are much more able to run their affairs than others. I fear that without external intervention that situation will continue, to the detriment of my constituents.

6.15 pm

Norman Baker: I understand the hon. Lady's position exactly, but in this case taking more power to the centre would not lead to a better situation. The fount of all knowledge does not lie in Whitehall with Home Office civil servants, no matter how elegant and elevated they may be, and nobody would suggest that they are necessarily the best-placed people to sort out the problems of Dorset, Sussex or anywhere else, which should be dealt with locally.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): But is not the point that comparative information is held in Whitehall? It is not possible for police authorities in one part of the country to be aware of information that is held by police authorities in other parts of the country. There has to be some input from central Government to clarify comparative information.

Norman Baker: Of course it is important that best practice is shared—nobody disputes that—and that the Home Office has a role in collecting and disseminating information. It is a good idea for it to be able to say, for example, "Have you noticed what is happening in Derbyshire?"

Mr. Kevan Jones: That is not a very good example.

Norman Baker: I am not familiar with Derbyshire, so I shall instead say Sussex, which is my part of the world. There is nothing wrong with the Home Office doing that, but that is not what clause 5 proposes. The hon. Member for Crosby must recognise—

Mr. Jones rose

Norman Baker: I am still answering the previous point, if I may. The hon. Lady must recognise that police statistics vary. There has not been consistency in the way in which information has been collected and collated, and the statistics may not be entirely reliable. To be fair to the Government, they are dealing with that, but we are not there yet. So it is a false premise to say that the divisions

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that the hon. Lady mentions are as wide as she says. Moreover, local policing in local areas throws up different problems. The problems of Brixton are very different from those of Sussex, so it is not fair to try to compare like with like. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who is no longer in the Chamber, a chief constable may decide that the priority for his or her area is rather different from that for a chief constable in a different area. It is not for us as politicians to impose from the centre a blanket solution that may be inappropriate for certain parts of the country.

Mr. Jones: I asked the hon. Gentleman this question in Committee, and I shall do so again. Under what circumstances, in the Liberal Democrat wonderland in which he appears to live, would it be appropriate for the Home Secretary to intervene in a local police authority? Is he telling the House that a Home Secretary should never intervene in a police authority that was failing its local public? If so, I do not want to hear any more of his colleagues criticising the Home Secretary when local police authorities are failing.

Norman Baker: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman associates Liberal Democrats with wonderland, since wonder is something wonderful to be enjoyed. At least he recognises that. I have never said that the Home Secretary should not intervene—I would not use that word, but advise, certainly—in respect of police authority matters. Indeed, the Home Secretary can already intervene in a whole range of matters—the Police Act 1996, the Police Act 1964 and other legislation. We are not querying that—we are querying the projected extension of his powers in the Bill. That is the answer that I gave the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in Committee, and I give it again today. I am sorry if he does not like it, but that is the fact of the matter. It is not black and white—there is a middle road to tread, and we are arguing about how far it should go.

Simon Hughes: Further to the comments made by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider whether police authorities are adequately responsive to their communities? Perhaps, rather than expecting the Government to solve every problem across every Department, we should look again at whether police authorities require an alteration to their structure. Already, greater influence is exerted at borough and local command unit level, which may be because people feel that the police authority structure is too remote for local community needs, which differ even within one police force area.

Norman Baker: I agree. I referred to police authorities earlier. We need to make them more accountable; that would lead to better local policing. To introduce a note of discord, a Conservative Government changed the constitution of police authorities to remove local councillors. That was a regressive step.

Local crime and disorder partnerships work well, and they have included the community. That means that local people own the agenda, and the partnerships have been successful. They constitute one of the Government's better initiatives on crime.

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Let me consider the substance of the new clause and the amendment before I become too distracted and take up too much time. I have not taken as much time as the other two Front-Bench spokesmen, and I shall not try to match them. I genuinely welcome the Government's attempt to tackle the problem through the amendment; it would be churlish not to do that. Whether it constitutes tactics or a change of heart, they have proposed a solution that is better than the original proposal, and it would be wrong not to say that.

It is especially welcome that the Government have taken account of points that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and I made in Committee about triggering the intervention. That is important. As the Minister knows, I was worried that the police standards unit, which is an offshoot of the Home Office and therefore not independent, could trigger the mechanism. That was wrong, and the Government have limited the power to Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which is widely perceived as independent, responsible and serious. That is welcome and I thank the Minister.

Involving the police authority is also welcome. The train continues to go from London to Newcastle, but it now stops at York on the way. It did not do that previously. That is a welcome change.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset mentioned clause 2. It was not discussed extensively in Committee, but perhaps the value of Report is the opportunity that it grants to reflect on the progress of the measure up to a specific point. There is not much to sort out to make the provision acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will accept those comments as a positive sign.

I was about to say that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North made a speech that was punctuated by remarks from both Front-Bench spokesmen, but that would be unkind because he is not here. He knows that I have tremendous respect for him. He talked about operational measures, which, to some extent, go to the heart of the Bill. It is proper for the Home Secretary or any other Member of Parliament to try to influence the chief constable of a specific area and draw matters of public anxiety to his or her attention.

Any chief constable who has not taken note of exchanges on the Floor of the House on street crime, for example, in a recent Prime Minister's Question Time, is unwise. The public are worried about street crime and it is legitimate to expect the chief constable to respond to the agenda and take account of it operationally. However granting the Home Secretary power to require the chief constable to take action, especially action that the latter believes to be inappropriate for the area, is a different matter. It is a good move to remove that power.

I want others to have the opportunity to contribute and I have therefore kept my remarks brief. The new clause has merit and the issues should be considered further. One or two matters need to be ironed out before we are completely happy, but I welcome the steps that the Minister has taken through the amendments, which go a long way towards tackling our legitimate anxieties.


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