Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker: We support the amendments for two reasons. First, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire explained, they would include in the Bill the Home Secretary's statement that no force will be applied to require police authorities or police forces to have CSOs.

Some of us are slightly suspicious about the meaning of the word ''force'' in that context. If it means a legislative requirement stating, ''You must have CSOs,'' it is clear that that will not be forthcoming from the Home Secretary. However, whether there will be financial incentives to employ CSOs, or financial disincentives if they are not employed, is a different matter. Will pressure be applied through the police standards unit, for example? That is a much more open question. It is important to support the amendments to make it clear that the Government's intention is to allow independence at local level, whether or not individual police authorities feel it appropriate for CSOs to be employed in their area.

The second reason for supporting the amendments relates to the independence of police authorities and of chief constables. Amendment No. 126 makes a separate and important point to which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire did not refer. The Government come under criticism from several sides in recent years for the number of police officers and for the fact that we have returned to the situation in 1997. There is a plan to increase the number to 130,000. Although it is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government for the drop in police numbers—the previous Conservative Government were also criticised for their failure on that—the important point is that it is not morally correct to criticise them for failing to match police numbers if we are also arguing that they should not have the power to set the numbers for individual police authorities. Opposition parties sometimes argue a contradictory case on the matter.

10.15 am

I am not in favour of the Home Secretary determining police numbers for individual police authorities; that would be wholly inappropriate. He

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can of course give guidance and, importantly, provide money for the employment of more officers, but how police authorities spend their money is ultimately a matter for them. It is, for example, up to chief constables to decide whether civilianisation should take place or whether money should be invested in technology. That is why the amendment is sensible. To be fair to the Government, if we argue—as many of us do—that the Bill should not allow the Home Secretary to intervene in micro-management, it ill behoves us to criticise the Government for failure on police numbers when they do not have the power to regulate those numbers. We should reach a deal whereby we do not give the Home Secretary the power but do not blame the Government for a subsequent perceived failure on police numbers.

The amendment seeks to ensure that CSOs are not brought in by the back door and questions whether the Home Secretary of the day should determine police numbers.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The hon. Gentleman talks about bringing in CSOs by the back door. If he watched BBC London television news this morning, was he as astonished as I was by the lead item that the Metropolitan police are today commencing a recruitment campaign for new community safety officers? Does he agree that it seems premature for the Met to be recruiting people for whom the statutory power does not yet exist?

Norman Baker: I did not see that item on the news this morning, but if people are being recruited to exercise powers that have not yet been given, that would be premature. Any police authority or chief constable can recruit such people under existing legislation. On a wider point, the enthusiasm of the Metropolitan police for CSOs has not been mirrored in the rest of the country. I congratulate Sir John Stevens on his success in capturing the Government's ear—but the price of that success has been the fact that Ministers have not listened to other chief constables.

I see nothing in the amendments to which the Government could object. I will probably always be surprised by the Minister's response: he will no doubt come up with some argument against them, but they are perfectly sensible, are in line with Government policy and put in place important safeguards, so I hope that he will consider them carefully.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Stevenson. It is my birthday today and I could not think of a better birthday present than to be on the Committee serving under your chairmanship. I am happy to accept birthday presents from any Committee member, maybe in the lunchtime break.

I support the amendments. I and my party have no real objection to the national policing plan; my police authority in Cheshire told me that the proposals seem to be a repackaging of current practice. If that is the case, all well and good. However, I notice that in the excellent Home Affairs Committee report—it was a

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great shame that only one member of that Select Committee, who is not present today, was put on the Standing Committee; that is not quite joined-up Parliament—Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and chief constable of Kent, said that he had no problem with a national plan if it gave a greater sense of corporate direction and was kept at a strategic level, but that he would have a problem if it were too prescriptive and strayed into micro-management. The amendments would ensure, in respect of the deployment of forces and CSOs, that that would not happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset was right to draw attention to the Minister's floundering on Second Reading. The Minister knew that he had made a mistake because he had to intervene later to clear up exactly what he said. After a good question from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney—who is a good friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and myself—about compelling police forces to use CSOs through the funding mechanism, he asked the Minister again:

    ''Will he guarantee never to compel a police force to adopt an action plan that includes the forced deployment of CSOs?''

The Minister started to answer,

    ''To say that there could never be a point in the future—''

whereupon he was interrupted, but he continued:

    ''Let us be clear; at some point in future, it may be clear to everybody, including the community which is suffering, that policing is not being approached in the most effective way, so it would be ridiculous to go through the whole range of measures today and say, 'We will never do this or that.'''—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 60-61.]

He was referring to the old clause 5, but the possibility remains that the national plan could be abused by some future Home Secretary who does not share the good intentions of the present Home Secretary. We should accept the amendment to ensure that that never happens.

Mr. Denham: In politics, one lives and dies by selective quotation. In my days in opposition, I may have been guilty of that myself, so I cannot entirely complain if the same tactic is used on me in Committee. It remains reasonable to clarify what I said on Second Reading and in my later intervention.

I said that the intention behind the Bill was not to use clause 5 or any other clause to impose CSOs. I repeated that the intention was not and never had been to use the Bill or clause 5 as a backdoor route to impose CSOs. I went on to say:

    ''Nothing in clause 5 overrules the provision elsewhere in the Bill that it must be the chief constable's decision whether he or she wishes to appoint CSOs.''—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 69.]

The position should have been pretty clear by the end of the Second Reading debate. I should also like to put on record what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the Police Federation conference last week:

    ''We are not going to force this on any police area.''

Furthermore, on 13 March, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

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''Of course community support officers will not be imposed''.—[

Official Report

, 13 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 888.]

ĖNorman BakerĖ: I accept that the Minister and his colleagues have no intention of imposing CSOs, but with respect, that is not the issue. We are debating whether the provisions, as drafted, would allow a future Home Secretary to impose CSOs. I contend that they would and the amendment is designed to prevent it.

Mr. Denham: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Given the powers and structures of the Bill, the right time for that debate is the first sitting after the recess, when we shall seek to reintroduce clause 5 in an amended form. The argument about powers to impose directions on chief constables applies there, but it is not relevant to the context of the national policing plan, because the Secretary of State has no powers to enforce it. The plan exists to guide and shape the future direction of the police service. Police authorities and chief officers need to take account of it in developing their own police plans, but the Home Secretary's powers—dealt with in part 7—are confined to pointing out to a police authority where its plan is out of line with the priorities of the national policing plan. There is no linked power, for example, to rewrite the policing plan of a particular police authority to incorporate the issues raised today or any other matters. There is a debate to be had, but we should have it when we consider new clause 4 and the powers that it gives. It is not relevant to the national policing plan.

Mr. Osborne: I am grateful for the Minister's assurances about compulsion, but would it be within the scope of a national plan issued by a Home Secretary to say that it would be a good idea if police forces introduced CSOs? It would give strong moral pressure, if that is the right phrase, to police forces, and if it was backed up with ring-fenced funding, police forces would have almost no option but to introduce CSOs.

 
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