Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: I hear what the Minister says, but he and his officials should reflect on the way in which the idea has been presented. It is for media organisations to choose how they present stories, but the idea was presented in this morning's media with shots of police officers in full uniform, which did not imply that people would be recruited as civilians. Is the Minister prepared to examine that? If Parliament is to have any relevance, it is important that bodies do not jump the gun. When controversial matters are being debated and a Bill is still going through the House, it is perhaps unwise for some of its more controversial aspects to be the subject of a media campaign. I am sure that the Minister will have discussions about that matter, and we look forward to hearing from him if, having spoken to the people responsible for the marketing, he has any further thoughts.

We have had a good debate on many of the issues that arise from clause 1. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and others have mentioned, many of the issues will come back for debate at a later stage, so I shall not detain the Committee any further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Codes of practice for chief officers

Mr. Paice: I beg to move amendment No. 111, in page 3, line 29, at end insert

    ', subject however to the views of the police authority and his own judgement as to what is effective and efficient in the area in which that function is to be discharged.'.

The clause introduces codes of practice for chief officers. There was considerable debate in the other place when the clause as originally drafted was introduced by the Government. I am pleased to say that as a result of those debates and many amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats and other parties, the Government introduced their own amendments, and the clause is now much better. It would have been unacceptable in its original form. A lot of consultation is now included, and the concerns of ACPO and other police representative bodies have been taken into account.

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However, one concern remains, which relates to the last sentence in the new section provided for by the clause. New subsection (7) says:

    ''In discharging any function to which a code of practice under this section relates, a chief officer of police shall have regard to the code.''

When it was debated in the other place, Lord Rooker twice made a point about the codes of practice, and I am sure that he was right. He said:

    ''They are not binding on the chief constable.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 136.]

On 28 February, he referred to the fact that he had written a long letter to many Lords in response to concerns about the centralising aspects of the Bill. The letter, he said, referred to

    ''guidance which is purely advisory''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 1581.]

There is no doubt that the Government intend that the implementation of codes of practice should be discretionary, but there is concern about the phrase ''shall have regard to'' and precisely how much power it will give to a Secretary of State, considering the other powers in the Bill, to intervene if a police chief constable decides not to do something along the lines of the code of practice.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he genuinely believe that the amendment is necessary? Clearly, regard should be had to the code of practice; the chief constable should also have regard to the police authority and, having done so, will exercise his own judgment—so why do we need the amendment?

Mr. Paice: The point is that it is not clear from the way in which the clause is written that the chief officer can ultimately exercise his own judgment. If the clause is accepted, giving the Home Secretary considerable powers of micro-management, he or she could refer back to the fact that a chief officer had decided to use his judgment not to adhere to a code of practice and intervene by micro-managing that police force. The amendment seeks only to provide that a chief officer can exercise his own judgment, in consultation with the police authority, on what is effective and efficient in his area. It seeks to insert into the Bill the proposals already made in the other place by Lord Rooker.

Mr. Denham: There is not at present a sufficiently effective means of disseminating and embedding proven good practice across the police service and the provisions for strengthening those mechanisms are an important part of the Bill. There are many advantages, which have been rehearsed in other places, to having local police forces rather than a national police force, but one of the disadvantages of that can be that good practice that is developed and proven in one area may spread only slowly to other areas. We sometimes see that in the variations in the performance of police forces, albeit in similar areas, in different parts of the country.

The Bill seeks to introduce a framework for enabling and supporting all forces to come up to the standards of the best. That was set out in the White Paper on police reform, which was published before Christmas,

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and was described as a three-tier structure for promoting best practice. Two of the tiers have a statutory basis, unlike the third—guidance from the Home Office, ACPO, or the Association of Police Authorities.

In practice, the amendment would cause everything other than the regulation-making powers to collapse into mere guidance. It became clear in the long discussions that the police reforming working group held last year with chief officers, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation that a middle tier of guidance, setting out best practice, is necessary. It would be the duty of a chief constable to have regard to that guidance, while retaining his professional discretion on how it might be followed or applied—or not, in a particular case. It therefore constitutes the middle ground between later clauses of the Bill that specify certain types of equipment, for example, and areas of best practice.

As we said in the White Paper, we would use guidance selectively. Most people would be in no doubt that while we may not need now to drive best practice across the service, in addition to the consultation laid down in the Bill, it would have been useful in the past in terms of such issues as the management of occupational health and sickness in the police service—an area of huge variation throughout the service.

Mr. Osborne: The Bill requires the Secretary of State to lay the codes of practice before Parliament. There are some exemptions. Could the Minister make it clear that those exemptions are on grounds of national security, prevention of crime and jeopardising the safety of persons, and would be the exception to the rule? As drafted they could be very broad because the phrase

    ''could prejudice the prevention or detection of crime''

covers almost everything that the police do.

11.15 am

Mr. Denham: If an important piece of guidance, such as the ACPO guidance on the use of firearms, became a code of practice—there is pretty good standardisation here but it might be perceived as a need if forces were veering away from best practice—we would not want to put it in full in the public domain because it includes important operational matters that could put the lives of police officers at risk. The clause has been drafted to cover such areas. It is not intended that there will be a vast body of secret codes of practice covering how ordinary crimes are investigated or problems are tackled.

Norman Baker: Will the Minister give a guarantee that codes of practice will not be used for any operational decisions? It could be argued that it would be efficient and effective to soft pedal on cannabis use in Lambeth. Could he give an undertaking that such matters will not appear in a code of practice?

Mr. Denham: The aim of the code of practice is to ensure that we establish best practice across the service. Nothing that we do here can direct how an

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individual is arrested or a crime is investigated. Interpretation of the best way of achieving the law is a legitimate area where existing best practice can be considered, such as in public order situations. Nothing in this can fetter the discretion that individual officers must have when carrying out their policing practice or that chief constables must have when taking decisions about individuals.

I do not want to give a definitive list of the areas of crime that will be considered. We are committed to consult with the police service about the priorities and I do not want to pre-empt those discussions. I give these only as examples. If we find that there are clear best practice models for dealing with persistent offenders that we would want to incorporate into codes of practice, they would be the subject of this sort of guidance. It is extremely unlikely that a police experiment in one place would leap into a code in practice. The consultation procedure, which will be supported by the national centre for policing excellence, will provide a structure that will say that we cannot take a particular view on a type of policing without good evidence of what works.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful for the Minister's response. As I tried to make clear in my opening remarks, we are not concerned about the codes of practice. Many concerns have been raised but most were answered satisfactorily in the other place. We are simply concerned about their relevant significance vis-a-vis the judgment of a chief officer on the ground. The Minister used the word ''guidance'' again just now. I interpret his remarks as endorsing those of Lord Rooker when he said that they would not be binding on the chief officer. What is ultimately the interpretation of ''shall have regard'' to the code? Would disregarding the code—or, perhaps, having looked at the code, deciding that local circumstances require doing something else—become a ground for intervention on the basis of the powers that we are to debate later?

 
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