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Standing Committee A
Thursday 23 May 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Powers to require inspection and report
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 112, in page 3, line 33, after 'time', insert
'subject to giving at least eight weeks prior notice to the relevant police force, service or squad and the inspectors of constabulary'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 113, in page 4, line 3, after 'time', insert
'subject to giving at least eight weeks prior notice to the relevant police service and the inspectors of constabulary'.
Mr. Hawkins: Unlike those that we debated before lunch, amendments Nos. 112 and 113 are not merely probing amendments. They deal with important matters of substance. Opposition and Labour Members agree that inspectors of constabulary should have powers to carry out inspections. We do not have a problem with the general principle of the clause. Indeed, the arrangements for inspectors of constabulary have been well established for many years. However, given the Government's proposed extension of the powers under the Police Act 1996, we want scope for those who are to be inspected to receive warning.
We do not want a force to be taken completely by surprise. It has not been the tradition of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary for it to behave like an emergency hit squad and carry out dawn raids. For many generations, this country has had a high standard of policing. I am sure that that is agreed throughout the House, as is the fact that HMIC has a high status. Those who have held office in the inspectorate have been people of exceptionally high calibre. I have dealt with them through my work as a barrister for many years in the midlands and subsequently my work as a Member of Parliament, and I pay tribute to their work.
We must be aware that police forces have heavy commitments. The same applies in spades to people who undertake the important work of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad. I recently had a meeting with the director of NCS, Bill Hughes, so I am especially up to date with its work. I hope to visit NCIS soon. It seems entirely appropriate that, if bodies with important responsibilities are to be inspected, they should have an opportunity to prepare for that inspection.
I wish to draw a parallel with that from another area of public life. If a school is to be on the receiving end of an Ofsted inspection, the head teacher and governing body are given several weeks' notice of that
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inspection. They are told when the inspection will take place and they have an opportunity to prepare for it. The inspection will be of more value if there has been an opportunity to prepare the ground to ensure that the inspectors see what they need to see. A warning will not enable a force to hide anything, but will give the inspectors an opportunity to do their job properly. The Minister may say that, as a matter of practice, the inspectors will give warning of an inspection. That has been so in the past, so why should such a provision not be outlined in the Bill?
During our researches for the Committee stage of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) came across an interesting document from Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary, Sir David O'Dowd CBE, QPM, CIMgt. In the foreword to his report of March 2001, he says:
''HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has a statutory role to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces; recently, our remit was extended to encompass the inspection of best value reviews''.
We may return to the question of whether ''best value reviews'' actually leads to the proper and natural meaning of best value in the English language later in our proceedings. Sir David O'Dowd's most crucial point comes in the last subclause of his sentence:
''and from April 2001 we have a new role—the inspection of local or basic command units (BCUs).''
That is interesting. When we debate some of the most crucial divisions between the Government and the Opposition parties on the Bill we shall return to whether the Government's centralising tendency has gone too far, and they are trying to micro-manage down to the basic command unit level.
Interestingly, there has been a recent change of practice, which I understand did not require statutory authority. HMIC is going to go down to the basic command unit level. If that is the case, it reinforces our view that there must be a safeguard in terms of timing. Inspections must be detailed and accurate, and a force on the receiving end of an inspection should have prior warning.
I will listen with interest to the Minister's response. The amendments have been tabled in a constructively critical spirit because there are serious issues to be discussed.
Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He used the example of Ofsted, which informs the head teacher and governing body of a school of an inspection. Why has he not included the police authority in his amendments? That would be the logical extension. I am not encouraging him to go down that route because I do not agree with his argument, but why did he not include it in his basket of people who should be informed?
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Lady makes a good and characteristically helpful point. We did not include the police authority because, knowing how police forces work, we felt that the minute that the force was told, the authority would be informed, but I entirely accept the spirit of her comments. We would be happy if the Government said, ''We are quite happy with the spirit
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of the amendment, and will introduce a Government amendment that includes police authorities''. There is no intention to leave them out, but from my understanding of the various police forces with which I have dealt, both as a parliamentarian and previously, whenever a force is informed, the first thing that the chief constable does is to ring up the chairman of the police authority. The hon. Lady is quite right; we could have included police authorities. I hope that I have covered the serious issues in sufficient depth and I will listen with interest to the Minister's response.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I rise briefly to support the amendments introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and to draw the Committee's attention once again to the evidence of Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers to the Select Committee, which the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) will remember. Throughout the Bill, but especially in this clause, there is an overemphasis by the Government on basic command units. He made the point that those units are not complete entities within a police force. They rely on much central revision within a police force. Indeed, when he was asked by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron):
''Is there too much stress on BCUs in what the Government is trying to do in the Bill?''
Sir David replied:
''I have suggested to them that perhaps there is. The entity that they need to concentrate on is the police force because essentially BCUs are not independent and the command of the entire police force is with the chief constable.''
Why does the Minister think that the Home Office is justified in sending an inspection team to a basic command unit? What would that do to undermine the authority of the chief constable of the force if, for example, he did not think that such an action was correct?
Mr. Hawkins: I shall reinforce the good point that my hon. Friend is making. He will appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire discovered in the report by Sir David O'Dowd that the change to the inspection of basic command units was announced before the Home Secretary said anything about it and before the Bill becomes law—of course, we do not know the form in which it will become law. We are discussing a significant change. We want to know whether the chief inspector of constabulary is jumping the gun, as I suggested this morning that the Metropolitan police might have done.
Mr. Osborne: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Obviously, this point foreshadows a later debate that we shall have. I wonder how the divisional superintendent in Macclesfield, which is the police division that covers most of my constituency, would react to an inspection team coming in although the chief constable were not wholly happy with that. To whom would she consider that her line of command applied: the Home Office, the inspection team or the chief constable? There is a real danger that if the
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Government go underneath the chief constable's line of command, they will undermine chief constables' responsibilities.
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): On this occasion, Opposition Members may have misunderstood the current position. The amendment does not have particular merit.
Let us be clear about the current position. As a consequence of the changes that were announced some time ago, a programme of basic command unit inspections is well under way. That complements the inspections of police forces as a whole. I would have to get back to the Committee on the exact number of inspections, but more than 40 have been undertaken and the results have been published. Inspections have been undertaken in Lambeth and Bristol. The inspections are routine and notification of them is given in advance on the same basis as inspections of forces. In recent years, the inspectorate has developed thematic inspections on several issues to examine how similar issues are treated throughout different police forces.
Current legislation does not allow the Secretary of State to request the inspection of a force in response to a specific circumstance or worry. I cannot think of a reason why that should be limited to occurring only after an eight-week wait. For example, let us say that the inspectorate carried out an inspection of a basic command unit within a force and discovered that the chief superintendent—that is likely to be the rank—was unable to deliver an effective policing service because of a central direction that came from constabulary headquarters. The chief inspector might report that to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary would like to be able to say, ''You had better have a look at this particular issue.'' He would not necessarily want an inspection of the whole force's activities, which is the basis of the current HMIC programme. I cannot understand what anybody would gain by responding to such circumstances by saying, ''But we will have to wait eight weeks to deal with it.'' That would be an artificial limitation.
None of that takes away from the fact that everybody accepts that people would normally be notified in advance of routine force-wide or BCU inspections. Reference was made to Ofsted. However, we would limit flexibility if we accepted the amendment.
I shall respond to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). In the police, there is much debate about how much responsibility should be delegated or devolved to BCUs. There are wide variations in the levels of financial responsibility that have been devolved. This is a complex issue, because there can be high levels of devolution in a police force area where there is a strong central framework setting out the aims, objectives and methods of policing, but, on the other hand, in another area, devolution can allow a wide variety of policing methods. Therefore, this matter is not simply about saying, ''We either delegate, or we do not.''
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In the police reform White Paper, we set out proposals to take a more structured approach to examining the evidence about which levels of devolution and delegation produce the best policing results. Those proposals are currently being taken forward.
Most people in policing recognise that the basic command unit is a key operational part of a force, as its name suggests. There is a value in being able to look at the work of a BCU to see how effectively it is operating, as part of the HMIC inspection programme.