Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Osborne: Does the Minister accept that most of the people in the police service who have commented on the legislation have said that the Government are wrong to try to inspect and interfere down at the level of BCU? They might accept that the BCU is a basic command unit—as the name states—but most of them do not accept the Government's argument about this matter.

The Chairman: Order. The amendment is about giving notice of inspections, rather than the principle of inspections. There will be an opportunity to debate that principle in the clause stand part debate, but I am sure that the Minister will have wanted me to make that point, before he gets back on his feet.

Mr. Denham: We should, perhaps, return to that matter in the clause stand part debate. However, I do not agree with what has been said about it.

The amendment addresses the part of the clause that allows the Secretary of State to require an inspection by HMIC. With regard to that, currently there is flexibility, and I cannot see why we should artificially impose a period of eight weeks.

Practical issues might arise. The HMIC might say that all of its resources are committed and that it does not have sufficient people on the ground to conduct an inspection. That sort of thing would be worked through in practice. There will be circumstances in which there is no need to send somebody in quickly, and it is clear that it is desirable to give notice, where it is appropriate to do so. However, the amendment proposes an artificial restriction.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister said that, under the current system, forces that are to be inspected are routinely notified in advance. How much notice is routinely given?

Mr. Denham: I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman on that. However, I know that it is a considerable period of time because, before the end of a year, I, as the Minister responsible for such matters, receive the HMIC programme for the following 12 months. That indicates the forces and the BCUs that are to be inspected, and the subjects of the thematic inspections. Indeed, discussion has already taken place about the subjects of the thematic inspections for 2003. Therefore, a considerable period of advance notice is given to forces that are to undergo the routine HMIC inspections.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for that response because it appears that he has confirmed that he is notified well in advance—far more than eight

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weeks in advance—and one assumes that police forces and BCUs are also notified well in advance. We chose a period of eight weeks for the amendment because we thought that that was a realistic minimum period and that, in practice, notice might be given as far as three or even six months in advance. I have no doubt that the Minister will write to me and other Committee members about that, when he has received more detailed information.

HMIC are giving such advance notice under the current system. However, in clause 3, the Government are introducing a new power, which we would say is very much part of their centralising agenda. The argument seems to be that the Secretary of State must have this power in case he is especially concerned about a BCU or a force. The Secretary of State must be able to demand and insist on an inspection. At the level of what we would call attempting to micro-manage, it is even more important that the force on the receiving end should have at the very least eight weeks' notice, or perhaps more, although that is what we have set out as a minimum.

If, in some cases, current practice is to give far more than eight weeks' notice, there can be no reason why that period should not be put in the Bill. Surely if a Secretary of State is demanding that, there is every extra reason why our amendment should be accepted. In light of the fact that we think that this is an important matter, I propose to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 13.

Division No. 2]

Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Osborne, Mr. George

Baird, Vera Baker, Norman Brooke, Annette Challen, Mr. Colin Denham, Mr. John Follett, Barbara Jones, Mr. Kevan
Kumar, Dr. Ashok MacDougall, Mr. John McGuire, Mrs. Anne Prentice, Bridget Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul Stoate, Dr. Howard

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Denham: It is worth drawing the Committee's attention to the inspectorate's evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. It said:

    ''There is particular support for the widening of the powers of the Secretary of State to require specific inspections. This fits comfortably with HMIC's current practice under risk assessment of targeting our efforts rather than scrutinising the whole of a force.''

It is probably of advantage to the Committee to know that the inspectorate, which is independent of Government, supports the provision.

We discussed, primarily in relation to amendments Nos. 112 and 113, whether there should be a time delay before an inspection takes place, and I shall not go over that again. The other part of the clause allows the inspection required to focus on a particular aspect of the police force. That is because the power to

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require an inspection is currently linked to wider powers for dealing with the efficiency and effectiveness of the force. Clearly, there is a case for considering a particular aspect of a force's activity.

There is little in the Bill specifically about BCUs. There is, as I say, a debate in policing about the degree of delegation. We believe that the BCU is an important part of the command structure of the police service. The responsibilities of chief superintendents, superintendents or commanders who are in charge of BCUs are great, and we wish to strengthen support for them. As we have set out in the White Paper, we are carefully considering how we can establish the most effective levels of devolution to BCUs. There is debate on those issues within the police service. We are convinced that BCUs must be strong and capable, although they must be so within the overall framework set by the force.

Mr. Hawkins: We accept what the Minister said about the BCU being a crucial part of how police forces operate. However, we have a huge concern, to which we will return in other debates. I do not want to labour the point now but it is important to put it on the record in the clause 3 stand part debate, given what the Minister has just said. We think that there is a grave misunderstanding on the part of the Government that the man from Whitehall knows best—that a future Home Secretary will be better able to understand what should happen within a BCU—and that his demanding inspections down to BCU level is part and parcel of a huge mistake in the Government's thinking. It is part of Whitehall's attempt to micro-manage. My noble Friend Lord Dixon-Smith said when he successfully introduced amendments to the Bill in another place that his experience during many years of public life led him to the conclusion that the man from Whitehall usually does not know best. I respectfully agree with him. It is unwise for the Government to start thinking it sensible to take powers to intervene down to BCU level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly said on amendments Nos. 112 and 113, we are greatly concerned that the Government are fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): Is it not the case that those who carry out inspections are not men from Whitehall but former senior officers, many of whom have held chief constable rank or the equivalent? We are not talking about civil servants from the Home Office, but those—certainly those whom I have met—with a lot of experience in operational policing.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is right, and in the previous debate I paid tribute to the people who run and work for HMIC. However, the Government are starting a new trend of the Home Secretary demanding inspection. The Minister made that clear when he responded to amendments Nos. 112 and 113. Never before has there been a power for a Home Secretary to demand an inspection, which is what I meant when I spoke of micro-management from Whitehall. If the matter were left, as it has been in the past, to HMIC, that would be different. The hon.

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Gentleman needs to focus on the change that the Government are making in clause 3.

Mr. Osborne: Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is a cause for concern over the BCU it will extend through the police force that manages the division? The inspections should therefore remain at police force level because it will reveal systematic problems with the police force.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is right. We have taken that very stance because to start cherry picking the BCUs would lead to all kinds of problems. As my hon. Friend rightly says, if there is a problem with a BCU it could be a symptom of a wider malaise, and the people best able to judge that are the senior people to whom the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) referred—those who have been appointed to HMIC. With the greatest respect to the many distinguished holders of the office of Home Secretary, the Home Secretary, of whichever party, is not best placed to make that judgment. We are worried that the traditional tripartite relationship of policing in this country could suffer if a Home Secretary undermined independent judgment.

Mr. Jones: I find it difficult to understand in which circumstances the Home Secretary could undermine the inspection process. An inspection will not be carried out by the Home Secretary, or by any other politician, but by senior police officers and the inspectorate. How could we arrive at a situation in which a Home Secretary might undermine the inspection?

Mr. Hawkins: I do not think that what we are seeking to do here would in any sense undermine inspection. We do not want to repeat the debate that we have just had on amendments Nos. 112 and 113, but the Government must justify the change.

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