Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I beg to move amendment No. 78, in page 4, leave out lines 34 and 35.

The amount of power taken unto the Secretary of State in the Bill is the issue that separates Opposition parties from the Government. I apologise to the Committee for my short absence, and the point may already have been made, but clause 4 revises section 40 of the 1996 Act and describes powers to give directions to a police authority.

Section 40 has never been used, despite the Act's being in existence for the past six years. The existing power has not been used by the Home Secretary in the previous Conservative Government, who was in office for only a few short months after the legislation was enacted, by the present Home Secretary or by his predecessor. Why do we need the dramatically increased range of powers envisaged in clause 4, and especially subsection (2)(b), which the amendment would delete?

There can be no reasonable argument against the idea of the inspectorate producing a report identifying the strengths and weaknesses in a police authority or BCU, as the clause envisages, or suggesting that measures be taken to remedy those problems. With that there can be little dispute. The dispute is over whether the Home Secretary has complete freedom to

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dictate what the remedial measures should be. Subsection (2) says that

    ''Those remedial measures must not relate to any matter other than''—

and the first bit is non-contentious—

    ''a matter by reference to which the report contains a statement of opinion falling within subsection (1)(a) or (b)''.

That is perfectly sensible; the remedial measures should address what the report says. The problem is that paragraph (b) follows, which says that the measures must also not relate to anything other than

    ''a matter that the Secretary of State considers relevant to any matter falling within paragraph (a).''

That gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to consider any matter relevant to the measures on which the inspector has passed opinion.

3.30 pm

I have taken the liberty of looking at one or two HMIC reports. They are comprehensive, and it beggars belief that it should be necessary for the Home Secretary to have powers to go beyond what is in the report. I shall refer to two examples, both of which are relevant to members of the Committee. First, I shall quote the report of Hampshire constabulary's latest inspection—the latest one on the inspectorate's website, anyway—which was in 1999. That, of course, is the Minister's constabulary.

Mr. Denham: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the most recent Hampshire constabulary report on the inspectorate's website is from 1999?

Mr. Paice: Yes.

Mr. Denham: I shall have to have a look at the website.

Mr. Paice: I take it from that that there has been a more recent inspection, but whether that is the most recent report is irrelevant to my argument. The fact is that it contains a series of recommendations, one of which is

    ''That the Force considers how to co-ordinate pre-existing projects, on the Force control room, on systems of core handling and on public safety radio communication. In so doing it should review the timescale for selecting the preferred option arising from the core handling project and match its implementation with the move to a single tier control room.''

That is a pretty detailed obligation on, or recommendation from, the inspectorate, and I should have thought that it was perfectly adequate as an issue on which the Secretary of State should require remedial measures to be taken. However, the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State should have powers to include anything else that he considers relevant. I find that prospect difficult to understand.

Secondly, I shall quote a report from my own constabulary. It is a report on a BCU inspection—I tried to get even closer to the ground—in the central Cambridgeshire unit, which only just touches my constituency but is obviously relevant. Its recommendations are even more detailed. For example, it asks that

    ''The existing arrangements in respect of custody facilities at Wisbech police station be urgently reviewed.''

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Wisbech is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). Such recommendations are the minutiae of policing issues. I am not suggesting that the recommendation is not important—it is, particularly if one is taken into custody in Wisbech. My point is, why should the Secretary of State have powers that allow him to go beyond even the recommendations in BCU reports? That is why I believe it necessary to delete subsection (2)(b).

The case is quite clear: the provision is an open-ended opportunity for the Home Secretary to decide of his own volition what he considers to be relevant. There is no challenge to that, and no opportunity for people to appeal against what he considers to be relevant. It would provide a Home Secretary—not necessarily this one—with an opportunity to get involved in minutiae. That is unnecessary and may carry a risk when the power falls into the hands of future Secretaries of State.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has conjured up a worrying prospect, but let us consider the issue.

There are two parts to the process. First, HMIC conducts an inspection; secondly, the Secretary of State directs a response. The proposed change from the previous section 40—which I think that the Committee will agree to—is that the inspectorate should be able to report on part of a force, rather than only on all of it. Perhaps one of the reasons why the intervention power has never been used is that a very high threshold must be reached before a whole force is deemed to be failing.

However, to leave that aside, we are currently debating a different question—what powers to direct should the Secretary of State have? It is always dangerous for Ministers who are on their feet to offer to consider amendments, but I am half-inclined—I will go no further than that—to suggest that we should remove all of subsection (2) of new section 40, and revert to the wording that was used by the previous Conservative Administration. I assume that hon. Members are happy with that wording. It states:

    ''the Secretary of State may direct the police authority responsible for maintaining the force to take such measures as may be specified in the direction.''

Section 40 does not require the matters on which the Secretary of State gives directions to bear any relation whatever to the issues that have been identified by HMIC. The new draft was produced because I felt—although, perhaps, I got this wrong—that that was too broad a remit to give to the Secretary of State, and that there should be some relationship between what the Secretary of State responds to and the problem that has been identified by HMIC.

However, if the Committee has a problem with the new wording, I shall consider reverting to the wording introduced by the Conservative party in the previous Parliament. I am sure that Conservative Committee members would accept that.

However, there is a reason why we have structured what we have done in this way. Although the

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inspectorate reports are very detailed and comprehensive, it is always conceivable that, when a problem has been identified by the inspectorate, further matters will come to light that are relevant and should be taken into account.

For example, if HMIC criticised a force for consistently slipping with regard to the burglary target that it has been set under best value, it would set out its recommendations in its report on the force, and the Home Secretary could use that, by employing new section 40(2)(a), as the basis for issuing directions against the police authority. He could do that because the police authority owns the best value targets for the police force. The HMIC report might identify—in the way that the hon. Gentleman said—that the force was failing to meet its target because it was failing to offer decent prevention advice, and because its investigative techniques did not follow proven best practice. Under the amendment, the Home Secretary could only direct the police authority to require action to be taken to put right policing practice in those two areas—prevention and investigative techniques.

However, let us suppose that the CPS inspectorate was looking at performance in this area at the same time, and, having studied the work of CPS, it advised that the force had poor file quality and, as a result, there was a failure successfully to prosecute persistent offenders in the area, so that they were free to re-offend. Any sensible person would say that the Home Secretary should be able to take into account that wider source of evidence, which is relevant to the problem identified by HMIC.

In practical terms, I do not think that it is possible to specify in the Bill all the conceivable sources of additional evidence that might be available to the Home Secretary. That is why new section 40(2) is worded in this way. However, if the hon. Gentleman would prefer us to revert to the wide-ranging powers of the Secretary of State that were introduced by the Conservative Government, I shall give active consideration to that before Report.

Mr. Paice: Well, that is a tempting offer. However, as the Minister knows, the world has moved on a little bit since 1996, otherwise we would not be having this debate because the Government would have left the legislation as it is. We have moved on, but I remain of the view that the envisaged powers and those that are in existing legislation are over the top and go beyond what is necessary. I am not entirely convinced by the Minister's technical example of why he believes that the powers are necessary.

We must reflect on what the Minister said and I want to read his technical explanation to try to understand it more clearly. We might wish to return to the matter on another occasion. I want to know what the Minister's colleagues said in opposition to the clause in 1996—we might well find something of interest to entertain the Committee. Until we reach that stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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