Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker: I am slightly alarmed by the Minister's train of thought. He is discussing a report from the Audit Commission or the CPS that could justify intervention. That seems to be a first resort rather than a last resort. The last resort would be after the matter had gone through HMIC and been dealt with properly. We now discover that the Secretary of State is willing to jump the gun after receiving an adverse report from the Audit Commission.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was pursuing a similar issue to me. The Minister described a situation in which any chief officer and his police authority will feel that under the tripartite relationship, big brother—the Home Secretary—is watching. That is far from a longstop to a longstop, as the Minister's noble Friend Lord Rooker said. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, the provision is a first resort, not a last resort.

Mr. Denham: The same constraints apply because a problem would have to be deep-seated and resistant to change, and other attempts to change it would have to have failed. Nothing that I said detracts from that test.

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The power will be used only as a last resort and the support of HMIC is likely to be relied on by a sensible Secretary of State in the vast majority of cases. The question that must be asked is whether we should limit the power exclusively to HMIC advice or whether, given the safeguards in the clause, the Secretary of State should be able to draw on further sources of information without duplicating inspections through HMIC. The clause allows that, but the Committee must recognise the safeguards that have been built into the clause to prevent it from being used arbitrarily, as described by hon. Members.

Mr. Osborne: When the clause was debated in the other place, the noble Lord Rooker said that he understood the particular concerns about it. He said:

    ''It probably requires more clarity and precision in the trigger mechanism which is used before such a clause would operate.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 165.]

The Government have amended the process but not the trigger mechanism, which remains as vague as the Minister just spelt out.

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Mr. Denham: The clause is adequate as we have presented it. We have introduced a series of procedure safeguards that were not in the original clause that was debated in another place. That is a significant change, which has been welcomed by both the Home Affairs Committee and—although we acknowledge that it would prefer not to have the clause at all—ACPO, which recognised that it significantly limited the scope of the legislation. I do not accept that in the face of parliamentary scrutiny, which I am always prepared to praise, we have not made significant and beneficial changes to the original clause. It provides the protection that Committee members want.

Government amendment No. 131 will introduce the same powers, procedures and safeguards for use in relation to the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad. During our second sitting on 25 May, we debated amendments Nos. 134 to 136, which were moved by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). Those amendments would have required the Secretary of State to consult with the relevant service authority about the remedial measures needed. I refer the hon. Lady to new sections 31B and 76B of the Police Act 1997, which will be inserted by amendment No. 131. I hope she will accept that the two new sections provide for prior consultation with the service authorities and make her amendments unnecessary.

As I have already said, the provisions are a key part of the police reform process. Most members of the public would be surprised that the Home Secretary does not already have the power in the new clause, because it involves only a last resort ability to require forces to provide an acceptable quality of service to their local communities. It is an important power that should be in the Bill and the alternative, which Opposition Members must address, could be to tolerate failure and condemn communities to live with the consequences of such failure. We are not prepared to abandon communities to inadequate police services, and it is for those who oppose the

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power to direct officers at the last resort to justify why they appear ready to do so.

Mr. Paice: As the Minister has implied, we are now debating one of the major issues of the Bill, if not the major issue. He has presented new clause 4 in a favourable light—probably a better light than he is in from where I sit. I apologise if I have been squinting at him this afternoon, but to me he is just a silhouette against the window. However, closer scrutiny of his new clause would illustrate that it is not quite as white as he would try to make us believe.

At the heart of the debate is the point that has been raised by several Committee members from all parties, which is the tripartite arrangement. The Police Act 1996 clearly provides that it is the function of the police authority to secure the maintenance of an effective and efficient police force, that the force should be under the direction and control of the chief constable, and that the Secretary of State shall exercise his powers in order to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of the police. Other parts of the Act provide the Secretary of State with widespread powers for carrying out his function, and I shall return to that point.

Paragraph 17 of the Select Committee's report, before the quotation to which the Minister referred, clearly states:

    ''We believe that the tripartite structure and operational independence of police forces are essential safeguards against politicisation and centralisation of the police.''

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) clearly implied, if two legs of the tripartite arrangement are unhappy with a procedure, it calls into question whether the tripartite arrangement is as strong and robust as the Minister would have us believe. Every organisation refers to the tripartite structure and endorses it, but the Minister's proposals will undermine it.

The 1996 Act already gives the Home Secretary significant powers. For example, he has powers to determine objectives and to direct police authorities on performance targets. Section 40, to which the hon. Member for Lewes referred earlier, contains powers to direct authorities, but it is yet to be used by a Home Secretary of any Government. Several other powers have not been used, yet the Government want to have even more. Clause 4 has already been passed and that gives the power to give directions to police authorities. The Bill also contains measures for codes of practice, which will create much power.

The amendment and, more particularly, new clause 4 go much further, and the reason we are debating them now is that there was a cross-party consensus in the other place that such measures were wrong, as a result of which old clause 5 was removed. Not only Conservative peers, but a large number of Liberal Democrat peers and non-aligned Cross-Benchers, and, indeed, a bishop voted against the Government on the clause. They did so in the full knowledge of the safeguards to which the Minister has referred. Such measures were before the other place when the debate took place and he has now included them in new clause 4 as proposed new section 41B.

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The so-called safeguards were also considered by the Select Committee. The Minister has referred to that Committee, but as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, its comments could hardly be described as a fulsome endorsement of the safeguards. It moved matters from an unacceptable situation to an arrangement that must be monitored closely.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I did not intervene on my right hon. Friend the Minister when he referred to what the Select Committee said because he clearly expounded our views, but I am becoming a little bored with the views of the Select Committee being distorted by Opposition Members. We tend not to use ''hope'' in our reports. It is a lightweight word. The fact that we used it on the occasion to which reference has been made shows that we accept the Government's amendments and new clauses.

The Chairman: Order. I require interventions to be questions. Perhaps the hon. Lady will ask a question.

Ms Prentice: I beg your pardon, Mr. Stevenson.

The Select Committee fully endorses the Government's actions and it is time that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and others stopped trying to read something other into its comments.

Mr. Paice: Every hon. Member who is not a member of the Select Committee can only go by what it puts in writing. There is clearly no fulsome endorsement of the provisions in the Select Committee's report, as the hon. Lady has suggested. I shall repeat the quotation:

    ''As originally proposed, this clause . . . was unacceptable. If it is eventually restored to the Bill with the additional safeguards on consultation, we will watch carefully to see how these powers are exercised.''

In no way is that the support that the hon. Lady has just described. The report does not even say, ''We support the safeguards.'' It simply says that the powers will have to be watched carefully to see how they are exercised.

The matter goes beyond that, as I have said. The Association of Police Authorities—the Minister conceded that he has a different view to that body, but that does not lessen the importance of its view—says:

    ''We remain fundamentally opposed to these provisions, even with the package of safeguards contained in new section 41B.''

The reasons that it gives, which are worth repeating, are that

    ''the provisions fundamentally alter the accountability of chief officers to local police authorities . . . They extend the powers of the Home Secretary to intervene directly with forces/BCUs . . . They undermine the tripartite relationship by making the chief officer directly answerable to the Home Secretary—the police authority only has to be consulted on the remedial action plan—it does not have to approve it . . . they give the Home Secretary powers to set improvement targets for the force/BCU without reference to the police authority . . . Performance monitoring and management of progress against the action plan will be done by the Home Secretary, sidestepping the police authority.''

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ACPO, too, has clearly stated that, despite the safeguards, it

    ''will continue to press its position . . . the Association will continue to defend the tripartite structure of policing, especially the right of the police to carry out policing . . . the Association continues to take the view that it does not and cannot endorse the provisions in clauses 4 and 5.''

It also says:

    ''Even with the safeguards the means for arbitrary intervention remain.''

Even the Metropolitan police service does not accept the proposals fulsomely.

The Minister kept using the term ''last resort'', and the hon. Member for Lewes, rightly endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), pointed out that the Minister's answer to my intervention about the interpretation of the words ''or otherwise'' clearly smacked of first resort rather than last. I can only endorse what was said earlier; if the power is to be a last resort, every other option must be exhausted before it is used. It is not the clause, but the power to require the resignation or retirement of the chief officer that is the last resort, and that falls later in the Bill. The penultimate resort, let us say, if that is what is intended here, is not what is detailed in the words of the new clause.

Let us consider the new clause and compare it with the protestations of not just the Minister but the Home Secretary. Yesterday, in answer to a question of mine on the Floor of the House yesterday, the Home Secretary said:

    ''We are asking police chiefs to draw up action plans—we make no apology for that, nor for the fact that we shall be able to comment on the plans.'

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As far as that goes, I have no disagreements. He went on to say:

    ''We make no apology for asking the police to consider readjusting their plans in the context of the overall national plan''.

    If he were asking the police only to consider readjusting them, I should be happy. However, he then said:

    ''We are not seeking powers to dictate the action plans''.—[Official Report, 10 June 2002; Vol. 386, c. 588.]

Any study of what is proposed belies that statement. That is the fundamental nub of our concern, which incidentally applies to the Government amendment as well as to the new clause. The problem is not just the words ''or otherwise'', which are included near the beginning of the new clause. The Minister explained why the words were included in proposed new clause 4 by talking about drafting something completely new, but clause 4 is new as well, and there was nothing to stop him from putting it in there if he wanted to. The words give the Home Secretary carte blanche to use any pretext at all—yes, subject to the safeguards, but he still has the opportunity to require a remedial plan. If we consider subsections (4) and (6) of proposed new section 41A in new clause 4, we get to the heart of my concerns.

Subsection (4) states that

    ''the Secretary of State may direct the chief officer of police of the force in question—

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    (a) to revise that plan in accordance with the directions of the Secretary of State''.

That is unequivocal; it has to be revised in accordance with the directions—and it is also necessary

    ''to resubmit the plan to him with the required revisions''.

The proposed new section goes on to say that that can happen again, and subsection (6) states that time limits could be imposed.

Therefore, it is not the case that the Home Secretary is—to borrow his words of yesterday—not seeking powers to dictate the action plan: in fact, he is taking powers.

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