Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Denham: Several hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will have heard yesterday's exchange in the Chamber. Without asking my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to address the Committee on it, we can only speculate about whether the dialogue was at cross purposes. I listened to yesterday's exchange, and I thought that the question and the response related not to this clause, but to the general policing strategies that are addressed elsewhere in the Bill, and where the Secretary of State has the ability to point out where a policing strategy is not in line with the national policing plan, but where he does not have the power to rewrite that plan. I understood yesterday's exchange to be about those overall policing plans, rather than the specific action plan on identified major weaknesses, which is the subject of this clause.

Before we spend too much time on this, we should at least give credence to the fact that two types of plans are covered in the Bill, which have different processes.

Mr. Paice: In the question, the Home Secretary's answer to which I have just given, I referred to action plans for improvement. Although I did not use the word ''remedial'', it is pretty clear what I was referring to, and it seems to me that the Home Secretary's response referred to that. However, be that as it may, I am referring to the proposals of the Home Secretary and the Minister in subsection (4), where powers to direct are being taken.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I am struggling to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's overall argument with regard to the new clause. Is it his intention to direct or guide his colleagues on the Opposition Benches in the Chamber not to hurl invective in future at the Secretary of State when something is going wrong with the police force? If he is not going to do that, when all the rules and the guidance and the directives have been issued but we still have failing police forces—some of them, heaven forbid, in the constituencies of Opposition Members—the Secretary of State must have the power to intervene.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman is falling into the trap of looking at the generality, but the job of our Committee is to look at the detail of what is in the Bill.

We have no problem with the Home Secretary being accountable and having some means of exercising that accountability to Parliament. We have all sat in Parliament and seen successive Home Secretaries—and Ministers in every other

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Department—being challenged over the efficiency of the delivery of the services for which they accept some responsibility. However, as I have stated, the Home Secretary has considerable powers, which were given to the holder of that office by the last Conservative Government in the 1996 Act, and some of which have not yet been used or tried. Therefore, it is my contention, not that they should not have any powers at all, but that the powers that are being proposed in this new clause are unnecessary and excessive, and that that is especially the case with regard to the bits of those powers that I am referring to at present.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, I shall be urging my hon. Friends to continue to oppose this new clause, because this element of direction is wrong. If the Minister had come forward with a new clause that said, ''If there is an inspectorate report that says that there is a weakness in a force or a part of a force, the Home Secretary should be able to ask the chief officer of that force to come forward with an action plan to improve it,'' that would have been fine. However, he takes powers in the clause to direct not just that a remedial plan should be produced, but every word that should be in it. It is like a teacher telling a child whose homework is wrong that he must do it again and again until he gets it right. That is the only interpretation that can be given to subsection (4) of the proposed new section 41A. They are excessive powers.

I turn briefly to the safeguards that the Minister has added and which were before the other place when they debated the matter. The safeguards as they stand are welcome. I would not contest that they are step forward, but they do not go anything like far enough to over-ride that fundamental concern that the Secretary of State is taking powers to go over the head of a police authority and direct a chief officer. Nothing in those safeguards does away with that direction. I therefore remain of the view that this is a clause too far in terms of powers for the Home Secretary. It should be resisted, not just in Committee but at all other times. Not only do I intend to seek to divide the Committee on the new clause, but I hope that we shall debate it when it returns to the Floor of the House, as it is a matter of major significance to the Bill.

Norman Baker: I refer hon. Members to the debate in Committee in the House of Lords. Lord Phillips of Sudbury started by saying:

    ''It is worth quickly reminding ourselves what the clause will do. First, a direction does not have to be laid before Parliament. Secondly, it can be issued by the Home Secretary on his or her initiative. Thirdly, it is not dependent on any third party or adverse finding. Fourthly, it is a direction with which the chief constable must comply. Fifthly, it completely bypasses the existing tripartite balance and leaves the police authority totally out of the calculation, except in so far as the Home Secretary has to tell the police authority that a direction has been issued when one is issued.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 158.]

That was the position when the Bill was introduced in the House of Lords. The Government have given some ground since then to ameliorate matters but the position is not substantially different.

What is the justification for that extraordinary power that the Government wish to give themselves? It

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is presumably failure in the police force, yet when I intervened on the Minister he could not give me a single example of where this power would have been necessary in the last 25 years. He could not give a single example of a police authority or a police force where that would have been required. His answer was that there are ''wide variations'' across the country. So there are in all sorts of things. There are wide variations in how people talk and their attitudes to life. We are not an amorphous country. We have variations and the idea that they should be ironed out by the Government seems a rather worrying development.

The Minister referred to social demographic differences. Of course those should be taken into account and they will lead to variations in apparent performance. I suspect that, rather than looking at how well in the round a police force or a police authority is performing, the Government are getting hung up on their idea of performance indicators, which are a useful tool but a bad master if relied on unduly. There are variations at present in how crimes are recorded. I support the Government's measures to eradicate them so that we can get some sort of picture. But democratic decisions are taken differently by police authorities and operationally by chief constables. An experiment is being carried out in Lambeth, apparently with the approval of the Home Office, on ways of dealing with street crime and cannabis. That is entirely right, but what if a Home Secretary decides that such initiatives are inappropriate and should not be followed? Will the Home Secretary of the day give a direction to the chief constable under proposed new subsection (4)(a) and (b) that certain experiments are inappropriate because they are not catching those committing crimes, whereas other police forces around the country are catching criminals who are committing crimes? Is that the level of intervention that the provisions will allow? Intervention at basic command level is permitted for the proposed changes. No examples of failure are provided, just a confirmation that people are different across the country and that that applies to police authorities and forces as it does to individuals.

The Minister referred to a gap in intervention powers as another justification. When I examined section 40 of the 1996 Act, it seemed pretty comprehensive. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, it has hardly been rattling around the country. It has not been used at all, but the power in section 40 is clear, as

    ''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.''

That is pretty comprehensive, conferring wide powers on the Home Secretary, yet it is not enough for the present one and his Ministers who are hungry for even more powers.

Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 provides a further example. If a police authority is failing to secure best value—that is, continuous improvements in efficiency, effectiveness or

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economy—the Secretary of State can direct the police authority to undertake a best value review of that function, set up a local inquiry into the force, take over the running of that function, or put someone else into the post to take over that function.

Far-reaching powers are clearly already in place in the 1999 Act. What do the Home Secretary and his Ministers want to do that cannot already be done under the Police Act 1996 or the Local Government Act 1999? Where is the gap in intervention powers to which the Minister referred? I suggest that there is no gap: the only logical conclusion is that the Minister wants to bypass the police authority. The powers are already in place; it is a question of whose directions govern them.

That amounts to a fundamental weakening of the traditional tripartite arrangement on which policing in this country has been based for a long time. The tripartite arrangement may have developed organically and somewhat haphazardly, but it has worked to deliver good policing across the country, to allow democratic accountability and to allow the Secretary of State to intervene in police activities under existing legislation. All that is possible and the system has public support throughout the country. The Minister challenges it at his peril. He is removing, or severely weakening, one of the tripod's legs, which of course makes it fall over.

 
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Prepared 11 June 2002