Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham): My constituents tell me that they are dissatisfied with the present level and quality of policing. What are the hon. Gentleman's constituents telling him? Something has to be done about the present position.

Norman Baker: That brings me to my next point. The Minister said that the whole purpose of the legislation was to drive up standards. Who can deny that that is a laudable aim? Every member of the Committee agrees with that objective. However, in answer to the intervention, we face a fundamental problem. Why is it assumed that if only the Home Secretary, his officials in the Home Office and Whitehall had more power and London could more directly control the affairs of Bristol, Durham and elsewhere, everything would be so much better? It is a false premise that undermines the Minister's whole case. What proof can he provide that if only Whitehall could intervene more, matters would somehow be improved out there in the country?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman's comments about the tripartite arrangement are right. We all appreciate that it works effectively in many parts of the country, but his argument falls down with regard to consistency. That is the fundamental problem: the same standards do not apply. The point is not that we have a bell-shaped curve with a heap of authorities performing well, but that there are aberrations at the extremes. That is what the measure is designed to tackle.

5.30 pm

Norman Baker: What we have are variations, which are often regionally based and should not necessarily be eradicated. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that there are problems, why do the Government not use

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the existing powers in the Police Act 1996 and the Local Government Act 1999? Why do police authorities not act? Actually, they do. It is a false premise that powers are lacking; they are not. It is a false premise that if Whitehall had more powers—it does not use its powers anyway—everything would somehow be better. That is not the answer; we are starting at the wrong end. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talk to his local police authority more, because it could perhaps make more efforts and achieve more than the Home Secretary could with the powers that he wants to give himself.

The Minister talked about the Government being in the spotlight—he did not use that exact phrase, but that is what he meant. He suggested that when the media were unhappy, the Government got the blame, ergo the Government should take more power to themselves. However, the logical consequence is that they will get even more of the blame than they have done up to now. The fact is that Whitehall does not know best.

If the Minister considers what happens in other countries—our EU partners, for a start—he will see that, by and large, power in those countries is far more devolved from the centre. However, he is bringing more power to the centre. It is no coincidence that, in a range of public services in other countries, power is devolved far more to local and regional level than is the case in this country. That power is devolved not because there has been huge political power that the centre has been unable to hold off, but because it works. When services are brought down to local level, and local people determine what happens, the services tend to be better, because there is more accountability. People get more involved and have more say.

The Minister, however, is proposing the opposite. Police authorities are to some degree accountable—they include elected councillors as well as local magistrates. They are closer to problems and know far more about what is happening in, say, Lewes than someone in Whitehall who thinks that Lewes is an island off the coast of Scotland. [Hon. Members: ''It is.''] Even Government Members are unaware of where my constituency is, so what hope will Whitehall officials have?

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): The hon. Gentleman's line of argument fascinates me. Is he talking about a situation—a Liberal nightmare rather than dream—in which individual police authorities are separate from the centre, there is no control at all and the centre—Whitehall or the Government—has no role in upholding standards? Are the Liberal Democrats saying that we should have independent police forces at local level, with their own standards and no—[Interruption.]

Norman Baker: That intervention is hardly worth answering. It is a grotesque distortion of what I said, and none of my colleagues has ever said what the hon. Gentleman suggested. We have continually said that we support a tripartite structure, which has power vested in chief officers, police authorities and the Home Secretary. Up to now, that system has worked. I am actually arguing that we should not tinker too

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much with the existing arrangement, but that the Government are tinkering too much.

Mr. Jones: On what basis, then, would it be appropriate for the Home Secretary or, as the hon. Gentleman says, Whitehall, to use the powers that he has outlined to intervene in a local police authority? Is he saying that, in the Liberal wonderland, there would never be circumstances in which the Home Secretary or Whitehall would intervene?

Norman Baker: I am tempted to say, ''As a matter of last resort'', which is the Minister's phrase, but successive Governments—the last Conservative Government and this one—have clearly never found a reason to intervene because they have never used their powers to do so. They have had difficulty finding a reason to intervene, yet they still want to give themselves more powers.

The Government want to centralise the powers, and that is fundamentally wrong. There is a basic misunderstanding that policing will somehow be better as a result. Ministers are in the spotlight, and are driven far more by tabloid headlines than are the police authorities. When faced with a barrage of tabloid coverage, Home Secretaries will have to be strong and determined to do what is right, rather than what the papers want them to do. By drawing more powers to the centre, the Minister is making it more likely that the media feast to which he rightly objects will put pressure on the Home Secretary to take those powers. He is making policing more political, not less. It is arrogant of Ministers to say that we need the police standards unit, the ombudsman and regulation. There is no ministerial standards unit, but perhaps we should examine Ministers' wrong decisions. Where is the independent check on them? The argument is wrong that neither Ministers nor Home Office officials ever make a mistake and are the fount of all knowledge.

The Minister has used the phrase ''last resort'' at least half a dozen times in the debate. However, this ''last resort'' is nothing of the sort. He said that it was likely that the power would be used after the HMIC had become involved and produced its report. In other words, there may be occasions on which the HMIC has not produced a critical report, but nevertheless the Minister would want to use the power. He also talked about reports from the Audit Commission and others. He was not painting an image of a ''last resort'', but several scenarios in which the Minister may want to intervene and use the power. There may be a protocol, but no one can hold a Home Secretary to it. These are merely words, and are not worth holding on to. They ring alarm bells among hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who do not want the power to be used other than sparingly.

According to the Government's thinking, the power will have to be set out in the clause for the police standards unit to be effective. It is difficult to see what the Government can require of chief constables and others without it. The unit is already up and running, so the Minister and his colleagues have jumped the gun. Kevin Bond is already in post with a huge annual salary of £200,000 for a four-day week—lucky him. Will the Minister say whether the police standards unit

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will recommend hit squads going into basic command units up and down the country? The Home Secretary seemed to adopt a similar tactic in his previous incarnation as Education Secretary when he was unhappy with badly performing schools. The police standards unit looks like a replica of that with a crucial difference. Whether we liked them or not—and I did not—hit squads going into schools did not have the same constitutional implication. Taking powers to send hit squads into parts of the police force is entirely different, and undermines the idea of a tripartite structure that deliberately resisted giving power to the centre in order to avoid politicising the police.

I took careful note of what the Minister said. I always listen to him carefully, as he is a most entertaining fellow. His exact phrase was that no one wants politicians running police forces. Three cheers for that. However, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire pointed out, how does that square with new subsection (4)(a) and (b) in which action plans are required. If the action plan is not to the Home Secretary's liking, he can send it back with corrections and the comment, ''chief constable must do better.'' It then goes back and forth until the Home Secretary is certain that every t is crossed and every i is dotted to his satisfaction. All the bits that he wants removed are removed, and all the bits that he wants to be inserted are inserted. I do not know why he bothers asking chief constables to produce an action plan. He could simply send the chief constable an action plan with the comment, ''Here you are, that's what you've got.'' That would cut out some of the stages in between.

The power would have politicians interfering in operational matters. The Minister may have taken out the phrase ''operational matters'' or whatever phrase was used in another place, but the impact is still in the new clause. There is a potential for micro-management of the police, which we should all resist.

The Minister said that it was unlikely that the power would be utilised, and used the phrase ''last resort'' yet again. He also said that there would be discussions with police constables in advance so that they knew which way the wind was blowing—my phrase rather than the Minister's. They would take action and produce the required result before the direction was issued—how convenient. That means that the Minister, his colleagues and his successors would still have the ability to micromanage the police. They could still tell police constables what they wanted. They could say, ''If you don't produce what we want, we will issue a direction and all the unfavourable publicity will be on your head and about your police force and police authority''.

Under such circumstances, most chief constables would cave in before the direction was issued. That would allow Ministers—whoever they might be—to do two things. First, they could say to Parliament, ''Look, we're not interfering. No directions have been issued. We are completely hands off. We are not interfering in micro-management of the police.'' Secondly, it would also allow micro-management behind closed doors,

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without anyone knowing what had taken place and what requirements Ministers had made of chief constables because, whether or not it is used, the threat of direction will hang over the heads of the chief constables. That is what is so insidious about the clause.

No justification has been made for the clause or for suggesting that the Home Office can do any better than anyone else. There is clear evidence that the tripartite arrangement will be undermined and that micro-management of the police will be permitted. For that reason, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I remain implacably opposed to the clause. We will certainly vote against it in Committee and do everything possible, here and in another place, if necessary, to ensure that is does not become law.

 
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Prepared 11 June 2002