Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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New clause 8

Conditions on payment of Police Grant

    'In section 46 of the 1996 Act (Police grant), after subsection (2) there shall be inserted—

    ''(2A) Nothing in this section shall permit the Secretary of State to make the payment of grant conditional on chief officers of police of any police force making designations under section 35 of the Police Reform Act 2002 or establishing community safety accreditation schemes under section 36 of the Police Reform Act 2002.''.'.—[Mr. Paice.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Paice: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 8 relates to an issue that the Committee has already debated. It is, to put it bluntly, another bite at the same cherry. As we have said before, the Government have said time and again that the decision about whether to employ community support officers or have accredited community safety schemes will be for police authorities and chief officers. As the Secretary of State told the Police Federation, ''We're not going to force this on any police area.''

Taken at face value, that statement is completely clear. As we reminded the Minister previously, on Second Reading he declined to rule out the use of financial measures to encourage, enable or promote the employment of community support officers.

Now is not the time for a wide-ranging debate on the advantages and disadvantages of CSOs or their powers. This is a narrow issue that relates to the freedom of chief constables and their authorities to decide whether to employ police officers or CSOs and whether to enter community safety accreditation schemes. We strongly believe that those matters should be left entirely to local decision and, more importantly, that there should be no coercion from the centre.

We designed new clause 8 to ensure that the Secretary of State cannot through the grant mechanism coerce police authorities or chief officers to employ people whom otherwise they might not want to employ or to enter into arrangements into which they might not otherwise want to enter. The Government have a penchant for using the grant system and top-slicing for priorities assessed by the

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Government as opposed to the local police authority or chief constable. I am extremely worried, especially in light of the Minister's refusal on Second Reading to rule that out. It is almost inevitable that the police grant will be top-sliced in order to fund CSOs. In other words, if chief officers want the extra money, they will have to employ CSOs. I believe that that is wrong.

Mr. Osborne: Is my hon. Friend aware of the letter that all chief constables and police authority chairmen in the north-west—Cumbria, Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside and north Wales—sent the Minister, making that point and saying that Government decisions to find money centrally and apply it solely to the employment of CSOs would immeasurably damage the principles of local choice and accountability? They support the amendment; I wonder whether the Government do.

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend reports exactly the concerns of virtually the entire police world about being directed. In some ways, the matter touches on the previous debate. The Government are deciding what is right for local police services, which we believe is entirely wrong.

The Minister may, as he has before, argue that I am arguing against extra money. I am not. I am simply saying that whatever money is available, its expenditure should be a decision for the local police or the police authority, working with the chief officer, and should not be decided by central Government. If money is available, whether more—or even less, God help us—that decision should remain local.

New clause 8 is a sensible provision to add to the Bill. It entirely supports the public stance of the Government and the declared stance of the Home Secretary that he will not force the matter on any police area. There is no reason why the Government should not readily accept it. I shall not repeat all the arguments that have been well made in the past by several Committee members. I believe that the matter is unarguable and that new clause 8 is probably the best way to ensure that the Government fulfil their pledges.

6.45 pm

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I are happy to support the clause. We also supported the amendment, but did not get around to putting our names to it. I am happy to make up for that now.

The new clause also raises the question of how much flexibility there is in police authorities and local police forces, and how much the centre will determine local policing. It would be intolerable if grants could be used to determine how a police force conducted its operations. That would allow the Home Secretary of the day to say that there was no direct intervention, and that the chief constable and the police authority had agreed that this was the correct way forward. I used the metaphor when speaking to a similar amendment that if a train is put on a track, that is the way that it will go. I meant that sufficient incentives lead to inescapable conclusions. An inescapable conclusion will be reached if funding is directed in a particular way. It would be wrong for the Government to try to achieve something by the back

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door that they were not prepared to do by the front door. It would be quite wrong to reach a policy decision though financial coercion rather than at a local level.

Mr. Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that all decisions on how money is spent should be devolved to a local police authority, and that the Home Secretary and the Government should have no control over how the money is spent? Would a local police authority be allowed to decide to purchase water pistols?

Norman Baker: I am sure that the purchase of water pistols will be designated as part of the terms of the Bill, as elsewhere in the Bill the control of weapons will also be regulated from the centre. Operational decisions to employ community support officers properly lie with the chief constable, and it would be wrong for the Home Secretary's use of grant funding to determine such decisions.

Mr. Jones: I should like an answer to my question. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a chief constable should be free from any constraints over how to spend money, and should be allowed to buy water pistols if the operational requirements demanded them? Is that not the logical conclusion of his remarks?

Norman Baker: Curiously enough, we are in danger of having another version of an earlier debate, which was partly about the wide range of powers that are already vested in the Home Secretary to achieve particular ends. Those ends include the issuing of guidance, advisory boards, and the HMIC. We now have the police standards board, the powers in the Police Act 1996 and the Local Government Act 1999. The Home Secretary is not short of powers to intervene. No chief constables anywhere in the country will seek to invest in water pistols, although they may seek to invest in water cannons at some point. No doubt the Home Secretary would not hesitate to intervene if a chief constable wanted to buy water pistols. However, operational decisions should be a matter for the chief constable, not the Home Secretary.

The Home Secretary continually says that he has no wish to intervene in the operational activities of the police or for the police to be in any way politicised, but of course he can achieve particular ends through the distribution of grant. Indeed, that is not unusual. In his previous incarnation as Education Secretary, he tried to achieve particular ends through issuing grants to local education authorities or bypassing local education authorities and going straight to schools. In the same way, one might bypass a police authority and go straight to the chief constable. The allocation of grant by central Government to achieve policy ends is not a new concept, and it is used in various ways. Local authority housing departments, for example, must respond in a particular way, because if they do not do what the Government want, the grant does not follow.

New clause 8 rightly draws attention to the potential for the Home Secretary of the day to bring in CSOs by the back door. That is what this is all about. The Minister may say that there is no intention to introduce CSOs by the back door, that they are a

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matter for individual police authorities and forces, and that no one is compelled to have CSOs. That is the line that has been taken so far in the debate and what the Minister continually tells us, but will he tonight give an absolute undertaking that there will not be financial incentives to employ CSOs and financial disincentives for those police forces—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Far too many individual conversations are taking place, and I am having difficulty hearing the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Stevenson. I was asking the Minister to give an undertaking that there will not be financial incentives to employ CSOs that would leave a police authority that chose not to do so financially worse-off. Will he give a further undertaking that no financial disincentive will be employed through the grant mechanism—no penalty, in effect—for police authorities that choose not to have CSOs? That is what new clause 8 is about. The Minister can clear the matter up quickly by assuring us tonight that grant will not be used in that way. If he does not do so and he chooses not to accept the new clause, a clear message will go out that the Government are intent on bringing in CSOs by the back door—through the grant mechanism.

Mr. Denham: I hope that I can deal with the new clause quickly. There is a misconception about the Home Secretary's powers over police grant. Once he has allocated it to a police force, he has no ability to determine what it is used for. The new clause is therefore misconceived or reflects a misunderstanding of the legal position. There is potential for a future centralising Home Secretary to change that legislation, but nothing in the Bill gives the Home Secretary that power.

Of course, the Home Secretary can topslice resources before making the police grant allocation, as has been done with the crime-fighting fund in the past. We have had this debate on previous occasions, and it is clear that the Conservative Opposition and the Liberal Democrats disagree with that in principle. The Government, however, believe that the reason why we now have a record number of police officers

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and why it will rise to 130,000 next year is the top-slicing of resources and the commitment to extra officers. That is a genuine disagreement between the two sides of the Committee. We back a record and rising number of police officers in contrast to what they have said.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, we do not intend to compel police forces to have CSOs. We do not see anything wrong with having some money to pump-prime ideas in the Bill to show that CSOs can be effective and, we hope, fulfil our expectations of them. However, that is completely different from compelling police forces to have CSOs. Having made it clear that the new clause addresses a power on police grant that the Home Secretary does not have in any case and that the new clause is not needed, we defend the principle of top-slicing police resources, because we have used it to good effect, with popular support. I have also again made the position clear on CSOs.

 
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Prepared 11 June 2002