Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Lady Hermon (North Down): The Under-Secretary will be aware that we in Northern Ireland are at least two years ahead in police reform. In Northern Ireland we have a police ombudsman's office to deal with complaints. Has any consideration been given to a police ombudsman, instead of the commission?

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Mr. Ainsworth: There was a great desire in the police force and widespread support for the proposals to put in place a system that would be seen to be independent and fair and to the benefit of everyone involved, including the police service, not only people who complain about it. The proposal has widespread and overwhelming support and has been consulted on. The title in the Bill—''The Independent Police Complaints Commission''—was part of that consultation.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have some sympathy with the argument advanced.

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There is a certain logic to it. However, the Committee takes seriously the problem that would arise if we were to make a change having received such widespread support. We received practically no representations on the issue.

Mr. Hawkins: The Under-Secretary accepts that an issue is involved and the way in which we have presented it. If police organisations such as ACPO and the Police Federation were told that Jan Prebble and her group had made the recommendation and specifically asked which they prefer, would the Under-Secretary and his official be prepared to ask the question?

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that it is clear from my response to the amendment that we are not dogmatic about the issue, but serious issues would need to be dealt with if we were to make a change, and the matter would need to be properly considered. I do not believe that we could make a change merely off the back of one or two representations or if one part of the consultation had further reflected on the matter and believed that it was a good idea. We are not dogmatic about the matter. If the proposal would be widely understood, would not cause confusion, would clearly be a better title and everyone was on board, I do not believe that the Government would object.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Under-Secretary's last few sentences were helpful. I make two quick points. First, from my recollection, at no stage did the consultation raise any question about the terminology. It was always going to be called the Independent Police Complaints Commission, so, although it is true that no one expressed anxiety about that, the question was not posed during the consultation. Secondly, I understand that the commission will not come into being for almost two years, which allows a considerable amount of time to reflect on the issue. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take the opportunity to commit himself to doing so.

Mr. Ainsworth: The issue relates to the debate on part 2. I hope that I have said enough to Opposition Members to convince them that they should not press the amendment at this point and for the Committee to realise that we do not have a dogmatic view of the subject. I have some sympathy with the logic of the amendment, but we do not want to impose anything on consultees or cause confusion. We do not want to detract from—this is something that we must all think about—the benefits that would be gained by setting up an independent police complaints commission. Everybody accepts that there are benefits.

Following his discussion with me—and with you, Mr. Stevenson—the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) is aware of an issue of which other members of the Committee might not be informed. I must put that on the table so that the rest of the Committee know about it before our further discussions on part 2. I thank you, Mr. Stevenson, for allowing me to go beyond the subject of the amendment.

I turn to the Government's intended implementation date of the new system. We

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originally intended to introduce the new system and set up the IPCC from April 2003. However, those involved in the development of the new system will know that much thought has been given to the feasibility of that launch date. I confirm that in order to ensure that the IPCC may be effective and proactive, the Government intend that the new the system will be fully implemented in April 2004. The alternative would have been to introduce the new system in phases during the 12 months before April 2004.

A system that is fully operational from day one will ensure that complainants can have full confidence that their complaint is being dealt with in a completely new system rather than in a partially implemented new system. The extra 12 months will provide the opportunity to prepare for the full implementation of all parts of the system from the start. For example, the police service will be given training on how the new system will operate. The Committee should be aware that the benefits of a system that is complete and running from a specific date outweigh the potential benefits of bringing in a partial system as soon as possible, which might cause difficulties and confusion for people with complaints.

Is the hon. Member for Surrey Heath prepared to withdraw his amendment for the reasons that I have given?

The Chairman: I should inform the Committee that the Under-Secretary approached me about that information. I considered that it was highly appropriate that it should be available to the Committee at the outset. Of course, that means that it will be perfectly in order for any hon. Members to discuss the information. However, I am sure that hon. Members would not want to repeat of the same arguments during a clause stand part debate.

Mr. Hawkins: We are grateful that the Under-Secretary informed me, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) of that information. Conservative Members think that you, Mr. Stevenson, made a helpful decision in allowing the matter to be raised.

Although we have extra time before the provision comes into effect, after the conclusion of the Committee stage and Report, there will probably be no further opportunity to amend its title, if that were thought to be important. Given what the Under-Secretary has stated—that the question of nomenclature was never specifically addressed in the consultation—I hope that he is, in effect, saying that he and his officials will go back and talk to the Police Federation and ACPO. We are going to talk to them, but I think that both sides of the House need to do that, and that it must be done urgently.

The Under-Secretary's response has been reasonable; he has acknowledged that there is an issue here, and he has said that he will continue to address it. On that basis alone, my hon. Friend and I are not going to press the matter to a Division this morning. However, as the Under-Secretary is aware, we have come very close to doing that. I hope that the

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Under-Secretary and his officials have understood that we think that this matter should be urgently considered.

Lady Hermon: For the sake of completeness, does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be preferable to have a police ombudsman, such as we have in Northern Ireland, in the rest of the United Kingdom? If we are going to consult, why do we not consider the option of having a police ombudsman throughout the UK?

Mr. Hawkins: That is a good point, and it might be worth considering, especially by the Under-Secretary, between now and when the body comes into existence. However, as the hon. Lady will understand, our amendment was based specifically on the representations that were made to us.

Although the letter that led to me drafting the amendment was published in The Daily Telegraph some time ago, the background papers only came to my attention yesterday, because they were sent to another hon. Member and then passed on to my hon. Friend and myself. Therefore, we have not had enough time to go back to the Police Federation and ACPO—because we have only had, literally, overnight to do that—but we will do so, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary will also do that.

Mr. Ainsworth: In keeping with the spirit of the debate, I say to hon. Gentleman that if he is going to talk to people about whether they think it is right to change the title, he needs to go far wider than the Police Federation and ACPO. The original title was suggested by Liberty, and there are benefits to being seen to have set up an independent police complaints commission. That illustrates that many issues need to be considered. The matter is not straightforward.

Mr. Hawkins: I take on board the Under-Secretary's point, but he must understand that he, with his army of civil servants, has more resources than we do, and therefore he can consult more widely. He will consult, and we do not want to duplicate his work. We have a more direct line to certain organisations, and he, given his political perspective, may have a more direct line to others. However, the Government can consult with anybody, and they have the resources to do that.

If we were to replace ''complaints'' with ''conduct'', we would not undermine the independence of the body. The Under-Secretary is aware of that. This has been a long running saga. Organisations such as Liberty are particularly concerned about establishing a body that is truly independent, but replacing ''complaints'' with ''conduct'' might matter more to police officers, who do not want the pejorative term, and nor do the law-abiding organisations that support the police, such as the police/community consultative group. They do not want the stigma of something being called a complaint; conduct is a more neutral word. I think that the Under-Secretary understands that that is why the police organisations are likely to be especially supportive of the change of words, although it would not in any way undermine the

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independence of the body, which is the important matter that organisations such as Liberty are particularly concerned about.

Specifically on the basis of what the Under-Secretary has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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