Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Paice: I assure the Under-Secretary that his surprise was nothing compared with mine when he said that he was going to accept the amendment. I am happy to accept the Under-Secretary's assurances that the Government amendments being tabled will deal not only with the issue relating to the Public Disclosure at Work Act but will retain protection from victimisation for other persons who report misconduct. Should we have concerns that the amendments are inadequate, I accept his assurance that he will seek to put the clause right on Report.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 84, in page 9, line 44, at end insert

    'provided that such charge is reasonable and based on the cost of carrying out that function.'.

The amendment relates to a matter of substance, rather like the one that has just been resolved in an unusual way—the substantial issue of cost to the public purse. For a statute to say:

    ''The Commission may . . . impose any such charge on that person for anything done by the Commission for the purposes of, or in connection with, the carrying out of that function as it thinks fit.''

is a wide power indeed, and we strongly believe that there should be constraint on that. It would be lovely to think that the Under-Secretary will respond in the way in which he did to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and say that we are absolutely right and that the Government will accept the amendment. I shall not say that the amendment is probing but I will listen carefully to whether the Government accept it.

We make a serious point. We do not like the idea that any Bill contains wording which says that even a body such as the IPCC, which I am sure will be virtuous and helpful, has an unfettered right to

    ''impose any such charge . . . for anything done by the Commission for . . . the carrying out of that function as it thinks fit.''

That provision is much too wide. There must be a constraint to include reasonableness, which is usually introduced in our law, and the provision must be based on real cost.

I am always worried by the compliance cost of any Bill, and especially a Bill from the current Government. I know that we have compliance cost assessments on what measures will cost the Government and taxpayer, but we are discussing the cost to other people of the commission making any recommendation or giving any advice to any person. We need safeguards, and if the Under-Secretary cannot accept the amendment, I hope that he and his officials will consider tabling a revised version of our amendment on Report.

3 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: It is not in anybody's interest for the IPCC to make unreasonable charges. The purpose of the provision is to allow it to recoup expenditure for

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giving advice or recommendations, perhaps via a seminar or publication.

Subsection (7) already implies that the charge must relate to anything done in pursuance of the functions for which charging is allowed. Furthermore, the IPCC is expected to charge only enough to recoup its costs. Any income made must be returned, unless the Home Secretary directs otherwise. The Home Secretary would subsequently have to return that income to the consolidated fund.

The IPCC has no incentive to make a profit. It will exist to perform a function, and it will recoup its costs. Many statutes are written in such a way. The dissemination of best practice is a function of the commission. It would be unreasonable for the commission to impose charges that would hinder that function. That represents a significant constraint on the charge that could be imposed. It would be extremely difficult for the commission to fulfil its statutory function if it overcharged.

We believe that the Bill contains sufficient safeguards against overcharging. The amendment is unnecessary and, given my assurances, I ask the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to withdraw it.

Norman Baker: I am a little concerned about what the Under-Secretary said. The concept of reasonableness, which is in the amendment, is not unusual. Indeed, it has featured in all the Bills to which I have been party. I am surprised that he objects to the wording of the amendment. The phrase ''as it thinks fit'' in subsection (7) seems to give carte blanche to the commission to do what it likes.

I am unclear about what would happen if a person who was subject to such a charge considered that it was unreasonable and wished to challenge it. If the word ''reasonable'' was in the Bill, that would give such a person a hook on which to challenge a charge. In the absence of the word ''reasonable'', and with the presence of the phrase ''as it thinks fit'', it might be difficult for a challenge to be successful. For those reasons, I have considerable sympathy with the Conservative amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. My concern remains, although the Under-Secretary has done his best to be reassuring. The Under-Secretary says that he does not want any extra constraints, but when he and his advisors have thought about the matter, and when they have listened to the debate and to my concerns and those of the hon. Gentleman, I wonder whether the Government will think, ''Well, perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to reintroduce a Government amendment along the lines of amendment No. 84.'' We would be delighted if they did that on Report.

At the moment we have the Under-Secretary's reassurances. I would rather have the provision in the Bill, but as he has given some reassuring words that can be referred back to under Pepper v. Hart, I do not feel inclined to detain the Committee with a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Reports to the Secretary of State

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 85, in page 10, line 22, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).

This is a small but important amendment. As the clause stands, when the Secretary of State receives a report that falls under subsection (5), he only has to lay a copy of it before Parliament and cause it to be published

    ''if and to the extent that he considers it appropriate to do so''.

We do not think that it is sensible to attach that condition to the Secretary of State's duties. We think that any report made to the Secretary of State on something as important as the matters dealt with in part 2, which relates to complaints, misconduct and reports from the IPCC, should come before Parliament. After all, we are here to consider matters of concern.

If the IPCC thinks something is sufficiently important to report on it to the Secretary of State, surely every Member of Parliament should see that report. I cannot think of many issues that have caused more controversy and used more parliamentary time than complaints about police. There have been acres of newsprint on the subject, some justified and some not. In the more than 10 years in which I have been in the House, and in the many years before that when I practised at the Bar, police complaints were a matter of huge public and media concern.

If the new independent commission, which will reassure many of those who thought that the old Police Complaints Authority was not sufficiently independent, makes a report about something, it should not be left to this or a future Secretary of State to decide whether it is convenient for Parliament to have sight of it. The provision gives far too much power to the Secretary of State. My hon. Friends and I have said about many aspects of the Bill that the Secretary of State is arrogating to himself far too many draconian powers. The provision is constitutionally dangerous, and it is terribly dangerous for the Secretary of State to have the discretion to say, ''I might tell Parliament about it if I choose to, but I might not.'' The Under-Secretary will have to work quite hard to convince my hon. Friends and me that the limitation is needed.

The amendment's reference to subsection 5(a) and (b) was purely probing, and enabled me to raise the issue. It is the condition in sub-paragraph (b) and the words

    ''if and to the extent that he''—

that is, the Secretary of State—

    ''considers it appropriate to do so''

to which we object. I shall listen with interest to whether the Minister can justify the restriction on what the Secretary of State must do.

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do that, because if he does, I am hopeful that I will be

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able to convince him that his amendment is inappropriate. However, his motivation, which is to ensure that there is openness, is right. That is the founding principle of the system that we are seeking to establish.

The amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament, and cause to be published, every report that he receives from the IPCC. It must be remembered that reports will be made to the Secretary of State because he has asked for them, or because the commission feels it is necessary to bring something to his attention.

That is not the only avenue for the commission to make its reports. If it feels that information should be made public, or made available to the police service, it can do that through the annual report, or through its ability to give advice directly to the police service and other interested persons under the provisions of subsections (10) and (11). Therefore, it will not be possible for this—or any future—Home Secretary to prevent the publication of information that the commission wishes to be made known to a wider audience than the Secretary of State.

It would potentially be harmful to the public interest if the Bill were to demand that reports to the Secretary of State be published. It is highly likely that this amendment would result in the commission not writing any reports for the Secretary of State, or in useful information being excluded because it was felt that it might be harmful if it were made public. The Secretary of State should have discretion with regard to whether to publish these reports, having considered all the relevant factors.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the system is based on openness, and that to fulfil the spirit of the system it will be appropriate to make the reports available to the public in as many cases as possible. Nevertheless, there may be times when it is not right for these reports to be disclosed.

The hon. Gentleman is worried about an abuse of power by the Secretary of State, and he wants to ensure that everything is open. However, when the commission has the ability to put anything it likes into the public domain through a variety of mechanisms, in some circumstances the effect of the amendment would be to prevent—or at least to discourage—not the Secretary of State from doing anything, but the IPCC itself. There might be circumstances in which it wanted to make a report to the Secretary of State, and it would feel more comfortable doing that if it knew that he had discretion with regard to what should be put into the public domain. If it wants to make an open report, it is free to do so. No Home Secretary will able to stop it doing that.

Therefore, although the hon. Gentleman's intention is to be open—his desire is to ensure that the Home Secretary does not have any powers that he should not have—I fear that the effect of his amendment will be to restrict not the Home Secretary, but the IPCC. He said that he would listen to what I had to say. Therefore, I ask him to take on board my comments—to accept

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that the Secretary of State has no power to prevent the IPCC from putting whatever it wants into the public domain—and to withdraw his amendment. That would allow the IPCC, where it believes it to be appropriate, to make reports to the Secretary of State, without the inevitable consequence that each and every part of that report has to be put into the public domain.

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