Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman keeps talking about racial discrimination, but I referred to racist conduct. The two are different: it is possible to behave in a racist way without necessarily discriminating against people. I am not sure whether we can go further, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that paragraph 27 of the White Paper provided a list of the issues that might fall into that category.

4.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful, but a list in the White Paper might be different from the regulations that the Secretary of State makes. I am asking for a draft of what the final regulations might contain. Time has moved on since the White Paper. I used the words ''racial discrimination'' because the hon. Member for Lewes employed the term in his amendment. I accept that the Under-Secretary used different words when he spoke about the proposed regulations.

It is important to maintain a sense of balance. When members of the Committee see a draft of the regulations, we will have a better idea. On balance, there is little difference between the spirit and the intention of what the two Opposition parties want to achieve. We have to be aware that some people throw about allegations that could be intended to clog up the workings of the IPCC. We do not want its creation to lead to a vast explosion of the compensation culture. I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes will understand why I say that.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tour de force around ''Neil Diamond land''.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about corruption allegations. When someone makes an allegation and a case is live, I am unsure whether it is better to leave it to one side until the case is settled, whether the police should settle it, or whether it should clog up the IPCC, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, that is not part of the amendment that I tabled. It is a probing amendment and I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's assurance that the issues that I raised will feature in the regulations. It would be helpful to see a draft set of regulations, but given the Under-Secretary's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 139, in page 103, line 3, at end insert

    'or—

    (d) the complainant makes a written representation to the appropriate authority stating the grounds on which he or she is dissatisfied with the handling of the complaint and requesting that the matter be referred to the Commission.'.

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The amendment relates to a matter that I raised on Second Reading, as reported in column 57 on 7 May 2002. My concern is that the IPCC may indeed become clogged up with allegations, some of which may be justified. I understand that only a small secretariat is proposed and that only about 3 per cent. of complaints would be dealt with directly by the IPCC, the rest being subject to settlement at a lower level.

Nothing is wrong with that. There is no reason why the IPCC should see every single complaint and deal with it directly itself. It may be satisfactory to ask for a complaint to be dealt with informally and deal only with the more serious matters. However, an explicit right should be given to a complainant who is not satisfied with how the complaint has been dealt with by the body about which the complaint was made to have an independent examination of that complaint.

I draw a parallel, as I did on Second Reading, with a local council. When someone complains about a local council he will perhaps deal first with the officer who has dealt with the matter or with a councillor. The matter may then go to the chief executive or through to a council's complaints panel. At that stage, if the complainant remains unhappy—this happens in a minority of cases—the complainant can take the matter to the local government ombudsman, which is an independent body that will look at that.

Unless the Under-Secretary corrects me, I see no explicit provision within the Bill that says that a person will have the right to refer the matter on to the IPCC if he is not satisfied with the way that the complaint has been dealt with informally. When I raised that matter on Second Reading, the Minister of State said:

    ''an individual who is dissatisfied by the action taken in a substantial number of cases that would usually be resolved at force level, as at present, will be able to complain to the commission about the handling of his case.'' [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely difficult for the Chairman and Hansard staff to concentrate on what is being said if a continuous and audible conversation is taking place.

Norman Baker: Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. I am sure that the hon. Members to my right were discussing the importance of the amendment. The Minister continued:

    ''That facility is not available at the moment. Clearly, the commission's staff will carry out the investigation in only a minority of cases and the IPCC will directly manage, as opposed to supervising, a further minority of those investigations.''—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 57.]

I have no problem with that system. It is fine. Of course the IPCC cannot get involved in every nut and bolt, but an escape mechanism is needed for when a complainant feels that a complaint has not been dealt with properly. It should then be dealt with directly by the IPCC. My amendment achieves that and is also in line with the response given to me by the Minister of State on Second Reading when he recognised the importance of that independent process. I hope that the Under-Secretary will have sympathy with the

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amendment and will recognise the importance of a complainant having the right to go directly to the IPCC and have the complaint investigated by that body if he or she is dissatisfied with the way that it has been dealt with further down the process.

Mr. Hawkins: I shall be fairly brief. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Lewes and apologise to you, Miss Widdecombe. I was involved in discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), but we were trying to address the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. If the complainant simply has to write a note to put the whole matter into the hands of the IPCC, it may achieve the exact opposite of his objective. The commission may have only a small secretariat. Once again I express my concern that the whole thing might be clogged up. As constituency Members we are all sadly familiar with the fact that a relatively small proportion of the population are professional complainers. They are never satisfied with anything. They always want to push any complaint to the nth degree. If that small category of people only had to do write a note to have the matter dealt with by the IPCC rather than a police authority, it would seriously clog up the commission's work, perhaps with the least serious of the complaints.

Norman Baker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the intention of the amendment. Complainants would go through the normal process. They would make a complaint. It would be deemed appropriate to be investigated by the police force itself or whatever. Only if a complainant were unhappy after that would he be able to ask for that direct intervention and consideration by the IPCC, just as someone who had gone through the usual local council complaints procedure could complain to the ombudsman.

Mr. Hawkins: If the objective is to have that exhaustive procedure before the right to write a letter can come into force, I am not sure whether that is achieved by the amendment. We will hear from the Under-Secretary about that in a moment. Even in those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman not think from all his experiences as a constituency Member that certain people will never be satisfied? I am sure we are all familiar with the situation where people will simply not take no for an answer. I am concerned about that, even if it occurs after an exhaustive process. If the proposal of the hon. Member for Lewes were accepted, we would need a fail-safe mechanism to rule out vexatious and spurious complaints and to ensure that the time of the IPCC was not wasted. There is also the compensation culture issue, whereby people may think that they could get money by taking something to the IPCC.

I will listen to what the Under-Secretary says. There are concerns about the proposal, although I understand its spirit and do not want to undermine its worthy motive.

Mr. Ainsworth: Let me say a word about the comment of the hon. Member for Lewes, which he has made before, on the percentage of cases that the IPCC will deal with; I have heard it said repeatedly that it will deal with only 3 per cent. We are trying to set up a system that will win and lift public confidence. That

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will be damaged if it gets into the public mind that the IPCC will deal with only 3 per cent. I do not believe that that figure is accurate. At the moment, about 30,000 complaints a year are made; 10,000 of them are not proceeded with and 10,000 are resolved locally without a formal complaint being made. Of the remaining 10,000, we envisage that the IPCC will deal directly with about 1,000 and manage and oversee another 1,000. There is therefore a good argument that the IPCC will effectively deal with or supervise around 20 per cent. of cases. Those numbers compare with those for the Police Complaints Authority, which dealt last year with 600 cases. I do not want the impression to get out to the public at large that the IPCC will have a minuscule input because that would undermine the objective, shared by all parties, to raise the level of confidence in how complaints are dealt with.

Amendment No. 139 would have the effect of placing a duty on the police to refer a complaint to the commission if the complainant makes a written representation to the police saying why he or she is dissatisfied with the way in which the police are dealing with the complaint and asking for it to be referred to the commission. People could therefore jump in at any point while the complaint is being dealt with and have it referred to the commission, which would place the responsibility for deciding on the handling of the complaint with the commission rather than the police. However, if the commission decides that the complaint does not need to be investigated, it will be referred back to the police. Even if the commission decides that the complaint should be investigated it may in any case, under paragraph 15 of schedule 3, ask the police to carry out the investigation on its behalf.

Many complainants are likely to want the commission rather than the police to decide on the handling of complaints, especially where misconduct by an officer may undermine a complainant's confidence in the force as a whole. However, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, that would place an unnecessary burden on the commission as well as removing from the police responsibility for handling and therefore also ownership of complaints. No one wants that. The Bill places a duty on the police to refer complaints to the commission if the alleged misconduct has resulted in death or serious injury and regulations will place a similar duty on the police where an allegation involves, for example, serious corruption or serious racist conduct. Moreover, the commission will be able to call in any recorded complaint and the police will be able to refer any other complaint to the commission if they consider it appropriate to do so in serious or exceptional cases.

Those measures together should ensure that all complaints that need to be considered by the commission are referred to it. If complainants were given the right to insist that their complaints be referred to the commission, it is likely that the commission would have to consider a large number of additional complaints—of which the vast majority, if not all, will end up being dealt with by the police anyway. A considerable amount of the commission's resources would have been used in considering a

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complaint, without there being any difference in the way in which it was dealt with. It is even possible that complainants' expectations of the commission's ongoing involvement in their cases may be raised to unrealistic levels, and that could undermine public confidence in the system as a whole.

4.30 pm

I know what the hon. Member for Lewes wants to achieve, but I do not believe that the amendment would accomplish it. If, at the end of the process, a complainant is unhappy with the way in which the complaint had been dealt with and disposed of, nothing can stop the person writing to the commission, which would deal with such correspondence. We do not want to give the impression that the commission will be dealing with complaints when it will not. We do not want to impose an unrealistic burden on it and remove ownership of the complaints system from the police. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the ramifications of the amendment and to withdraw it.

 
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