Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister for responding fully to my initial points and to interventions from me and from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I am pleased that he has discussed the matter with the chief constable of Gloucestershire and that he recognises that there is an

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issue, even if he feels that the amendment is not the appropriate way in which to deal with it. Guidance would be better than the absence of guidance, and I hope that the Minister will progress with that and listen carefully to chief officers' views on the important issue. An independent element is appropriate. It seems difficult to argue against that. It would be a safeguard that everyone would understand, and I am sorry that the Ministeró

Vera Baird (Redcar): In our previous sitting, the hon. Members for Lewes and for Surrey Heath were 1,000 per cent. in favour of devolved decision making to that local leg of the tripartite arrangement. What has changed in the past week?

Norman Baker: Nothing. Independent elements at a local level would obviate the need for the Secretary of State to be a check on what that leg of the tripod was doing.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath made a point about the presence of the same political party locally and nationally. Although that may sound far-fetched in many circumstances, it is possible that, when a police authority has acted in an especially provocative and overtly political way, if the Secretary of State is of the same party, he or she might find it difficult to countermand that and risk a series of ''Tory split'' or ''Labour split'' headlines in the newspapers. Although that is unlikely, it cannot be discounted. The presence of an independent element would help preserve us against that.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I apologise for the confusion at the beginning of the debate. It may help the hon. Member for Lewes to know that, in Northern Ireland, when a senior officer is retired by the Policing Board or the Secretary of State, provision is made not only for representations to be made but for a requirement, which is an obligation in such circumstances, for persons appointed to hold an inquiry and report before the person has retired.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that intervention, as it gave me information that I did not have. I do not know whether the Minister was aware of that. Clearly, from what we have been told, in Northern Ireland, independence in input has been seen to be worth having. I imagine that it is also considered fairer and more just to hold such an inquiry.

I shall not labour the point. The Minister has said that he will pursue the matter in respect of guidance. He recognises that an issue is involved, even if he is not happy with the exact form of the amendments. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 29, line 14, at end insert

    'accompanied by a professional adviser if he or she should so wish.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 92, in clause 31, page 31, line 38, at end insert

    'either in person or in writing, or by another person on his behalf'.

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Mr. Paice: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths.

The amendments follow the same theme as the previous group inasmuch as they relate to ensuring fairness for a chief officer on whom the powers in these clauses may be used, whether by the authority or, in the case of amendment No. 92, the Secretary of State. There seems to be an element of inconsistency in relation to not only the inquiry but the form of representation.

I carefully read the copious document that the Minister kindly sent Committee members, which represents the 1996 Act as it would be amended if the Bill were enacted in its original form. I understand that, under section 42 of the 1996 Act as it will be amended, the inquiry remains in place, but the representations that the Secretary of State will need to consider in the amended form will give that officer an opportunity to make representations to the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 92 should be made in order to allow such representations to be made in person or in writing. The reference to making representations is not sufficiently explicit.

The Minister may say that an inquiry will be held, and it is clear that the inquiry will take representations, too. However, I argue that the Secretary of State should allow the individual to make representations, either in person or in writingóthe choice would probably be to do so in personóbefore the inquiry stage is reached, because that may circumvent the need for an inquiry and therefore curtail the whole case.

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That seems perfectly reasonable, and I am sure that the Minister is right to say that the powers will be used rarely, so I do not think that he can plead that it would be an onerous duty on the Secretary of State to see the chief officer in relation to whom he intends to exercise the powers. Amendment No. 92, which would allow representations to be made in person or in writing, is therefore appropriate.

Amendment No. 91 addresses the question of where the authority uses the powers, and representations in that respect. It is reasonable that, when using the right to make representations, the chief officer should, if he or she wishes, be accompanied by a professional adviser. Having studied the provision again, I realise that the amendment should also apply to line 4 of page 29, but never mind. We can correct that later if the Minister is minded to accept the principle of the proposal, which is straightforward. The chief officer should be able to have professional advice when making representations if the authority plans to exercise the powers given to it in the clause.

These straightforward amendments are designed simply to provide a little more fairness for the chief officer or openness about the procedure. I hope that the Minister will accept the spirit behind them, if not the amendments themselves. I stress that this is simply a matter of equity. On amendment No. 92, the need for the inquiry might be short-circuited if the chief officer could make representations in person to the Secretary of State before he decided whether to go

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ahead and use the inquiry procedure laid down in section 42(3) of the 1996 Act.

Norman Baker: I rise simply to add my support to the amendments. On amendment No. 91, it is important for a chief officer in the position described to have a fair hearing. They will be under pressure and, as a result, may not react in terms of representations as cleanly or effectively as they would usually. Therefore the presence of a professional adviser would be only fair. Indeed, it is not unusual in trade union or other management disputes for such a person to be present, so the proposal seems reasonably uncontroversial, but perhaps the Minister will persuade me otherwise. The flexibility that amendment No. 92 would provide also seems only fair and reasonable, so I hope that he will look favourably on the amendments.

Mr. Denham: I shall deal first with amendment No. 91. Obviously I have some sympathy with the view that, in practice, someone might well wish to be represented or accompanied by a representative from their staff association, for example. However, we are not keen on putting a right to that representation in the Bill, because we do not want to create a legal framework so rigid that it becomes a mechanism for delaying hearings through one device or another or for making hearings overly legalistic.

As I said, we understand the argument that someone might well wish to be represented, but rather than make that an explicit requirement in the Bill, we are happy to discuss it with the CPOSA, as I said previously, and if necessary make regulations under clause 33. We will certainly ensure that there is adequate and appropriate guidance.

Norman Baker: The Minister appears to be saying that he accepts the spirit of the amendment, but will not accept the amendment. With respect, it is not mechanistic. It includes the phrase

    ''if he or she should so wish.''

That gives the flexibility to which the Minister refers.

Mr. Denham: We need to avoid the creation of a right that legal advisers or others could use to make themselves unavailable to attend an inquiry as a representative in order to drag out the proceedings and make them unduly legalistic. We are building on provisions that are unchanged since 1964, and we should recognise that the right to representation is being included for the first time. It may be possible to include in regulations under clause 33 the question of someone being accompanied by their staff association representative or adviser through the discussions that we promised with the CPOSA. It is not uncommon for Ministers to acknowledge the spirit of an amendment, but to advise the Committee to resist it, and this may be one of those occasions.

Mr. Paice: The Minister appears to imply that if the professional adviser, who may be a solicitor, is unavailable, the authority could say, ''Tough, we're still going ahead, and you can make a representation without your adviser.'' I understand that we do not want to delay the procedure, but the reverse is that the authority can proceed willy-nilly. I am even more tempted about the need to include that in the Bill, not

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that I have any doubts about the CPOSA or its enthusiasm for an alternative approach.

Mr. Denham: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we do not want the procedure to work in a way that is an abuse of the proper rights of a chief officer who, after all, faces serious consequences for his career. Equally, however, we do not want to set down a rigid legal framework that can be exploited by those who want to conduct affairs in a way that has nothing to do with a proper hearing and everything to do with delaying and frustrating the process. There has never been a demand for this change before, which is why my approach is appropriate.

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