Police Reform Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Paice: I thank the Minister for his intervention and for the information from the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, which put me right on one point. I do not entirely agree with the Minister about the concept of duplication; I see it more as a way of preventing the full sequence of events taking place. However, I shall not overdo the argument, as we have much more to do this evening. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

Suspension of senior officers

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 250, in page 29, line 24, leave out 'proposal' and insert

    'degree of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 251, in page 29, line 30, after 'proposal', insert

    'and the degree of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness'.

No. 256, in clause 31, page 31, line 8, after 'necessary', insert

    'in the light of the degree of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness'.

Column Number: 191

Norman Baker: The amendments would ensure that any suspension is based on the

    ''degree of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness''

and no other reason. The Minister will recognise that the power to suspend is serious and will lead in many cases to the termination of the employment of a chief constable or the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, depending on the case. It is questionable whether a power of suspension is needed to deal with what are essentially management or personnel matters. They are distinct from disciplinary or conduct issues, for which there is already a power to suspend if, for example, a chief constable is investigated for alleged disciplinary offences or a sufficiently serious crime.

The issue is not whether suspension is appropriate, but whether the grounds for suspension should be extended—as the Bill does—on the grounds of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness. I have some concerns about that, as the power could be somewhat draconian. It also questions the criteria that are used to decide whether a chief constable's actions constitute ineffectiveness. Would it be ineffective if, for example, a chief constable did not employ community support officers when neighbouring forces were doing so and the Home Office's police standards unit had decided that it was appropriate? Notwithstanding the Minister's previous promise that chief constables would not be compelled to do so, could such a decision be interpreted as ineffectiveness? If so, it would merit suspension.

The extension of the power is not a solitary measure: it must be seen in the context of the other powers that the Bill makes available to the Home Secretary—powers to set national plans, to direct new regulations, to prescribe the way in which individual officers and forces work and to intervene in the running of local police units at basic command level. The Minister will be aware of yesterday's written answer to me, which demonstrates that considerable micro-management of basic command units is already in place in respect of street crime. The wider context of the totality of powers must be taken into account.

I am particularly worried about the phrase ''maintenance of public confidence'' in lines 30 and 31. What is public confidence? Its lost will result in the suspension of a senior officer. Let us suppose that the Home Secretary loses confidence in a senior officer and makes his view public in a national newspaper. He might overtly criticise a chief constable based somewhere in the country. If the Home Secretary took that step—in my view, it would be erroneous and unprofessional—it would have the effect of reducing and eroding public confidence in the particular officer. In other words, the public at large would say that the Home Secretary made the criticism and there cannot be smoke without fire. Hence the Home Secretary could himself cause the loss of public confidence in a senior officer and then say, ''Lo and behold, confidence has been lost; this merits the suspension of the officer''. It is a circular process, made possible by the clause.

A police authority or the Secretary of State could also interpret loss of public confidence as the failure of

Column Number: 192

a chief constable to conduct his force operationally in an appropriate way. To return to an earlier example, if a chief officer sincerely believes that it is appropriate to undertake an experiment to turn a blind eye to personal users—not dealers—of cannabis, but other chief officers take a different view, it could be a matter on which the Home Secretary decides that he has lost confidence in the chief constable of that particular patch because he is not cracking down on the law. The Home Secretary might say that soft drugs are serious because they lead on to hard drugs—MPs have often argued that—and because the chief constable takes a different view operationally and wants to focus more on burglary, the Home Secretary might announce his loss of confidence in him. In other words, the Home Secretary could pass judgment on a chief constable's operational decision, leading to suspension.

The Minister might say that that is not his or his ministerial colleagues' intention in proposing the clause at all. I am happy to concede that: the Minister might well resile from it, but we have to assess the framing of legislation and the possibilities that flow from that. We are not in the business of second guessing or interpreting what individual Ministers might do today, let alone in 10 or 20 years' time. I contend that the Bill as drafted will allow the course of action that I have elucidated to be followed.

The test of public confidence is essentially subjective, and that worries me. If a chief constable or senior officer is guilty of a criminal act, presumably they can be tried and dealt with accordingly. If they are accused of inefficiency and ineffectiveness, it will at least involve Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in an examination of how a force is run. Will the Minister's police standards unit comment on that?

5.30 pm

The test of public confidence is much more subjective and therefore arbitrary, and it should not be used as the basis of a suspension. There is also the issue of what happens when a chief officer is suspended. Let us say that the Home Secretary or the police authority decides that there is a lack of public confidence, or even that there is a prima facie case that a chief constable is being inefficient, and he is then suspended. Because the test of public confidence is written into the clause, the very fact that the chief officer has been suspended will automatically lead to an erosion of public confidence in him.

It may well be that an investigation clears the chief officer, and he may be found to have acted entirely properly. However, public confidence will have been eroded by the suspension and so the other test, which is in clause 30, will kick in. Perhaps the Minister will say that when an officer is wrongly suspended and subsequently reinstated, no further action will be taken, and that the Home Secretary and the police authority will defend that chief constable, notwithstanding the loss of public confidence in him. The matter is a minefield, or a hornet's nest, or some other metaphor that I can come up with if you wish me to, Mr. Griffiths.

Column Number: 193

The clause is not well worded. That is why the amendments that my colleague and I tabled seek to link any suspension to a

    ''degree of alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness''.

Those are words that the Minister and the Bill have used, and they are acceptable to the officials who drafted the legislation. It is a somewhat more—although not entirely—objective test than that of public confidence. If the Minister is not prepared to tie suspension to that, he is effectively saying that although there is no alleged inefficiency or ineffectiveness, the Secretary of State will be right to suspend a chief constable if public confidence has been eroded. That is an intolerable argument to pursue, and I hope that the Minister considers the amendments seriously.

Mr. Hawkins: Conservative Members agree with the hon. Member for Lewes on the inelegance of the drafting. He is on to a rather good point; it would be helpful to have additional clarification. I do not propose to repeat what he said, but we will listen with great interest to whether the Minister has any plans to deal with the issue, if not in the way that the hon. Member for Lewes suggests, then through some Government amendments. The hon. Gentleman is right that if the matter is left as it is, there is great danger that there will be significant problems along the lines of those that he set out.

Mr. Denham: I was not entirely clear whether the hon. Member for Lewes understood the way in which the clause works. I mean no disrespect, but I think that on occasion he did not. Towards the end of his remarks, he said that the Secretary of State would be able to suspend a chief officer even if there were no allegation of inefficiency or ineffectiveness. That is not in the Bill.

The provisions quite clearly have a sequential effect, the first stage of which is that the police authority or the Secretary of State considers whether to exercise the powers requiring a chief officer to step down on the basis of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. In other words, before the powers in the clause to suspend can kick in, and before the future of the chief officer's career is brought into doubt, there has to be sufficient doubt about the effectiveness and efficiency with which the force is being managed. Certainly, the Secretary of State or the police authority would say whether they were seriously considering whether to exercise those powers. Given that a process is under way, how does one deal with the circumstances in which it is necessary to take additional action for the benefit of the force? The test of public confidence is clearly right. Inefficiency and ineffectiveness will be resolved through the processes that we discussed earlier, but the clause is about whether some earlier action to maintain public confidence is necessary.

It is right that a different test from that for efficiency and effectiveness will be considered on the basis of existing legislation and other clauses under the Bill. It is a high threshold. The Secretary of State or the police authority would have to decide that the maintenance of public confidence makes such a decision necessary. In effect, suspension must be

Column Number: 194

essential to maintain confidence. Such at test is not light. It removes the ability to use such powers willy-nilly. As with all such measures, the provisions are subject to administrative laws. I am describing circumstances in which either the police authority or the Secretary of State—or both—have thought it necessary to use the powers to require an officer to step down, retire or resign. The clause offers a way of dealing with that interim period.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 18 June 2002