Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Patrick Mercer (Newark): I endorse what the hon. Member for Lewes said. I had the opportunity at the weekend to speak to Stephen Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. He commented on the powers and said that he had the gravest concern about the words ''maintenance of public confidence''. That officer has 30 years' experience and one of the sharpest minds in the constabulary. He is doing a wonderful job in Nottinghamshire. He said that that phrase was ''inexact, impossible to measure'' and may lead to the removal of an officer such as himself because of political convenience.

Mr. Denham: I, too, have high regard for the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. I have spent time with him, examining various policing operations in and around the city of Nottingham. I can only restate that many people, when publicly discussing the Bill, have looked at the power of suspension as though it was completely unrelated to other measures in the Bill and as though the Secretary of State or the police authority could say, ''Something has happened. We do not like it very much. We will suspend you and then we shall think about what to do next.''

The clause deals with the police authority or the Secretary of State

    ''proposing to consider whether to exercise its power under subsection (2) to call upon the chief constable to retire or to resign''.

That point must be reached before the suspension provision comes into play, and that has been missed in the public discussion. An arbitrary and subjective power to suspend would not be attractive to the Committee, nor is it what we are proposing. While the power to retire or resign should rest on the tests of inefficiency and effectiveness as it has done for a long time—although not qualified by legislation, none the less such tests must be met—the question of suspension should be properly judged in circumstances that take into account the maintenance of public confidence. The clause has been worded deliberately to set a high threshold. It does not say, for example, that the chief officer could be suspended because that may be beneficial for public confidence or because people would feel a little better about it.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) rose—

Lady Hermon (North Down) rose—

Mr. Denham: I give way to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon: The unhappiness about the present drafting is based on the word ''satisfied''. The Minister knows that it is extremely difficult to challenge that in judicial review, unless it is wholly unreasonable. Therefore, it would be much better if the clause were reworded so that it stated, for example, that,

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    ''there were reasonable grounds for believing that the maintenance of public confidence in the Metropolitan police required suspension.''

The concept of satisfaction is very hard to challenge in judicial review.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady raises an interesting point but, as she understands, I cannot give a commitment with regard to it at present—despite the fact that the hon. Member for Lewes is urging me to do so—as I would wish to take advice on the matter. At first sight, I am unsure that, in practice, at judicial review a major difference would be produced by using the wording that the hon. Lady has suggested rather than the current wording. I will consider her proposal. However, looked at as a whole, the test has a high threshold, and one that the Secretary of State would need to be able to sustain. I now give way to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson).

Mr. Johnson: My question has been answered.

Mr. Denham: I hope that I have responded to the points that have been raised. I will consider the hon. Lady's suggestion, but I do not wish to raise expectations that it might be successful on Report, because it is just a point that she has put to me in Committee.

Norman Baker: As always, I am grateful to the Minister for responding in detail. However, I have no reasonable grounds for thinking that I should be satisfied with his response.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made a sensible suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will look at it. However, he has not really addressed the core issue, which is that the maintenance of public confidence is an arbitrary and subjective test and that, therefore it is, by definition, difficult to challenge.

The Minister also failed to address the point that, if a chief officer is suspended because somebody thinks that that is necessary for the maintenance of public confidence, that will have a prejudicial impact on the subsequent consideration of whether that officer should remain in post. When we debated an earlier amendment, the Minister ruled out involving independent parties in the consideration of an inquiry that is conducted under the auspices of the police authority, and now we face the possibility of the suspension of a chief officer because it is subjectively considered that public confidence has been eroded.

Under those circumstances, what chance would that officer have of an unbiased hearing, and what would be the relationship between those who thought that a suspension was appropriate, and those who subsequently discussed and decided whether that officer should retire or resign? The judging authorities are the police authority and the Home Secretary, so it seems to me that that is prejudicial, and it certainly creates a mood in the public mind, which it is then difficult to turn back.

The Minister has also failed to address the point that in the event that the somewhat drastic action was taken to suspend a chief officer for failing to maintain

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public confidence—and if that is the reason, it should be stated—and that officer was miraculously cleared and it was decided to reinstate him, he would be placed in an almost intolerable situation, because he would be expected to carry on with his job knowing that the Home Secretary or the police authority had previously felt that public confidence in him was lacking.

Vera Baird: I am sorry to interrupt, but to be frank, the hon. Gentleman has failed to get the point of the Minister's reply—although it may be that I have misunderstood the matter.

The decision to suspend due to a lack of public confidence would follow the police authority's decision to exercise its power to consider whether to dismiss someone. Therefore, it must have an initial apprehension that an officer is inefficient or ineffective before it considers whether the public has lost its confidence in him. In the light of a proposal to consider whether to ask him to resign, it might be in everyone's interest for him simply to stop performing his duties while the issues were considered, coldly and calmly. That is the key point. It might be in his interest to be taken out of duty while the issues were considered coldly and calmly. There would then be no difficulty about putting him back in. If the hon. Gentleman's test for suspending an officer that he were inefficient and ineffective, it would be difficult for him to go back in afterwards.

5.45 pm

Norman Baker: I listened carefully to the hon. and learned Lady for whom have a great deal of respect in both this Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I also had respect for her predecessor, although that is probably not a popular thing to say in certain quarters of the Labour party these days.

With respect to the hon. and learned Lady, I did not misunderstand the Minister's point. He made his case quite well, but I hope that he recognises that my response is valid and consequential, notwithstanding the sequential test that he set out. If an officer is suspended for reasons of maintenance of public confidence, he is suspended by people who will be judge or jury on whether he should lose his job. That prejudices such consideration. If the officer is reinstated, he will have to return to office in the full glare of publicity because he has been suspended, which has many implications.

I am worried about the issue. The clause is not properly worded, and there are dangers. Several Opposition Members have made suggestions for improvement or raised concerns. I hope that the Minister will reflect on those. If he does not accept the amendment today, I hope that he recognises that the amendment and my comments have been well intentioned and reflect a genuine worry about the clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 31

Removal etc. of senior officers at the instance of the Secretary of State

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Vera Baird: Subsection 2(2A) requires that if the Secretary of State gives notice to an officer that he shall exercise his power and provides a written explanation of his grounds, a copy of the notice should be sent to the police authority as well as the officer. However, there is no requirement for a copy of the grounds to be sent to the authority. Was that requirement deliberately left out? Does the Minister believe that it would be sensible to send the authority not only the notice, but the reasons for proposing to act? That would allow everybody to know what everybody else is doing.

Norman Baker: The hon. and learned Lady made an interesting contribution that raises a valid point. I shall make a small contribution to allow the Minister to find a reason to refuse her suggestion.

I might be the only member of the Committee with my point of view, given the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I am worried about the concept of the clause. The Minister will say that it largely replicates the 1996 Act and, in several ways, improves on it. However, I would have voted against the provisions in the 1996 Act had I had been in the House at the time, and I am not encouraged by the fact that they have not been watered down in the Bill.

 
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