Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten those of us who follow with interest the question of whether the Liberal Democrats are being consistent? Although the hon. Gentleman was not in the House in 1996, did any Liberal Democrat Member vote against the powers in the 1996 Act?

Norman Baker: If I could shed some light on that, I would be accused of spending too much time reading old bits of Hansard for enjoyment. I leave this place in the evening, so I cannot shed any light on that. However, I am sure that whatever was said, probably by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), was absolutely correct and well argued—probably at some length. I am able to say that with some confidence without knowing what he said.

I am concerned by the concept of the Secretary of State having the ability to remove a senior officer, most notably a chief constable. I do not know whether it has ever been exercised. I am sorry to refer to him again, but we saw the case of Paul Whitehouse in Sussex, who was removed not by section 42 of the Police Act 1996, but by press release. Notification appeared in the daily newspapers that the Home Secretary had lost confidence in him. What happens when a Secretary of State actively dislikes a chief constable or his or her operational practices? I recognise that this is not a new power, but I am uncomfortable with giving an absolute power to the Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Is it not better to set out the full procedure by which the Secretary of State can initiate the termination of employment of a chief constable, rather than having a situation in which his job is ended by a press release? The Bill contains the formal procedure.

Norman Baker: If that is the choice, the answer is yes. However, there was that choice with Paul Whitehouse and the formal procedure route was not chosen. The Government went down the press release route, which was regrettable.

If a chief constable is to be dismissed, should not the police authority do it? I would not object to the Home Secretary being involved—there could be a requirement for consultation or an opportunity for input. However, it is a safeguard in our tripartite system for the chief constable not to be subject to dismissal at the whim of the Secretary of State. It is also a defence for the Secretary of State, because he or she could be subject to allegations of political interference when action had been taken for good reason. The actions of the Secretary of State may be justified when examined coldly, but the opportunity is there to allege to the public, who may not be party to the full details, that the decision was political.

I do not think that my view will gain much support, but I wanted to put it on record because this is one step too far. It could open the door to allegations of politicisation and be unfair to the Secretary of State, who may be put in that position after being advised to take a particular course of action.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman needs to stop chucking around phrases such as ''getting rid of chief constables at the whim of the Secretary of State''. That is a grossly irresponsible way of referring to legislation that has existed not since 1996, but since 1964. If what he said were true, we would have seen Secretaries of State of all persuasions exercising whims. We need proper objective discussion of the legislation, not stuff that plays to some outside gallery or a conspiratorial political agenda.

Many of the hon. Gentleman's contributions in Committee have been enormously constructive, and he has highlighted important issues. I would not accuse him of taking an irresponsible approach throughout, but it is important to make it clear that the Secretary of State cannot get rid of chief constables at whim, under either this Bill or the Act it replaces.

Like Governments since 1964, I believe that placing absolute reliance on police authorities to get such decisions right is a step too far in the tripartite structure. In the interests of the service as a whole, the Secretary of State must have the power to take action, which is what the Bill will give. There must be a proper balance of power. Had the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) been in the Chair, I would have referred more directly to a television discussion in which the right hon. Lady and I took part a few months ago. She branded the Government as far too wimpish on these matters, and said that the whole point about New York was that its governor had sacked police commissioners at whim until he had got the one that he wanted. She takes a

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robust approach on these matters. That is not the Government's approach, but it is necessary for the Secretary of State to be able to intervene as circumstances require.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar raised an important point. Until she drew attention to the draft legislation, I understood that it would include grounds as well as the notice. We may need to return to the matter on Report to tidy it up.

Norman Baker: I hope that you will forgive me for responding to the Minister on this occasion, Mr. Griffiths, but I do not want to let his remarks pass without doing so.

I assure the Minister that I am not ''playing to the gallery'', to use his phrase. He moves to impugn my motives. He may think me entirely wrong, but I assure him that my intentions in raising my point were honourable and reflect my concerns about the clause and the way in which the legislation was framed in the past. I have issued no press release on that, and as far as I am aware, there are no press here. I have no intention of communicating my point beyond this Room, but I hope that the Minister will know from my activities in this House that if I want to communicate something to the press, I am quite capable of doing so. I ask him to accept that my comments were honest and that I had no ulterior motive in framing them as I did.

I do not accept the Minister's view. He does not accept mine, although it is not only mine: I refer him to the concern that my colleagues Lady Harris and Lord Dholakia expressed in another place about the terms of the clause. The Minister may not recognise the fundamental difference of philosophy between us, although I hope that he now does. I understand his view that it is important for the Secretary of State to have the reserve power to initiate the removal of a chief officer. No doubt it would be used only in extenuating and adverse circumstances, but my colleagues and I believe that it is—to use his phrase—one step too far in the opposite direction, for the reasons that I gave. Notwithstanding the complications that it may cause, the power is best left with police authorities. The Minister and I will disagree on that, but I ask him to accept that my view is honest, and is conveyed to the Committee with the best of intentions.

Lady Hermon: I, too, appreciated the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. Does the hon. Member for Lewes accept that we are trying to ensure that the officer concerned truly has a fair hearing and that the rules of natural justice are complied with? The Secretary of State should surely be bound to send not only the notice and the explanation of the grounds, but the response of the officer who has been given the opportunity to make representation to the metropolitan police authority or other police authority?

Norman Baker: The hon. Lady makes an important point, which I hope the Minister has duly noted. Perhaps the experience of Northern Ireland can be useful to our deliberations.

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Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32

Regulations concerning procedure for removal of senior officers

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

Mr. Denham: The clause provides a new power to make regulations relating to procedural matters that we discussed under clauses 28 to 31. I wanted to highlight to the Committee that the previous legislation did not provide for regulations to be made, so the details of procedures to be followed under the Bill would be completely unwritten and unregulated, and that is unsatisfactory. I hope that the clause will be viewed as a step forward. Before making regulations under part 3 procedures, the Secretary of State will be required to consult representatives of the interests of police authorities, chief police officers and any other persons whom he thinks fit. As I said earlier, we will discuss the procedural requirements with CPOSA and establish the extent to which they should form part of the statutory regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Conduct of disciplinary proceedings

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

6 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I have a couple of points about clause 34. If we had seen it earlier, one of these might have led my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and myself to table amendments. We received a briefing from the Police Federation, but unfortunately I saw it for the first time only yesterday evening, which was far too late to table any amendments. The Minister and his advisers may be aware of it. I also seek the Minister's clarification on a problem that I noticed myself.

Let me start with the Police Federation's worries. It is concerned and suspicious about the use of the phrase

    ''or otherwise participate or intervene in''.

The provision confers a right on the new IPCC and on

    ''persons as may be specified''

to

    ''participate in, or to be present at, disciplinary proceedings''.

The Police Federation is concerned that that might be

    ''a rather underhand way of enabling disciplinary proceedings to be made open to the public.''

If the Minister assures us that that is not what the statute means and that the Government have no intention of allowing these matters to be open to the public, we can rely on the Pepper v. Hart ruling in future cases. However, I share the Police Federation's

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concern that police disciplinary proceedings should be no different from in-house disciplinary proceedings in other occupations where the senior manager is the discipline officer.

Having made inquiries in other sectors, the Police Federation could find no parallel example of such in-house disciplinary proceedings being open to the public. In-house disciplinary proceedings are different from employment tribunals or other public tribunals of professional bodies such as the General Medical Council. I sympathise with the Police Federation because, in a previous incarnation before entering the House in 1992, I had responsibility as a corporate lawyer for conducting some in-house disciplinary matters. I am well aware that, within companies and other bodies, such matters are normally confidential in the first instance. Only later might someone take the matter to an employment tribunal so that it then became public.

I said in connection with an earlier clause that matters before an employment tribunal are not always fairly portrayed by the media, which can lead to other concerns. If the Police Federation's suspicions are right that the clause will allow the whole matter to become public, the media might report all the allegations but, if the disciplinary proceedings lead to an acquittal because the complaint was unfounded, the other side might never be reported, as often happens with controversial employment tribunals. In the case to which I referred earlier, huge publicity was given to the allegations against a manager in a subsidiary company of the group for whom I was group legal adviser, but when the case was found to be completely inaccurate and the tribunal comprehensively rejected the allegations, there was no publicity at all. The viewing public and those who read newspapers were given the impression that all the allegations were true, because they were never countered.

We are talking about maintaining public confidence, and clearly if that happened to police officers, it would be a huge concern. The Police Federation's interpretation is that that could be a result of the way in which clause 34 is drafted. I hope that the Minister will say that that is not the intention, but we shall hear in a moment.

The Police Federation's other serious concern about the drafting of the clause relates to the ability of the IPCC to ''bring and conduct'' disciplinary proceedings. There are concerns that the same body may have the power

    ''both to investigate and to prosecute disciplinary matters.''

The federation rightly refers to what the royal commission on criminal procedure said in 1981, which has been said by many public bodies down the years. It said that

    ''it is . . . unsatisfactory that the person who has investigated the case should be the person responsible for the decision to prosecute''.

Down the years, many bodies have said that the investigation and prosecution should be in separate hands.

The Police Federation raised those two concerns. My concern when I initially read the clause was that there might be an opportunity for another body that

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normally has nothing to do with the police or police discipline to say under the terms of the clause that it has the right to come along and take part in the court proceedings. In recent years and other contexts, we have seen that a body such as the Consumers Association might try to come to the court and say, ''We have locus standi—we have the right to be heard on this matter.''

I hope once again that the Minister will reassure us by saying that the clause will not allow any other body—be it the Consumers Association, the Commission for Racial Equality or any other quango or single-issue lobby group—to intervene in what should be an in-house private procedure. I do not want clause 34 to act as a sort of ''open sesame'' provision and allow vast numbers of bodies to intervene in in-house police disciplinary proceedings. The Minister is shaking his head, which I hope means he will reassure us, but I have at least raised the concerns of the Police Federation and of my hon. Friends and I.

 
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