|Police Reform Bill [Lords]
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
Column Number: 199robust 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.
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