Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: This group contains two amendments tabled my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and I, and three amendments that were tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes. Our two amendments run very much together, the most crucial one of which is amendment No. 98. That proposes a new subsection (11). We hope that the Minister will accept it, because it is vital that whatever is put forward is discussed and agreed by the police authority, and is part of its annual plan. I am sure that he will not be unsympathetic to the spirit of our proposal, even he cannot accept its exact words.

It would be lovely to imagine that, if the Minister cannot accept our amendment, he may introduce a similar amendment on Report. It would strengthen the clause's detailed provisions. It is difficult to understand why specifying that in the Bill would be a problem. Amendment No. 94 simply states that everything in the clause must be subject to proposed subsection (11).

The hon. Member for Lewes will speak to the Liberal Democrat amendments in a moment. I entirely understand the intention behind his proposals, but we shall listen with interest to his description of the background to them.

Norman Baker: As the hon. Gentleman correctly predicted, I intend to speak to the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I am sure that the Minister recognises that the introduction of designated persons who exercise police powers on the streets and the extension of the number of people in police stations who can do so represents a fundamental change in the nature and style of local policing.

The amendments have three aims. The first is to ensure that, before replacing police officers with designated persons, the chief officer prepares a proper strategy for their use, training, equipment and the costs involved so that all the implications of such a step are fully thought through.

The second is to ensure that such a step is taken only with the approval of the local police authority

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following consultation with the local community—that is only right, as it is that community's police area, force and authority—and relevant local authorities, bearing in mind the requirement to work closely with local authorities, which the Government have properly recognised with local crime and disorder partnerships, which have been a significant step forward. The third aim is for the impact on community confidence of the use of designated officers to be properly monitored and reviewed fully after a year.

The amendments may seem complex, but I hope that their purpose is simple—to put in place safeguards that my hon. Friend and I believe are lacking in the Bill. The decision whether to designate a particular member of police support staff and what power to give that person is an operational one for the chief constable. That is a point that I might be expected to make and is consistent with my other comments. I am delighted that the Minister agrees. I was also delighted when the Home Secretary, in response to Home Office questions, recently declined the invitation to comment on particular activities in one part of London, for those reasons. I am pleased to say that the concept of operational independence is still well respected. However, the principle of whether to have community support officers on the streets and the strategic oversight of such initiatives are properly the business of the police authority.

Most Committee members will have read the briefings on the Bill produced by the Association of Police Authorities, which make the point forcefully. The Metropolitan police and their Commissioner strongly back the Government's proposals for community support officers. Indeed, they seem so keen to do so that they have taken action to introduce CSOs before the Bill comes into force, albeit without the powers provided in the Bill. However, the Government have not yet produced much evidence to show that the public want quasi-police officers on the streets, rather than real ones. When I go around knocking on doors or talking to people in the street, they tell me that they want more bobbies on the beat. They do not want second-rate police officers, plastic police men or whatever else they might be called, as substitutes for police officers. The community view is important. It is a key element of the amendment.

If we are to have community support officers with the powers that the Home Secretary wants to give as part of his proposals in the Bill, like regular police officers, they will need the support and confidence of local people to proceed. That will be a key element that determines whether they succeed and whether the concept of CSOs is accepted by the public. Therefore, local accountability and approval is key to this part of the Bill, and to our entire policing system.

However, such confidence or consent will not be secured if local communities feel that they are being fobbed off because they consider that CSOs are a way of providing policing on the cheap. Therefore, they will need to be fully involved in decision-making, and to sign up to the concept that I think that the Government want to promote, which is that CSOs are

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a support to police officers, rather than a replacement for them. There is doubt about whether that is the case: the Minister is aware of the genuine concerns of police officers, for example, that CSOs are a way of providing alternatives to them—in other words, that they will allow for a reduction in the number of police officers, rather than an extra tier on top of the existing number, or, hopefully, on top of increased numbers.

I hope that Committee members agree that local people should have a say in whether CSOs should police their neighbourhoods and what powers they should have, and that the decision should not simply be—as appears to be the case in clause 35—one which can be taken quickly, succinctly and without such deep consultation and involvement being necessary. Consultation with the community is the responsibility of the local police authority, under section 96 of the Police Act 1996. Therefore, police authorities will wish to consult with local people and other key partners before they decide whether to give approval to the use of CSOs.

The Bill sidesteps the huge range of issues that needs to be addressed before police powers can be given to support staff and the community can reach a conclusion about whether it is appropriate for CSOs to be deployed in its area. That is the reason for the comprehensive—I hope that it is not too exhaustive—list that is set out in amendment No. 142, in particular. That gives an indication of the sorts of tests and requirements that we would require before the decision to proceed could be taken. I am sure that any chief officer or police authority will want to have a clear, fully worked-out strategy as to what these officers will be used for, and how they will be trained, equipped, and so forth.

It would simply be common sense and good management practice to adopt the sorts of proposals that are included in this amendment. It is intended to ensure that the police authority and police force have properly developed plans to show how CSOs, and other designated staff, will contribute to better policing in the area, and what the costs of that will be. The amendment is intended to buy public confidence and support—it is intended to get people to buy into the Government's project.

The Minister might refer to clause 36. If he does so, he will see that clause 36(4)(d) states that the chief officer must set out in the policing plan details of how the provisions in clause 35 have been used. That is all that it does. It is not a replacement or an adequate substitute for amendment No. 142—and for amendments Nos. 140 and 141, which are necessary precursors to it. There is no requirement in clause 36(4)(d) for the chief officer to get the police authority's prior approval to consult local people, or to have a properly worked-out strategy. Therefore, it could all be a fait accompli that is merely recorded in the plan after the event, in which case there would be no say for the police authority, or for local people, in a fundamental change in policing in their area. There would be no safeguards of the sort that I have set down in amendment No. 142.

The Minister might say that no chief constable would embark on the process without gaining the

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support of the local police authority and, perhaps, the local authority and maybe even the local community. However, that is not how the Bill reads. A chief constable might be wholly sold on the idea of community support officers but his police authority might not share that enthusiasm.

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Without the requirement to go through the process and safeguards that are set out in the amendment, the Bill opens the way for the chief constable to have an unfortunate disagreement with the police authority after the decision to use CSOs rather than before. That would not be good for local policing, police morale or the local community. Notwithstanding my unhappiness with the powers that are given to CSOs, which I have addressed in other amendments, I allow for the fact that if the Bill is enacted, they will be employed. I want to ensure that if that happens, CSOs will be introduced and used in a way that commands proper support from the police authority, the community at large and all other people or bodies that might have an input, such as local authorities. I am trying to help the Government to ensure that the Bill works rather than causing problems after its implementation. That is the spirit in which I moved amendments Nos. 140, 141 and 142, and I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on them. If he does not do that, I hope that he will not accuse me of playing to the Gallery for moving them in the way that I did—there is no one in the Gallery in any case.

Amendments Nos. 94 and 98 have some force and common sense behind them. They are not absolutely essential but they would improve the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on them. They are a less detailed way of securing the same ends that I have described. They would tie the activities of the chief officer into the local community and the police authority by the use of the annual policing plan. It would be wholly unobjectionable and uncontroversial to proceed in that way.

It is clear that the Bill does not contain the tie-in that the Conservative amendments set out briefly or the detailed tie-in set out in the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. A tie-in should be explicitly present.

 
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Prepared 18 June 2002