Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Denham: One would hardly know that the hon. Gentleman is the person who, addressing the House of Commons on 8 March 2002, said:

    ''The Liberal Democrats are happy with, and will support, the concept of CSOs—indeed, we included such a provision in our last manifesto.''—[Official Report, 8 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 560.]

This group of amendments is not the worst that he has moved in an attempt to wreck the entire concept of CSOs—we shall come to worse in later sittings. One would hardly have thought that such enthusiasm was that of a political party that claimed to include the concept of CSOs in its manifesto. Perhaps, in due course, we will find out where the Liberal Democrats stand—

Mr. Paice: This week.

Mr. Denham: Yes, I could hardly ask for more than knowing where the Liberal Democrats stand this week.

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Knowing where they stand next week would be asking too much.

The question of whether the operational decision for chief constables on the designation of staff should be subject to the prior approval of the police authority is at the heart of the amendments. The amendment would give the decision a status that does not apply to other operational decisions by chief constables. For example, I am sure that the decision to switch traffic police in London from traffic policing duties to the street crime initiative was discussed with the Metropolitan police authority but not subject to its approval. That significant switch of roles was the responsibility of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. We must recognise that it would be a major step of principle to say that operational decisions should be subject to prior approval by the police authority. Although amendments Nos. 94 and 98 are somewhat more ambiguously worded, that is what I take to be the intent of this series of amendments.

Of course, we are all happy with the idea that there should be proper consultation between the chief constable and the police authority—and, indeed, at a wider level, between the police authority and the community—about a policing strategy. However, there is already a mechanism for doing so that is supported in the Bill, and that is that consultation should take place between the chief constable and the police authority about the draft policing plan, and that discussions should take place in the wider community. That is clearly the vehicle by which a range of issues, including the development of CSOs and their future deployment, should properly be discussed. That is a different principle from saying that the set of procedures should be subject to prior approval by the police authority.

Clause 36 already requires that plans to designate support staff under schedule (4), or to set up a community safety accreditation scheme, should be set out in the annual policing plan, and that drafts of that document should, as they are now, be submitted by the chief officer to the police authority. I believe that the annual policing plan is the best way to undertake the consultation. It is a local plan adopted and published by the police authority before the beginning of each financial year. The process for producing it is well established; the chief officer prepares the drafts and submits it to the police authority. If the police authority disagrees with the draft plan, it cannot publish a version that differs from it without first consulting the chief officer on the proposed modification.

With regard to the more detailed amendment No. 142, clause 40 allows us to set out a code of practice for the exercise and performance of the chief officer's duties under chapter 1. I am sure that consultation with stakeholders will be required before extending police powers to civilians. The issue comes down to an important point of principle about whether the police authority should have prior approval for the development of CSOs. I would resist that suggestion on the grounds that I would resist many other specific

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policing operational matters being made subject to the veto of the police authority.

Of course, consultation with the police authority and the wider community on the procedures that we already have is highly desirable. Indeed, I believe that police constables will regard consultation with the police authority as absolutely necessary. We know that the chief commissioner in London took great care to ensure that the Metropolitan police authority was fully behind him when he was developing the CSO scheme. That is a different matter from saying that prior approval should be required, and that is what I take the amendments to mean.

Norman Baker: As always, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Without deviating too far from the amendment, I should like to say that the Liberal Democrat position on CSOs is abundantly clear, as Ministers frequently say of the Government's position in response to questions put to them from across the Dispatch Box. We have always supported the concept of CSOs, and did so at the last election. However, we disagree with the Government significantly on the powers that they should have for reasons that I shall explain under later amendments.

There is harmony on this side of the Committee between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, but I urge the hon. Member for Surrey Heath not to chortle when inconsistencies over CSOs are alleged. The wholesome opposition to CSOs put forward by Conservative Members contrasted markedly with the statement made by the shadow Home Secretary, who said that the Conservatives had always supported CSOs. That went by without notice on Second Reading.

I understand exactly why the Minister takes the view that he does. The matter is finely balanced. I am the first to defend the operational independence of chief constables and I do not want the police authority or anyone else to be involved in day-to-day activities. However, the decision to employ such people for the first time is a matter about which chief constables should have more say than perhaps the Home Secretary and the Minister may envisage. After all, a fundamental change is being made to the nature of policing.

I would have said the same about the employment of traffic wardens some years ago. Whether or not a chief constable wanted that to happen should have been subject to approval. When such people are approved, they are for the chief constable to deploy. Such a significant change is so fundamental to the policing of our country that it is not right to leave it in one person's hands. No chief constable will act in the teeth of opposition from the police authority—at least, I hope not. The Minister is right that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis was

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assiduous in making sure that he had support from the Metropolitan police authority before he took the action that he did. That is how a chief officer should behave. However, it is possible for a chief officer to be unwise in the way that he or she proceeds and my amendment would avoid that.

The Minister did not respond to the need not only for the decision to be up to the chief constable or the police authority, but for local authorities, for example, to be included. They will work together in crime and disorder partnerships. That is important, given the powers that CSOs are to be given, if the Minister has his way. The wider community must feel that it supports CSOs rather than have them forced upon it, which was another matter with which the Minister did not deal. I am pleased that he recognised the need for a code of practice. That goes some way towards meeting the aims of my amendments. It is not up to me to withdraw them because the lead amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. However, I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. I hope that he understands why I tabled the amendments.

Mr. Hawkins: I certainly do not want to go into some of the wider issues that will be raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire when we discuss the next amendment. If I were to respond in tremendous detail to what the hon. Member for Lewes said, I would be trespassing on that territory. Suffice it to say that we understand his suggestions. We have also listened carefully to the Minister. We gained the impression that, while there are great worries that the Home Secretary may be wanting the opportunity to micro-manage, the Minister's response was that we cannot have a police authority that micro-manages. That seemed the wrong way round. The hon. Member for Lewes, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and I share the belief that, if anyone is to undertake pre-clearance or micro-managing, it is better that it should be the police authority at local level than the Home Secretary of whichever political persuasion in the future. We shall refer to that general worry when discussing other parts of the clause.

I understand the Minister's response to our amendments. We do not resile from the fact that it would be helpful to have such issues in the policing plan. It may be a matter to which we shall have to return, but I do not want to detain the Committee on the amendments, because we shall have more lengthy debates on subsequent groups. At this stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned—[Mr. Heppell.]

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 20 June at half-past Nine o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Borrow, Mr.
Challen, Mr.
Denham, Mr.
Gillan, Mrs.
Hawkins, Mr.
Heppell, Mr.
Hermon, Lady

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Irranca-Davies, Huw
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Lucas, Ian
MacDougall, Mr.
Mercer, Patrick
Munn, Ms
Paice, Mr.
Prentice, Bridget
Stinchcombe, Mr.
Stoate, Dr.

 
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Prepared 18 June 2002