Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Paice: I do not think that the hon. Lady's argument necessarily follows. Of course, the vast majority of the population are perfectly reasonable, law-abiding citizens and assume that everything that we do is law-abiding. Those people would not, therefore, worry about the nitty-gritty of what is or is not illegal on a particular street. She is right. However, to move on from that and say that therefore the powers of CSOs should vary is a non sequitur. There would be serious grounds for confusion.

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Despite what the hon. Lady said, we envisage CSO's using their powers in marginal situations rather than in cases involving serious crimes—issues of disorder, or antisocial behaviour, for example. Whether behaviour is antisocial is sometimes a matter of subjective judgment. Therefore, we must be consistent in determining what constitutes a power of a CSO. A situation such as I described could arise—people could be apprehended by a CSO for acting anti-socially on one side of the street but not if they go into the next street. I submit to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), that that is not what the general public would want.

If somebody is acting antisocially, by drinking alcohol in an antisocial manner, generally behaving unpleasantly and disrupting the community, they should be apprehended by a CSO and dealt with wherever that may be—if a CSO is to have the power to do so. That is what police officers do. If people behave antisocially any police officer can deal with them. If we are going to have CSOs, the same should apply.

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Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman said that there are arguments on both sides. One of the most important things to remember about the potential employment of CSOs is that it is an innovative scheme. As such, there will be local variations in the need for and the requirements of CSOs. Best value is one argument in favour of variation. We should see how CSOs work in different conditions so that forces in different basic command units can learn from each other. It is inevitable that they will converge into a set model, but for the moment, we should proceed with this innovative scheme by allowing for variability within certain constructions.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. However, we are talking about something totally new. These officers are not neighbourhood or community wardens, but people with a considerable level of police power, which has so far applied only to traffic wardens. If we have CSOs, I hope that the public will readily take to them, recognise and appreciate them and give them credibility.

We all know that a bad reputation is easily gained and quickly lost. By having variations in powers, I worry that the public will quickly start to discredit the principle of CSOs because of the sort of situation that I described, and it will take years to undo the damage caused by that initial impression.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Surely it should be incumbent upon the various divisional commanders to ensure that they co-operate effectively and that we do not have the sort of boundary problems described by the hon. Gentleman, which would fly in the face of best practice across all aspects of the public sector. We should allow CSOs varied powers, at least in the early stages of this new innovation, and have guidelines that ensure that they work together effectively, in their local neighbourhoods and across boundaries.

Mr. Paice: Obviously, I am all in favour of commanders working together. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he supported Government proposals to override that, and for the Secretary of State to make those sorts of decisions, so he cannot have it both ways.

If we are to have CSOs, we all want them to work, but I am concerned that if we start off with the amount of confusion that I have described, there is a risk that they will quickly fall into public disrepute and be ridiculed, and then the whole thing will begin to collapse around our ears. None of us wants that to happen, which is why we should remove this discretion from chief officers.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he understands to be the meaning of clause 35(5). It says:

    ''A person designated under this section shall have the powers and duties conferred or imposed on him the designation.''

That implies to me that it is the designation, rather than the choice of the chief officer, that gives the powers and duties to a CSO.

The Chairman: Order. I am unclear whether that relates to the amendment.

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Mr. Paice: I have raised the question of whether the chief officer will have the power to vary the powers of different CSOs within his force. The hon. Lady is right to raise that point—notwithstanding your comment, Mr. Stevenson—because it lies behind my earlier question. My reading of the legislation—and of others' interpretation of it, including that of the Police Federation—is that the chief officer will have the discretion as to whether to give the same powers to all of his CSOs, or to vary them.

The amendment deals with subsection (6), where the second line makes it clear that the chief officer will have the discretion to choose which of the 13 powers he wishes to give to his CSOs—that that is the case is also apparent from earlier comments from Labour Members. In my mind, there is also no doubt that he will also be able to give different powers to his CSOs.

I have made my case in the way that I wanted to. I recognise that there are arguments the other way, but if this measure is to work, we will need consistency and clarity in the legislation. There is a serious risk that if the powers are allowed to vary in different parts of the country—from borough to borough, and even street to street—we will not get the consistency and clarity that we have sought to put into this Bill.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The points raised by the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) relate to four points that I made on Second Reading, two of which were as follows:

    ''If the CSOs are to command support in post, they must first be recognisable, which means that they must have a common uniform. Secondly, they must have one set of powers that does not vary between areas''—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 81.]

The other two related to later clauses.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to the argument that there is no consistency between the powers of traffic wardens in different areas. If, for example, traffic wardens in Bromley are responsible for double yellow lines and traffic wardens in York are responsible only for single yellow lines and dotted lines, there would be uncertainty over their role and they would not command the support that they do. Someone in Lewes may know how far they can go with CSOs and when they go to Wrexham, they may behave accordingly, only to be detained by CSOs who do have extra powers. That, in turn, could lead to detention and an escalation in confrontation because of lack of clarity. It is wrong to give community support officers powers that are, to a degree, antagonistic and liable to cause friction with people against whom the CSO wishes to enforce the powers. We shall address the powers in later amendments.

A CSO might want to exercise a power that is controversial—at least with regard to the person against whom it is exercised. If the power is used in one part of the country but not another, that could cause confusion and uncertainty. What happens if a person lives on the edge of a part of the country in which the chief constable gives the minimum amount of power to CSOs? Of course, many chief constables are opposed to giving powers to CSOs. That is consistent with the need to gain community support.

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I think that it is a likely scenario, by the way. In order to maximise support in the community, chief constables might not wish to give CSOs powers that will antagonise those with whom they come in contact. In other places, CSOs might be given the full panoply of support that is in the Bill.

What will happen if people live in an area in which they know, if they are streetwise enough, that if they see a CSO standing in the street when they come out of the pub after a few drinks, the CSO cannot touch them? What would happen if those people wandered across the border to a London borough for a drink with a friend? The CSO there could use an entirely different response. Such people would assert, with some knowledge because of experience elsewhere, that the CSO does not have certain powers, such as the power to seize alcohol. That would be more likely to result in a fracas or confrontation than if powers were understood and consistent throughout the country. Ministers in the Lords failed to address that point properly.

I refer the Minister to a Police Federation of England and Wales briefing that said:

    ''Each CSO will be given one, some, or all of the powers from the vast array of powers provided in the Bill. This is the recipe for confusion and disorder. How will a member of the public know whether a particular CSO has the power to demand their name and address or to detain them using reasonable force for up to 30 minutes pending the arrival of a constable?''

That paragraph does not address whether CSOs should be in place; we will have to know the views of the Police Federation of England and Wales on that. It is a valid observation and a criticism of the Government's proposals by police officers who know about policing. Their experience on the street shows that there is likely to be a problem. The Minister cannot simply brush that point away because he must realise that people with experience make it.

There is also widespread confusion about the different types of officers that the Bill will create. I mention that now because it is germane to the accountability point. If CSOs are to be accepted by the community, they must command support by wearing a common uniform and having the same powers. If they wear a common uniform but have different powers, it will be difficult for the public to understand that. It will be a complete shambles if CSOs throughout the country wear different uniforms and have different powers. Either way, the system will not work.

If we create a new tier, the public must understand who does what. I suggest that the best way to do that is for police officers—and special constables—to all have the same powers and for CSOs to all have the same powers. Frankly, traffic wardens should be wrapped up with CSOs so that we do not add to the categories of people with power any more than we must. The Minister seems to go in the opposite direction, and that is leading to mass confusion. I do not wish to be disrespectful, but I hear interventions from Labour Members, either in Committee or on the Floor of the House, who appear not to know what powers are

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being suggested for particular categories. They stand up and say, ''Well, the street warden system is working very well in my part of the country.''

I am sure that that is true, and I certainly support street warden systems, but that is not what the Bill proposes. It proposes something rather different, and we must get our heads around that.

At a recent Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister himself used four different titles to describe CSOs. He is not clear about it, and he is in charge of the Government-—[Interruption.] Well, allegedly: we must remember Mr. Alastair Campbell. If the Prime Minister himself is not clear about what powers are being given and what titles apply, what hope is there that the general public will find them acceptable?

Accountability is the bedrock of acceptance of police powers. Accountability requires clarity, yet clarity is missing. I hope that the Minister will not dismiss the amendment but deal with it seriously. It addresses a serious problem.

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