Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, this issue can be argued both ways. He will not be surprised when I tell the Committee that some of the factors discussed this morning were considered when Ministers decided how best to frame the Bill.

We believe that Opposition Members have reached the wrong conclusion on this matter. It is ironic that the Government should have been accused, during the passage of the Bill, of centralism and of removing some local autonomy and yet, even though this provision relies unambiguously on the local judgment, common sense and professionalism of chief police officers, both Opposition parties gang up on us and say that that is no good and that one cannot rely on those people to take sensible decisions. That is an interesting reversal of debate.

I shall deal with a couple of legal points first. In answer to the doubt expressed by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I assure her that schedule 4 allows a selection of powers to be exercised by police civilians, and clause 37 does the same for accredited CSOs. There should therefore be no ambiguity about that.

Chapter 1 of part 4 is about local determination and flexibility. It deals with applying an appropriate policing service to an area that fits the needs of that locality. It is also the best way to introduce a new concept and approach into the police service in this country. I am not attempting to score a political point in the matter, but on Second Reading the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that he was not opposed to the idea of piloting some of the CSO powers to do with detention with the use of reasonable force. I cannot provide the exact reference, as I do not have the relevant Hansard to hand. We will no doubt return to the matter later, but one cannot say that everywhere must be standardised and then that

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the use of some of the more controversial powers should be piloted.

We must also reflect the reality that, in the service as a whole, there are different views about the right combinations of powers. We all know that the Metropolitan police service wants to have CSOs with powers of detention and the use of reasonable force. My understanding from a recent conversation with the chairman of the Lancashire police authority is that that authority wants to have CSOs without those powers.

It is reasonable to say, at this stage of the introduction of a new concept, that local flexibility, with the ability to evaluate what happens in practice, is valuable.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does the Minister envisage that CSOs from one police authority might be used by another, for example when forces co-operate to cover a big event? If so, CSOs working for one authority might have different powers from those granted by the authority to whom they are on loan. How on earth would that work?

Mr. Denham: The legislation only enables a CSO to exercise the powers when they are on duty in the area covered by the force concerned. There are no cross-boundary powers. I shall come to the broader cross-boundary or street-by-street issue raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire in a moment.

The argument used by the hon. Member for Lewes is quite interesting. He mentioned parking offences in support of his case about confusion. In some areas such offences are dealt with by police traffic wardens, and in others such offences have been decriminalised and are dealt with by local authority employees. Some local authorities have contracted out such enforcement. There is a difference between the powers of police traffic wardens and those of local authority parking attendants. It has not been brought to my attention that that has caused massive confusion in the enforcement of traffic laws up and down the country.

There are other variations. London parks police have different powers from other police officers on the streets of London. Under local government legislation, there are differences between the powers of London parks police and those of police in the few other areas that have analogous legislation—and, of course, those in areas that have no such legislation. Those powers are, again, different from those of the British Transport police. We do not encounter massive practical problems because of those different approaches. The public seem to be able to accept them.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I am still troubled by the problem of a CSO having power on one side of the street but not the other side. The Minister has not yet addressed that. I wonder whether he envisages there being any provision for hot pursuit by a CSO trying to apprehend a criminal, such as that provided for pursuit across state lines in America. Will it be legitimate for the CSO to exercise his powers briefly in the other borough when pursuing someone offending in his borough?

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Mr. Denham: The answer, which I thought I had already given, is no. CSOs will not be able to exercise their powers outside their police force area, whether in hot or cold pursuit. I shall come to how we expect police forces to resolve the boundary issues in practice in a moment.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): To pick up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), if there were a struggle between a person and a CSO on one side of the street, and in the struggle, the person managed to get to the other side, would they then be safe?

Mr. Denham: A degree of common sense would be required under those circumstances. Let us deal with the street boundary issue. The important point is that officers will, of course, be able to exercise only the powers that are legally available to them. The case of a CSO without a specific power attempting to exercise it over a citizen would not arise. Trying to do so would be a disciplinary offence at the very least. Indeed, there is provision in the Bill for sanctions against CSOs who attempt to exercise powers that they do not have.

Because of the accountability of the chief officer, and the way that the legislation is set out, we should not expect CSOs to attempt to use a power that they may not exercise against a citizen.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) recognise that the picture being painted of villains perpetrating nuisance behaviour and leaping from one police force area to another is hardly likely to happen? Certainly, people in the more remote valley communities that I represent would feel blessed if they had the opportunity to travel so much.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is possible to come up with a bizarre selection of powers and attempt to mock the Bill, but the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire acknowledged that one should not go too far down that road.

I believe that we can rely on the professionalism of the chief officers, their legal duties and responsibilities and on the way in which they set up CSO schemes to select sensible powers that are appropriate to the policing needs of their area.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: I should like to make some progress. It is reasonable for us to expect neighbouring police officers to continue to have professional discussions about cross-border issues and common problems. The alternative is that we standardise at the outset the same powers throughout the country. In the development of a new element of the police service, such standardisation would be a wrong way in which to proceed. It would deny us and the police service the ability to gain from the experience of what works effectively in practice.

Mr. Hawkins: A related, but slightly different, point has been raised with me by some rank-and-file police officers in my area. One problem faced by police officers is that of drunken young men who constantly challenge authority. Does the Minister accept that,

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when new CSOs are in operation, drunken youths could say, ''You can't do that. You don't have the power.'' In one area, a CSO might have been given such a power, while in another part he may not. Rank-and- file officers are saying that such a difference will put CSOs in danger.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman raised two separate issues, the first being that someone may challenge the power of an officer. It has already been drawn to the attention of the Committee that that potential challenge could exist under the existing byelaws that govern drinking in public places. The ability of a person to challenge a police officer in one part of town and say that he cannot stop him drinking in public or confiscate the alcohol, but that he can take that action in another place is theoretically a challenge that can be mounted at the moment.

I share the views of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. When byelaws have been brought in, they have reduced drunkenness in public places. I look to an extension of those byelaws throughout the country. The kernel of the debate is that it is possible to consider theoretical problems, but we need to look at practical circumstances under which the law potentially gives rise to anomalies, but can be dealt with in practice. A separate issue concerns the practical exercise of a power by CSOs, but CSOs operating in an area in which the chief constable had chosen not to give them powers over drinking in public places would have no business to exercise such powers. Clearly, a critical part of the exercise is to ensure that CSOs are properly trained in the exercise of the designated powers that they have been given.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the matter. However, a misapprehension has arisen from two sources. First, I spoke to the Police Federation yesterday. It said that in all probability CSOs will be used to deal with low-level problems, but that such problems are often the most difficult ones. Secondly, I shall paraphrase a series of statements that were made to me in Newark nick on Friday night. The sergeants and the constables were broadly expecting—[Interruption.] I was a guest, unlike my predecessor.

 
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