Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: Order. As members of the Committee know, I keep a wary eye on interventions. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask his question.

Patrick Mercer: Thank you. Most of the officers accepted the fact that CSOs could be used to police the streets more effectively, but considered that their powers had to be absolutely consistent. There was to be no variety in power because they were worried that that would lead to confusion and a legal morass. I do not know whether they understand the point, but they are certainly concerned.

10.15 am

Mr. Denham: I can deal with both those points. We do recognise the escalation of low-level problems, yet there has been consensus in the Committee on the role of neighbourhood and street wardens. They deal with

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low-level nuisance problems without the use of powers. On Monday, I was in Newport, an area in which neighbourhood wardens, their employers and the police are looking to use the accreditation scheme to confer additional powers. The wardens are very effective in dealing with youth nuisance around the estates, which they do on the basis of their training, their skill in interacting with members of the public and their experience in managing difficult situations.

Theoretically, asking someone who has only civilian powers to go and talk to a group of kids hanging around the late-night off-licence could present difficulties. Neighbourhood and street wardens, who are properly trained to know when it is not appropriate to intervene, can be effective. Later on we will debate whether community safety officers and CSOs will get additional powers and proper training in the best use of those powers. Training in how to avoid conflict is an essential part of the exercise. The forces that employ CSOs will make the commitment to training and support to enable them to avoid conflict.

On absolute consistency, the decision for the Committee is straightforward. If the Committee were invited to include in the Bill only that set of powers on which everyone is absolutely agreed—the lowest common denominator—it would be a somewhat less extensive list than the one in the Bill as drafted. Forces such as the Metropolitan police would be unable to get what they want—the full suite of powers and a range of CSOs—and evaluate the effectiveness of the powers in practice. That would be a poor way of implementing the new legislation.

What can we expect down the line in terms of experience of operation use by police services as CSOs increase? Should it prove necessary, we can introduce a greater degree of standardisation—through the police's own mechanisms, such as the Association of Chief Police Officers' pooling of knowledge, through the increasing role of the National Centre for Policing Excellence that we discussed in earlier clauses and, if necessary, through the powers that exist to establish a code of practice, as under clause 2. However, that should be done on the basis of evaluated evidence of what works.

I am confident that diversity will decrease in a few years' time. As best, police practice is identified, and there will be a coming together of key elements. That is not to say that it will be standard across the country. The needs of a police service in a dense metropolitan area will always be different from those in rural areas. However, we should expect the police service and the framework that we are developing in the Bill to tackle any real anomalous problems that may arise.

Norman Baker: I have listened to the Minister with great care, as always. Will he put on record whether he believes philosophically that CSOs across the country should have a uniform that is recognisable and in common, or whether the local variations to which he referred require separate uniforms?

Mr. Denham: The key issue is to ensure that CSOs are identifiable by members of the public. There is no absolute standardisation of traffic warden uniforms, for example, but most are identifiable as such wherever

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one goes and whoever employs them. It is a professional issue and one that the service will carefully examine. The key test is that there should be no confusion by members of the public about whether a person is a CSO. That is extremely important.

I do not want to anticipate a later debate, but in practice neighbourhood wardens and street wardens do not all wear the same uniform, if we can call it a uniform. They tend to wear distinctive dress and insignia, and are recognised in the communities that they serve.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): Before the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) intervened, my right hon. Friend was making a powerful case for local flexibility. However, one matter still troubles me. I do not see why, to avoid confusion, we cannot give all the CSOs standard powers and then leave how those powers are exercised in individual areas to the operational decision making of the respective forces.

Mr. Denham: Few of those in the police service whom we consulted would have welcomed the idea of employing a group of people with legal powers but, at an operational level, leaving it to the chief constable to instruct them whether to exercise those powers. The preference is for the approach that we have taken, which is that the decision is for the chief officer. We could have legislated for what I described as the lowest common denominator set of powers, and then allowed others discretion. However, on balance when we drafted the Bill, we felt it best to allow the approach that we used.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being patient. Will the system allow a chief constable to vary the powers regularly, if he so decides? He might decide that one power should be withdrawn if it had caused problems, and that another should be added. What process has to be gone through to add powers?

Mr. Denham: The chief officer would be able to change the powers of CSOs. I might suddenly receive an urgent message from the people from whom I receive urgent messages, but my recollection is that the Bill does not lay down a different specific procedure for dealing with that. As we discussed on Tuesday, we expect the matter to be discussed by the chief officer and the police authority. It is sensible to expect police officers not to make sudden and arbitrary changes on a repeated basis over a period. I cannot imagine that any chief officer would want to do that. After all, they remain responsible for the activity of the CSOs and the delivery—

Norman Baker: Help is at hand.

Mr. Denham: Yes, but the help at hand confirms what I thought, which is that the ability to modify the designation does not require a separate procedure. On some issues, we believe that chief officers will handle the use of the powers sensibly, and that there is a point at which we should not prescribe every dot and comma of how they go about doing it.

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Mr. Paice: As ever, I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has responded. I readily accepted in my opening remarks that some of his arguments were clear and one had to understand them, although we may come to a different conclusion. However, some of his remarks would have been best left unsaid, not least the suggestion that the motive for the amendment is that we believe that chief officers will not make sensible decisions. I find that quite offensive, and the motive is far from it.

As the Minister said in other contexts, throughout the Committee's proceedings we have been in favour of allowing chief officers much more flexibility, which would lead us to the view that he chose to take on the amendment. The credibility of the scheme is so critical that consistency is important. We are not concerned with whether sensible decisions are made, but whether we have a consistent system that the public will understand and appreciate.

It is rather disingenuous to say that there would automatically be variation simply because we have made noises about support for pilots. By their very nature, pilots will mean variation. That does not mean to say that the whole system should have variation under the Bill. At this stage, there is no question of pilots anyway. We will have that debate later, if at all. We can deal only with the parts of the Bill that we have reached. It is correct to say that parks police and some transport police have different powers, but that is a minute point. Few people come across parks police, and most understand that they have fewer powers. Hardly anybody ever sees a transport policeman. I use the railways a lot, but I have never seen one on a train to my constituency or around the country.

In response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), the Minister said that few who had been consulted were in favour of the discretion to add to a minimum level of powers. I would add that few whom the Minister consulted wanted CSOs at all. The fact is, as the hon. Member for Lewes observed, they are almost going to be forced upon them—[Hon. Members: ''No, they are not.'']—Hon. Members may not think that that is the case, but we established in previous debates that the Government intend to set up a ring-fenced fund to promote CSOs. Chief constables may find that their only way to access money for more person-power on the streets is to use CSOs, whether they like them or not.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): If the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the imposition of CSOs by the Home Secretary, why is he arguing against the ability of separate chief constables to determine what powers those officers have?

Mr. Paice: In my view that is a nonsensical question. I am in favour of more money for more manpower on the streets. However, I believe that chief constables should have complete discretion—with the authority—as to whether to spend it on CSOs or on more officers. Most of the chief constables to whom I have spoken would rather have two regular officers than three CSOs. The point is that powers must have public credibility. That is my theme for the morning.

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We have considered the Minister's points and he has not convinced us. If the innovation is to work, it must have credibility with the public and that can be achieved only with a level of consistency that I fear will be removed by the Bill as it stands. I wish to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 12.

Division No. 7]

Baker, Norman Brooke, Annette Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl Hawkins, Mr. Nick Hermon, Lady
Johnson, Mr. Boris Mercer, Patrick Osborne, Mr. George Paice, Mr. James

Baird, Vera Borrow, Mr. David Challen, Mr. Colin Denham, Mr. John Follett, Barbara Heppell, Mr. John
Lucas, Ian MacDougall, Mr. John Munn, Ms Meg Prentice, Bridget Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul Stoate, Dr. Howard

Question accordingly negatived.

10.30 am

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