Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Vera Baird (Redcar): I welcome you, Miss Widdecombe, and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) frequently gets carried away by his own rhetoric, which is amusing for us all. He seems to be suggesting that there is something mandatory about all these powers. The legislation merely empowers a chief constable to look at his own operational area, and to decide whether accrediting any schemes would be useful to him. If he shares the hon. Gentleman's reservations about some particular schemes, he simply will not accredit them.

As far as I can see, there is no prospect of a judicial review leading to anybody being compelled to accredit a scheme, because that is entirely within the chief constable's operational discretion. The chief constable is the person with the best view; I would have thought that the courts would readily accept that.

I wish to raise another concern by, once again, sheltering under the licence given by the Chair. It is inappropriate that these schemes should be limited to local authorities, for the many reasons that have been set out. However, although I do not advocate that limit, there would be an advantage to imposing it; local authorities are at least public authorities, within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998, whereas many other people who can be accredited with the powers to have officers will not, on the face of it, be public authorities within the meaning of that Act. It is inappropriate to say that the answer is to confine those people to local authorities.

It is hugely important that crime and disorder partnerships, neighbourhood renewal, housing associations and registered social landlords—even in my constituency, the single regeneration budget group—should be able to have enhanced power to take responsibility for their own communities. Surely, the issue is one of devolving the power to produce a scheme that fits into the local community at its most local level, and is best assessed by those concerned.

In my view, it is out of the question and of no use to the people who are suffering crime and disorder on the ground to limit the scheme to local authorities. However, the Human Rights Act protects individuals' human rights only against public authorities.

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11.45 am

Mr. Stinchcombe: I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way and I am extremely interested in her point. Is it not true that, once an organisation is accredited—even a private sector one—through exercise of the statutory powers to exercise certain public functions in law enforcement areas, it then falls within the remit of the Human Rights Act as a public authority?

Vera Baird: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's interest. He is also a lawyer and aware that the definition of a public authority includes any person who carries out functions of a public nature. I was going to come to that point later.

Human rights are not enforceable against anyone who is not a public authority. It is clear that, above all other types of agencies of the state, people with police powers should be subject to the Human Rights Act. If there was any real point in introducing that measure—and there were many—that was one of the most important. The fact that the officers will not have detention powers takes the worst bite out of any risk that they are not covered by the Act. None the less, they will have powers to demand names and addresses and seize alcohol. Also, the schedule allows the Home Secretary to increase or alter their powers. In a sense, we are legislating in the dark as to how future Home Secretaries may decide to empower such officers.

It is hugely important that officers fall within the ambit of the Human Rights Act. Not surprisingly, the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised the issue in its 15th report. I am a member of that Committee, as is the hon. Member for Lewes. We wanted reassurance from the Government about whether, in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough suggested, private employees could be public authorities. It is hard in any ordinary sense to countenance somebody running a shopping centre as being a public authority. The shopping centre near me in Middlesbrough is owned and run by Legal and General, which does not readily fall into the category of public authority, so we sought reassurance. The Government's provisional answer was that,

    ''The decision on which bodies are public authorities for the purpose of the 1998 Act is a matter for the courts.''

The trouble is that the state of current decisions is pretty chaotic—a clear finding at Court of Appeal level found that the Leonard Cheshire Foundation is not a public authority but that that the Poplar Housing Association is.

By extrapolating the notion that a Leonard Cheshire home could be a sheltered accommodation of a fair size, one might imagine that a warden scheme would be desirable. However, at present, such wardens would not be employed by a public authority, so would not be subject to the Human Rights Act, whereas a housing association would be. That is pretty chaotic. It is not satisfactory to legislate and then say, ''Even if the courts don't know what it means, we can leave it to them to decide in due course.'' The report states that

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    ''in the Government's view, those private employees who enter into arrangements with the chief officer of police to accredit employees and accredited persons themselves''

—the employee and the accreditor—

    ''would also be held to be 'public authorities' within the meaning of section 6(3)(b) of the 1998 Act''.

I deduce from that response that it is the Government's intention that anyone subject to an accredited scheme should be a public authority according to that definition. The only way that that will happen is if the Government say so, preferably in the Bill. If they are not willing to say that all accredited schemes must be public authorities, will the Minister make it clear that any ambiguity in their status could be cleared up? That way, if a legal case were to follow on from the issue and the powers, the now well-known authority of Pepper v. Hart would allow the parties to bring up his remarks in support of the assertion that the schemes are public authorities. I urge him to help with that clarification.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for your tolerance in accepting wide-ranging debate, Miss Widdecombe. It has been helpful, as several important issues have been raised.

It might be useful if I set out the slightly wider context to the debate. I shall draw on the example given by the hon. Member for Henley, who would like to ensure that his hypothetical magazine does not employ anyone with a dubious background, or anyone who might have been responsible in the past for telling tall tales and spreading malicious rumours or gossip about third parties—the sorts of things that a respectable magazine would wish to protect itself against. However, he should not be looking to the accreditation scheme to protect himself—

Mr. Osborne: He's got Black Rod.

Mr. Denham: An important part of the wider background to our discussion on the private sector is the establishment of the Security Industry Authority. From next April, it will progressively bring the private guarding industry into a system of national regulation and will apply some basic minimum standards to that occupation. We anticipate that any private sector company covered by accreditation will be registered with and regulated by the SIA. However, chief constables will wish to build upon the basic minimum standard that the SIA would bring into play. I mention that because issues were raised about accreditation and tasks such as checking employees' histories. Such things certainly need to be done, but might already be fulfilled by the registration requirements of the SIA. They might mean additional local responsibilities.

The first big point of interest is whether accreditation schemes should extend to non-local authority schemes. As far as housing association and other schemes are concerned, it is worth recognising that 35 per cent. of the neighbourhood warden or street warden schemes that we have identified are not local authority schemes; they are run by other organisations, typically housing associations and registered social landlords. To exclude those schemes—and I suspect that they will exist in greater

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numbers in future—from accreditation does not make sense, as they already involve some liaison and co-operation with the police. Bringing them into a formal accreditation scheme will strengthen rather than weaken their role.

Private sector schemes were mentioned. In places like Bluewater shopping centre or Trafford Park industrial estate, which was mentioned in the police reform White Paper, there is already a working relationship between police and the private sector in order to develop the best use of the extended police family. It is in the public interest that there should be a framework that formally acknowledges that co-operation locally and ensures that there are uniform minimum standards across the police force before someone takes part in an accreditation system.

Removing the private sector from accreditation schemes will not stop co-operation between the private guarding industry and the police; it will just remove the possibility of bringing that relationship within a consistent legal framework if the chief constable chooses to do so. I do not believe that it is to anyone's advantage to exclude the private sector. I shall deal with issues relating to accountability and complaints, but I do not believe that an issue of principle is involved that private-sector organisations or non-local authority organisations should be excluded from accreditation schemes.

Several issues have been raised that follow on from that. First, would an organisation or private security company apply to the chief constable for accreditation? The hon. Member for Lewes said that people would apply to the chief constable and no doubt be approved. It is not a system that provides a right to apply for accreditation. The chief constable has total discretion over that.

Secondly, there will be only one accreditation scheme for an area. The Bill does not set out a series of bilateral relationships between the chief constable and local organisations. To have coherence, the accreditation scheme will be a scheme for the area in which the organisations that the chief constable approves under the Bill can formally participate. That may help the Committee understand the Bill.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked who will control or deploy those covered by the accreditation scheme. Clearly, we would expect the exact working relationship between the police and members of the extended police family to be covered by the local accreditation scheme. However, the day-to-day responsibility for deploying neighbourhood wardens, for example, will lie with the local authority—the employer. Nevertheless, one might expect an accreditation scheme to set out the arrangements and availability of neighbourhood wardens, for example, to have briefing meetings with the police. Hon. Members who have spoken to local neighbourhood wardens will know that it is usually part of the system to have, on a weekly or fortnightly basis, an hour or so briefing meeting involving police and neighbourhood wardens. Such matters might be covered by an accreditation scheme.

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