Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Vera Baird: Does the Government intend that these people should be public authorities, regardless of any speculation about what the decision of the court might ultimately be? Is it the Government's intention that they should be public authorities?

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Mr. Denham: Today, my intention is not to go any further than what I have said, and to repeat the position that we gave to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. However, I hope that I have been helpful by giving the clearest view that I can on what we think these employers' position will be in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Are the Government seeking to continue to legislate in the current terms because it is their view that these employers will be subject to that Act?

Mr. Denham: We are continuing to legislate in a manner that leaves us confident that we are not extending police powers in a way that lays us vulnerable to the charge of ignoring or stepping around human rights legislation. However, for reasons that have been rehearsed elsewhere, the Government have chosen not to attempt the task of naming every single organisation that could be a public authority in relation to specific bits of the legislation.

If I have overlooked any of the issues that have been raised, I hope to be able to respond to them in a moment.

Norman Baker: The last few minutes of the Minister's speech were very interesting, and I will turn to the matters that he addressed shortly.

The Minister has not really discussed the philosophical issue as to whether it is right for private sector bodies whose interests are, necessarily, their own, to be exercising police powers in the public interest. He has also failed to address the point that members of the public who might accept being given a ticket for littering by a police officer—or even by a CSO—might not accept being given one by an employee of an organisation such as Tesco. I think that he is in danger of undermining respect for the law through the exercise of the powers that he wishes to hand over to private sector employees. He also failed to pick up on the point that there may be a conflict of interest between the private company and what the public wish to see in, for example, the complaints procedure. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire touched on that.

The Bill establishes the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That has been widely welcomed by everyone in the country as going some way towards dealing with a problem that everyone recognises: the fact that the police are judge and jury in their own courts. It was for that reason that the Government brought forward the proposals, but having introduced the concept into the Bill, they are now undermining it by excluding a range of officers from the provision. In some ways, excluding private sector employees is worse than excluding public sector employees.

12.15 pm

What will be the reaction of a private sector company if it receives a complaint about one of its employees and their activities? Will it say, ''Yes, that employee was wrong; we have a major failure in our company. We are happy to take the knocks in the local

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paper, and see our reputation diminished. It is absolutely right; there was a problem here''? Or will the reaction be ''We got that wrong. Let's try to cover it up''? I suggest that in many cases, the latter will be the reaction. The Minister is simply wrong not to include those people under the umbrella of the IPCC.

The Minister is also wrong not to recognise the potential conflict of interest in smaller matters. Let us suppose that a shopping centre had a street cafe that was licensed to sell alcohol. That street cafe might be happy to pay more rent if there was to be no other alcohol consumed in that area. It would be in the interests of the persons running the shopping centre, who might be agents of the accreditation scheme, to be hard on anyone consuming alcohol in that area. That may not be necessary for public safety reasons or to prevent public disorder, but may simply be convenient in order to please someone paying rent to that company. All sorts of conflicts could arise, and the Minister has not dealt with them.

The Minister mentioned existing schemes, and seemed to use them as justification for saying that everything will be all right on the night with them, but the hon. Member for Tatton correctly said that those involved in existing schemes do not have police powers. Such schemes operate voluntarily with the consent of the public precisely because they do not have police powers. The Minister is proposing a marked difference in the way that those schemes operate, but assumes that there will be no difference in the public response to that.

The Minister also talked about the necessity for co-operation with the private sector, as if any hon. Member suggested that that should not occur. Of course it should; it does and it must. However, that is different to giving private employees police powers, and that is the issue that I hope I addressed when I spoke to the amendment. The Minister has given some colour to the idea of what an accreditation scheme might be, but it is still not clear to me—I do not know about other hon. Members—exactly how it will operate.

There is to be one scheme per area, but it is not clear how big an area is. Will it be a police authority area, or a town centre, or something else? Nor is it clear how many employers from private sector organisations could be involved in a scheme. He has not effectively addressed the issue of the conditions for ending the scheme. The hon. Member for Wellingborough intervened on the Minister on the subject of the difficulties that a chief constable could face if an organisation running a scheme did not want to be removed. It might say that it had lost respectability, or that its share price tumbled at a particular instant. It may think it necessary to protect its public reputation by taking action; that seems to me to be quite a likely scenario. We do not know what the exit strategy is. It is not clear from clause 36 or 37. We are going into the scheme in the dark.

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We are also going into the dark and hoping for the best with our fingers crossed in regard to the points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar about the relationship of accredited schemes to the Human Rights Act. We will have a topsy-turvy upside down world in which private employees will be classed as public authorities, according to the Minister, although that is not definite. We are assuming that the court may take the view that the Minister's interpretation is right. However, that may fall apart and we may find that they are not public authorities at all. Although I am not a lawyer, deciding that private organisations and employees are actually public authorities takes some stretching of the imagination.

Mr. Denham: Is the hon. Gentleman telling the Committee that there are no circumstances in which private employees would be regarded as public authorities? Does he think that it sets a precedent?

Norman Baker: It is precedent setting in the sense that some real issues have been raised by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar about the relationship between the powers proposed under the Human Rights Act. A whole new body of people will have police powers for the first time, so there is no precedent. We are moving into unknown territory, and the Minister is taking unnecessary risks.

Vera Baird: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a specific provision in the Bill that allows for a private body to be dealt with as if it were a public authority. It is not as if one must impossibly transpose Lloyd's bank or whoever owns the shopping centre in my constituency into a public authority. If such organisations carry out public duties they will be deemed to be public authorities, and it was the vagueness surrounding that point that required clarification.

I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has put his finger on the point: if the Government introducing the legislation express their expectation that the courts will find that what have been created are public authorities, it means that they intend them to be that, and they will have difficulty escaping that later on. Frankly, I do not think that they will want to escape it. It would be surprising if the Government who introduced the Human Rights Act wanted to exclude vast chunks of people from its remit.

Norman Baker: I very much hope that that is the case. I regularly give credit to the Government for introducing the Act, which is a major step forward for civil liberties. However, the hon. and learned Lady asked whether all the accredited schemes would involve public authorities, and the Minister replied that he did not wish to go further than the comments supplied to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. He said, ''It is likely.'' We have heard the intentions—the Minister nodded during the intervention, which I put on record, but we have little more than that.

Mr. Osborne: Perhaps he was nodding off.

Norman Baker: Perhaps.

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The Home Secretary may subsequently alter the powers. The Minister relied on the Security Industry Authority, and I respect its work. Is he saying that no organisation will be allowed to be part of an accredited scheme unless it is a member of the Security Industry Authority? It would be helpful if he did say that, but I am not sure that he did. The organisation is an umbrella body in a sense, paid for by companies that are subject to its oversight. Therefore, it is not entirely independent and could be compared with the Press Complaints Commission, which is not without criticism for the way in which it operates.

Mr. Denham: On the point about the SIA, in the information that I gave the Committee, I said that it existed and that I believed that chief constables would be likely to build upon it. It is right that there is no requirement in the Bill for the scheme to depend on the SIA. However, given the existence of a regulatory body, there is a reasonable expectation that chief constables would think twice before putting into accreditation a scheme that was eligible to register and had been rejected by the SIA.

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