Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Before we pass on from this clause, I want the Minister to explain why the oath is being changed. I disagree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on the matter.

The oath has long referred to carrying out the office,

    ''without favour or affection, malice or ill will''.

That is a poetic form of words, but it has been replaced by a thoroughly modern, new Labour phrase. The new oath refers to carrying out the office

    ''with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people''.

Why is it necessary to change a form of words that has served us well, and which reflects the history of our language? That change is similar to opting for the modern, rather than the traditional, form of marriage vows.

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Mr. Hawkins: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). Unlike the Government and their Back Benchers, I am not obsessed with the cult of modernisation. I entered this House to uphold the traditional virtues of this country. I hope that the Minister has a good explanation for this change. I do not like getting rid of things hallowed by tradition and usage, unless there is a very good reason for doing so, and I would prefer to keep the traditional language. A parallel can be drawn between this change and the difference between the King James Bible, with which many of us grew up, and the appalling modern grammar of some new versions of the Bible. [Interruption.] I prefer the traditional version of the oath, as do most police officers. They will not be encouraged by this watering-down of the language.

The Chairman: Order. It is difficult to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying because of the continual susurration from the Government Benches.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to you, Miss Widdecombe.

I am delighted if I am provoking ire on the Government Back Benches, because one of the Opposition's most important tasks is to defend the traditions of this country against the raging cult of modernisation. I will not labour that point, because there are other matters to raise. However, I hear encouragement from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), and I am sure that he also wishes to express his views on the subject.

Mr. Johnson: I wish to add two points to the compendious case that has already been put to the Minister. I want him to justify the exclusion from the modern, politically correct, organic version of the oath of the words,

    ''Our Sovereign Lady the Queen'',

and ''Her Majesty's subjects''. Is some subtle constitutional agenda in play here? Does the new oath envisage an attenuation of Her Majesty's sovereignty? Is the requirement of conformity with the treaty of Maastricht, or something similar, the reason why we are no longer allowed to refer to ''Her Majesty's subjects''?

Mr. Denham: I fear that I must remind my newsagent to deliver The Spectator this week, so that I can read what the hon. Gentleman has written.

I find myself in the middle ground between the rampant republicanism of the Liberal Democrats and the die-hard conservatism of the official Opposition. Some important points must be made on the matter.

One of the unique characteristics of the police service in this country is that police officers are servants of the Crown—they are not servants of this Government, the previous Government, or the future Government. That gives them a unique constitutional position, as we have discussed in debates on other topics. Unlike teachers and other public servants, police officers are not employees. As servants of the Crown, they have more in common with members of the armed forces than with any other group of public

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servants. It is important to have an oath that retains that unique nature of the police service.

The reasons for the change are twofold. Anyone who is not prepared to swear an oath that they will serve the Queen, as all other police constables do, will exclude themselves from entry to the police service. There may be a category of people, as the hon. Gentleman said, who would like to join the police service but are not prepared to swear the oath, and they could not be accepted. Equally, however, citizens of other countries who owe their duty of citizenship to another Head of State or nation state would have difficulty in swearing an oath of allegiance to the sovereign of another country. The wording of the oath, on which Buckingham palace has been fully consulted, enables all police officers to swear to serve the Queen but avoids citizens of other countries having to swear a constitutional oath that they could not make.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Is it not time that we owned up to the constitutional fiction that the police are servants of the monarch? They are servants of the people.

10 am

Mr. Denham: That would be an interesting debate and I invite my Friend to seek an Adjournment debate on the matter at a time of his choosing.

Something that strikes me quite forcibly and, I suspect, my hon. Friend, because of his knowledge of law, is that for the vast majority of police officers their status as servants of the Queen is enormously important. That applies to police officers with a huge range of private views on political issues and so on. It is part of the status that they value enormously. We do not want to change that, nor do we want a two-tier system of oaths whereby police officers who are British citizens swear one oath and others swear another.

The second point of the hon. Member for Henley concerned the change from Her Majesty's subjects to people and property. The reality is that we would expect an American tourist in London who was the victim of crime to receive the same quality of service, respect and treatment as a British citizen who was the victim of crime. The wording of the traditional oath—I understand what was said about the language—is technically restricted to British citizens and that is not the way in which we want our police service to operate. The broadening of its range of responsibilities is reflected in the oath.

Mr. Johnson: Could the Minister clarify why the phrase

    ''Our Sovereign Lady the Queen''

has been removed? Is that because the phrase might stick in the craw of some foreign policeman or a republican? Is the purpose of the change to attenuate the sincerity of the oath?

Mr. Denham: The issue is the difficulty that arises for people who may be prepared to promise to serve the Queen as police officers but would find it difficult to swear to the sovereignty of the Queen.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 70

Director General of NCIS

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: I rise to make a brief point about which we were again approached by the Police Federation. It is concerned that the clause would enable someone who is not attested as a constable to be appointed director general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but there is no similar provision relating to the director general of the National Crime Squad. The federation believes that it would be wholly inappropriate for someone who is not an attested police officer to head NCIS and to have command of attested police officers, so it is opposed to the change. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on the matter.

It is right to say that I have recently had a briefing at NCIS, with a couple of former senior colleagues in the House, but that was under Chatham house rules. I shall specifically not refer to that in anything that I say on this or any clause, and I should not want it to be taken that anything that I say results in any way from that briefing. I am speaking for myself and my party and where I quote another organisation such as the Police Federation I am happy to put forward its view. I thought that I should make that clear.

It is, however, fair to say that that very helpful briefing reinforced my personal view that the Police Federation is right about the matter. It is very difficult to see how someone who was not attested as a constable could be as effective in running NCIS as someone who was. We want someone running NCIS who has the experience of a long career in the police and reached a senior level. We have already seen a situation in which former Members of Parliament—so far, one from each side of the House—have been involved as chairmen of NCIS and the NCS but, from my observations, I think that the Police Federation is absolutely right to say that someone who is attested as a constable should be directing the operational side of the organisation. I shall be very interested to hear whether the Minister can justify making the change.

Mr. Denham: We may have to agree to differ on that. NCIS is not a police but a multi-agency organisation. It has staff seconded from 22 national and international agencies. It plays a very important role in the fight against organised crime but it is for that reason that we want to ensure that the post of director general always attracts applications from the best candidates, potentially with a variety of relevant backgrounds. As the hon. Gentleman will have learnt from his time at NCIS, it focuses on intelligence, not on operational work. It informs the work of operational agencies, particularly but not exclusively the police. In intelligence work, police officers are not the only individuals with the right experience and personal qualities. Clearly, there are many people in such agencies as Customs and Excise, which are important components of NCIS, who potentially

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have the relevant expertise to hold the post of its director general.

The change is being made for NCIS and not for the National Crime Squad because the NCS is a police organisation, carrying out operational police activities, and should be led by a police officer. The breadth of organisations involved in and co-operating in NCIS, and the reality that any one of those organisations could potentially produce the best candidate for the job of director general, has led us to the conclusion that there is no present need to restrict that post to a serving police officer.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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Prepared 27 June 2002