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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, in practice 97 per cent of benefit cheques are received within two working days of posting and other urgent communications to clients are posted in good time. For example, notification of work-focused interviews are sent by first-class post at least four days before the interview date and, if necessary, clients are given three opportunities to attend over and beyond good cause.
Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the ability to communicate with claimants by post is a vital part of the work of her department? Does she also agree that despite those few encouraging statistics, the assumption that communications are received within two working days, as a result of changes in the Post Office, is degenerating from the optative into a legal fiction? Will she attempt to ensure that in any discussions on the future of the Post Office her department is involved in putting the case for it to remain a genuinely universal service?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I certainly agree with the last point made by the noble Earl. The position of the Government is clear; we are committed to the postal service remaining a universal service. However, I wonder whether the noble Earl can help me because I do not understand where he has identified the problem. As I have said, although 97 per cent of all correspondence arrives within two days, urgent notifications such as interview details, are posted four days ahead. Furthermore, if the letter fails to arrive, another opportunity is given. If that letter fails to arrive, then a third opportunity is offered. Furthermore, most such notifications are in fact made by telephone and then followed up with a letter. I do not fully understand the problem identified by the noble Earl.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if the Post Office had been given the commercial freedom promised in the last Labour Party manifesto and if it was properly funded and free of political interference, then it would be safe to assume that the once great Post Office could be relied on to deliver within two days?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I would hope that that was the case. However, that would be what is called a counterfactual; that is, if and only if. It is the case that most of the department's communications with people, including pensioners, are conducted on the telephone. Those calls are followed up by letter. Perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has evidence to suggest that people have been seriously inconvenienced by the failure of key letters to arrive when they should have and, as a result, suffered hardship. I do not have any such evidence.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the problem may not lie entirely with the Post Office? In exchanges yesterday in another place. it was pointed out that the Secretary of State, in writing to his opposite number concerning pensions, addressed his letter to:
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that those of us who have lived in other countries still find the postal service in this country remarkably good in comparison? Can she also comment on the problems that arise when a letter is misaddressed? Usually there is quite a time lag before the letter that has been wrongly addressed is returned to the sender. Does this situation present any problems in her department?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The one area where a problem can arise is not so much within the department but when local authorities send out housing benefit cheques to a tenant who has moved on. On occasion the landlord will then collar the cheque or giro. Housing benefit is the one area which so far as I am aware has a problem. As a result, around a year ago the Government encouraged local authorities to insist that the Post Office does not redirect giro cheques; that is, if the letter cannot be delivered to the individual, it should be sent back to the department. I am pleased to say that
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision to contain disruption of public services by collective industrial action; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.
In previous debates the Minister commented that it would be "inconceivable" that this would not happen but, as I have pointed out before, we must concern ourselves with what is set out on the face of the Bill rather than what we think will happen. It is important that the approval procedure is subject to the proper
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I can be extremely brief in my response. I agree with the spirit of the noble Lord's amendments. As proof of that, if the noble Lord will look at Clause 35, subsection (4), he will see that we require annual policing plans to give details of the existence or otherwise of designated support staff under Schedule 4 to the Bill, as well as any plans for the establishment of a community safety accreditation scheme. Obviously it will be for the chief officer to draft the plan, which will need to be approved by the police authority before it is issued. However, I believe that what is already contained in that part of the Bill meets the noble Lord's genuine point, with which of course I agree.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. I think that I can take his assurance that the point is covered sufficiently. For that reason, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 133 and to speak also to Amendments Nos. 135, 172, 175 and 177. Perhaps I may deal first with Amendments Nos. 133 and 135 which address the arrangements for accreditation. No one would dispute that the proposals in Part 4 of the Bill represent a potentially significant step change in policing in this country.
It is no secret that both the Metropolitan Police Authority, which I chair, and the Metropolitan Police force are keen to take advantage of the proposals for community support officers set out in Clause 34. But, as has frequently been mentioned in the House, we are aware that that enthusiasm is not shared by all of our colleagues in other police authorities and forces.
The most welcome of the Government's proposals is that the question of whether to have community support officers will be a matter of local choice. For a moment I shall put to one side the scepticism expressed by some noble Lords that the Government might use money or other incentives to force local police authorities and chief officers down that route. Assuming that the decision will be a purely local one, the question is who should make that decision and how should it be made. As the Bill stands, it would be entirely a matter for the chief constable or, in the Metropolitan Police area, the commissioner.
It is presented as a purely operational decision about the deployment of resources. I suggest that it is much more than that. The introduction on our streets of community support officers exercising police powers has significant and far reaching implications for the
At the heart of these amendments is the view that any local decision to have community support officers must be supported by local people. It is the job of police authorities to represent the views of those local people and to oversee the force on their behalf. Decisions about the principle of whether to have such officers should therefore be a matter for the police authority. Decisions about whether or not to designate this or that individual as a community support officer are rightly for the chief constable.
The amendment seeks to address that key element, which is missing from the Government's proposals. It would ensure that decisions about whether to introduce, or indeed continue with, community support officers in an area are made by the police authority. To help in that decision, the chief officer would prepare a draft scheme, which would address fundamental issues such as how the use of community support officers will help to meet the national and local policing priorities and local policing plan; the standards or criteria individuals will need to satisfy to become community support officers; how such officers will be trained and equipped; and the costs and benefits of using such community support officers.
I do not see this as a bureaucratic or burdensome exercise. On the contrary, as a matter of good management practice, before taking such a step the chief officer would need to think through all of these issues. However, by drawing the issues into a draft scheme, the police authority could then engage in a full and open debate about the issues with their communities and with partners such as local authorities.
I am aware that the Minister may choose to direct me to the provision in Clause 35(4), but I wonder whether those who drafted that provision had any first-hand experience of developing and agreeing a policing plan. The policing plan is not a vehicle for the kind of decision-making process and considerations of principle which my amendments are designed to provide. I welcome Clause 35(4), but let us be clear about what it does. It simply requires the chief officer to say in the draft policing plan whether any powers in Schedule 4 will be applied to designated persons. As the clause is drafted, the chief officer could simply report that this has been done after the event.
There must be agreement and approval by the police authorities, as the representatives of local people, before such steps are taken if we are to increase and strengthen community confidence in policing. The whole purpose of the introduction of community support officers is to provide local public reassurance. That is why the arrangements are there.
I am quite prepared to accept that the detailed drafting of my amendment may not be to the Government's tasteI am sure that we can come to suitable arrangements before Third Reading if that is a problembut the principle is clear.
I turn now, briefly, to Amendments Nos. 172, 175 and 177. Under Clause 35, chief officers will have to produce a community safety accreditation scheme setting out the arrangements for giving police powers to persons outside the police service, such as local authority wardens. It seems rather like the scheme that I have asked for in relation to designated persons. I wonder why there is no proposal for a similar scheme for the introduction of community support officers. I welcome the fact that in Clause 35, at least, the Government think it appropriate for the police authority to be consulted by the chief officer about any such scheme. I suggest that we need to take that one small step further and provide for the police authority to approve the scheme.
As with community support officers, the introduction of the safety accreditation schemes must have the support and consent of local people. Local police authorities will wish to seek the views of their communities on whether such a step is right for their areas before making a decision. The introduction of community support officers, wardens and others patrolling the streets with police powers is likely to have a significant impact on local policing. It is important that we monitor that impact and the effect of these schemes on local community confidence and reassurance. That is what Amendment No. 177 seeks to do.
Taken together, these amendments propose a number of minor safeguards as we venture into this brave new world. If the Minister feels unable to accept them, I hope that he will at least be prepared to take them away for consideration, and, if necessary, discuss ways of how these concerns may be accommodated before we come to Third Reading. The principle is a simple one. These are important additions to the portfolio of arrangements that can exist in a local area for the policing of that community. That is why the involvement, participation in discussions and approval of the police authority must be an essential part of the process of implementation. I beg to move.
I am grateful to my noble friend but I cannot accept his amendments. Basically, I do not accept the premise on which they are founded. We had an interesting debate yesterday about accusations that the Home Secretary is trying to micro-manage police forces. I do not think it is the function of police authorities to try to micro-manage chief constables. That is not their function. Their function is oversight. They should not have the role set out by my noble friend in his amendments. I hope that in due course noble Lords will agree to the Bill as drafted.
I accept that police authority members have a role as a voice on behalf of the general publicthat is their functionbut no one is going to kid me or anyone else that they actually represent anyone. I see signs of dissent from the representatives of police authorities. I know that I am in a minority on this because, quite clearly, there is a large caucus of representatives of police authorities. I wish there were more policemen than police authority members in the Chamber to balance matters up a little.
Let us not beat about the bush. The fact is that if one person in three knows the name of his Member of Parliament, I doubt whether more than one person in a thousand knows the name of any member of the police authority in his area. Let us not elevate this issue way beyond what it is. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, will be known, by name, by all the people in the area of which he is a member of the police authority.
I say that as a caveat because police authorities have the crucial role of oversight as part of the tripartite arrangements. They should look at what is happening and what the chief officer is doingthat is absolutely crucialbut giving them the powers proposed in these amendments would be going much too far.
Amendment No. 133 would require a chief officer to consult his police authority before designating the community support staff. Amendment No. 135 is wide-ranging and comprehensive. It is very similar to an amendment tabled in Committee but has a new subsection in regard to equipment following our debates about this issue in Committee. As well as being comprehensive, it is potentially time consuming in its effect.
The amendment proposes a system of consultation with the police authority which is based on establishing a designation scheme for the extension of powers to support staff employed under Clause 34. The proposal would be drafted by the chief officer and submitted to the relevant police authority in the same way as the annual policing plan. As I said in Committee, in many ways this would duplicate the police plan process which is now established.
Amendments Nos. 172, 175 and 177 are concerned with the community safety accreditation schemes and, again, are a factor in a role for the police authority for which we have already tried to cater. Amendments Nos. 172 and 175 require the chief officer to "obtain the approval of" the police authority rather than to "consult" it.
Amendment No. 177 instructs the police authority to keep itself informed about the workings of any accreditation scheme. I am not sure that such prescription is necessary. I should have thought that, if an accreditation scheme was up and running, part of
I say to my noble friend with all due respect that we have not overlooked the role of the police authorityfar from it. It would be foolish if we attempted to do so. But we believe that the day-to-day operation of designation and accreditation properly falls to the chief officer. We shall have a more detailed debate shortly about the functions and decisions of the chief officer, the role that is given to him or her in the Bill and the degree of freedom that a chief officer has to make decisions regarding community support for the police in a wide range of matters. I do not want to pre-empt such debate by going into the matter in detail now.
As I said in Committee, in Clause 35 we have already made it a requirement that plans to designate support staff or to establish a community safety accreditation scheme are set out in the annual policing plan. The Police Act 1996 ensures that drafts of that document are submitted by the chief officer to the police authority. Therefore, the annual policing plan is the right vehicle for the consultation. I accept that it is a question of striking a balance between the operational role of the chief officer and the oversight role of the police authority.
I emphasise that a balance must be struck between the oversight role of the police authority and the operational role of the chief officer. I firmly believe that the issue is one of oversight for the police authority in terms of what the chief officer has decided to do, after consultation, regarding the powers in the Bill, and not itself taking that decisionwhich, frankly, is the implication of this group of amendments. I hope that, on reflection, my noble friend will not press his amendment.
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