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I will make a commitment, however, that Home Office officials will engage with the Association of Police Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Police Authorities with a view to evaluating what changes may be needed. In doing that, there should be a full comparison of the duties of police authority and local authority chief executives to see whether a separate legal status is warranted. We could look to effect any changes, if they are needed, in the light of that exercise. Therefore, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment, with a view to the Government discussing the proposals with the APA and the Association of Police Authority Chief Executives. That will enable the Government to give these proposals the close consideration that they require.
Baroness Hanham: Before this discussion finishes, what other examination will be done on this? It might only be my own ignorance, but I do not quite understand why the police authority chief executives have been left out on what appears to be a limb, rather than incleduded like most other public body chief executives. I wonder what the difference is between a police authority chief executive and, for example, a chief executive in the National Health Service, or in any other public authorities. The Minister may not know the answer to that, but before he comes back to this issue it might be worth having a look at whether they are alone in this particular problem, or whether it goes across public bodies and needs to be looked at differently.
Lord West of Spithead: As I said, this is just an historical anomaly, and the noble Baroness is absolutely right that we need to look at whether there are any
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Baroness Harris of Richmond: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving me a hint of help in the future. I know that the chief executives will, certainly, be looking carefully at what he had to say, while knowing that the Home Office might be in consultation with them to look at the legal vagaries here. I think that their main concern is that they may be first in the firing line if a critical report is the outcome of the joint inspections of police authorities, because they are not protected from being scapegoats as local authority chiefs are. That is their main worry, but I am heartened to hear what the Minister has to say and, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(a) section 1(1)(d) is omitted;
(b) section 1(4) is omitted;
(c) section 24 is omitted.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: Leaping up and down quickly, I shall speak to the amendment, which I mentioned at Second Reading. It examines the best-value case once again. Those of you who have heard me speak on policing legislation in the past will be familiar with the theme, but I return to it in the hope that some progress may be made. Best value was of course originally introduced through the Local Government Act 1999 but, if there is one piece of legislation more in need of consolidation and rationalisation than the various policing Acts, that is most definitely it. For that reason, the amendment is only probing, as in reality many more consolidating changes would be needed to give effect to it. However, the broad intention is to disapply best-value legislation from policing.
I am sure that the Minister will remind me that, among other things, that would remove powers to inspect police authorities. It would also remove from police authorities the power to oversee continuous improvement within their forces. I reassure him here and now that I fully support police authority inspectionI have for many yearsand police authorities' important role in making sure that their forces strive to improve. However, it would be altogether much better either to place the powers in policing-specific legislation, or to completely revise the original legislation. Then it can be honed to do a precise job and take into account the subtleties of the policing context, where governance and delivery are separated into two different bodiesthe police authority and the force.
As things stand, this local government legislation has been applied, in policing, to a context for which it was not originally intended. That has been exacerbated
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Lord West of Spithead: The noble Baroness mentioned that the financial functions of police authorities and duties arose from the local government best-value provisions, which regulate police authorities procurement, recruitment and financial accounting and reporting. Although the Government accept that police authorities are in many ways distinct from other local authorities, surely the financial and corporate affairs of police authorities are substantially similar to those of other local authorities. They have a similar imperative to provide value to the public and to be efficient and effective, and must be held to similar public scrutiny. On the latter point, the new police authority inspection regime is built on the important foundation of the best-value legislation, as was stressed and supported by the noble Baroness.
The effect of this amendment would be that police authorities would no longer be required to produce statements of accounts, would no longer be regulated as to their procurement, and could no longer be inspected by the Audit Commission. I am aware that this is a probing amendment. While removing police authorities from the best-value framework may deserve some consideration, as the noble Baroness recognised, it would not be a simple exercise. As noble Lords will appreciate, this cannot be achieved though one or two clauses. It would need careful unpicking, and dedicated legislation would almost certainly be necessary if we choose to take that route. Such a review would take some time and could not be completed during the passage of this Bill.
Therefore, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment with a view to the Government discussing the proposals further with relevant partners. This will enable us to give them the careful consideration they requirebecause they will be complexand hopefully the clarity that the noble Baroness quite rightly demanded.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: I sense a germ of hope, finally, in what the Minister has said. For years I have been bashing on about this, never getting anywhere and always being thrown back by whoever happened to be dealing with me at the Dispatch Box. There is hope, and I am most grateful to him for indicating that. I never intimated that it would not be a complex exercise to try and get it sorted out; but it needs
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The Secretary of State shall, within six months of this Act being passed, in exercise of his powers under section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) (further power to designate public authorities), amend Schedule 1 to that Act (public authorities) to include the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: This amendment would bring the Association of Chief Police Officers within the provision of the Freedom of Information Act. My reason for tabling it is that the Government are, in any case, looking at whether the FOI Act is wide enough in the organisations it covers. The Prime Minister opened a consultation in February 2008 on whether Section 5 of the FOI Act should be extended to persons who perform functions of a public nature and contractors who provide services that are functions of public authorities. On 13 May 2009, at the very interesting Information Commissioners conference, Justice Minister Michael Wills MP announced that there will be an expansion of the number of institutions to which the Freedom of Information Act applies. So against that background I am tabling this in hope.
There seems to be no good reason why the Freedom of Information Act should not apply to ACPO. The status of ACPO is quite confusing but rather well laid out by the Minister in a Written Answer to a Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, about funding:
As an independent organisation of chief officers from the police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, ACPO is accountable to its members. Chief officers are in turn accountable to police authorities and the public. As it is a private company, the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to ACPO, since Schedule 1 to the Act does not include a definition which covers ACPO.[Official Report, 2/6/09; col. WA64.]
Clearly, ACPO has very public functions and is often setting strategy, which suggests that the FOI Act should apply to it. To its credit, ACPO states on its website that it is willing to place as much information as it can in the public domain. It argues that as a small organisation it has too few members of staff to be able to conduct the necessary research and compile the responses. However, other small institutions have to deal with FOI requestsuniversity departments, for example. The size of an organisation should not dominate a decision on whether it should be subject to FOI requests. It should be made on whether it is performing functions of a public nature.
The FOI Act creates a general right of access to information held by bodies fitting into a description in Schedule 1 to that Act, which are mainly public bodies. However, my amendment makes use of the power
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ACPO is funded by a combination of Home Office grant, contributions from the 44 police authorities, membership subscriptions and the proceeds of its annual exhibition. Given that the majority of ACPOs funding is provided by the public in one way or another and that its leading representatives are generally serving senior police officers, it is effectively a public sector entity operating as a private company. It is responsible for leading the development and direction of police authorities in England and Wales, so its public functions are obvious. It co-ordinates strategic decisions among police forces and much of that decision-making process is opaque and unminuted. The counterargument that the Minister and others may choose to put is that if ACPO is to be subject to the FOI Act and feels sensitive about it, that will drive any decision-making process underground. But that is not in the spirit of the FOI Act and I hope that that would not happen.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships an example of one area of ACPOs work which is of crucial public interest and much debatethe police policy on tasers. ACPOs evaluation report on taser trials has been cited by the Home Office and states that tasers are safe enough to be deployed to non-firearmed police. ACPO has received information requests for the evidence for that but has not released it. I submit that that information is in the public interest and would enable better public debate. Apart from that, the very keeping of that information as a secret creates the wrong impression.
Therefore, against that background and what I have described the Government are considering, it is important that ACPO is in the forefront of bodies to which the FOI Act needs to apply. I beg to move.
Baroness Hanham: We are opening the debate and I am sure that there will be plenty of room for everyone to join in. I am interested in the amendment because it raises the question of whether this legislation makes ACPO a statutory body. The position that it will be given by the legislation in terms of the appointments panel represents the first time that ACPO will be named in legislation as having a role. That is important in addition to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, as regards how the scrutiny and safeguarding of what ACPO does will be ensured.
Concern has been raised in the past few months, and the Flanagan review highlighted the confusion that has arisen from a lack of a clear understanding about roles and responsibilities of various bodies and organisations in the policing sector. Shoe-horning ACPO into the legislation in a statutory role, without proper clarification of its responsibilities and without scrutiny, does nothing to help the implementation of the review recommendations.
The question of whether ACPO should be covered by the Freedom of Information ActI am sure that it is not at the momentis a perfect example. If ACPO is to have a statutory role in senior appointments, it will have to have proper accountability. Later amendments will address the question of what accountability the appointments panel will have, but the nominating organisations should also have responsibility to be accountable to the wider public, not just to their members, if they are to be included legislatively as the people who have to do all that is required under the legislation.
I understand that ACPO has some concern about the inclusion within the schedule placing too high a burden on its members. The noble Baroness has referred to that. I hope that the Minister can give us a little more detail on how many of the requests for information that are currently received on ACPOs role can be answered by ACPO and how many are refused, if such information is available. Much more importantly, we need to understand the status of ACPO, not just as an organisation with members but now in its position of having a statutory role in appointments.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I support the amendment and do so because I have been concerned about this organisation for a while and have tabled Questions for Written Answer. The noble Baroness is nodding so she has obviously seen them. A body that is financed in part by the Government and in part by the police authorities ought to be under public control.
The Association of Chief Police Officers is an independent organisation made up of representatives of forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which works in partnership with both the Government and the Association of Police Authorities to co-ordinate the direction and development of the police service.
ACPO plays a key role advising the Government on behalf of the police service as a whole on major national projects aimed at developing the capacity of the service. It also advises on how to tackle serious and ongoing strategic threats that might put the public at risk. In times of national need, ACPO is specifically tasked with co-ordinating the strategic policing response on behalf of all chief officers.
ACPO is funded by a combination of Home Office grant, contributions from each police authority, membership subscriptions and the proceeds of its annual exhibition.[Official Report, 7/5/09; col. WA 130.]
Those powers are very wide indeed. I was even more surprised and concerned when a later reply told me that ACPO was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I congratulate the noble Baroness on tabling the amendment today. My broader view is that such an organisation is rather more than an association. It has power and will advise the Government on serious matters, so it ought not to be a private organisation. It should be under public control. It should be financed completely by the public. Indeed, its activities should be transparent and obviously, then, open to the Freedom of Information Act. I hope that the noble Lord will take note of this, and, indeed, that when he answers my latest question as to whether ACPO should be privatised, he will give me a very encouraging answer.
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Baroness Harris of Richmond: I would like to ask the Minister how an organisation that is not subject to public scrutiny can set up a unit to monitor political and environmental groups. That question was raised by Henry Porter on Tuesday 10 February in the Guardian online. He referred to it as a sinister unit; I certainly do not do that. But it does encapsulate some of our concerns, which have been so well expressed by my noble friend and by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.
ACPO is not governed by any statute; rather, it is a company limited by guarantee. It is not a staff association; it consists of members who are senior police officers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has about 280 members. As we have heard, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply to it. The companys objectives include leading and co-ordinating the direction and development of the police service and developing the ACPO brandwhatever that is. ACPO publishes advice and guidance on a wide range of policing issues and contributes decisions and comments to a wide range of contemporary debates.
What is the constitutional role that ACPO plays? Is it an external reference group for Home Office Ministers? Is it a professional association protecting the interests of senior officers? Is it a public authority which issues guidance and good practice to local forces? Is it a national policing agency? Is it a campaigning pressure group arguing for greater police powers? These are questions that need answering before ACPO is given a statutory role, as it is under Clause 2.
ACPO has already been included as a body that the Secretary of State must consult with before making particular orders or regulations. Is it time to reflect on the nature of ACPO and consider the appropriateness of involving it in decision-making processes? The Government have missed an opportunity properly to define the role of ACPO in the Bill. The constitutional role and make-up of ACPO has not been adequately debated and defined. Until that is done, it is impossible to know whether it is appropriate for a representative of ACPO to be consulted before any senior police appointments are made.
Lord West of Spithead: As has been said by a number of speakers, the Association of Chief Police OfficersACPOis not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. We have not opened up the FOI parameters as yet, and ACPO is an independent voluntary organisation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned, it is not a public authority. It is a registered private company limited by guarantee and it is directly accountable to its members, not to the public. It is therefore not open to FOI requests. Its members, however, are chief police officers who are themselves accountable to police authorities and the public. All individual police forces are already subject to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Furthermore, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller,
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In response to a question by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, ACPO provides effective representation for chief officers at a national level, in part because it is not on a firm statutory footing but is instead able to operate independently to represent the interests of its membership. I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said about tying it down a little. It has been rather a thorn in my flesh and tying it down a little more might be quite useful because it sometimes proves extremely difficult for the Government. However, I think that that is one of the benefits of having it in its current form.
As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, ACPO is referred to in statutesfor example, in Section 37A of the Police Act 1996, which places a duty on the Secretary of State to consult both ACPO and the APA on strategic priorities. Therefore, I think that it has a very useful role to play.
Because of what one might call an anomaly but what I consider to be quite a useful status, ACPO is able to make a very effective contribution to the development of policing in this country. I am not sure that it would be able to do that if we put in all the controls that are being talked about, and the Government do not intend to undermine that by seeking to interfere in the operation of what is a private organisation. I certainly would not be keen to do that.
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