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Norman Baker (Lewes): The amendments seem uncontroversial and improve the Bill in the way suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I want to refer to the protocol. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has the advantage of me, in that I have not seen the protocol. It is a pity that it has not been circulated to all members of the Committee. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified what he intends to do to make the protocol available to Members of this House. Even if the protocol is not available in its final form, it would be helpful to have the draft circulated, as that would inform discussion.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rise to support some of the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). My hon. Friend is right to say that, under the Bill as drafted, the power to suspend does not require the giving of reasons. Furthermore, the power to suspend in no way triggers an inquiry, which will probably do a grave injustice to the senior officers concerned. My hon. Friend made the sensible point that once a police officer has been suspended, it is extraordinarily difficult to recover their credibility. It is very difficult for them to obtain employment, whether in another force or with an alternative employer. In the absence of the giving of reasons, it will be extraordinarily difficult for them to challenge the justification for the suspension. I ask the Minister to explain why provision is not made for the giving of written reasons, or for the holding of an inquiry.
Suspension, by definition, is not a final state. What provision will be made for finally determining whether a chief officer is to remain in the force? So far as I can tell, the Bill provides no such procedure. There is no obvious procedure through which a police authority can ask that a chief officer be no longer suspended; nor does the Bill provide for the officer concerned to submit that the suspension be done away with. We have a state of limbo that is entirely dependent on the Home Secretary's discretion. I am always against giving Home Secretaries such discretion, regardless of their political complexion.
It is clear that there are financial distinctions to be drawn between the consequences of retirement and of resignation. When somebody retires, they normally trigger pension entitlements. As we well know, such entitlements constitute a substantial burden on police authorities; however, the same is not necessarily true in respect of resignation. What consultation will take place between the Secretary of State and police authorities about the preferred route? Nothing in the Bill requires the Secretary of State to undertake such consultation.
The criteria in question are "efficiency or effectiveness". I realise that that phrase appears in the Police Act 1996legislation for which the Government of whom I was a member were responsible. However, the question of what is efficient or effective is as long as the Home Secretary's foot; in other words, the power is completely discretionary. We are reinforcing a provision in the 1996 Act that enables the Secretary of State to get rid of a police officer on the subjective judgment that they are not effective or efficient. I am very sceptical about giving any Home Secretaryparticularly the present onethat power, and I hope that the House shares my inhibition.
I am personally in favour of fixed-term contracts for senior police officers, which would mean little need for these provisions. The re-engagement of chief police officers would be considered on a rolling basis every three to five years. The disadvantages of that policy are not so great as to displace the advantages.
I am very cautious about these amendments. They would give the Executive yet more discretionary powerand I do not value the discretion of the present Home Secretaryin the important policy area of the police service.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I have one query for my right hon. Friend the Minister. The Home Secretary may issue a written notice of removal to senior officers if he feels that they have been inefficient or ineffective. Does that phrase relate to their performance on operational matters or on non-operational matters? Is there any definition of what an operational matter is? I ask because some years ago, when I had some responsibility for the subject, operational matters were tightly defined, but now they appear to be anything that a chief constable decides is in his remit. That is an important, albeit detailed, issue and I would be happy for my right hon. Friend to undertake to write to me if that is more appropriate.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I share the views of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and I am very uneasy about the powers that the Government will take to remove senior officers. I am pleased to take part in the debate.
I support the Committee's report and what it said about the protocol. I shall return to that issue because it is germane to the amendments. First, however, I must make the point that we are today debating further centralisation. The Home Secretary will have the power to sack every chief constable in the land. I ask the Minister to contrast that situation with that pertaining to the rest of the police organisation. In the Witney or Banbury police station, the chief inspector or superintendent does not have the power to remove ineffective officers in his own force. Power in the police force is going in the wrong directiontowards the centre and the Home Secretaryinstead of being devolved throughout the organisation, and the amendments will not improve the situation.
I accept that the Government have made some concessions and have started to talk about consulting police authorities on the removal of chief constables. However, because of those concessions, the Bill now contains some very tortuous language. The question of the sacking of a chief constable should be a matter for the police authorities. That point was made in evidence to the Committee by Mr. Kevin Morris of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, when I asked him whether he thought that the real responsibility for hiring and firing chief constables should rest with the police authority. He replied:
Our second point had to do with the protocol being discussed by the Home Office and senior officers. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) have both referred to it. The Select Committee stated:
Above all, where is the protocol? My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is ingenious and seems to have got hold of a copy. The first people I know to have got hold of a copy of the protocol work for The Times. Yesterday, in an article with the wonderful subheading "Crunch week for Blunkett on crime, cannabis and asylum", the newspaper stated:
Details of the regulations under which such intervention would happen have not been included in the Bill. The framework for such powers is set out . . . in a protocol produced by the Home Office, a copy of which has been seen by The Times."
I am unhappy about the proposed centralisation, as we could end up with chief constables looking over their shoulders at the Home Office rather than at local circumstances or their local police authorities. A good example of that was reported by The Times, which has been assiduous recently. We were assured yesterday that Ministers, not all of them Home Office Ministers, are not overseeing individual police forces, but The Times reported that those Ministers were looking at police areas and at the operation of the street crime initiative.
In my area of Witney, there has been a spate of bad rural burglaries. I am meeting the Thames Valley area's chief constable tomorrow, and I want to know that he is focused on local issues such as that. I want to be sure that he is not always worrying about whether the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women is satisfied with what he is doing about street crime, or that he is not always looking to the Home Office to see whether he is going to be fired. The power to sack chief constables should reside with the police authorities.