Standing Committee A
Thursday 13 June 2002
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
The Independent Police
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 80, in page 96, line 32, leave out sub-paragraph (3).—[Mr. Paice.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 81, in page 97, line 16, leave out sub-paragraph (5).
May I remind hon. Members that mobile phones and pagers should be operating silently or not at all? I shall take a dim view of anything that rings in the middle of the afternoon.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Thank you, Miss Widdecombe, and welcome to the Chair.
When our sitting ended this morning, I was being accused of deviously trying to avoid answering a question. Although that is not true, the compliment is always welcome. I had cross-wired my brain to a debate that we will have under amendment No. 85, which relates to clause 10 and is about the disclosure of reports.
I was wiring myself into that future debate in response to a point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). We were talking about the fact that the power to decline an appointment of the chief executive of the Independent Police Complaints Commission is reserved to the Secretary of State. The provisions in the Bill fully come under the Nolan arrangements and those of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments; I should have thought that that would satisfy hon. Members. The provisions are exactly in line with what applies in other cases, such as that of the security industry authority and the Health and Safety Executive. They will in no way undermine the independence of the IPCC.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether, if such an appointment were turned down, the reason would be put in the public domain. It probably would not. If such an issue arose, it would be highly likely that the reasons for the refusal had to do with the personal attributes, competence or ability of the candidate, and it would be wholly inappropriate for the Secretary of State to put the issue in the public domain. Of course, such matters will always be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and if someone were to ask a parliamentary question, the fact that such an appointment had been turned down would have to be acknowledged.
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The Bill as written is perfectly justifiable. The provision in no way impairs the independence of the IPCC. I therefore contest that the Bill should stand as drafted.
Norman Baker (Lewes): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Miss Widdecombe. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving a straight answer. I must confess that in the 60 seconds before the Committee adjourned this morning, we had a sort of anti-matter ''Just a Minute'' in which he tried to deviate, hesitate and repeat as much as possible in order to get by without answering the question.
I understand the Under-Secretary's answer, and why he has come to that conclusion, but it does not exactly square with the commitment to accountability that he was keen to stress before lunch as the reason why the Home Secretary had to be involved. He argued that that was in order for Parliament to have a say in the matter and have some sort of lever to pull. Now he is arguing that if the Home Secretary turns down an appointment, we will know nothing about it unless people such as myself ask parliamentary questions. You will note, Miss Widdecombe, the Under-Secretary's invitation for me to do just that.
Surely it would be possible for the fact that an appointment had been rejected to be made public without the reasons behind such an action being made public. A safeguard needs to be inserted. Let us suppose that the commission recommended someone for the key position, who had through public statements or other aspects of his or her life demonstrated a commitment to, say, freedom of information or independence of thought, or that he or she was of a different political persuasion from the Home Secretary of the day. If that person were turned down—having been recommended by the commission that concluded that he or she was the best person for the job—it should be a matter for public record that the Home Secretary had taken such action.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham): In those circumstances, it is likely that the Home Secretary would be held to account. Given that the refusal to endorse such a person would be on the public record, I have no doubt that hon. Members would take it up with my right hon. Friend.
Norman Baker: That would be true if the matter were on the public record. The condition that I support would then be satisfied. It would also be possible for the commission to make a recommendation, without that being known. We could conclude only from what took place in a particular set of circumstances that the successful candidate was the commission's first recommendation. It would take a parliamentary question to establish whether there had been a previous suggestion for the post. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government's commitment to accountability is a little threadbare.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I welcome you to the Chair of our proceedings, Miss Widdecombe. I served under you when you were a member of the Government and a member of the Opposition, and I am delighted to serve under your
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chairmanship in Committee. Much of the debate will be foreign to you inasmuch as you were not party to the bulk of the Under-Secretary's response this morning.
At the risk of over-flattering the Under-Secretary with compliments such as those that he attributed to the hon. Member for Lewes, I must say that he has failed miserably to convince us that our amendment is wrong, although he may take that statement as a substantial compliment about the way in which he fulfils his job. His two arguments against the amendments were, first, that the Secretary of State has to appoint a chief executive to get on with the job and set up the commission. We accept that, but it does not negate the strength of our argument that the Secretary of State should not then have the power of veto over each chief executive who may be appointed for ever and a day after that.
As was said constantly during the proceedings on the Bill both here and in another place, we must bear in mind not only today's set of Ministers, but those of tomorrow and every set of future Home Office Ministers. As one of my noble Friends in the other place said, the situation must be successor proof. The argument that the Secretary of State must appoint the first chief executive is no justification for the Bill saying that he should approve the appointment of all chief executives beyond that.
The Under-Secretary's argument against the second amendment stretched credulity. He somehow equated our request to remove from the Bill the power of the Secretary of State to determine the number, terms and conditions of all the employees of the commission with rate-capping. The reality is that the Government will set the overall budget allocation of the commission. That is a simple fact of life. As with any non-departmental public body, they set the overall financial constraints. The Government will always have some sway. A constraint, or public protection is therefore provided to prevent the commission from becoming a vast, overweening bureaucracy employing ever-larger numbers of people, to compete with the national health service. It will be constrained by the budget. I therefore do not understand why the Secretary of State also requires the power to set the absolute number of staff and their terms and conditions of employment.
I do not believe that the Under-Secretary has given a good response. We have a lot to do this afternoon if we are to complete part 2 before the knife falls at 5 o'clock, so I shall not detain the Committee further on the amendments, which, as I said, are relatively small. However, if anything, the Under-Secretary has enhanced my concern about the use of the powers, rather than diminished it. That said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
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General functions of the Commission
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 8, line 38, leave out 'broadly'.
I, too, welcome you to the first sitting that you have chaired, Miss Widdecombe. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I have had the pleasure of working under you in other work in the House, and I welcome the fact that you will chair some of our sittings.
The amendment to clause 9(1)(f) is a probing amendment. We were puzzled by unfamiliar drafting. I do not recall having seen in other statutes references to things that ''broadly'' correspond, which seems rather inexact drafting. That struck us as important to probe. As my hon. Friend says, one often finds in probing that the Government's answers raise even more questions than the initial questions. As he said, he was less happy at the end of the previous debate than at the beginning. This may be a similar matter.
The Secretary of State will make regulations relating to the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad, two important bodies that deal with the most serious offences. I recently met the director of the National Crime Squad, who briefed me about its important work. Few bodies are more important in law enforcement in this country, because of the responsibilities that NCIS and the NCS have. Why are we dealing with such a vague term as powers that ''broadly'' correspond to those conferred on the commission?
Like my hon. Friend, I do not want to detain the Committee too long, so, having put our concern on record, I shall listen with interest to the Under-Secretary's comments.