|Police Reform Bill [Lords]
Mr. Denham: Let me deal with those three points in talking about the clause as a whole. Obviously, getting right the handling of disciplinary proceedings is a vital element in ensuring that the public have confidence in the police and the police complaints procedure. That is why the clause extends the Secretary of State's regulation-making powers. One effect of the regulations will be to give the IPCC a more active role in disciplinary proceedings, which relates to the hon. Gentleman's second point.
The complainant and the general public must be confident that evidence at a hearing will be presented fully and robustly. We have sought to address the concern that has arisen in the past that a case might not be presented robustly, particularly at an internal disciplinary hearing such as may currently follow a recommendation from the Police Complaints Authority. In particular, concerns might arise in future on occasions when the IPCC has already had to direct the appropriate authority to bring certain disciplinary proceedings against an officer because it had not previously agreed to do so. In those circumstances, it might be appropriate for the IPCC to attend and, if necessary, present the case itself or instruct counsel to ensure that the case against the officer is presented robustly.
I understand the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, but it is necessary to maintain public confidence in the system as a whole. The clause allows regulations to be made that will have a significant role in achieving that. They will also update the procedures regarding persons who can attend disciplinary proceedings.
To take the hon. Gentleman's third point, it is not part of our intention that the provision should be an open door to any lobby or interest group that comes along and says that it wants to be part of the process, but we think that up to three supporters of the complainant should be able to attend disciplinary hearings. The presiding officer may decide in special circumstances that more can attend the hearing, and will of course be expected to be even-handed in the treatment of the officer facing the charge.
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I shall mention a point not raised by the hon. Gentleman. In order to meet a recommendation from the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the clause enables regulations to provide for inferences to be drawn from failure on the part of a charged officer to mention any relevant facts. That will bring the police conduct regulations in line with those in criminal proceedings, to which a change was made after the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
The hon. Gentleman's first issue was whether there should be a possibility of public access or public disciplinary hearings. He invited me to rule that out, but I regret to say that—as I think the Police Federation of England and Wales is aware—I cannot do that in the absolute terms that he asks for. I understand the point that he makes about media reporting. There are other types of hearing that can be harmful to a person's reputation, such as those of the General Medical Council, with which I am familiar from my previous position as a Health Minister.
The fact that someone is cleared on the seventh day does not usually get the same prominence in the press as the evidence dragged up in the first six. We all understand the strength of the hon. Gentleman's point and the concerns that have been expressed by the Police Federation. However, we have had extensive consultation on the issue.
There are strong feelings on both sides. On the one hand, there is an argument for openness and the importance of having some access to the disciplinary hearings in order to maintain public confidence that issues have been properly pursued. On the other hand, there is the matter of police confidence in the system. There is also the argument that the hon. Gentleman put so well, which is that the public should not be admitted to what is essentially a management exercise. Of course, it must be remembered that three quarters of disciplinary hearings are not the result of public complaint in any case.
Taking into account all those arguments and the need to maintain public confidence, it is our view that, in certain exceptional cases, the option of a public hearing should be available. We would not want to make that routine practice, but there are certain circumstances in which, for a variety of reasons, there is a case for allowing public access in order to show that a matter has been fully and properly pursued. We intend the regulations to cover those exceptional cases. That is not the answer that the hon. Gentleman invited me to give, but I hope that I have at least given him a clear and straightforward answer about what we intend to do and how the regulations would be framed.
Mr. Johnson: I wonder whether the Minister could give us a taster of the circumstances in which the public might be admitted.
Mr. Denham: An example is a case in which there had been high-profile public concern that a member of the public had been seriously and wrongly injured by police action. The necessary procedures might have
Column Number: 204been gone through and, for a variety of reasons, it might be inappropriate to bring a criminal action, which would normally be the preferred course if someone had broken law. If there had been concern to ensure that the circumstances of the case had been properly examined, and the IPCC concluded that there had been a breach of the disciplinary code, it might be appropriate to have a public hearing to avoid allegations that an incident in which a member of the public had been seriously harmed had in some way been covered up.
Despite the reservations about media coverage that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised, under those circumstances it could be better for the reputation of an officer to have been cleared through a process that had clearly been carried out properly, and that people had seen reported, than for someone to have been cleared in an entirely private hearing with the inevitable allegations and suspicions that it was a ''police cover up''.
Norman Baker: I listened to the Minister carefully and I agree with him. However, sometimes the hearings are private and sometimes they are public, so the decision whether the hearings are private or public needs to be objective and set down clearly in regulations. Such decisions must be defensible. They cannot be seen to be the result of media pressure or an approach of a particular Minister.
Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is something that we shall need to deal with not in the Bill, but when drafting the regulations that the clause enables us to do. I defend the idea that issues of public confidence are of necessity or, by definition, high profile cases, so I cannot rule out the level of public interest as being a factor. I agree that the regulations will need to set out a clear basis on which decision are taken.
Mr. Hawkins: The Minister has characteristically made an extremely thorough response, for which I am grateful. It is helpful to know that only in exceptional cases will there be media reporting or public access of the sort that would lead to media reporting. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman knows from experience that the Government and those who advise them are conscious of situations in which lurid allegations are reported for six days, yet the fact that the person is acquitted on the seventh day receives no coverage and the public are left with the impression that the allegations were true. I am glad that his comments will be on the record.
I am somewhat less happy, however, with the Minister's response to our concerns and those of the Police Federation about the IPCC both bringing and conducting the disciplinary proceedings. I hope that he will continue to discuss that with his officials because there may be a better way in which to proceed. We may have to return to that issue on Report. As for my worry about other bodies being given an ''open sesame'' to the disciplinary proceedings, I was reassured by what the Minister said. It was helpful that he did not anticipate single-issue lobby groups or quangos having a right to interfere. He gave us some
Column Number: 205valuable new information when he said that he envisages that the guidelines will say specifically that there could be up to three supporters of the complainant. That detailed response suggests that the Minister may already have some draft guidelines in his ''if pressed'' notes. I see that the Minister is putting his head in his hands, but if there were some guidelines—even if they are at an early draft stage—it would be helpful to see them. I hope that the three supporters are individuals, not bodies. As always, his response has been helpful.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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