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Mr. Blair : The Under-Secretary says that it is all to do with a more efficient procedure. Let us see what the new procedure does. It strips away the public inquiry element of the procedure for amalgamating authorities so that the voice of the people--I need not say of the quiet majority--is not heard. The basic right given to the most minor local property developments is denied in the case of something as important as local policing. It is a disgraceful and anti-democratic measure. If police authorities are to be amalgamated, there is no reason whatever why there should not be a proper public inquiry. Of course, the reason why the Government do not want public inquiries is that they throw up opposition of, usually, a fairly co-ordinated type, which is usually backed up by local newspapers, the regional media and so on.
Exactly the same criticism can be made in respect of the part of the Bill dealing with magistrates courts--a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) will no doubt develop later.
Mr. Maclennan : Lest the hon. Gentleman provide the Home Secretary with an opportunity to represent him as being totally in favour of the status quo, will he acknowledge that when the existing 43 police authorities were created the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, found it perfectly adequate to reduce the number and to involve the public in the process ?
Mr. Blair : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There may well be a case for police authority amalgamations from time to time, but such action should be taken on the basis of local consent and not simply because of a desire to centralise, to push matters further towards central Government.
The magistrates courts procedures are exactly the same. Again, for the first time, we have the possibility of wholesale amalgamation of areas. Conservative Members will be very foolish not to take account of the genuine
Column 129concern in many places, particularly rural areas, at the idea that, as a simple administrative measure, magistrates courts can be pushed together.
I should like to turn now to what remains in the Bill with regard to the Sheehy report. It is still unclear exactly what the changes that the Home Secretary announced last year will amount to, in practical terms, for the average police constable, particularly in relation to matters such as pensions. However, it is clear what they will mean for people in different ranks.
I should like, briefly, to discuss specifically the fairly shabby attempt to persuade the public that these reforms will yield another 3,000 police officers on the beat. That claim has been made frequently. It was the most important justification given by the Home Secretary and other Ministers for part of the Bill, and it was the answer to the criticism of the freeze on police numbers and to the claim that the Bill runs counter to community policing.
Having looked carefully into the matter, we believe that the claim that the Bill will deliver an additional 3,000 officers on the beat is utterly bogus. And so do the police. As can be seen at page 171 of his report, Sheehy anticipated that 3,000 officers might be released to be put on the beat as a result of the changes in rank structure, but only on the basis of the short-term severance package that he outlined. Letters to several of my hon. Friends from serving police officers--in particular, chief superintendents and others--seem to me to suggest that no such severance package has been agreed. Therefore, the idea that all these officers on the beat will be released is erroneous.
Indeed, the matter goes further. I realise that the alteration in rank structure is a difficult area. It is one in respect of which we proceed with care. There is clearly a case for rationalisation of the structure. Let me put to the Home Secretary what must be the test when the matter is being examined in detail in Committee. First, it is important to understand that rationalisation of the numbers in the ranks of chief inspector and chief superintendent is already taking place. There has been very significant change over the past three years--a reduction of about 300. However, that has been achieved not by a blanket weeding-out of ranks but by case-by-case reorganisation.
It may well be that in some forces not all the ranks are needed or there should be fewer people in a particular rank. However, not all services are the same. There will be exceptional situations in which the senior ranks are necessary--for example, spontaneous public disorder or disasters, where somebody must take charge and where there must be a local chain of command. The danger that has been put to me and will be examined in Committee is that, with the method by which the Home Secretary has chosen to proceed, either there will be no proper control in these situations or there will be an informal procedure by which someone is appointed as a senior superintendent. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands that we are not criticising the objective of streamlining, but are concerned about the inflexibility of the method proposed.
We shall also scrutinise most carefully the changes in disciplinary procedures for serving police officers. Here, too, we must strike a balance. We want to examine the
Column 130appeal process for officers being disciplined. It cannot be stressed too often that, in what is a monopoly service, disciplinary action will stay with a police officer for his entire career. In some cases--by no means all--the people who make complaints are convicted criminals with serious records. I yield to nobody in my desire to see incompetent, corrupt or abusive police officers weeded out. That is important to the entire police service, which is brought down by such people. However, we must ensure that there is a fair procedure. In the annual report of every police service this year, there is a recurring theme --the belief that the battle against crime can be, and is being, more successfully prosecuted, coupled with an absolute conviction that emphasis on local policing, in partnership with local communities, is essential to achieving that aim.
Modern policing is about partnership, shared responsibility and a service fully integrated into the life of local communities. Those are not just fine words ; they are an essential part of the fight against crime. To fight crime, people must have confidence in their local police. They must be confident not just that the police are fair and honest but that they are approachable and in touch. The police cannot fight crime on their own ; the whole community must be enlisted on their side. The law-abiding majority-- and, even in the areas with the highest crime levels, the majority are law abiding--must be put back in control of communities. Anything that facilitates the local link between police and people is welcome, and anything that harms it is to be deplored.
The Bill harms that link--not as seriously as it would have done in its original form, but seriously enough. Some of its worst aspects have been neutered, but its fundamental philosophy and purpose remain. I suspect that the Government will not admit to wanting to use many of its powers today, but they may well be used--and used ruthlessly--in the future, if the Bill becomes law.
Let hon. Members just think what the Home Secretary could have done if he had so chosen. He could, for example, have implemented the report of the standing committee on crime prevention--the Morgan report--and won support across the spectrum. He could have saved the millions of pounds that will be wasted through this legislation and used them to undo cuts in the youth service, to provide drugs education, to finance inner-city programmes or to put more police officers on the beat--this time for real rather than in theory. Instead, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is taking the police not just down a diversionary route but in the direction opposite to that in which he should be travelling.
The people of this country do not want a centralised police service, under a Conservative or any other Government.
Mr. Howard : Just a minute ago the hon. Gentleman complained that the redundancy package on the basis of which the middle ranks are being thinned is not sufficiently generous. Now he is accusing us of spending money that should not be spent. The truth is that we are achieving the reduction in the middle ranks without the package that the hon. Gentleman has identified. That is leading to the recruitment of more police constables--452 in the first two months of this year--and that is exactly the objective of our reforms.
Mr. Blair : The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong on both points. First, the severance package was crucial to the 3,000 officers to be released. But more important are the Bill's expenditure implications. The cost will run into tens of millions of pounds. I am suggesting that the Home Secretary could have won support for the expenditure of the money that is to be wasted on a Bill wanted by no one on such matters as education for young people about the dangers of drugs--measures that people do want.
The Bill imposes measures of centralisation. Surely there is a terrible irony here. A decade ago, Conservatives alleged that Labour local authorities engaged in political interference. That is the very policy of their flagship today. What they are doing in the Bill is the very thing that they used to decry.
There is another irony. In the report on the Los Angeles riots of a few years ago, Warren Christopher, who is now the United States Secretary of State, referred in glowing terms to the success of British police in pioneering local community policing. As the rest of the world moves towards such policing, the Home Secretary is undermining it at its birthplace.
The Bill is a foolish exercise in mistaken ideology. Indeed, the only reason for its continued existence is not that it is wanted but that no one in government has the political courage to dump it. It will do nothing to fight crime or make our communities safe. It is without support outside Government and without reason inside Government, and it should not be given a Second Reading.
Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West) : First, I declare an interest : I represent chief superintendents and superintendents in the House. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary rightly said that our police are the best in the world. I entirely agree. Several police officers have travelled to South Africa to give advice on the problems that are being experienced in that country in respect of law and order. It is a great credit to the United Kingdom that the South African authorities asked for those police officers to go and give their advice.
My right hon. and learned Friend has told us that the rank of chief inspector will be retained while the rank of chief superintendent will not. When the Association of Chief Police Officers was asked about the matter, it initially wanted to keep both ranks. The effect of the amendment in the other place was that only one of the two ranks could be kept, and my right hon. and learned Friend decided to retain chief inspectors.
The police have been through a period of great anxiety and great damage has been done to morale during the past few months. There are many worries about the future of the police service. The Sheehy report created mayhem within the police service : I have never known the police in such an anxious state following its publication. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for reading the report carefully and eliminating many of the nonsensical findings that it contained. I saw Patrick Sheehy, and he tried to convince me that he was right. I had to tell him that the police are a service and not a business ; he seemed not to understand that.
The police have been doing much restructuring, of their own volition--that has been taking place for some time.
Column 132The remaining problems for the superintendents are rank, legal representation and double jeopardy. I shall deal with each of those issues in turn.
Chief superintendents will, of course, be disappointed that their rank is being abolished. They will not be very happy about it. They have given me a list of reasons that they feel support retention of the rank of superintendent. First, the rank is in place and well understood both within the police service--which is within society in general--and among the organisations with which the police interact. Most forces in England and Wales have been through--or are in the process of or planning--major reorganisation involving considerable reductions in the numbers of superintendents. Indeed, 264 superintendent posts have disappeared. That is a reduction of about 13.3 per cent. The remaining chief superintendents are an essential part of the restructured forces. The retention of chief superintendents will mean a continuation of the operational command structure at senior level, which is essential for running major events such as large public events, major public disorders and large or complex inquiries. The retention of chief superintendents would assist in the devolvement of responsibility from chief constable level while at the same time providing management and command resilience in supporting assistant chief constables, especially during their absence. When senior officers are away, who is in command ? That is something that concerns police officers. The retention of chief superintendents would ease administrative matters when personnel issues such as appraisals and career development, both for superintendents and inspectors, were being dealt with. Their retention would resolve potential difficulties in respect of appraisals and staff management, especially in larger forces.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : As the hon. Gentleman has some knowledge of the area that I represent, he will appreciate the point that I am about to make. I am sure that he knows that the South Yorkshire force is divided into divisions, which are commanded by a chief superintendent. To facilitate local policing, the divisions have seven sub-divisions. My constituency largely forms the appropriate sub-division, as it were, of the South Yorkshire force. The sub-divisions are properly commanded by a superintendent. I believe that we could more easily be managed without chief inspectors than we could without a chief superintendent to command the division.
There are superintendents commanding inspectors in the various divisions. The structure has made for an effective force in south Yorkshire despite some unfortunate comments made by Conservative Members. The Home Secretary's decision to disband or do away with chief superintendents may not help to provide well-structured policing in many parts of the country.
Sir Anthony Durant : That is the point that I am making, which I will continue to make. The retention of chief superintendents would ensure that there are officers to carry out investigations of superintendents in criminal or disciplinary matters. Their retention would considerably ease operational command and management problems that are likely to be experienced by assistant chief constables, especially in larger forces where the number of operational command areas will be large. Some police forces, such as Thames Valley, are extremely large.
Column 133The retention of chief superintendents would provide a higher command level for senior posts in forces where there is shown to be a clear need for such a level--for example, basic command units divisions with large numbers of officers and/or particular socio-economic problems. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has made that point for me.
The retention of chief superintendents here would resolve the issue of retaining that rank in the Royal Ulster Constabulary ; for some reason, the rank is to be retained in the RUC. I am not against that, but it is odd given that we are to do away with it.
The retention of chief superintendents would assist in resolving concerns expressed by the Police Complaints Authority over the availability of senior officers to carry out major inquiries. Many chief superintendents are heavily involved in such inquiries. A key difficulty with the work that is being carried out by many chief inspectors is that their conditions of service, linked to hourly rates of pay, overtime and other payments, are not appropriate. The agreement reached by the Police Federation with the official side at the police negotiating board has removed that difficulty. The pay agreement reached for superintendents with the official side of the police negotiating board lends itself to easy accommodation of the rank of chief superintendent, as it clearly allows for posts carrying higher levels of responsibility. In other words, the police pay negotiations may have to return to the drawing board. As I have said, agreements have been arrived at after considerable discussions. It seems that they may have to be examined again. That will cause considerable concern and difficulty within the police service.
It is an essential element of change in any organisation that those people tasked with managing that change are motivated and feel properly recognised and rewarded for their efforts. The morale of superintending ranks is currently extremely low. The pay agreement has gone some way to restoring morale. Retaining chief
superintendents would further lift morale and place the organisation in the best position to implement all the major changes that are envisaged.
The Police Federation has no wish to retain the rank of chief inspector-- that is on public record--but there has been a consistent argument for the retention of chief superintendents. As I have already said, ACPO argues for the retention of both ranks. The advent of single-line budgets and national criteria for posts, coupled with police authority and Her Majesty's inspectorate involvement, will result in posts being available only where there is a clear need for them, thus giving the best value for money and a good deal of commonality of structure.
In New Zealand, they did away with the ranks of chief superintendent and chief inspector. That caused great difficulty for the police in New Zealand ; as a result, the new post of command superintendent has been created. Effectively, that officer is the senior superintendent : he deals with the command of the various divisions of the New Zealand police force. The name has been changed from chief superintendent to command superintendent but
Column 134the net result is exactly the same. It was found that doing away with those two ranks caused difficulties within the New Zealand police.
Mr. Bermingham : Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me about what the effect will be if the Bill becomes law--and I hope that it will not? If a chief superintendent retires, the person who takes over his command job will expect to be remunerated accordingly for the more difficult task. Under the Bill, that would not happen. The New Zealand example would apply and chaos would occur in the ranks.
Sir Anthony Durant : The hon. Gentleman is right. In New Zealand, pay had to be increased according to experience and as a reward, so superintendents were on all sorts of pay levels. That also caused difficulties because nobody knew who was in charge. They had to introduce the post of command superintendent so that people knew who was in charge.
On disciplinary matters, I am delighted that the Home Secretary has agreed to legal representation all the way through. That is a great concession. I compliment the Home Secretary on realising the importance of that matter to the police. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), who often deals with the courts, will know that villains often wait until a case is near fruition and then lodge a lot of complaints about the police officer concerned to try to get him taken off the job. Sometimes that happens, and it must be admitted that villains are becoming increasingly sophisticated in these matters.
A matter that still worries chief superintendents, despite some of the Home Secretary's concessions, is the fact that the definition of "unsatisfactory performance" and "misconduct" is still unclear. I urge the Home Secretary to look again at that matter and discuss it with representatives of the different associations.
Once those matters have been resolved, we need a period of calm so that the police can get on with the job. There has been too much alteration, discussion and change. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, the police want to get out and deal with the criminals. They welcomed the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill and felt that the increase in their powers was useful. I hope that the Home Secretary will consider the points that I have made. I realise that he may have made a cast-iron decision but, on behalf of the chief superintendents, I hope that he has not. 5.12 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : Certain phrases came to mind when I first read the Bill, which in its original form I found ghastly and in its amended form I find a little less than ghastly. The two phrases were "the Big Brother approach" and "big is beautiful" : those seemed to be the themes flowing through the Bill. The police half of the Bill deals with amalgamations. May I declare an interest as a practising barrister ? I remember when amalgamation first began in south Yorkshire. The first amalgamation to take place was of Sheffield and Rotherham, which then became the South Yorkshire force. There was no evidence of increased efficiency as the force grew in size. Sometimes, forces can become too big. One can draw an analogy with the Crown Prosecution Service, which used to have some 40 area services and now has just 13. That created its own
Column 135problems. The South Yorkshire force now covers an area that stretches from Sheffield to Hull--a massive area with Lincolnshire included in the middle. Problems inevitably arise. I do not propose to discuss the Crown Prosecution Service this afternoon--simply to draw on the mistakes made in its amalgamation and restructuring policy and to show how the same mistakes are about to be made in the Bill.
By taking away public inquiries, the Bill seems to open the way to amalgamation in both petty sessional and police areas. At the back of some people's minds is the idea that there is a creeping concept of a national police force. If the Bill removes the element of public participation, it removes the safeguard. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are vaguely worried about the question of a national police force.
Mr. Fabricant : Does the hon. Gentleman recall a recent case in which a high-speed chase took place between Staffordshire and the west midlands in connection with a kidnap in Birmingham? The Staffordshire police were unable to communicate well with the west midlands police because they use different telecommunications equipment and frequencies. Although I do not advocate wholesale amalgamation of different police forces, would the hon. Gentleman not concede that there can be advantages in acquiring police cars or equipment through volume purchases not only in terms of cost but in terms of standardising equipment ?
Mr. Bermingham : The hon. Gentleman, whose interventions I always welcome, pays me the compliment of thinking that I know every case that occurs in the country, which I do not. The answer to his question lies in his final remark. Why not simply standardise equipment, thus allowing the Staffordshire police to communicate with the west midlands police ? It is incredible that that has not happened, but I take what the hon. Gentleman says to be absolutely correct.
That does not destroy the simple argument that I seek to advance--that when forces begin to be amalgamated, particularly without public participation, we see the worrying feature of a national police force : the more command is taken away from the locality, the more it is distanced from the problems of the locality. That has happened time and again in many areas. For example, as the various hospital services became area health services, command began to disappear. There is an argument in favour of bringing command back to the people. Police officers who know their locality know the problems that exist there. For that reason, removing the question of public inquiries negates the influence of public opinion. In a democracy, public opinion must always play a part in the decisions of government, whether at national or local level.
The second part of the Bill concerns me greatly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) for allowing me to intervene in his speech. The reduction in the number of ranks poses a great problem. Again, I draw an analogy with the Crown Prosecution Service. If we reduce the number of chief crown prosecutors, the number of deputy crown prosecutors and, in turn, the number of specialist posts, we begin to create a career blockage.
We have seen what happened when New Zealand tried to remove chief superintendents--it resulted in chaos. Let us be realistic and admit that nobody will do a more
Column 136difficult job without getting paid for it. If a force has 15 superintendents, one of whom is to replace the chief superintendent who has just retired, the person who will replace him will want to be paid properly. So 14 other superintendents--and perhaps a 15th who may be an inspector doing a superintendent's job--will say that they deserve the appropriate remuneration, and the New Zealand problem will occur. Moreover, the problem of career development will also arise because if a chief constable goes through the ranks of serjeant, inspector, superintendent and then chief constable, he has not made many career steps. So people in the 35-45 age bracket will find that there is nowhere for them to go.
Mr. Howard indicated dissent .
Mr. Bermingham : The Home Secretary shakes his head, but that has happened time and again. I have met people in the legal profession and the Crown Prosecution Service who have suddenly found that they have no chance of promotion and nowhere to go.
Mr. Howard : There would be every opportunity for people in that position to obtain posts of greater responsibility--and greater remuneration to reflect it. To achieve greater responsibility or greater remuneration, it is not necessary to be promoted to a particular rank. The hon. Gentleman leaves that out of account.
Mr. Bermingham : The Home Secretary leaves out of account the fact that human beings like their posts to be called what they are. The managing director of a company likes to be called that because, although he is a director, he is also the chap who is the managing director. That is only human nature. What the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests is that the new scheme, stripped of the ranks that he wants to take away, will still contain posts graded all the way up the scale--they will all be called by the same name, but the increments will remain. That makes the whole exercise an utter waste of time. In a sense, the Home Secretary has conceded that it does not matter what a job is called as long as it carries with it a certain pay packet. In that case, why are we all wasting our time ? I welcome the idea of representation at disciplinary hearings. We practising lawyers are well acquainted with the problem of the malicious complaint--I have seen it time and again. People's careers can be wrecked by the malicious complaint. Some are driven to illness ; others have to live with the lurking suspicion that there is no smoke without fire. Removing that from the system will be well worth while.
If I went further, the Home Secretary would accuse me of being a perfectionist. I am a perfectionist : I want anyone accused of anything in any court or disciplinary tribunal to be allowed to choose his or her representative. There is an old saying : "Physician, heal thyself." In other words, a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client. To act for oneself is extraordinarily dangerous ; people need an independent, trained mind to present their case. Appearing before a disciplinary tribunal they can rest assured that those who are "prosecuting" have a great deal of experience of prosecuting.
Leaving the police half of the Bill and turning my guns on the Lord Chancellor's half of the Bill, I must tell the Minister who speaks for the Lord Chancellor that he is making the same mistake as his colleague, the Home Secretary. He is adopting the Big Brother approach. The
Column 137magistrates courts of this land have worked extremely well for many centuries. Why do we need to interfere with them ? What I have already said about amalgamation is equally true here. In parts of Lincolnshire, which I know fairly well, and of the north-west, which I know equally well, local problems which are peculiar to the areas can arise. Amalgamating such areas into bigger ones serving rural communities does not work.
The magistracy is rooted in the populations of the areas that it serves, and that is a good thing. Arbitrary amalgamation of such places runs the risk of creating something that is big and may look beautiful but will not reflect local needs. The Yorkshire-Derbyshire border is a case in point. The local knowledge of magistrates in rural areas around Bakewell and Chatsworth is different from the knowledge that magistrates will need if they operate in Sheffield, an industrial area.
To trespass on happy memories, I might add that, years ago, someone who appeared at Bakewell on a scrap dealing charge got a fine. In Sheffield he risked imprisonment for the same charge. If he appeared in Sheffield for poaching the odd rabbit on the Wentworth estate, not much happened to him ; but if he appeared before Bakewell magistrates for pinching a trout out of the river or poaching a pheasant, these were virtually hanging offences.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : Never having poached a ferret myself, may I point out that the hon. Gentleman would be entirely right if he were arguing in favour of amalgamating petty sessional divisional areas--is that what he is talking about ?
Mr. Bermingham : The Minister should know what I am talking about-- it is his Bill. It has been pointed out already that there has been no amalgamation of petty sessional divisions for some considerable time. And why ? Because amalgamation is not needed. What is the purpose, under clause 63, of allowing the Lord Chancellor to place someone on a magistrates courts committee ? Such committees have for years been made up of the magistrates of an area who know the area and the courts in the division. So why must an outsider be brought in ? Is the person appointed to report back to the Lord Chancellor ? What is his or her function to be ? I was a trifle amazed, when I read clause 68, to learn of the need for a justices' chief executive. What is the point of it all ? We are just putting in another bureaucrat. In the old days the clerk to the justice ran his own court and advised his magistrates--he had total independence. Suddenly, a chief executive to the justices rears his or her ugly head.
New section 25(2), in clause 69, stipulates that justices' clerks may be appointed only if the Lord Chancellor says so. For years, magistrates courts committees have been picking their people. Why do they suddenly need vetting ? Does Big Brother have to tell us how to do everything ? Will we be told that so-and-so is unsuitable because she has the wrong views, or that so-and-so is unsuitable because he is awkward ?
Column 138on the bench, means that we are entering a period of uncertainty and complexity which may not be necessary or wise ?
Mr. Bermingham : Bluntly speaking, my hon. Friend is right. What was a simple and straightforward system is becoming complicated. The next little clause presents us with the lovely idea of fixed-term contracts which, of course, are the death knell of independence. The analysis goes : if someone works in industry and performs well, his contract will be renewed. The problem with that is that people in the professions sometimes have to take decisions that other people do not like. A justices' clerk, for the sake of argument, may encounter a rogue magistrate--we all know of such cases--and that rogue magistrate may be a powerful voice on a certain committee. The justices' clerk is on a fixed-term contract--but I note that the Minister is shaking his head.
Mr. Bermingham : Perhaps I could have an assurance that there will be no fixed-term contracts for magistrates clerks. I got this copy of the Bill from the Table Office about 20 minutes ago. The committees will have a discretion to introduce such contracts. I should be happy to hear from the Minister that that is wrong.
Mr. Taylor : There will be no fixed-term contracts by virtue of the Bill. The thrust of the Bill is to put authority for magistrates courts in the hands of magistrates courts committees, which will determine the terms of reference of their staff. If they want fixed-term contracts for their chief executives, neither the Lord Chancellor nor I will interfere because we think that that is their province and their right.
Mr. Bermingham : When one goes fishing it is wonderful what one sometimes catches. Here we have it. Some committees will be able to introduce fixed-term contracts. That should not be allowed, and for all the reasons that I have given the Bill should be amended to ensure that it does not happen.
The various rules about the dismissal of magistrates' clerks need to be examined to ensure the independence of those clerks, because that is needed if the system is to run properly. In a magistrates court the independence of the clerk is crucial. His advice often guides the decisions of the magistrates in respect of law. Of course, the magistrates make up their own minds on the facts, and that is the way it has always been. There should be no interference or potential interference or a power to allow
Mr. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman says that he is anxious to retain the independence of justices' clerks in giving advice to their benches. Clause 71 relates to the independence of the justices' clerk and staff in the context of legal functions. The reassurance that the hon. Gentleman requires is in the Bill.
Mr. Bermingham : The Minister misses the point, which is a problem that can arise when hon. Members intervene before a sentence is complete. I know that clause 71 is about independence and that the Bill appears to allow
Column 139independence. The issue I am dealing with is the one that I tickled out--the question of fixed-term contracts. If clause 71 is to be effective, the Bill must state that there cannot be fixed-term or performance-related contracts. That is why I intervened on the Home Secretary and asked whether the difficulty in collecting fines would relate to performance and the performance contract. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not know the answer and had to be briefed rather quickly. I understand that because I cannot expect the Home Secretary to know all about the Lord Chancellor's Department--any more than I can expect the Lord Chancellor's Department to know all about the Home Office or, for that matter, anything else. The minute we begin to introduce performance-related terms to the justices' clerks or the chief executive--whatever he will do-- we begin to interfere with independence. I want that link to be broken.
The Bill contains dangers. The concept that big is beautiful is being promoted, but big can be disastrous, as we have seen in many other areas. There is also promotion of the concept that the state knows best. The Lord Chancellor can put his man or woman into a particular committee and the Home Secretary will have a say in who should or should not serve and how big a committee should be. The system has its flaws and could be tidied up, but it has worked well. Do we need a Bill that interferes with many parts of a system that has worked well for a long time ? Such a measure wastes the time of the House. The real battle ground is in ensuring that police forces have adequate funds and structures to fight crime. That can be done only by detecting criminals. The detection rate over the past 14 years shows that there is much to be desired.
The Home Office would be better employed in ensuring that the equipment and other resources that are necessary to detect criminals are in place than in tinkering with the structures of the police service. Bearing in mind what is happening in the Crown courts and the magistrates courts, the Lord Chancellor's Department would be better employed thinking not about making the Crown court clerks an agency service but about providing adequate clerking in those courts and adequate staffing and money in the magistrates courts. Conservative Members say that that would cost money, but detection and successful prosecutions would become a deterrent and we would not need so many police officers. That would save much money, but that part of the equation does not seem to cross the minds of some Conservative Members. I do not wish the Bill a fair wind : I wish it foul seas.
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : Thus far, the handling of the Bill has not exactly covered my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary or my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor with glory. I say that in sorrow rather than in anger because I have great respect for both of them. Those responsible for putting the Bill together seem to have been remarkably insensitive to the opinions of those who will be affected by it. After all, it is no small achievement to produce a measure that is greeted by the united opposition of all the police organisations, the Magistrates Association, the justices' clerks and a cross-section of knowledgeable and experienced members--including a particularly distinguished former Home Secretary--of the other place.
Column 140After pressure in the other place a number of amendments have been made, but there is scope for considerably more improvement to what is not one Bill but two. Presumably the combination was effected for the convenience of the Government's business managers. I can certainly think of no other reason. The measure deals with two different aspects of law and order, covers two Government Departments and is being dealt with in the House, as in the other place, by two different Ministers.
The task of the police is to maintain order, investigate crime and apprehend suspects. The task of the courts is to hear the evidence, decide on guilt or innocence and, if guilt is found, to impose a sentence within the constraints of the law. The essence of our system is that those are two separate procedures. We have been trying for years to get away from the concept of "police courts". I am afraid that that has been quite unnecessarily undermined by my right hon. and learned Friends between them producing the Bill and creating completely avoidable confusion. However, it is clearly too late to split the Bill, so we have to deal with it as it is.
Some concessions have been made in part I of the Bill, but a number of aspects still concern police officers. Most police officers belong to bodies which have a voice in the House. We have already heard one of them, in the shape of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant), and I suspect that we shall hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) before the evening is out. The most senior police officers have no such parliamentary representation ; they do not seek it, nor do they feel that they need it, as they have direct access to the Home Secretary himself--on the assumption that he will take heed of their views. I find it sad that some of them found it necessary to approach Members of Parliament because, although they say that their views have been listened to, they do not feel that they have been taken into account.
One proposal which concerns the most senior police officers appears in clause 6. It would abolish both the rank and the office of deputy chief constable. Apparently, an assistant chief constable will not be a deputy chief constable, yet the assistant can be given all the powers and duties of a chief constable in his absence. If that is not a deputy, what is ? If he is to be a deputy chief constable, why not call him that and retain the office ?
Mr. Fabricant : I wonder on how many occasions a chief constable is absent. If one assumes that it is eight, 10 or 12 weeks in a year, does it make sense to employ someone full time for just 12 weeks' work in a year ?
Mr. Sims : I should have thought that 12 weeks represents quite a substantial proportion of the year, but it would vary between chief constables. It seems highly desirable that there should be one specific person who, obviously, will have other duties within the force, but is clearly known and accepted as the deputy to the chief constable.
We have already discussed the concern about the possible abolition of other ranks by regulation. That issue was also fully debated in another place. It is one thing to reduce the numbers in each rank--we heard from my right hon. and learned Friend that that is already happening and is a continuing process--but it is quite another to remove
Column 141certain ranks altogether. It is essential that there should be no possible confusion as to who is the most senior person present and in charge.
The chief constable is operationally independent. Surely he should decide the ranks he needs according to local circumstances and the policing necessary in his area. He should not have a rank structure imposed upon him.
Clause 13 places on the Secretary of State responsibility for setting national objectives for police authorities and performance targets. That worries me on two counts. First, as has already been mentioned, local circumstances clearly differ, and objectives which are appropriate in one area may not be in another. A county may have a spate of car thefts, a city may have a drug problem and a county town may suffer from an outbreak of vandalism. They cannot all work to the same national objectives and performance targets.
Inherent in the proposal seems to be the danger that chief constables will be tempted to move their forces from one task to another simply to improve the figures and meet performance targets, even though it may not be in the best interests of efficient policing or that expected by the local community.
Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East) : I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend's argument. Does he agree that the wide disparity between forces in terms of clear-up rates--between 17 per cent. and 53 per cent. according to the Audit Commission report published in 1993 --is proof enough that the Secretary of State is right to include in the Bill measures that enable him to set performance targets ?
Mr. Sims : I shall move on to local targets, but I would need persuading that to meet the circumstances my hon. Friend describes it is essential to have national targets because circumstances vary so widely in different parts of the country.
Secondly, targets imply measurable achievements and figures. Much police work is not measurable. To take a simple example, if a couple of officers are sitting in the police station and get an emergency call, they might dash out and apprehend a shop breaker or someone burgling a house. That clearly is measurable, but if those two officers had been patrolling the streets, they may have deterred the potential offenders from committing the offences in the first place. That would have been better policing, but it is not clearly measurable.
All sorts of preventive work are not measurable. I have been particularly impressed by the junior citizen scheme, which has operated in my constituency for successive years. Schoolchildren are taken to a building where various scenarios are set up and their reactions are noted and discussed. For example, they open what they are told is the kitchen door and smoke pours out of it. What do they do ? How do they react ? They are told to stroll up the road as if they were on their way home from school. A man is lying down on the road asking for help. As soon as one of them goes towards him, the child is grabbed. That scenario is discussed with the children. They decide how they should react. Such schemes are ideal for teaching children responsibility and how to behave in certain circumstances. It is good policing work, but it is not measurable.