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Mr. Straw: I think the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will confirm that it is already the case that, when a police officer has, for example, been convicted of a serious criminal offence and the Secretary of State signs a certificate stating that that conviction brings the police service concerned into serious disrepute, that police officer may forfeit up to 75 per cent. of his pension. That is the portion of the pension that was contributed by the state; the remaining 25 per cent. is never subject to forfeit because that amount is assumed for these purposes to have been contributed by the individual.

Sir Norman Fowler: That is a rather dodgy argument, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so; it could apply to any other pension scheme. The fact is that ownership passes. I do not dispute the fact that what the right hon. Gentleman describes is true for serious criminal offences, but he is not confining his proposal to such cases. He is saying that such considerations should be taken into account in respect of disciplinary offences. I am questioning that proposal.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): If the Home Secretary is considering the removal of the part of a police officer's pension that he is entitled to remove for serious disciplinary offences--possibly including racist offences or racist language--and as the Macpherson report has indicated that most of our institutions are also in need of reform, surely such a proposal should extend to health service workers and the whole of government and the civil service? Police officers would think that it

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was unfair for their pensions to be removed for certain offences while civil servants and others did not have their pensions removed if they committed similar offences.

Sir Norman Fowler: I hope that our debate will be constructive, so I would say that the Government need to think carefully and deeply about that matter and any precedents that it might set. I understand the point made by my right hon. Friend; as he is aware, I was involved with pension policy, so perhaps I have a greater interest in the subject than most people.

The general message sent out by that kind of proposal is even more important than its specifics. I believe that most police officers are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the case for reform, but in that process of reform it is essential that the Government take the police service with them. It will be in no one's interests to have a demoralised service reacting defensively; everyone should be aiming at having a police service that positively embraces and supports reform.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Abbott: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: Yes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I establish to whom the right hon. Gentleman is giving way?

Sir Norman Fowler: It is self-evident, Mr. Deputy Speaker: I give way first to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to his arguments about the onerous burdens that are being placed on the police. Does he accept that the police are in a different position from members of other public services? They alone have power over people's liberty--almost the power of life and death. It is not unreasonable that higher standards should be expected of them even than of people in other parts of the public sector. Does the right hon. Gentleman also realise the great concern among people--black or white, living in London or outside it--that serious allegations may be made against policemen and that they can walk away from those accusations simply by resigning and continuing to draw their pension? That does not apply only in the Lawrence case, but to a series of deaths in custody.

Sir Norman Fowler: I accept that there is a case to be explored and answered. I certainly accept that there must be the highest possible checks on the police. However, I advise the Government that it would not be right or sensible--nor would there be public support--if a set of proposals that were seen to be unjust were imposed on the police. That would be wrong.

Mr. Straw rose--

Sir Norman Fowler: If the Home Secretary will allow me, I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and then I shall give way to him.

Mr. Rowe: I share my right hon. Friend's anxieties about the proposed pension arrangements. Is it not likely

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that some of the older members of the police force might find it hardest to adapt to the new requirements--however necessary they might be--and that, in order to ease that problem, such officers might be expected to retire early? However, if, at the same time, their pensions were put at risk because of the behaviour that had caused the demand for their retirement, would that not be unfair?

Sir Norman Fowler: What would be unfair would be the imposition of a serious disciplinary offence that was considered unjust by the service and by the public. Rather than that we should all take entrenched positions, I urge that we should give these matters careful thought and consider whether it is sensible to proceed down that road.

Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that the matter needs to be explored, and that is true. However, it is crucial that what we do is fair not only to members of the public but to police officers; I have made that point on many occasions, in the House and outside it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, the police do an extraordinary job. It is precisely because they do such an extraordinary job that that fact needs to be recognised in their terms and conditions of service.

Sir Norman Fowler: I think that that was a concession and that we are coming together. If the Home Secretary is agreeing with me, I shall move on, with that in my pocket. I genuinely believe that it is sensible to try to reach agreement on these matters.

We can also take it from the Home Secretary's published response to the Macpherson report that two other proposals are destined for the legal knacker's yard. The proposal in respect of double jeopardy--prosecution after acquittal--is set down as accepted by the Home Secretary, but what he means is that he is content for it to be considered by the Law Commission, and the word "consideration" is there in italics. Although I agree that it might be considered, I would be amazed if the Law Commission did not reject it. Similarly, the Government are right to be wary of changing the law in respect of racist language used in private places, such as a house. I do not think the Home Secretary mentioned this matter--

Mr. Straw: I did.

Sir Norman Fowler: I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon.

Whatever our views, we have to pass law that is enforceable by the police and the courts and that does not infringe other rights. Therefore, I believe that that proposal should be rejected. I should add that, if anyone wants confirmation of the sort of people we are up against, they should read appendix 10 to the report, which contains an account of the language used by some of the suspects in the case.

There is one further point to be made. Although the focus of the report is better community relations, some of the recommendations have a general application, as they relate to far more than one service. Take freedom of information. The Home Secretary mentioned that the report proposes that a freedom of information Act should apply to all areas of policing. However, proposals such as

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freedom of information cannot be considered in isolation, or as always applying to someone else; Government Departments have to apply them to themselves. In the topical case of the inquiry into the leak of the Macpherson report, the Home Secretary has personally blocked every sensible piece of information that is capable of being blocked. To give but one example, I asked, not for the individual identity of those being questioned, but whether, as a class, Ministers, officials, or ministerial advisers would be questioned. I was told by the Home Secretary:

    "It would not be in the interests of the leak investigation now under way to give these details."--[Official Report, 4 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 855.]

Ms Abbott: Quite right.

Sir Norman Fowler: I know that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) will support any restriction--

Ms Abbott: I said that.

Sir Norman Fowler: Oh, it was the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. In that case, I am amazed. In all seriousness, we should avoid imposing obligations on the police that we are not prepared to accept ourselves.

Another proposal that has general application and commands agreement on both sides of the House concerns victims of crime. Macpherson criticises the police for dealing with the Lawrence family in a patronising manner. I can think of few things more hurtful than that and I hope that the wider use of family liaison officers will help to address that problem. However, the principle goes far wider, because, even now, we do not look after the victims of crime well enough. We appear to believe that, after a certain period, people automatically come to terms with their loss, but that is not necessarily true; as I learned at the initial meeting of Victims Voice last year, the loss continues and we should do more generally to help crime victims.

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