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12.24 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) on securing an Adjournment debate on the accountability of the Metropolitan police service and other services, and on using it to draw the House's attention to a matter in which he has taken a long-standing interest.

I shall set out the general arrangements for accountability for the police service. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle will know, policing in England and Wales is undertaken within the framework of the tripartite relationship of the chief officer, police authority and Home Secretary. The framework has proved resilient and capable of accommodating changing demands. It provides a service that is efficient and effective, but also accountable.

The chief officer is responsible for the direction and control of the force. He or she has operational independence and has flexibility in how the local police service is delivered. However, the chief officer must operate with regard to the policing plan, which is owned by the police authority.

The authority oversees the police force, holding the chief officer to account for his or her actions and monitoring performance as necessary. The police authority also provides local democratic accountability through its members, the majority of whom are local councillors.

The Home Secretary is answerable to Parliament and the public for the provision of an effective and efficient police service. He has a strategic role in setting ministerial priorities for the service and performance targets for those priorities. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle referred a great deal to the Metropolitan police service; the present arrangements for the accountability of that service are somewhat different. In particular, the Home Secretary is also the police authority.

The House will know that we have plans to bring the arrangements in London closer to those that apply in the rest of England and Wales, through the Greater London Authority Bill. Although it is clear that the arrangements

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for the democratic accountability of the Metropolitan police service can be improved, there is already a substantial degree of effective accountability.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made many allegations and raised several points, and I am sure that he would not expect me to reply to them all this evening. It is also worth pointing out that matters relating to the security services are the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, the hon. Gentleman raised, among other questions, the issue of whether the Metropolitan police have operated objectively and fairly in deciding whether to investigate certain allegations, and in the conduct of the subsequent investigations.

I must emphasise that the police retain, as they must, independence in such operational decisions. That is necessary in the interests of the impartial maintenance of the law. However, it is vital that the police should be properly accountable for their operational decisions and investigations. They are, of course, answerable to the courts, but there are also special arrangements in place for making complaints against the police and for the investigation of such complaints.

I cannot comment on the questions about reported operational decisions and actions by the Metropolitan police. The conduct of operations is and must be a matter for the police in London under the direction of the Commissioner. Subject to that, I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was made aware of the concerns of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle about the safety deposit box scam, as he calls it. My right hon. Friend, in a letter of 26 February, explained to the hon.

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Gentleman that he had drawn those concerns to the Commissioner's attention, and that the Commissioner had assured my right hon. Friend that every endeavour was being made to balance the needs of the investigation with scrupulous fairness.

In subsequent correspondence, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary also confirmed that the Commissioner was fully aware of the representations made by Al Fayed's solicitor about the security box investigation. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle promised that he would return to the subject with vigour if the actions of officers in the Al Fayed investigations gave rise to public humiliation and the allegation of theft turned out to be unfounded. True to his word, he has done so tonight in this debate.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle knows that special procedures exist for making complaints about the police. He and others may wish to consider those procedures, and he will know that the Government at present are acting on many of the suggestions made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We hope to bring about changes in the police complaints process as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle will appreciate that I cannot give an answer tonight to a number of the matters that he has raised. However, I shall draw this debate to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am sure that we shall write to the hon. Gentleman about any matters that have not been covered fully this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

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