Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): It is a strange and novel concept that the Conservative party is the defender of freedom. We do not need to look forward. For a good example of national policing, should we not look back to 1984 and 1985, when many constituents in North Durham and other mining communities saw the effects of a police force under the direct control of Margaret Thatcher and a Conservative Government?

Mr. Letwin: I am genuinely astonished that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that the only reason why the law-abiding citizens of this country were willing to tolerate the police action at that time was precisely because of the operational independence of the chief constables, and because it was understood that the Home Secretary of the day did not have the power to direct their actions. If the hon. Gentleman believes that that is a principle of the rule of law which is worth defending, he cannot possibly subscribe to the reinsertion of the clause.

Mr. Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at that time police forces throughout the country were being directed centrally by Government—yes or no?

Mr. Letwin: No, they were not, in practice or in theory. The duty of the police forces of this country is and has

7 May 2002 : Column 65

been for decades and, indeed, centuries to maintain the rule of law, not the rule of a politician. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues do not understand that distinction, they do not understand the foundations of our democracy.

There is a second argument that the Minister would have had to address. I accept that one might be willing to tolerate even such an attack on the foundations of the rule of law if there were an overwhelming practical advantage in the prevention of crime to be gained by so doing. Crime is so dreadful and so prevalent, and street crime is such a problem, that if we could be persuaded that by that means the Government would bring about a vast reduction in it, there would be a serious argument to counterpoise against the argument from the rule of law.

We must ask ourselves the question—I urge the Minister to ask himself the question, and if the Home Secretary can be contacted, I urge him to ask himself the question—whether there is the slightest shred of evidence that, of all the bodies in Britain, the Home Office is the one most able to bring about the efficient deployment of anything. This is the Home Office that has created an asylum system which, by the Home Secretary's own admission, is in chaos. [Interruption.] Labour Members may not like the recitation, but the truth remains visible to the population, the media and hon. Members.

This is a Home Office that has not been able to run an effective asylum system. It is a Home Office that cannot run an effective Passport Agency. It is a Home Office that has prisons with recidivism rates among the highest in the world. This is a Home Office that cannot pretend that it has vastly more efficient means at its disposal than our police forces have at theirs.

In the whole of rather a long speech delivered at a great rate, the Minister did not give us the slightest argument for supposing that there will be greater efficiency. He hardly mentioned the clause. The Select Committee on Home Affairs examined it seriously. It entertained reservations and supported the clause with great reluctance and modification, but the Home Secretary and his Minister have not chosen to take on the argument. That is extraordinary. There are two arguments against a signal clause—the clause that causes all the fuss: an argument from the rule of law and an argument from practice, and what do we hear? Nothing. A blank. A vacuum.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My hon. Friend is making an extremely good case, as he always does, and making it powerfully. Has he had any indication that the Home Secretary will play some part in the passage of the Bill? Will he be a member of the Committee? Will he at some stage stand at the Dispatch Box and defend and explain the Bill? If not, not only is the House being subjected to an insult of monumental proportions, but Henry VIII powers are being taken in absentia.

Mr. Letwin: I have not had such an indication. My hon. Friend knows, I know and the entire House knows that the reason why the Home Secretary is seeking by every means at his disposal to play down the Bill is that he does not want to enter into those two arguments. I do not know why he thinks he will lose them, but I suspect that the reason is that they are very difficult to win.

I hope that before we have ended, the Home Secretary will, in response to my hon. Friend, have played a role in the Bill. By the time the Bill is sent back to the Lords,

7 May 2002 : Column 66

and the Lords, as I profoundly hope, with the assistance of our allies on the Liberal Democrat Benches and the Cross Benches there, have sent it back to this House, I hope that the Home Secretary and others and I will have the chance to negotiate the clause out of existence.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he concede that some communities in the UK are exasperated by the performance of their local police authorities? After the authorities' failure to engage with them in improving performance, they must look elsewhere and seek the Home Secretary's intervention. If people cannot count on such intervention, must they be satisfied with the appallingly dismal service that they receive in relation to the elements of crime that are not effectively tackled in their community?

Mr. Letwin: We often hear that structure of argument, and it leads to perdition. What the hon. Lady is actually saying is that we should give up on local democracy and local accountability, and that whenever and wherever they do not happen to work at a given moment, we should seek to centralise to solve the problem. That is the structure of her argument and that of the Home Secretary. It suffers from twin deficiencies, as by centralising we threaten the foundations or our democracy and do not achieve the efficiency that she rightly seeks. There is no evidence to show that the Home Office is efficient. The real way of solving the problem in some areas to which she alludes is to increase and not reduce local accountability and the effectiveness of local communities in ensuring that they are policed in the way they want. The Government have not made any proposals in that regard. Had they done so, we would have considered them constructively and worked with the Government to try to implement them.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), does the hon. Gentleman recognise the problem that communities face when they cannot get the services that they desire? The existing system of accountability for police forces, which operates through the police authority, is not the same as local accountability to locally and democratically elected politicians. That failure of the democratic process in the police accountability system is one of the factors that causes many of us great frustration in seeking to exercise some degree of control or influence over our local police authorities.

Mr. Letwin: I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. In the United States, there are 18,000 police forces and local communities feel that they have the ability to influence the way in which they are policed. In Britain, there are 43 police forces and most people do not currently feel that they have the ability at local level—or at what passes for it in Britain—to affect the way in which they are policed. I repeat that if the Government had brought forward what they should have brought forward—proposals to try to restore and increase the degree of effective local accountability—we would have been working with them and not against them. However, they have moved in the opposite direction, which will further distance people from the feeling that they can affect how they are policed.

Mr. Denham: It would probably be helpful for our further discussion if the hon. Gentleman were to expand

7 May 2002 : Column 67

a little on the ideas that he is advancing and has aired previously on the "Today" programme. Is he suggesting the direct election of police chiefs at local level? Is he saying that the police force should come under the control of the local county council—or what? It would be very helpful to the House to hear exactly what he is proposing.

Mr. Letwin: We will, in due course—[Laughter.] In due course and in our own time, we will make our own proposals to achieve an aim that the Government should share. They have 600,000 civil servants at their disposal and they are the current Government of the United Kingdom. It was up to the Government to make proposals. As they have not done so, we will do so before the next election, and our proposals will be in tune with the general propositions that we set out at our Harrogate conference: there should be more, not less, localism and less, not more, centralisation. When we make those proposals, the Minister will have to explain why they are wrong. I suspect that he will find it a good deal more difficult to do so than we find it to show what is wrong with his proposals for centralisation.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that his party and mine are at one on this issue. Does he agree that there is an inconsistency between the arguments that are being advanced? On the one hand it is argued that to make people feel that local government is more important and to encourage them to vote more, they should be given more power, not less. Yet on the other hand, to make people have more confidence in the police and more desire to become engaged in the local police authorities' activities and to be involved in local decisions, the Bill seeks to ensure that they have less power, not more. Surely that position is entirely inconsistent, and works against engaging the public with the police and in working alongside them and in their democratic management.

Next Section

IndexHome Page