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Mr. Kevan Jones: What does the hon. Gentleman suggest a Government do if a police force is letting its local community down by not fighting crime, or by engaging in maladministration, corruption or other practices that lead to there being something severely wrong with that force? Is he suggesting that the Home Secretary will stand by and let that happen? What should the Government do when the local community has clearly lost confidence in its police force, and there are issues of concern for that community and possibly for the nation?
Norman Baker: If the community feels there is a problem, it should have power to take control and rectify it. It is the community that will suffer. If there is a problem in Derbyshire, the people of Derbyshire will suffer. They should be able to remedy the problem, rather than relying on the Home Secretary in London.
What powers has the hon. Gentleman in mind to deal with the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), if not those of the existing police authorities? Police authorities may not always be relied on to take effective action, although we hope that will be possible in the vast majority of cases.
Norman Baker: The question is based on the false premise that if there is a problem, it can be solved by the Home Secretary of the day. That makes no sense. Powers are already in place; indeed, the Home Secretary has powers. There are arrangements for independent
When there is a problem, the power should not inevitably go to the next level in Government, which would mean that eventuallyregardless of the nature of the problem and the sphere in which it occurredthe Prime Minister would deal with it. That is not the way in which we organise things in this country. We have to trust local communities and local democracy. I refer the Minister to a paper on regional government produced by his own Government. Clearly, those in other parts of Government believe in local democracy; it is a shame that the Home Office apparently does not.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I still have not received an answer to my question. May I draw an analogy that relates to what was said by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)? Is the hon. Member for Lewes suggesting that local police chiefs and police authorities should be directly elected?
Norman Baker: I do not think it would be very sensible to elect local police chiefs, and as far as I know no one in the House or elsewhere has suggested that, but there is an argument about who should chooseor elect, if you likepolice authorities, which is perfectly proper. The hon. Gentleman may recall that when his party was in opposition, italong with the Liberal Democrats, if memory serves mestrongly opposed the Conservative Government's proposed measures to stitch up police authorities. There is a legitimate way in which police authorities can be more accountable, and can be seen to be more responsive to their communities. We should aim for that, rather than giving blanket powers to the Home Secretary.
Labour Members have failed to answer another question. Do they not recognise, in their hearts, the dangers of handing powers such as thesealbeit reserve powersto a Home Secretary? I do not necessarily refer to the present Home Secretary. I ask Labour Members to imagine the worst possible Conservative Home Secretary, the Conservative Home Secretary whom they see in their worst nightmares. What would he or she do with such powers?
We are legislating not just for tomorrow, but for a long time ahead. We must therefore ensure that there is a separation of powers relating to local accountability: that is what democracy relies on. The Home Secretary's proposals undermine a system of that kind, and create a potentially dangerous situation. I ask Labour Members to accept what I have said, and I think that in their hearts many will.
Simon Hughes: Does it not follow from some of what has been said so far that the country has relied on people who are not politicians to enforce and uphold the lawthe courts, with independent judges or magistrates, and the police, who come with no party political manifesto or position? That is a fundamental principle, and that is why Home Secretaries, who are politicians, should be kept away from these levers of power while police chiefs, who are not politicians, should be given access to them.
My colleagues and I are determined to resist the reinsertion of clause 5. I believe that that applies to the Conservatives as well. The Minister will have to believe that we are united in this regard, and that we are not going to give way. Certainly I am not going to give way. There can be as much ping-pong as the Minister wants, but that is our position. We do not intend to give way on such an important principle.
The Bill proposes the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints Commission. As I said in an intervention on the Minister's speech, my colleagues and I welcome such a sensible step, which is long overdue and will do much to restore confidence in the police. I also welcome the suggested extensions of the commission's power. The Minister said he would table amendments relating to three issues in that context, and I think that sensible. I ask him, however, to reflect on my comment that the commission might be swamped by a huge number of complaints. People who have not thought it worthwhile to complain so far because, rightly or wrongly, they have assumed that they will not be given a fair hearing might want to complain to an independent body.
There may be a small secretariat, for want of a better word, dealing with relatively few caseshigh-profile casesand, in effect, relying on the police to investigate 98 per cent. of cases. That is welcome as far as it goes, but I think the public want to feel confident that if they are not satisfied with the police response, the case can be referred to the commission and examined independently. Many complaints to local authorities about their services are settled through an in-house council complaints procedure, but if complainants are still dissatisfied they have the right to go to the local government ombudsman. I think the same right should be given in this instance.
That right, however, will be worth nothing if there is no capacity for dealing with complaints that are referredif the commission ends up picking and choosing, because it simply cannot cope with the river of complaints. The commission must be properly financed and properly staffed if it is to gain public confidence.
Let me say something about clause 19 of the original Bill, and the comments of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was concerned about what the Government had proposed in relation to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights said:
I turn now to part 3 of the Bill. Liberal Democrat Members retain concerns about clause 31, which used to be clause 30. It deals with the power of the Secretary of State to remove senior officers. That is a further example of the centralising tendency. The Home Secretary wants to take to himself powers that might best be left elsewhere.
Clause 31 is headed "Removal etc. of senior officers at the instance of the Secretary of State". To mix metaphors again, I believe that that should send shivers down spines and set alarm bells ringing at the same time. It is an extensive and draconian power.
What is wrong with allowing police authorities to deal with that matter, as has been the position so far? How many problems have arisen? As it happens, the Home Secretary was already able to get rid of a chief constable by the slightly back-door method of issuing a press release, as happened with Paul Whitehouse, the former chief constable of Sussex. The proposed power would mean that chief constables would always be looking over their shoulders, wondering what the Home Secretary of the day was expecting of them. They would worry about whether they were complying with a police plan, or whether they should have community support officers in their areas, given that the police authorities next door and down the road had them. If they did not have such officers, they would worry about being asked to explain why, and wonder whether they would get a black mark.
In addition, let us suppose that a chief constable undertook an experiment such as the one launched in Lambeth regarding the enforcement of the law relating to cannabis. What would happen if the Home Secretary of the day disliked such a plan? Many hon. Members would be violently opposed to such experiments, so where would that leave the chief constable? The power proposed in the Bill would make chief constables less willing to make such judgments and take such chances. It is the wrong power to take, and I hope that the Government will reconsider.
I turn now to part 4, the other controversial part of the Bill. The ideal structure for police in this country would involve more police officers. Every hon. Member would support that. To their credit, the Government have finally adopted a strategy of recruiting more police officersalbeit after a long lead-in period. We are just about back to above 1997 levels, although some police authority areas are still below them. We are approaching the Government's target of 130,000 officers, and that is welcome.
Another problem is retention, as I and other hon. Members have pointed out in previous debates on this matter. There is no point in pouring police in at one end of the colander, if they are only to come out of the other. One or two police authority areas have poor retention levels.
In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to the proposal in the Liberal Democrat general election manifesto that part-time officers should be employed on a retained basis. I was pleased to hear the Minister suggest that they may have a role. Some people may be too old to want to be full-time officers, but they may not want to retire. Their great experience means that they may have a great deal to give the community. It would be folly to lose such people, who may be prepared to continue to work limited hours. We must find a way to retain them.