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Norman Baker (Lewes): The amendments seem uncontroversial and improve the Bill in the way suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I want to refer to the protocol. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has the advantage of me, in that I have not seen the protocol. It is a pity that it has not been circulated to all members of the Committee. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified what he intends to do to make the protocol available to Members of this House. Even if the protocol is not available in its final form, it would be helpful to have the draft circulated, as that would inform discussion.

That point has particular validity, given that paragraph 49 of the Home Affairs Committee's report states:

Paragraph 43 of the Government's response states:

Will the Minister please circulate the draft protocol that he has put out for consultation, or make it available by putting a copy in the Library? In addition, what is the time scale for reaching agreement on the protocol? I hope that such agreement will be reached before the Lords consider any further matters relating to the Bill.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rise to support some of the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). My hon. Friend is right to say that, under the Bill as drafted, the power to suspend does not require the giving of reasons. Furthermore, the power to suspend in no way triggers an inquiry, which will probably do a grave injustice to the senior officers concerned. My hon. Friend made the sensible point that once a police officer has been suspended, it is extraordinarily difficult to recover their credibility. It is very difficult for them to obtain employment, whether in another force or with an alternative employer. In the absence of the giving of reasons, it will be extraordinarily difficult for them to challenge the justification for the suspension. I ask the Minister to explain why provision is not made for the giving of written reasons, or for the holding of an inquiry.

Suspension, by definition, is not a final state. What provision will be made for finally determining whether a chief officer is to remain in the force? So far as I can tell, the Bill provides no such procedure. There is no obvious procedure through which a police authority can ask that a chief officer be no longer suspended; nor does the Bill provide for the officer concerned to submit that the suspension be done away with. We have a state of limbo that is entirely dependent on the Home Secretary's discretion. I am always against giving Home Secretaries such discretion, regardless of their political complexion.

I ask myself another question. Under clause 33, the Secretary of State can choose between suspending, requiring retirement or requiring resignation. What

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obligation is there on the Secretary of State to consult a police authority in advance on which of those alternatives might be desirable? The answer is: none at all. As far as I can see, the views of the police authority are not necessarily to be sought; it is for the Secretary of State to determine which of the three options is the most attractive. I am against giving Secretaries of State—particularly the Secretary of State in question—such power. Why is provision not made for pre-action consultation between the Secretary of State and the police authority concerned?

It is clear that there are financial distinctions to be drawn between the consequences of retirement and of resignation. When somebody retires, they normally trigger pension entitlements. As we well know, such entitlements constitute a substantial burden on police authorities; however, the same is not necessarily true in respect of resignation. What consultation will take place between the Secretary of State and police authorities about the preferred route? Nothing in the Bill requires the Secretary of State to undertake such consultation.

The criteria in question are "efficiency or effectiveness". I realise that that phrase appears in the Police Act 1996—legislation for which the Government of whom I was a member were responsible. However, the question of what is efficient or effective is as long as the Home Secretary's foot; in other words, the power is completely discretionary. We are reinforcing a provision in the 1996 Act that enables the Secretary of State to get rid of a police officer on the subjective judgment that they are not effective or efficient. I am very sceptical about giving any Home Secretary—particularly the present one—that power, and I hope that the House shares my inhibition.

I am personally in favour of fixed-term contracts for senior police officers, which would mean little need for these provisions. The re-engagement of chief police officers would be considered on a rolling basis every three to five years. The disadvantages of that policy are not so great as to displace the advantages.

I am very cautious about these amendments. They would give the Executive yet more discretionary power—and I do not value the discretion of the present Home Secretary—in the important policy area of the police service.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I have one query for my right hon. Friend the Minister. The Home Secretary may issue a written notice of removal to senior officers if he feels that they have been inefficient or ineffective. Does that phrase relate to their performance on operational matters or on non-operational matters? Is there any definition of what an operational matter is? I ask because some years ago, when I had some responsibility for the subject, operational matters were tightly defined, but now they appear to be anything that a chief constable decides is in his remit. That is an important, albeit detailed, issue and I would be happy for my right hon. Friend to undertake to write to me if that is more appropriate.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I share the views of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and I am very uneasy about the powers that the Government will take to remove senior officers. I am pleased to take part in the debate.

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I sit on the Home Affairs Committee; as other hon. Members have pointed out, its members are in Brussels. I had to stay in the country for personal reasons, not because of any antipathy to Brussels. I do not wish to be governed from that city, but it is a pleasant place to visit and I am sure that my colleagues on the Committee are having an interesting time.

I support the Committee's report and what it said about the protocol. I shall return to that issue because it is germane to the amendments. First, however, I must make the point that we are today debating further centralisation. The Home Secretary will have the power to sack every chief constable in the land. I ask the Minister to contrast that situation with that pertaining to the rest of the police organisation. In the Witney or Banbury police station, the chief inspector or superintendent does not have the power to remove ineffective officers in his own force. Power in the police force is going in the wrong direction—towards the centre and the Home Secretary—instead of being devolved throughout the organisation, and the amendments will not improve the situation.

I accept that the Government have made some concessions and have started to talk about consulting police authorities on the removal of chief constables. However, because of those concessions, the Bill now contains some very tortuous language. The question of the sacking of a chief constable should be a matter for the police authorities. That point was made in evidence to the Committee by Mr. Kevin Morris of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, when I asked him whether he thought that the real responsibility for hiring and firing chief constables should rest with the police authority. He replied:

The Bill should reinforce the powers of police authorities, and its failure to do so concerns me most of all.

The Committee made two recommendations in its report that are germane to the amendments:

Can the Minister, even at this late stage, give us some more assurances and perhaps even some examples of circumstances in which those powers would be used?

Our second point had to do with the protocol being discussed by the Home Office and senior officers. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) have both referred to it. The Select Committee stated:

We are asking a vital question—when can the Home Secretary exercise the powers, and when can he not?

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5.15 pm

Above all, where is the protocol? My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is ingenious and seems to have got hold of a copy. The first people I know to have got hold of a copy of the protocol work for The Times. Yesterday, in an article with the wonderful subheading "Crunch week for Blunkett on crime, cannabis and asylum", the newspaper stated:

It may be a naive question, but if The Times could see the protocol, why could not it be seen by hon. Members before the Bill reached Report stage? If The Times had it, why did paragraph 43 of the Government's response to the Select Committee report state:

I echo what the hon. Member for Lewes said. Given that my ingenious hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has got hold of a copy of the protocol, perhaps one could be given to all hon. Members, even at this very late stage.

Why does this matter? Yesterday's article in The Times quoted an adviser—an "aide to Mr. Blunkett", according to the newspaper—who explained why the power might be necessary:

The arguments may be strong, but they should be presented to the House, with copies of the protocol for hon. Members to look at. It seems odd that the Government are still consulting on the matter. Normally, one consults before legislating, but the two processes seem to be going on at once.

I am unhappy about the proposed centralisation, as we could end up with chief constables looking over their shoulders at the Home Office rather than at local circumstances or their local police authorities. A good example of that was reported by The Times, which has been assiduous recently. We were assured yesterday that Ministers, not all of them Home Office Ministers, are not overseeing individual police forces, but The Times reported that those Ministers were looking at police areas and at the operation of the street crime initiative.

In an article by Mr. Tom Baldwin—who is known for his close connections with Downing street and for his assiduity in getting stories—The Times reported that it had learned

The article states that my own Thames Valley police force is being overseen by the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women, who does not even live in that force's area.

It is clear that the new powers in the Bill will cause chief constables to look over their shoulders at the Home Office, to divine the thinking there and to determine the

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central initiatives that the Government are driving through. They will not be as worried as they should be about local policing matters.

In my area of Witney, there has been a spate of bad rural burglaries. I am meeting the Thames Valley area's chief constable tomorrow, and I want to know that he is focused on local issues such as that. I want to be sure that he is not always worrying about whether the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women is satisfied with what he is doing about street crime, or that he is not always looking to the Home Office to see whether he is going to be fired. The power to sack chief constables should reside with the police authorities.

I shall end with a quotation from the evidence of Sir John Stevens to the Select Committee, as it relates directly to the amendments. I put it to Sir John—not too brutally, I hope—that

Sir John Stevens said:

the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—

That golden thread is being unravelled by the powers in the Bill. Those powers will mean that chief constables will consider only the Home Office and how they are doing with Ministers—not even Home Office Ministers in the case of the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women—and they will forget about the importance of local policing.

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