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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but is he actually saying that under no circumstances should the Home Secretary or Parliament have any control over a chief constable or a local police authority? If that is the case, how are chief constables or police authorities to be democratically accountable to Parliament?
Mr. Letwin: I fear that the hon. Gentleman and I have different views on the current arrangements. Indeed, I fear that his view differs from that of Ministers and, indeed, the progress of our history. It is not the case that police chief constables or their forces are democratically accountable to Parliament. They are not. Nor are they, and nor have they ever been, accountable to Home Secretaries under the law or any constitutional theory. Police forces are accountable to police authorities, and that is why they are called police authorities. Those police authorities are accountable, to a degreealthough not, in my view, to a sufficient degreeto their local communities.
The tripartite structure so carefully established gives the Home Secretary strictly circumscribed statutory roles, which I know he finds frustrating. However, because he is the de facto possessor of the purse strings, he has a wider degree of influence than his statutory role would suggest. The issue that we have been debating for some months is whether we should include in the Bill a statutory platform that will tend to increase what is the already great influence of the centre over the police forces of England and Wales.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Was not it the previous Conservative Government who put in place the current structure of police authorities, which previously had a larger democratic element in the numbers of local councillors who sat on them? Is the Conservative party now proposing directly elected police authorities and chief constables?
Mr. Letwin: It is perfectly true that the Conservative party is reviewing its policies on and attitudes to the local accountability of police forces. As we do so, we are conscious of the need to maintain the operational independence of chief constables from their authoritiesthat is another important pointbecause we are desperately keen for the professionals to be able to get on with the job.
We recognise that the degrees of decentralisation and local accountability need review. Although those questions are germane, we are, alas, considering a provision in the Bill that proposes the reverse: the establishment of a platform upon which the centre can do more to influence the police forces of the country. That is what we need to debate.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. As usual, he argues his case carefully and succinctly. He made a point about control and power from the centre, but I did not perceive that he was saying that any threat or undue influence was being imposed. He said, rightly, that it is a question of finance. Does he agree that the
Mr. Letwin: I agree that that is a good example. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept, and that the Minister will take the point also, that I am not asserting that everything that the Home Secretaryeither the present one or any of his predecessorshas sought to achieve as a result of using that influence is bad. Such an assertion would be false. In fact, I am rather in favour of some of the effects of the crime fighting fund. The problem is that good effects that are brought about by means that may be questionable can have long-term, unanticipated effects. That is my fear.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but he is talking about structures and the relationship between the Home Office and police authorities and chief constables. However, people in my constituency and in many others throughout the country are primarily concerned with the efficiency of the police force that serves them. The most recent available performance indicators show that his police authority is doing remarkably well in comparison with mine. I wish that my constituents were as fortunate as his. Is not the aim of new clause 1 simply to improve the service that I get? Would not it challenge my police authority to provide services that are similar to those provided elsewherespecifically in his constituency?
Mr. Letwin: I recognise that the motives that the hon. Lady ascribes to the Home Secretary and to the Minister are correct. Throughout this important debate, I have acknowledged that the sole desire of the Home Secretary and the Minister is to exert pressure for what will be, in their view, better and more efficient policing in parts of the country where it is less good than it should be. I accept that, and I have never asserted anything to the contrary.
I understand that Home Secretaries occupy a high office and feel frustrated when they pull levers and little appears to happen quickly at the other end. That frustrates them, not least because gadflies like me accuse them of failing to produce good results, and they do not understand why we should then deprive them of the means to achieve those results.
I understand that logic, but the problem is that that approach does not work in the long run. That is partly because it compromises the principle that politicians should be kept out of the process, which is more precious than anything else.
There are also practical reasons why the approach will not work, which I will address briefly. Our assertionwe may be wrong, but it is based on deep intuitionsis that the professionals will become progressively demoralised, and that policing in England and Wales will get worse as a result. That will happen if efforts, however well intentioned, are made by the central bureaucracy to controlthrough targets, monitoring and interference from the centrehow those police forces go about their work.
Mr. Letwin: Before I give way, which I shall for the very last time, I should add that one has to ask how effective the Home Office will be in carrying out this task, even if one were to assume away the issue of principle and the question of whether the professionals will be demoralised.
There are many extremely intelligent and hard-working people in the Home Office. I know that they will do their best, but the record is not good. The Home Office has not proved good at administering matters, and until it improves I do not believe that there are grounds for putting our faith in that body to administer the police forces of England and Wales. Those are the three essentials of our argument.
Mr. Allen: The right hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. I wish to pursue the same point and ensure that he is as rigorous in his argument as he usually is. We all concede that politicians should not interfere in some operational matters. The right hon. Gentleman must surely concede that it is also just and proper for this House, its representatives and Ministers to have a hand in non-operational or strategic policing matters. To ensure that his argument is as coherent as he would like, it is incumbent upon him at some point, whether he is in opposition or even in government, to define the areas that are non-operational and strategic. Will he consider that issue, because Members on both sides of the House must confront it at some point, particularly when chief officers are consistently pressing back the boundary?
Mr. Letwin: I hope to satisfy the hon. Gentleman with this: we will consider that issue further. However, in the context of how far central control has already exceeded its limits, how far we need to rebuild local control and reassert independences already eroded, I accept that we need to think about the distinction between operational and non-operational issues.
I apologise to the House for taking so long, but I have tried to handle objections as they arise. Let me come briefly to why we remain dissatisfied with the admittedly beneficial moves that the Government have already made. We are concerned that the Bill creates a platform that will enable the Home Secretary of the day to establish greater and greater control over the police forces. The danger seems to lie not so much in the narrow interpretation of the wording, but in whether the process that is being established draws Ministers closer to the scene of the action and inevitably means that forces increasingly look to them as soon as the process is triggered.
We have no problem with the principle of the Secretary of State triggering an action plan or a report. We have had some hesitations about that, but we have got over them. In our new clause and, more germanely, in our amendments to the Government amendments, we have accepted that the Home Secretary should be able to trigger an action plan for a force that is failing in the Home Secretary's reasoned opinion. That is common ground between ourselves and Liberal Democrat Members.