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5.30 pm

The difficulties arise from the fact that the way in which the Government have constructed the provision, even in their new amendments, will give the initiative throughout to Ministers and will not give the police authority a separate statutory initiative. That is the critical difference between our constructions—whether in new clause 1, or in the amendments to the Government amendments—and those of the Minister. The Minister shakes his head. Perhaps we will be persuaded by his arguments, but the Secretary of State will remain at the centre of the web to a considerable degree given the way in which he has drafted his amendments.

In the Secretary of State's new version, proposed new section 41A of the Police Act 1996 will read:

What is going on here—the Minister has said this on the radio—is that he is using the concept of direction to make the police authority send something to him. The initiative will lie with the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will continue to be a party with whom the authority—hence, indirectly, the police chief—will negotiate.

Subsection (7) will state:

Yet again, the Secretary of State will take the initiative. If he does not like what he gets, he will go back for more. I am not saying that any of that is malign. I am saying that the Government amendments will not quite distance Ministers from the preparation of the action plans, which is what we are trying to achieve, in contrast to the Government.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I am following my right hon. Friend's argument. I do not want to be unduly critical of him, but even if he considers new clause 1, does he not realise that, in fact, the initiative lies with the Home Secretary and that on receipt of a copy of the report from the Home Secretary, the police authority

to carry out remedial work of various kinds? Surely it would be better by far to give the police authority only an ability to direct the chief officer. In other words, the police authority should not be obliged to act on the Home Secretary's instructions.

Mr. Letwin: My right hon. and learned Friend usefully chides me. We have long and hard considered that issue.

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I have to admit, to my undying shame and before the conscience that my right hon. and learned Friend constitutes, that we have made concessions to the positions that Ministers have taken in pursuit of consensus. I accept that, but I am conscious that this is an important Bill and that ping-pong between the House and another place is to be avoided if at all possible.

We have consciously gone out of our way in drafting the new clause to make moves towards the Government's position, as they have tried to make moves towards ours in their amendments. I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's point that we have perhaps gone further than we would have wished as a result, but my point is that the Government amendment presses that issue further. It is more true in their amendments than in our new clause or than in the clause as amended by our amendments to the Government amendments that the Secretary of State is a player, an actor in the drama.

Our fear is that a Secretary of State, who is already endowed with great powers to influence by virtue of the powers of the purse string, will be able, if he is an actor in the drama, to be the playwright or the producer, too. Rather than merely being an actor, we fear that he will turn himself, by dint of his great financial powers, into—if I may adopt another metaphor—the puppeteer.

That danger takes us straight back to all three questions that we raised: the question of principle; the question of deprofessionalisation; and the question of whether the Home Office will be good at administering. We want to try to make sure that we do not let the Bill become a platform for the Secretary of State to become involved, as the puppeteer, in a vital dimension of policing. When Ministers consider the matter further, as we progress to the next stages of the Bill, I hope that they will go one step further and accept either our amendments to the Government amendments or something very similar.

Mr. Denham: As this is a substantial group of Government amendments, it may help—although I am never quite sure about the conduct of this type of debate—if I set out the Government's position, so that the parameters of the debate are clear. It is probably true that the level of personal respect between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is about as high as one gets between two different Front-Bench teams. This has not been one of the right hon. Gentleman's best afternoons so far, however, and I cannot say that he brought to these issues the clarity to which we have often been used in previous debates.

In summary, the right hon. Gentleman did two things. He spent about 20 minutes—albeit that he spent much of it answering interventions—dealing with a figment of his imagination: the fantasy that everything in the Bill, by implication, represents the Home Secretary's desire to run everything from Whitehall, nationalise the police force and so on. By and large, he avoided dealing with the issue of substance in the narrow circumstances that are covered by the Bill. I will return to that in a moment. Nothing in the issues that we are debating or in the Government amendments provides the platform that the right hon. Gentleman says that he wants to resist. They deal with a narrow set of circumstances, and do not enable a Home Secretary to build on that outside them.

The right hon. Gentleman was concerned about deprofessionalisation. One reason why there is such widespread support in the police service for the great

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thrust of the police reform White Paper and the Bill is that it will bring about the best and most widespread professionalisation—and further professionalisation—of the police force for many years. Everything in the reform programme—the support for the police service and for the national centre of policing excellence, which is part of Centrex, the agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers about how it will chair the steering committee that oversees its work programme and professionally validates codes of practice, and our commitment to the development of professional skills in investigation, leadership development and training—points to a Government who admire the professionalism of our police service and who want to work with it to extend that professionalism. We need to be judged by what we are doing rather than by the right hon. Gentleman's fears, which I do not accept.

I want to address the specific issue, as the Opposition's position on it is still far from clear. The entire purpose of the intervention power is to cater for the exceptional circumstances in which a force or part of a force fails to provide the quality of service that local communities have the right to expect. It is common ground that the chief officer and the police authority are in the front line of addressing problems of poor performance. We would expect them to take the necessary remedial action. We have made it clear that the measures in clause 5 would be a last resort or long stop if existing mechanisms had failed to deliver the required improvements in service.

I suppose that the one thing that I can be pleased about after this long parliamentary deliberation is that, in the new clause, the Opposition have at last accepted, after months of denying it, that circumstances could exist in which local remedies had failed and further measures needed to be taken.

Mr. Llwyd: Although I do not expect the Minister to name names, will he tell us how many police forces in England and Wales he deems to be under-performing or not doing their work properly?

Mr. Denham: There is no list of under-performing police forces. Despite the travesty of a report in a national newspaper today, we are seeking with the police service to find a much more balanced way of assessing the performance of police forces. They frequently tell us that they are measured over only a narrow part of the wide range of activities and services that they are required to provide to the public. I will not stand here and say that I have a list of failing police forces; I do not.

When local remedies and other available mechanisms have failed, the basic principle is how we create an effective mechanism for intervention.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill's purpose is to try to improve performance across all police authorities in a variety of areas? I have criticised my police authority on aspects of its operation but, in others, it is an exemplar and offers a beacon of excellence for other police authorities to follow.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The police service is committed to delivery and, in general, if a force recognises that its performance in a particular area is not as good as that of another force, its first instinct is

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to find out what the other force is doing and to go off and do it. The whole thrust behind the national centre of policing excellence and, if necessary, the codes of practice, is to have proper structures to enable a force to do that. We also want to construct something that we do not have at the moment, namely a robust system of enabling a police force or basic command unit to compare itself with another. That is lacking in the current performance indicators, and we are working on such a system.

The dilemma that we sought to address in clause 5 was what would happen in circumstances of the deep and persistent failure that I described. The Bill originally proposed a mechanism for the Home Secretary to direct a chief officer to prepare an action plan to address the identified failings. I did not, and do not, share the belief that that fundamentally challenged the tripartite structure, not least because the mechanism could come into play only when it was clear that the two local legs of the structure had failed to tackle the problems. Furthermore, given the safeguards in the original clause, which are repeated in the amendments, I do not think that the proposal was a fundamental threat to operational independence. It certainly does not—this is explicitly ruled out—involve the type of targeting of individuals that the shadow Home Secretary implied in his speech.

None the less, we need to find a way forward and we want to try to accommodate the concerns that have been raised. Provided that the House applies the following test, we can move forward: in the case of failure, will the Home Secretary have the capacity to take effective action and the ability to ensure that effective action is taken? The proposed changes, although quite radical in relation to some of our original proposals, ensure that such action can be taken. That is critical, because we must be fundamentally concerned about those members of the public who, by definition, do not receive the standard of service that they have a right to expect.

The amendments make significant changes. We accept that the trigger for intervention must be a report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. It will sometimes delay action if adverse information has to be confirmed by the HMIC, but it is clearly a reassurance that none of the powers—the right hon. Gentleman did not mention this—can be used unless the seriousness of the situation is confirmed by the independent inspectorate. It is not a case of the Home Secretary taking open-ended powers to intervene in a force because he does not think that things are going well or he has read an adverse report in a newspaper. The independent inspectorate has to confirm the problem, and that is important.

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