Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.45 pm

Mr. Letwin: I accept that that is an important safeguard, but can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee, in the light of the powers that we are discussing, that no informal arrangements would be made under which the Secretary of State could suggest to the police force in question that it would be a good idea to provide an informal action plan in advance of requesting the formal action plan, much as the acceptable behaviour contract is informal and the antisocial behaviour order lies behind it

10 Jul 2002 : Column 925

as a threat? Is he maintaining that the Home Office will never try to use such an apparatus to widen the scope of the powers?

Mr. Denham: I do not think that that could be done. Nothing can happen without confirmation of the problem by the inspectorate. If a Home Secretary went to a police force and said that the Department did not like what it was doing, any chief constable who was confident about the service that he was delivering and the competence of his force would know that the inspectorate would back him against the Home Secretary. We argued earlier for flexibility. The defence that has been built in is profound for a chief constable who thinks that he might be bullied, coerced or whatever—not that I think that that would happen. The chief constable knows that the Home Secretary has no power to act unless the inspectorate confirms the nature of a problem. That is important.

Mr. Allen: I hope that my right hon. Friend and hon. Members who served on the Committee will forgive me if I ask a simple question, which I am sure was covered in Committee. The action plan applies to failing police forces. It does not address the problem of forces that are failing not in an operational sense, but in a non- operational sense with regard to the strategic decisions that they take which fly in the face of the Home Secretary's responsibilities; hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that he can rightly say certain things.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I am referring to community policing. That is a strategic, non- operational matter in its generality, yet a police force could decide not to do it. It may not be failing—operationally, it may be an effective force, and the one I have in mind is—but the chief constable of that force can happily cast community policing aside. Am I correct in saying that the Bill does not cover that problem?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is not right to say that the issue is not covered in the Bill, although it is not addressed in clause 5. The clause is not intended to be used if there is genuine disagreement on how the chief constable chooses to police Nottingham. We are talking about failure arising from serious problems in the performance of a force.

The Bill allows for the development of evidence-based codes of practice. If they are given legal status, the chief officer would have to have regard to them. He would not have to follow them to the letter, however, and would have the discretion to ignore them if he felt that that was appropriate. The development of those codes of practice, agreed in the House, can take place only if evidence exists to support them. We would not want to codify the idea of having a lot of police beat officers unless there was evidence that a particular way of policing delivered that.

It is important to make it clear that our conception of intervention has always been based on the idea that a failure of outcomes by a force would concern us, and intervention is not, a priori, an attempt to regulate the inputs made by a police officer. In every part of the system in the Bill, the point at which attention will focus on how a police force operates is when there are concerns

10 Jul 2002 : Column 926

about what is being achieved for the public in reducing crime, tackling criminality and dealing with the fear of crime.

Mr. Allen: If I understand my right hon. Friend correctly, the matters that we all accept are the Home Secretary's responsibility because they are non-operational and strategic cannot be interfered with when a chief constable chooses to fly in the face of concerns, but the matters that many of us feel are operational may be interfered with, through a local action plan, if the outcomes are not those that we would like.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is not following what I am saying. From its very inception, clause 5 has ruled out interference in operational matters concerning particular individuals or operations. It contains a reserve power—the power of last resort—to be used if a force, or part of it, persistently under-performs. We have to separate that in our minds from the question of whether Nottinghamshire, for example, chooses to adopt a particular pattern of community policing. The clause is not designed to enable the Home Secretary to interfere in that, nor does the Home Secretary aspire to make such decisions.

In future, where best practice is clearly set out on the basis of evidence, as would be the case with the ACPO firearms manual, for example, it will have the potential to become a code of practice, with a legal status, to which the chief constable will have to have regard. However, he will have discretion about the extent to which he wants to take it into account. I hope that I have made that point. It is important to understand the narrowness of this issue.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Ministers have always had informal contacts with ACPO, chairs of police authorities and senior police officers. Has any work been done that shows either that such dialogue has failed to deliver the changes in particular authorities that Home Secretaries have looked for—the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis–Thomas) cited one example—or that the intervention of the inspectorate has not, of itself, produced the improvements desired by the Home Secretary and the wider community? [Interruption.]

Mr. Denham: I am not going to follow the suggestion of the right hon. Member for West Dorset and name police forces. There is a recognition that circumstances can arise where, as a last resort, this type of intervention is necessary. I agree that one would expect intervention, the support of professional colleagues and the sharing of best practice to come into play in the vast majority of cases. Clearly, we should all rely on that process to be in the front line in improving performance. Indeed, the biggest drive towards improving performance will come from the sharing of best practice in the police force.

Mr. Llwyd: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I must make progress. I am taking even longer than the right hon. Member for West Dorset did. [Interruption.] He says that it is not possible, but we will see how long I continue. I may take more interventions later.

10 Jul 2002 : Column 927

There is a narrow way into the power, and its use has to be confirmed by the inspectorate. That probably protects the Home Secretary, but it certainly protects the chief constable, and we have been happy to concede that change.

It is our view that the Home Secretary should be able to direct the police authority, which will in turn direct the chief officer to draft an action plan. As the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to recognise, the principle of the Home Secretary having the power to direct the police authority was established by the previous Conservative Government in section 40 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: I should like to make a little progress before we hear a quote from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman is ready to go with that quote, and ultimately I will not disappoint him as he has taken the trouble to carry it around ever since the Bill was in Committee in case he got the opportunity to use it again.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has pointed out, the Opposition themselves have conceded that the police authority should have the right to direct the chief officer.

I confess to some confusion about the intent of new clause 1. It appears that the Opposition want to say that the Secretary of State should not direct the police authority, but that on receipt of a brown envelope containing an HMIC report from the Secretary of State, the police authority would have to direct the chief officer. I am not sure whether that is deliberate ambiguity or pure sophistry. Simply by cause and effect, the new clause would mean that the Home Secretary was directing the police authority. It would be better to say so, and that is what we have said in the Bill.

If the Opposition amendments are intended to create a situation where the Home Secretary can put the HMIC report in the post but the police authority can decide whether to require the chief officer to take action, that would be unsatisfactory in the narrow circumstances that we are talking about—those in which the police authority and the chief constable have, between them, failed to deal with the local problem of performance in the force. The right hon. Gentleman has got himself and his party into a tangle over the new clause.

Mr. Hogg: I rather share the Minister's criticism of the new clause. None the less, he will keep it in mind that the powers that we discussed yesterday included a power for the Home Secretary to suspend a chief officer or to cause his resignation or retirement. That, taken in conjunction with the power that we are discussing, gives the Home Secretary considerable powers to impose on the police authority an improvement plan or a change in regime.

Next Section

IndexHome Page