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Mr. Denham: As we discussed yesterday, I do not share that analysis because the power to seek to remove a chief officer has been in legislation since the 1960s, and suspension deals merely with the period before that process. I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman at all, although I recognise the concern as one
Mr. Letwin: I have to say, regrettably, that the Minister's analysis of the logic begins to persuade me that we have gone too far towards his position in using the word "shall" in our amendments. Perhaps "may" would be the better word. We had hoped that we could go as far as "shall" and still preserve the idea that, because the direction from the Secretary of State would be absent, a whole series of sub-directions that could be contained in the direction would also be absent, and that we would at least have an independent police authority that was the sole source of direction.
If the Minister, on the advice that he has been able to receive, takes the view that if the police authority were given a statutory duty to direct, the Secretary of State would in effect have the same power to circumscribe the character of that direction as he would have if he had the power of direction itself, I fear that we may have gone too far. We may have to ask our colleagues in another place to move back from the position that we have established. I hope that the Minister will reflect on whether what he said was meant, or whether he was merely engaging in a playful piece of debate, because if that is the way that he reads the Bill, I will not rest content with the way in which we have tried to amend it.
Mr. Denham: This is an important exchange. It is important to clarify exactly what the Opposition are saying. I fear that if we had formulated our clause as the right hon. Gentleman has formulated his, we would have been attacked by him for attempting to take a power of direction without being clear about it.
It seems to follow logically from the right hon. Gentleman's position that, on receipt of the report, the police authority shall act. That is how we understand what he said. I do not take that to mean that the Secretary of State is dictating the content of the action plan.
I now come on to the nub of the issue. Clearly, it would be nonsense for the Home Secretary to be aware of a major problem in a police force, for that to be confirmed to him by HMIC, for HMIC to say, "I can't think of anything else to do about this force other than for us to intervene", for the Home Secretary to send all that off in an envelope to the police authority, and for the police authority to refuse to do anything about it. That would not be a tenable sequence of events.
The issue, thenthis is the third area in which we have made a significant change to our original proposalis the content of the plan. It is clear in our proposals that the plan should be produced by the chief officer, and that it should undergo the normal consultation with the police authority that would be involved in producing, say, an annual plan, which is written by the chief officer in consultation with the police authority. If the authority wants to make changes, those must be discussed with the chief officer. That has been in the legislation for some time in respect of annual plans.
The amendments that we tabled remove any suggestion that the Home Secretary can dictate what is in the plan or rewrite it. They bring this part of the Bill into line with the legislation on the three-year policing plans that we discussed in Committee. The Home Secretary could comment, but could not rewrite the plan. That is extremely important. It means that the Home Secretary can make his position clear, although he could presumably always get his hands on a copy and comment. It would be much better if there were legislative provision for that. The police authority would have to consider the Home Secretary's comments, but there would be no binding instruction for the Home Secretary to specify the form in which the plan must be written.
Given that there is now common ground that, in the event of a problem being confirmed by HMIC, action must be taken, our proposals should be acceptable to the Opposition. Yes, the police authority will require an action plan, but it will have the same involvement with the action plan as it would with an annual plan. The Home Secretary will be able to commentafter all, he initiated the actionbut not rewrite the plan.
That will achieve the purpose of making sure that something is done for the public. We hope that hon. Members will accept that that is a reasonable move away from the position in the original draft of the Bill, and that they will support it.
Mr. Letwin: Of course we accept that that was a major move, which we welcomed. May I draw the Minister's attention back to subsection (2) and ask him to clarify how, in his version, he imagines the original direction from the Secretary of State will be couched? As I read subsection (2), in stating that the "Secretary of State may direct" and that in that direction he may direct the force in question
I accept the Minister's point that the action plan may not conform to that direction, and that he has removed the power that previously existed for the Secretary of State to force a revision, but he surely sees that, endowed with the powers that the Secretary of State otherwise has, a detailed and specific set of provisions about what is to be contained in the action plan is quite a different thing from circumstances in which the Secretary of State merely triggers the preparation of an action plan under the aegis of the authority.
Mr. Denham: The debate is proving useful. We have focused on a set of words that has not previously been the focus of particular attention. In drafting this part of clause 5, and in clause 4, which we discussed Upstairs, we were able to point out that we had significantly constrained the Secretary of State's powers to direct a police authority, compared with the powers given by the Conservative Government.
As we pointed out in Committee, those powers did not even require the Secretary of State to require action relevant to the problem identified by HMIC. HMIC could identify a problem relating to a collapsing drugs strategy, and the Secretary of State would be able to use the powers in the Police Act 1996 to direct the police authority to urge the chief constable to do more about road traffic. We have narrowed the remit of the Secretary of State to make sure that it is relevant to the problems identified by HMIC.
I envisage that the Home Secretary would be in receipt of a report from HMIC. It is always dangerous to speculate on such occasions, but, to help the discussion, let us assume that HMIC has concluded that a particular area is awash with class A drugs, that the chief constable refuses to devote any resources to tackling the problem, that all the interventions have failed to alter the situation, and that an effective response by the police force was therefore required. The report from HMIC would presumably analyse the problem, and probably indicate the areas in which action should be taken to address the problem.
It has been our assumption that that would be the basis of the Secretary of State's direction to the police authority. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be worried that the wording of the clause would allow the Secretary of State to add an eight-page codicil elaborating on the strategy that the police force should adopt. The right hon. Gentleman knows the evolution of the clause. Earlier drafts of this and other clauses contained explicit powers for the Secretary of State to do just such a thing. We have removed those.
We may not be able to resolve the matter sensibly on the Floor of the House tonight, but if we have narrowed that down as the area of concern, there should be a way forward that will enable the problem that has been identified to be conveyed with the power of direction to a police authority, and which enables the Secretary of State to look to the chief officer and the policy authority to respond to the report and the problems that have been identified, and subsequently allows the Secretary of State to comment, but not to rewrite the plan.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: On a matter of clarification regarding HMIC, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Home Office meets members of HMIC to discuss possible audits or reviews that they might undertake?
Mr. Denham: There are now three or four elements to the inspection process carried out by HMIC. First, there are routine inspections of forces. Those seek to cover all forces over a period of time, but there is a professional process undertaken by HMIC based on what could be called risk analysisa look at indicators to suggest where certain forces may not be performing as well as others. Secondly, there is the programme of basic command unit inspections, which are usually peer-led and carried out by another command unit's chief superintendent seconded to the inspectorate.
Thirdly, there are programmes of thematic inspectionsfor example, on diversity. Fourthly, there is the potential for the Home Secretary to ask for a specific inquiry into a particular area. It is fair to say that in each of those areas, there is discussion with Ministers, although in practice the basic command unit programme and the
I hope that we have had a useful discussion so far. Before I sit down, I shall give way briefly to the right hon. Member for West Dorset.