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Mr. Kevan Jones: This afternoon and in Committee, we heard much from Conservative Members about political control of operational policing. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) made the

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extraordinary statement that it was important to keep politics out of local policing. In Committee, the Opposition tried to suggest that the Bill was all about giving the Home Secretary more direct control over local policing and police authorities. It is not; the Bill's purpose is to improve standards and solve the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) highlighted earlier: the disparity between different police authorities. People are asking about the reasons for the disparities and why people are not acting locally to tackle the matters that worry them.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. He appears to lack confidence in the power of local opinion. Perhaps he has some ideas about ways in which to strengthen it. Throughout our proceedings, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I have emphasised the need for more consultation. Through more effective consultation on all the strategic plans and empowering the local community more, we can strengthen local people's power to get the policing that they believe they need. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that intervention. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we should discuss reform of local police authorities, but the Bill does not cover that. The Liberal Democrats try to present a utopian vision of local police authorities that are somehow in touch with what happens locally or are representative. I cannot accept that.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) is a genuine person, who comes over as my favourite aunt Mabel because she views the world through rose-tinted spectacles. However, life is a little harsher. People disagree about the way in which areas should be policed.

Let us revert to political control of the police, which has constituted the main opposition to the Bill. We need to remind Conservative Members of their origins. I accept that they are on a long political journey in the wilderness and that they have to devise policies on a range of issues, but the right hon. Member for West Dorset talked about taking politics out of policing.

Like the hon. Member for Lewes, I remind Conservative Members that a Conservative Government interfered directly in police authorities in 1994, when they reduced the number of county councillors who served on them. They also provided that the Home Secretary had a direct influence on appointments to police authorities. We need look no further than 1994 and the Conservative Government for an example of introducing politics into local policing.

Mr. George Osborne: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. He will recall that the Opposition spokesman was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), now the Prime Minister, who said that

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The powers that the Bill grants the Home Secretary go far beyond those in the 1994 Act. The hon. Gentleman talks about the origins of the Conservative party; what are those of the Labour party?

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that intervention because the hon. Gentleman gave an example of a Conservative Government changing local operational methods and placing political appointees on police authorities to control the direction of local policing. Those provisions were far stronger than the measure that we are considering. We are discussing not political control, but improving standards. That will be popular with the public, certainly in my constituency.

We must accept the Government amendment and ensure that the Home Secretary rightly has the power to intervene to help local people when police authorities are failing. It is no good Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for West Dorset, criticising the Home Secretary or any Minister when people complain about local policing.

Mr. Hogg: I shall comment briefly on new clause 1. Subject to an amendment, which I shall support and at which my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) hinted, new clause 1 offers a way forward.

I do not believe that it is right to grant the Home Secretary the right to impose an action plan on a police authority. Many years ago, I had an opportunity to perform the functions that the Minister now undertakes. For some 12 months, I was responsible for the police service. In any event, I worked at the Home Office for almost two years, or slightly longer. Much as I hold Home Office officials in my regard, I do not think that they are terribly well placed to determine local policing needs. They have a remoteness and, indeed, a lack of accountability that seems to me to constitute an objection both in practical terms and in principle. On the other hand, I have no objection at all to the Home Secretary responding to advice from the inspectorate and drawing to the attention of the police authority problems that have been highlighted in an inspector's report.

6.30 pm

I would therefore draw on new clause 1 to enable the Home Secretary to send the relevant papers to the police authority and perhaps make suggestions in a form of notice, but allow the authority the ability to determine whether an action plan should be introduced and the contents of such a plan. In other words, the essential decisions should be made by the police authority, albeit that its attention should be directed to the issue by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I accept the logic of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but what would happen if the police authority decided to do nothing and take no action?

Mr. Hogg: That is a perfectly fair point. Indeed, I was about to deal with it, but before I do so, I should like to back-track for a moment and draw attention to the fact that, as I told the Minister, we have given the Home Secretary power to require the resignation, retirement or suspension of the chief police officer. I would be rather

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surprised if the circumstances that we are contemplating as justifying the triggering report from the Home Secretary would not also justify serious consideration in terms of the desirability of causing the chief police officer to retire or resign. In other words, there will be a second sanction if the police authority simply refuses to act.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked what would happen if the police authority decided to do nothing. I should like now to do something that I do not usually do and take up a point made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I notice that he is making faces; I share his sense of distaste. However, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), with whom I do not generally agree or associate myself, made a point of some substance in saying that the police authority's accountability to the local community should be reinforced. I agree with that view. I think that this House should seriously, but perhaps in slower measure, debate how the police authority can be made more accountable to the local community. It is increasingly my belief that in order to deal with such problems, we should not take more centralised powers, but try to devolve decision-making processes downwards.

I am not being dogmatic—at least, not on this occasion, you will be pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker—but I would have thought that some process of election should seriously be considered. Whether one would confine it to the chairmanship or membership of the police authority is a matter for debate. However, in answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Durham, I point out that, if the police authority did nothing, it would have to account to the local community for that decision. If it felt that its local community would support such a decision, the proper process of accountability and local government would be involved.

Mr. Jones: This would be a horrible moment in anyone's political career: I think that I agree with right hon. and learned Gentleman, about the need for local police authorities to be more accountable. I have argued previously for the introduction of direct elections, but he was a member of a Government who introduced measures to reduce the number of local councillors on the authorities. Did he argue against the policy at that time?

Mr. Hogg: I suspect that I was a Minister at the time and that I did not have any particular responsibility for that decision. The truth is that as a Minister or a party member, one is associated with many decisions that are made collectively and of which one does not wholly approve. I have argued many opinions in my party both now and in the past which have not accorded with the general view. I usually just get along with it. I do not spend my time resigning; I am a practical man. I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, but I am not in the least embarrassed to say so.

I should like to wrap up my remarks, mainly because I want to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and, indeed, that of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). New clause 1 provides the way forward, but the word "shall" should be

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removed from proposed subsection (3) and replaced by the word "may". I hope that, in due time, we will be in the business of making police authorities more accountable.

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