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Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I welcome the amendments that relate to directions to chief officers. I make my speech not only as the Member of Parliament for Crosby, but as chairman of the all-party group on abuse investigations.
In the past few years, I have lost count of the number of complaints that I have received about policing in my area. In the past four years, I have received hundreds of complaints about police practices and procedures in relation to abuse cases throughout the UK. As a consequence, I have made it my business to find out about the huge variation of police performance throughout the UK.
I should like to refer to a remark made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who asserted that the Home Office was seeking to create a platform on which it would have greater control over police operations. I cannot accept that phraseology, as I regard the amendments related to chief officers as a development of section 40 of the Police Act 1996, which was, as he will be aware, introduced by the previous Conservative Administration. Indeed, that Act established the relationship between the Secretary of State and the inspection.
It has been suggested that the enhanced relationship that will flow from the provisions will not enable police authorities to resolve performance inefficiencies or ineffectiveness. I wish that I had found substantial evidence in every police authority to show that either the police, the chief constable or the authority had undertaken of their own volition significant process review or analysis, but I am afraid that that is not the case; otherwise, I believe that we would see year-on-year improvements in areas of operational effectiveness. We do not see such improvements, however, as the limited statistics available on police performance clearly indicate.
I accept the view of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is not currently in his seat, that the statistics may not be accurate. Frankly, however, no other information is available to me at this time that I can use to compare and contrast what is happening in police authorities throughout the UK. Furthermore, I do not believe that the measures will undermine police authorities that are striving continuously to improve. The measures are being introduced to facilitate improvements in authorities that give cause for concern.
I regard the amendments as absolutely vital and as an important step towards ensuring that my constituents receive the very best of services, given that the police precept on Merseyside is one of the very highest in the UK.
I fully support what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said. I do not have any sense of shame in expressing my agreement with people who speak sense; perhaps I am not tribal enough for this place.
Much has been said about the Home Secretary's tenure of the education brief. Yes, there was a shake-up; league tables were introduced, heaven knows how many forms had to be filled in and so on. Last week, there was a huge lobby of Parliament by teachers who feel that they are doing far too much paperwork and far too little teaching. Parts of the Bill are good, but there is a tendency towards centralisation and allowing the centre to become too involved in policing.
I was interested in the Minister's response to a question that I asked, in which he said that there was no list of under-performing forces. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said in an intervention that we need some form of procedure to collect and collate information, but the Home Office can already do that. There is no doubt about it; it not only already does so, but it tries to compare like with like. It is not a perfect science, but the north Wales forces are linked with another eight or nine semi-rural forces. That is what currently happens.
A note of caution has to be sounded. Policing difficulties will vary from one area to another. It goes without saying that the problems of rural areas are quite different from those of populous areas. Strains occur when there is an unusually high incidence of violence or of class A drug use, for example. It is, therefore, difficult to compare like with like. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, we need to bring more pressure to bear to democratise police authorities. That is the way forward.
We heard from the Minister about codes of practice, but they can be ignored by a chief constable, using his or her "discretion". It seems bizarre that any code of practice can be ignored at someone's discretion. If a chief constable decides to employ that discretion and regularly ignore a code or codes of practice, who will decide whether that discretion is well founded and has been properly exercised? This proposal is a bizarre notion.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) referred to the historical perspective. I am not viewing this just from an historical perspective; the system seems to have worked fairly well up until now. Yes, some police forces do better than others, but the solution is more a question of people putting their heads together, of educatingin the proper sense; I do not want to be offensive in any wayand of ensuring best practice.
Mr. George Osborne: I have enjoyed this debate, and I can certainly testify to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) often disagreed with other members of the Government when he was a Minister, and that they often disagreed with him, because I was his special adviser and sometimes had to pick up the pieces. As a new Member in this place, I have enjoyed watching the negotiations taking place across the Dispatch Box. It has been like watching a Fischer-Spassky chess game. I am not sure who has been checkmated at the end of it, but I have enough confidence in my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) to hope that it is not us.
The Government have introduced some significant and welcome concessions on issues that were the subject of lengthy discussions in Committee, particularly those involving the police authorities and, above all, those involving the trigger mechanism for the power of the Home Secretary to intervene and direct chief constables. The concessions significantly improve the relevant clause, and, indeed, the whole Bill, which would otherwiseaccording to virtually every organisation in the countryhave given the Home Secretary sweeping powers to direct the police and undermine the now-famous tripartite relationship that guarantees the independence of the police from the politicians of the day.
To return to the point that I made earlier to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), the fact that the Government introduced the clause in the first place says much about the way in which the Labour party has changed. I have been reading the Second and Third Reading debates of what became the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994they have been close to my bed as I have gone to sleep each nightand it is remarkable to see how the Government have changed their tack. The Opposition spokesman at the time, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), now the Prime Minister, said on Third Reading:
Mr. Kevan Jones: I know that, back in 1994, the hon. Gentleman was just a humble spin doctor, but, if he had been a Member of Parliament, would he have voted to reduce the number of councillors on police authorities and to allow the Home Secretary to have a direct input into the appointment of independent members of those authorities?