Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 501 - 519)




  501. Minister, welcome. I think this is your first visit to us from the Home Office.
  (Mr Denham) It is, Chairman.

  502. As you know, we are attempting a little hasty pre-legislative scrutiny of your Police Reform Bill and that is mainly what we are going to ask you about today. Can I just start by asking you to clarify one matter. In the White Paper at paragraph 1.34 you say that detection rates were 40 per cent in 1980 and 24 per cent in 1999-2000. My understanding is that the old way of calculating detection rates included so-called TICs, taking into consideration, which as we all know was a scam to a large extent and, therefore, that artificially improved the figures and that is not, therefore, a fair comparison with the situation in 1999. Your thoughts on that point, please.

  (Mr Denham) Chairman, Stephen Rimmer is with me who is the Director of Policing Policy. Two points I think, Chairman. One is that of course the White Paper went on to say after paragraph 1.34 that part of the decline in conviction rates reflected better ethical standards in recording crime and increased evidential standards in courts, so there has been a progressive change over time. As I understand it there have been two changes to counting rules since the figures published in 1980: in 1998 when there were changes to the counting rules and in 1999 in guidance on how the Home Office recognises detections. RDS, which is our research department in the Home Office, do not believe that the 1998 changes would have had a significant impact on detection rates and that the 1999 changes might have made a one to two per cent difference to detection rates but not enough to account for the downward trend outlined in the White Paper. That is the advice that I have on this issue. I am perfectly happy to write further to you if there are particular points you think are not covered by that.[1]

  503. I would be grateful if you would. As you will be aware, some forces used to have squads of detectives touring the nation's jails persuading convicted felons to sign up to things on the unsolved book, some of which they might have committed, many of which they had not committed, some of which they were in jail at the time of the commission. That practice is the one that ended in 1998, is it?
  (Mr Denham) That is my understanding in terms of our own guidance. Clearly if there were changes in force practice in individual forces at different stages over the period of time that we are talking about that could have had its impact on the figures recorded by forces, which is why we try to acknowledge in the White Paper that over a period of time there have been changes in the ethical approach to recording. It probably is a good idea to distinguish between those places where the Home Office formally issued guidance and where there may have been an evolutionary change in recording practices. The White Paper went out of its way to say that this is not comparing directly like with like because there have been changes of standards over that period of time. Whether it is possible to disentangle perhaps force by force changes or changes in professional standards from the overall figures I am not sure but I am more than happy to ask RDS if they can provide any further information to what I have given to you.[2]

  504. Are you satisfied that all forces have now cleaned up their act on this point because some of them did resist?

  (Mr Denham) I think that if there was any major problem on this it should by now have become apparent from the inspections by HMIC and I am not aware of any current concern about falling standards.

  505. Presumably HMIC knew this was going on for many years. It was the journalists rather than HMIC that drew it to the attention of the public.
  (Mr Denham) When new standards have been established then HMIC will certainly inspect to those standards.

  506. So you are satisfied that the practice is now extinct and that in any case even when it was not it is not likely to have made more than a one or two per cent difference to the overall figures?
  (Mr Denham) I am advised that the impact of Home Office guidance at the time that it was issued would have been no more than one to two per cent. I am less confident, Chairman, in saying that there may not have been changes in force practice over the period between 1980 and 1999 that could have brought about further changes and we have tried to reflect that in the White Paper. If we are able to estimate what the impact of those changes might have been then I will certainly come back to you. I am not confident that we will be able to do that.[3]

  507. As I am sure you will appreciate the forces against whom it would discriminate are the ones with the best records, ie those who never indulged or stopped at an early stage these unsatisfactory practices, and would then be at a disadvantage in relation to those that simply carried on.

  (Mr Denham) I think that would be true. One of the big drives that is under way at the moment between the Home Office, ACPO and, particularly within the Home Office, the Police Standards Unit, is to make sure that all of the sources of data that come into the Home Office and will be used in the future for performance measurement are accurately audited and verified because clearly we cannot pursue our aspirations to raise the standards of performance of police forces unless we can all rely on the quality of the information that we are getting in. We cannot go back, in a sense, and improve past data but I think we can take every reasonable measure to make sure that the data we use in the future is sound.

  508. Have you received any representations on this point from any of the police organisations?
  (Mr Denham) On what we are now doing?

  509. About the 40 per cent figure.
  (Mr Denham) I do not think we have had any representations on the 40 per cent figure. We have had representations, or at least comments, about the dangers of relying exclusively on detection rates as a measure of police performance. Because of the danger, if it becomes an exclusive measure then you put incentives in the system to up your detection rates which may not be the same as your effectiveness in catching criminals overall or reducing the level of crime. I cannot recall seeing any strong representations about the use of the 40 per cent figure in the past. My sense is that whatever people say about particular figures, there is not any challenge to the idea that detection rates have fallen or that the detection and conviction rate is lower than it should be.

  510. To what do you attribute that big fall over 20 years, assuming one has taken place?
  (Mr Denham) Partly, as we say in the White Paper, it is due to better ethical standards in recording crime, so that would include the issue that you yourself covered, Chairman. Beyond that I think it is quite difficult to know with any precision as to why the detection rates should have fallen as they have done.

  511. Just turning now to the Bill, which is the main purpose of today's event. Are we correct in expecting that you are proposing by the time the Bill comes to the Commons to put in amendments that would require the Home Secretary to consult bodies like ACPO and police authorities before drawing up a national policing plan?
  (Mr Denham) Yes, and I think there will be a number of amendments along similar lines to the Bill to specify certainly APA and ACPO as consultees in relevant parts of the Bill, often where it currently says that the Home Secretary consults those who he sees fit. I think there has never been any doubt in anybody's minds that we would be consulting those bodies but we will be bringing amendments forward along those lines.

  512. I think there was some doubt in the minds of the police authorities judging by what they said to us.
  (Mr Denham) There was never any doubt in our mind or, indeed, in what we ever said to the police authorities on this.

Bridget Prentice

  513. Minister, you will not be surprised, or you will know, that the police authorities and ACPO were not overly impressed by the powers in clauses 4 and 5 that the Secretary of State is going to have in terms of direction. Did you ever consider strengthening the powers of the police authorities to tackle the problem that you clearly believe to be there in terms of directing chief police officers?
  (Mr Denham) Obviously in developing the Bill and the White Paper we considered a number of options. The police authorities have responsibilities for the efficient running of the police force and they have responsibilities certainly in the areas of finance and of best value. They do not have responsibilities over some of the operational aspects of policing which are covered by clause 5 of the Bill. I think our view is that it would certainly be a very major change to the role of police authorities to extend that power to them which they do not have at the moment. To the extent that we believe it is necessary at the end of the day for the Home Secretary to have powers to intervene, our view is those are ones that should lie with the Home Secretary rather than with the police authorities. It was a conscious choice, as it were, to have constructed the legislation in the way that we did so that the Home Secretary has the power at the end of the day to intervene rather than to give that power to the police authorities.

  514. I remember Home Secretaries in the past coming before the House of Commons when some disaster had taken place in some police force somewhere or other saying "It is not my responsibility to deal with operational matters, that is a matter for the chief constable". You seem now to have taken on board, or the Secretary of State is going to take on board, a role in operational matters.
  (Mr Denham) We are very clear in the Bill, and I think we have laid it out for the first time, that it is not our intention and we do not want to be able to intervene to direct the way a particular operation is carried out or if Bill Smith is to be arrested or whatever. We do think it is part of the Government's job to help to ensure that people enjoy high quality policing in every part of the country. If, therefore, a circumstance arises where the performance of part of the Police Service is persistently poor, persistently bad, local communities are failed, local people are failed, and all of the other measures which are available to address that have failed, we do think that the Home Secretary needs to be able to act. I think that is right.

  515. Why can that not be done through the police authorities?
  (Mr Denham) Police authorities do not have the ability to get involved in the way, for example, that resources might be deployed within a police force, that is beyond the powers of police authorities. Police authorities are an important body, they are an important part of the tripartite system. They are not directly accountable in the sense that the Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament for the exercise of his powers and we actually think that it is more acceptable that it should be the Home Secretary who has these powers of intervention rather than 43 individual police authorities up and down the country.

  516. If these powers are supposedly powers of last resort, how often would they have been used in the last ten years?
  (Mr Denham) It is really very, very difficult, I think, not least because I have only been a Minister since June, to look back, as it were, through the files and say we would have used it in this situation or that. It is certainly true that I think in any case we have brought through the Police Reform White Paper a much sharper Government focus on police performance and the variations of police performance than has existed previously. There may have been circumstances in the past where Government would have said "it is not very good but it is nothing to do with us", where Government is now saying that it is our responsibility to work with the Police Service to raise the standards of performance. I do not think it is feasible to go back and pick up individual instances over the last ten years and say we would have used it in those circumstances.

  517. Can you give any example where you think they might be exercised?
  (Mr Denham) If you have a situation where, for example, in a particular part of a Police force area it is very clear that the crime levels are way above those that exist in comparable areas, and it would need to be a comparable area, that the fear of crime in those areas is completely out of hand, the anti-social behaviour is completely out of hand, and yet there is a refusal to ensure that an established best policing practice is applied in those areas to tackle those problems, so you have in a sense both a failure of performance, a failure of outcome, and a failure to use the best policing tactics and best policing methods in those areas, that is the sort of circumstance where if all else has failed, support from the HMIC, support from the Police Standards Unit, discussions with the police authority and so on, the Home Secretary needs to be able to have the power to intervene and say "you have got a problem, you need to address this problem and we want to see how you are going to address that problem". That requires, as I was saying at the outset to the Chairman, good robust information on performance measures, which we partly have but partly do not have at the moment and which we will construct over the coming year through the Police Standards Unit so we have a solid base for that type of intervention. That is the sort of circumstance that we have in mind.

  518. I understand in the debate in the House of Lords the Government is going to reconsider how it is going to come to that conclusion through objective evidence. I will just remind you of what Lord Condon, the former Met Commissioner, said on that. He was concerned that it would be "giving carte blanche [to] an unreasonable Home Secretary [who] could take a doctrinal, subjective, idiosyncratic view of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. . . ." What guarantee can you give Lord Condon and others that an idiosyncratic Home Secretary would not misuse these powers?
  (Mr Denham) What we set out in the Police Reform White Paper was that we would want to have a protocol between the Home Office and the Home Secretary, ACPO and the APA, about how the use of these powers would be governed. We are considering whether it would be to the advantage of the House, certainly in the Lords, certainly in the Commons, to see how that protocol would look, what its key features would be. This is a matter really of trying to put into legislation things that we had always intended to have perhaps in a protocol. There is a case for saying that the Home Secretary would need to present the evidence on which he or she were making the case that something needed to be done, that there would perhaps need to be the ability for the chief officer to show how he was going to put his house in order before receiving a direction from the Secretary of State. Changes of that sort I think, which we have always intended to be part of the procedure, might make it clear that this cannot be, and should not be, a power that is used, in Lord Condon's words, in an arbitrary or subjective manner.

  519. We will probably come back to that again because there may be idiosyncratic Home Secretaries as there have been idiosyncratic chief constables, I am sure, in the past. Just one more question on clause 5. The Home Secretary has powers to give direction, either following a report "or otherwise". We all love phrases like "or otherwise". What other circumstances might there be where a Home Secretary would give direction without first ordering an inspection under clause 3?
  (Mr Denham) "Or otherwise", for example, could include information provided to the Home Secretary by the Police Standards Unit, which is part of the Home Office and has no statutory existence, so cannot be referred to separately in the legislation. But if the work of the Police Standards Unit, following up poor performance in a particular force or Basic Command Unit area, brought solid information to the Secretary of State's attention to say that there is a clear pattern of under-performance in this area, the way the legislation is phrased would enable him to respond to that. It clearly gives the ability, if necessary, to respond quickly to a major problem. That is the sort of circumstance that we have got in mind.

1   See Appendix, Ev 162-4 & Ev 166. Back

2   See Appendix, Ev 162-4 & 166. Back

3   See Appendix, Ev 162-4 & Ev 166. Back

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