Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Denham: I hope that the national policing plan will reflect, as the entire process that we are trying to establish in the Bill should do, best policing practice across the country, which will be established on the basis of what is proven to work. The aim of the exercise is to have a framework for policing that respects and builds on the tripartite structure, which we value, as do Opposition Members, but ensures that we have ways to identify what works well, delivers safe communities, tackles crime in local communities and spreads that best practice. We would expect the national policing plan to pick up on many such issues, including, for example, bureaucracy.

I see no objection—I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not either—to the national policing plan saying that forces should give priority to using established best practice and Sir David O'Dowd's recommendations. There is a broad range of issues that should properly be within the remit of the national policing plan. It is important to look at what the legislation says. Because of the controversy surrounding CSOs, there is some danger of building a

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conspiracy theory about how the system is intended to operate or how the legislation would enable it to operate.

The question of how far the Secretary of State's powers of direct intervention go is focused in the original draft of the Bill in what was clause 5. We will seek to reintroduce those provisions in an amended form later. We can discuss the matter then. Now we are discussing the national policing plan. At the end of the day, there is no power for the Secretary of State to say that it should be rewritten. The national policing plan is of great value.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the Minister understand that Opposition Members are particularly suspicious, without having to erect a conspiracy theory, because of what police authorities and local authorities repeatedly tell us? Certainly, that is true in my area. Their freedom to decide what is best for their area is increasingly constrained by Government diktat. In other words, the whole question of being allowed to do only what the Government will provide for in the way of funding on a strictly ring-fenced basis—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should keep his intervention as brief as possible.

Mr. Hawkins: Yes, Mr. Stevenson.

The Minister understands the point that I am making. Will he also respond to the question that I raised in an intervention on the hon. Member for Lewes? Even though we understand that police forces want to recruit, surely it is wrong for them to start a recruitment campaign for a type of officer for which there is not yet a statutory authority?

The Chairman: Before the Minister replies, I should point out that I intend to have a stand part debate on this important clause. We need to concentrate on the issues specifically referred to in the amendments, which so far has been the case.

Mr. Denham: In that case, perhaps I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I will deal with the position of the Metropolitan police service in the stand part debate. The local government White Paper set out the Government's determination to try to reduce across Government the extent of ring-fenced funds for local authorities. I will not pursue that point now. I hope that I have responded to the other issues raised in the discussion.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for his attempts to answer the question. I think that he starts with a difficulty, because he advances two wholly different arguments: first that the amendments are not necessary, and secondly that the clause is the wrong place to put them.

The Chairman: Order. Sorry to interject again. I should just like to make it clear to hon. Members that the amendments are perfectly in order, and that the clause is indeed the right place for them.

10.30 am

Mr. Paice: I had no doubt about that, Mr. Stevenson. I was challenging not the Chairman but the Minister, who said that they were not relevant to the national policing plan. I had no doubt that the amendments were in order; otherwise I should not have tabled them, and you would certainly not have selected them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) says, the policing plan could provide the basis for a Home Secretary to lay down plans that would impinge on police forces' powers, whether or not the Minister or the current Home Secretary intends or expects it to. Let me give the Committee an example. The Home Secretary has for some months been saying that his plan is to have 130,000 police officers in post by the end of March 2003. As that is his plan, one assumes that if a national policing plan were in place today, that would be part of it, so one could make the immediate assumption that a future policing plan might say that by 31 March the following year, there would be 130,000 police officers plus 10,000 community support officers, or whatever figure the Government of the day choose.

I strongly contend that such targets would not appear in the plan. I cannot believe that the current target of 130,000 for next year would not have been in the present plan if such a thing existed. One could put a target for CSOs, or indeed accredited community safety schemes, into the plan. As that is the foundation for much of the Bill—certainly for the ensuing clauses in part 1, including the new clause to which the Minister referred—I think that the issue is pretty critical.

The Minister chided me on my selective quotations. I am happy first to plead guilty and secondly to accept his corrections, as he made a volte-face and supported what the Secretary of State said to the Police Federation—that the Government do not intend to force CSOs or accredited safety schemes on police forces. If that is the case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with agreeing to the amendments in order to ensure that such targets do not appear in the plan. It is eminently probable that they would if such a plan were in place now.

If we do not want what is roughly old clause 5, now new clause 4, to be a backdoor route for such an imposition, we could address that issue later. I would like the beginning of the Bill to state, quite clearly, that no national plan can say that the Government believe that there should be X number of CSOs or any of the other officers, even regular ones. In some ways, I share the view of the hon. Member for Lewes that police authorities should make those decisions.

Mr. Denham: It would be useful to clarify that point. The hon. Gentleman refers to the Government's target of 130,000 police officers. Is he telling the Committee that he thinks that the Government are wrong to have that target? That would be of great interest to everyone.

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Mr. Paice: The Minister knows our position full well—we have debated the issue many times. If 130,000 police offers are deployed in England and Wales by 31 March next year, Opposition Members will be delighted. However, it is our view, as it was in government, that the real decisions about staffing should be taken by police authorities. That is a direct reflection of resources.

Mrs. Brooke: I want to pick up on the point about resources. I am sure that we would all like higher and higher national targets for police numbers. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that, although we would be delighted if there were extra funds, there is a danger that the money will be prescribed if the amendments are made? The balance between police and other support should be the choice of the local police authority, whereas nationally we must all fight for the greatest resources and the greatest number of police that we can have.

Mr. Paice: I largely agree with the hon. Lady, but if we concentrate on resources for too long, I suspect that you will jump to your feet yet again, Mr. Stevenson.

I return to the substance of the amendments. They are complementary, because amendment No. 126 deals with regular officers and CSOs, while No. 127 concerns accredited schemes. It is important to have such measures in the Bill.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Minister agrees with the premise of the amendments, it seems crazy to rely on Pepper v. Hart for interpretation after the provisions are in statute? For the sake of plain English, and so that the legislation can be easily understood by their successors, the Government should accept the amendments.

Mr. Paice: I agree, although I have been advised that Pepper v. Hart would not apply in such a situation, because it covers not what is supposed to be in the Bill or what the Bill means but the Government's intent. It is essential that the Bill clearly sets out what the Government purport to intend, which the main Opposition parties agree with.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Is not the amendment slightly misguided, if its purpose is to keep up the numbers of police? It would remove the ability of the Home Secretary to specify the number of police. A chief constable who is keen on CSOs and the community accreditation scheme—as the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis seems to be—would then be free to get the balance wrong in the other direction. That is the main problem with the amendment.

Mr. Paice: One of the themes that we want to bring to the Bill, as we did in the other place, is our worry about the choice to make national decisions being removed from police authorities and chief constables and being given to the Home Secretary. Such decisions should be left ultimately to the chief constable—or the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis—in conjunction with his police authority.

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Norman Baker: Does not the force of the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), for whom I have tremendous respect, carry the underlying assumption that, if there were more centralisation, there would be more police and the service would be better run? That is the completely wrong assumption.

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