Police Reform Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Jones: The amendment is just another example of Liberal Democrat double-speak. Earlier amendments suggested that things should be left to local police authorities, but this amendment would extend national standards to include extra devices; the list could be further added to.

Mrs. Brooke: I thought that I had explained why there appeared to be an inconsistency—I made a joke against us about that. I am going on holiday and will travel on an aeroplane on Monday, so I am certainly pleased that national standards will be applied. For much equipment, it makes sense to have approved national standards; for example, it gives a sense of certainty on what can be used for crowd control. When one considers crowd control in different parts of the country and in different circumstances, an awful lot can be said for having consistent standards.

Mr. Paice: Amendment No. 79 is probing because I am perplexed by one aspect of the clause, which will replace subsections (2) and (3) of section 53 of the 1996 Act. Other hon. Members might have discovered, as I did, that those subsections did not exist in 1996, but were added in 1997. Importantly, section 131(2) of the Police Act 1997 states:

    ''The Secretary of State shall consult the Police Information Technology Organisation before making regulations under this section relating to information technology.''

I realise that things have moved on, and that we now have Airwave. I have already debated that with the Minister, who has answered my outstanding parliamentary questions, for which I am grateful. The roll-out of Airwave is proving extremely problematic and is causing several forces immense concern and cost, which is deflecting them from fighting crime and from using Airwave in that fight.

Column Number: 57

New subsection (2C) in clause 5 specifies that

    '' 'equipment' includes—(a) vehicles; and (b) headgear and protective and other clothing.''

The hon. Lady's amendment would add further items. The effect of the clause will be to remove information and communications equipment from regulatory powers. It is perfectly valid to want regulatory powers relating to equipment, and the Government have adopted that position, but one either specifies things or one does not. Bill after Bill produces the same debate. As with any list, something is always left off, but it is odd that in producing such a small list of an (a) and a (b), information and communications equipment has disappeared from new subsections (2) and (3) of the twice-amended section 53 of the 1996 Act.

Mr. Osborne: Perhaps a possible explanation is that by ring-fencing £500 million the Government have already stuffed the mouths of police authorities with gold to force them to accept Airwave. Regulations are not required, because money has been used.

Mr. Paice: That is of course a possible conclusion to draw from such an omission. As I said, the amendment is only exploratory at this stage because I am puzzled about the clause. I came equipped with a catalogue of Airwave problems, but I shall not detain the Committee by going through it. The Minister realises that we have a serious problem in rolling out Airwave, which illustrates that a Government of any complexion should not get too involved in technical arrangements. It might have been better to have simply specified Airwave and left it entirely to the forces rather than the Government getting involved in it. However, that is a slightly separate matter. The issue is whether we have an exhaustive list and, if we do, why information and communication equipment is not on it. I look forward to the Minister's explanation, which will probably be perfectly reasonable.

4 pm

Mr. Denham: I am pleased that the two amendments have come so swiftly after the intervention by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), because I get to make my speech about lawyers. In summary, a large part of my response will be that I am advised that the wording is necessary in order to cover areas where there might have been doubt. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

The subsection does not seek to provide a comprehensive list of categories of equipment that fall within the ambit of the regulation-making power. The clause instead relies on the common construction of the term ''equipment'', but I am advised that it is necessary to identify items that are not immediately obvious as being equipment. When we talk about items issued for public order control, we could be referring to anything from side-handled batons, handcuffs and CS sprays to riot shields and tear gas. It is the view of those who advise Ministers on the drafting of legislation that such items would conventionally spring to mind when talking about

Column Number: 58

equipment used by the police and, therefore, would be covered by the word ''equipment.''

Information and communication equipment is even more obviously equipment. Indeed, the wording of amendment No. 79 contains the word ''equipment.'' Radios, command and control suites and IT systems are all clearly equipment. Therefore, there is no need to specify them in the provision. In moving an amendment similar to amendment No. 79 in another place, the noble Lord Dixon-Smith was quite right when he said that

    ''in reality the word ''equipment'' is probably sufficient. Once one begins to create a list, it can go on ad nauseam.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 169.]

However, when the drafting of the clause was considered in detail, the question was raised as to whether issues such as vehicles, headgear and protective clothing, for example, would spring readily to mind as police equipment, even though they are pieces of equipment that the police use in their day-to-day work. Therefore, they are specifically mentioned to avoid any argument as to whether they are clothing or means of transport rather than equipment. They are also items for which safety or public recognition implications could mean that it would be in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness that all forces use the same items of equipment.

I hope that the Committee will accept the explanation in the same way that I did when I was advised on the appropriate way of wording the clause by those who advise Ministers on the proper drafting of legislation.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): Speaking as a lawyer, I wonder if the provision would not be even clearer if the words ''for the avoidance of doubt'' were inserted in the new subsection. Otherwise, I fear that the same arguments of restrictive interpretation might apply.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's suggestion. There are points at which Ministers of all Administrations come to rely on legal advice and the drafting advice of parliamentary counsel.

Mr. Osborne: It is usually disastrous.

Mr. Denham: That may be. However, in the light of the debate, I shall discuss the matter again with my officials and advisers to ensure that we have the drafting absolutely right. I believe that there is common intent across the parties in the Committee about what the clause is intended to achieve. If we feel that it is necessary to bring forward any clarification on Report of the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend and by Opposition Members, we will do so. If not, I hope that the Committee will accept that we have drafted the measure with the best intent and on the best advice available to us.

Mrs. Brooke: I thank the Minister for his comments and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: In the light of the Minister's characteristically helpful and constructive response

Column Number: 59

on the amendments, I hope that he and his officials, when reconsidering the clause, will also take account of the significant views of the Association of Police Authorities. The association told my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and me that it is concerned that, with the bulk of police authority budgets already being spent on police and support staff pay—and also police pensions—any statutory requirement on authorities and forces to purchase or use particular equipment or adopt particular practices will mean even less scope to allocate resources to tackle local priorities.

The Minister will be aware from the many debates that he and I have had with others in the Home Office ministerial and shadow ministerial teams that we are always referring to the huge differences between what an inner-city police force in London, Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham might need and what rural Cumbria or Surrey might need. I share the concern expressed to us by the Association of Police Authorities that the provision should not be too prescriptive.

I accept what the Minister said when he quoted Lord Dixon-Smith saying that a list can go on ad nauseam. My noble Friend was absolutely right. I also accept the helpful suggestion made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) that a general phrase, such as ''for the avoidance of doubt'' might be an improvement. The Minister was helpful in agreeing to consider that again. However, I hope that he will carefully consider the wider context and whether the clause is too prescriptive and goes too far towards micro-management. Perhaps the Government will reconsider the whole matter before Report.

Mr. Osborne: I support what my hon. Friend said. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which recently considered the Airwave project and questioned the permanent secretary to the Home Office. One of the conclusions of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee was that if local forces had been able to procure their equipment locally instead of having a national system, we would have saved about £300 million. The Home Office's argument was that Airwave, as a national system, brought additional benefits, although the Public Accounts Committee, which is an all-party Committee, was not entirely convinced. That is a good illustration of my hon. Friend's point that being over-prescriptive with police authorities and forces when acquiring equipment sometimes costs a lot of money and does not allow police authorities to be responsive to the specific needs of their areas.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 23 May 2002