Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend brings to the Committee his great experience of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am grateful to him. Does he agree that in the light of that Committee's findings, it might be wiser to leave things as they are in section 53 of the Police Act 1996? The Association of Police Authorities has said that at present the Home Secretary has the power to require only that equipment used for police purposes satisfies certain design and performance requirements.

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Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many police authorities were reluctant to take Airwave and did so only because they were given the money and told to spend it on that and nothing else.

Mr. Jones: Is it not pretty fundamental that in a small country such as the United Kingdom, individual forces need to talk to one another? Having a common communication system is sensible, as the Defence Committee recognised in its inquiry into home defence to which my right hon. Friend the Minister gave evidence yesterday.

Mr. Osborne: The experience of both the military and the police with national communication systems has not been good. Lancashire police force, which neighbours my force in Cheshire, had loads of problems using Airwave. Greater Manchester police hope to have the communication system up and running in time for the Commonwealth games—it is one of the Government's targets—but the system is not yet operating. The equipment has many problems.

Mr. Jones: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but would he not agree that it makes sense to have a communication system that is common to each constabulary, because they have to talk to one another?

Mr. Osborne: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, although there are several different mobile phone companies, one can still call different mobile phones. Indeed, many police officers now carry mobile phones because they find them more effective than their existing radio systems or the Airwave system. I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about being overly prescriptive in stating what equipment must be used by police forces in England and Wales.

Mr. Denham: I hope that I can allay the Committee's concerns. The ability to standardise should not be equated with particular types of procurement. There are some dilemmas, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham is right.

This is one of those weeks. Yesterday I was up in front of the Defence Committee dealing with issues such as counter-terrorism, civil contingency and so forth. That Committee had been highly critical of the way in which the Government previously allowed fire authorities to procure radio systems on a different basis to that of the police. It is not for me to anticipate what the Defence Committee will say in its report, but I think that it will welcome the fact that the decision has been revisited in the light of the events of 11 September.

There are issues on which, even within the House and the Select Committee system, people look to the Government to deal with standardisation where appropriate. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has a great interest in and considerable knowledge of information technology-related issues in the police service. He resisted the temptation to get into a big discussion about Airwave, and I will do the same. However, I predict that when—in the Select Committee or elsewhere—we examine the roll-out of Airwave, we will learn from the forces with the earliest experience of implementation plans that

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they were left to individual police forces to develop. There is a difference between forces that had a single contractual approach to everything—from handsets to control centres to the system itself—and those that decided to buy the handsets separately and have a separate control centre contract and the Airwave system. There are lessons to be learned, but I will not go too far down that line.

The intention of the clause has been broadly welcomed. The Association of Chief Police Officers advocated a more corporate approach in the document that it published in September. It states that in

    ''moving from a fragmented legacy (old systems) environment which inhibits significant structural change to a unified national Police information systems environment which meets the needs of Citizens, the Service, operational staff and Government . . . will yield very significant operational and quality of service benefits.''

In a 1998 report on officer safety, HMIC said:

    ''Of concern is the lack of consultation in some instances between forces and other agencies when determining the most suitable officer safety equipment. There are cases where the in-depth, expert research carried out by the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) appears not to have been given due weight and preference has been afforded to the advice from what could best be described as ''well-meaning overnight experts''.''

We can all take the warnings that have been reasonably raised that neither public nor private sector procurements are without fault. That should not, however, deflect us from the central aim of the measure, which is to bring about an appropriate degree of standardisation where it is necessary to promote the general efficiency and effectiveness of the police forces maintained for England and Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Regulation of procedures and practices

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

Mr. Hawkins: It is important to reflect on the fact that the Association of Police Authorities briefed my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and me on the basis that it has a similar worry to the one that I expressed about the previous clause. The association considers that clause 6 will increase significantly central control over policing. It said that it welcomed recognition of that in another place and the fact that the Government accepted some of the concerns expressed by Lord Dixon-Smith and others, and tabled some amendments.

Reference to operational matters was removed in another place. Regulations can now be made only when they assist forces to collaborate and HMIC has now to certify that the regulations are ''in the national interest''. We welcome those significant changes and obviously the Government are content to accept the logic of what was proposed by many noble Lords. Even taking account of the changes that have been made, however, the Association of Police Authorities

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has still expressed some worry. It is important to put that on the record.

4.15 pm

Mr. Denham: This is an occasion when the process of parliamentary scrutiny has done the job well. We have made no secret of the fact that the Bill, while delivering the powers that we wanted, also delivered powers that went far wider. I admit that there was a gap between what we said we wanted to do and what the clause would allow. Given the safeguards, the changes that we introduced in the light of that criticism have made it about right.

The examples that we have used are primarily of a cross-border nature, when the adoption of different practices by different police forces undermines the total effort. The national intelligence model is more than an IT system. It deals with how information is gathered and analysed, and how police officers are deployed in an effective and targeted manner. Criminals cross police authority boundaries, and if one force is using the national intelligence model and another is not, the effectiveness of both forces in dealing with serious crime can be weakened. I am enormously encouraged by the progress that is now being made by forces throughout the country in adopting the national intelligence model. Some of the debates—even of a year ago—about whether it was the best way forward seem to be falling behind us.

Towards the end of last year, members of the Police Federation of England and Wales cited a second example. There are cross-border agreements between police forces to help each other in times of civil disturbance. The nature and level of training for public order disturbances can vary from force to force. It is a worry if someone is drafted in suddenly from a neighbouring force to deal with a difficult situation on the ground who is used to different command structures or approaches. I am not sure that the situation is as serious as I may have suggested, but the principle of the clause is that we may wish to deal with the way in which practices are carried out. It is not an open-ended power for the Home Secretary to pick and choose what he wants to do. He must receive advice, and matters are subject to a tough test, but they must be in the national interest, not the interests of individual forces. Given those safeguards and the fact that we have noted the reservations of the police authorities, we have got the clause about right. That is probably the view of the police service as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Equivalent provision for NCIS and NCS

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

Mr. Denham: The clause will bring schedule 1 into effect and ensure that equivalent provision is made for codes of practice for chief officers under clause 2 and directions to police authorities under clause 4 to apply to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and similarly that provisions under clauses 2, 4 and 5 will

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apply to the National Crime Squad. Clauses 5 and 6, which cover regulation of equipment and regulation of procedures and practices, do not apply to NCIS because it is not an operational policing organisation. If the reintroduced clause is successfully accepted, the same will apply.

Question put and agreed to.

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Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 11 June at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Brooke, Annette
Challen, Mr.
Denham, Mr.
Follett, Barbara
Gillan, Mrs.
Hawkins, Mr.
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Kumar, Dr.
MacDougall, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Osborne, Mr. George
Paice, Mr.
Prentice, Bridget
Stinchcombe, Mr.
Stoate, Dr.

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