Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 4—Directions to chief officers.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) has taken over the duty of Whip to the Department and the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, has joined us today for the first time in Committee to take through some business. Without wishing to curry favour, Mr. Stevenson, I wish to say how pleased I was to visit your constituency last Thursday. I was impressed by what I saw there.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to drive up standards of policing across the board in England and Wales. It is fundamentally about doing what is necessary to ensure that all local communities receive the best quality service, as they have a right to expect. Members of the Committee will know that the amendment and new clause would reintroduce what

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was originally clause 5—which was removed by the Opposition in another place—and to add to it some amendments that were tabled in another place to the original clause 5. The new clause, in common with the rest of the Bill, is about improving the quality of service provided by the police.

The police reform process is putting in place a significant series of measures that are intended to raise policing standards and to bring the policing standard of all forces up to the standards of the best. Many of the measures are non-legislative, such as the establishment of the police standards unit, or use existing machinery, such as the inspectorate. They involve the investment in the development and codification of best practice that will result in the national centre for policing excellence and raise professional leadership and training standards through the new organisation, Centrex, and so on. In no way are the Government saying that we are wholly or even largely dependent on the powers that are set out in the new clause to raise policing standards. Many other aspects are involved, including the work of the police service itself and the police authorities that we look to in the first instance to raise policing standards.

The issue that the Committee must deal with is what action, if any, should be taken when a force is failing to provide an adequate service and when, despite that, the police authority and the chief officer responsible have failed, or have been unable or unwilling to deal with the under-performance. In those circumstances, it is unacceptable that the third element in the tripartite structure that governs policing—the Home Secretary—is prevented from stepping in to require the necessary improvements. It leaves the Home Secretary in a position in which the public and possibly Parliament would demand action that he is unable to take. That is not satisfactory. The new clause will give the Home Secretary that power, although in constrained circumstances, which I shall explain in a moment.

Norman Baker (Lewes): The Minister explained why the new clause is necessary, but can he give any examples in the past 20 to 25 years of the chief officer of a police force and the police authority failing in such a way that would cause the Government, if they had such a power, to use it?

Mr. Denham: It would not be fair to pretend that we could go back to the time of a previous Administration. Given the rudimentary system of performance measurement that existed in the past—which we are currently working to overhaul—it would be inappropriate to say that, in a particular circumstance, the power should have been used against a named force or part of a named force.

Clearly, there are wide variations in the performance of the police service from one part of the country to another even when allowance is made for the different social demographic nature of an area—as has been confirmed by the Audit Commission. Those differences are difficult to explain in any other way than suggesting variations in police performance. Against that background, because we have a more determined drive to bring the standard of forces up to the best and want a

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sharper focus on poor performance wherever it exists, ultimately, we need the power to take action if all else fails. That is what the measure proposes.

In the past, it may have been thought that Governments should not concern themselves with the overall performance of police forces or variations in performances. We definitely believe that the Government should be concerned, because, at the end of the day, the public look to the Government—as well as the police service itself and the police authorities—to deal with problems of poor performance.

The power to direct chief officers will give the Home Secretary the power to require the chief officer to prepare and submit an action plan setting out the remedial action to be taken to correct under-performance. Directions under the new clause and plans produced by chief officers can cover only those matters for which the chief officer is properly responsible. I reiterate that the power to direct chief officers is intended as a power of last resort. The amendments that we first introduced in another place, and which have been incorporated in the Government amendments, make that clear. They contain significant safeguards against the inappropriate use of such powers—safeguards that were implicitly rejected by the other place. A clearly defined procedure has been set out that includes the chief officer and the police authority, at each stage of the process, specifically addressing the concerns expressed at Committee stage in the other place.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister lays great stress on the amendments introduced by the Government in another place, saying that they produce sufficient safeguards. How does he react to the fact that, even with those safeguards, what the Government propose is entirely rejected by the Association of Police Authorities as undermining the tripartite relationship?

Mr. Denham: The answer is that I disagree with the APA on the matter—the tripartite relationship is not undermined. Both the Government amendments and the direction power that we discussed when we debated clause 4 seek to involve the police authority. If anything, that makes our expectations of police authorities and their responsibility to take action more explicit than ever. I totally reject the idea that we are undermining the tripartite relationship.

The new clause is not about undermining that relationship, but about dealing with a situation in which the other two legs of the tripartite relationship have failed to deliver. The police authorities are reluctant to accept that such a thing could occur with regard to their own members. I am not so sanguine, and believe that it is necessary for the Home Secretary to have powers to act in those circumstances.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): But if two parts of a tripartite relationship believe that the Bill will undermine the tripartite arrangement, do they not have a point? After all, two thirds of the relationship

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believe that it will. It is only the Minister's one part of the tripartite relationship that does not.

Mr. Denham: This part of the tripartite relationship is the one that tends to be held accountable by both the media and Parliament for the performance of the police service. We may return to that later.

We have listened to those views, and we accept that the APA and the Association of Chief Police Officers do not believe that the clause is necessary. Equally, however, when we introduced in another place the amendments that we have now incorporated into the new clause, ACPO said that they went a good way towards limiting the potential for arbitrary powers of intervention. Although those organisations are debating the necessity of the clauses, it has been recognised that we have listened to debates about constraints on the powers and incorporated them into the new clause.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): The police authority must be consulted on the remedial action plan, not approve it. How will that affect the tripartite agreement? Surely the tripartite relationship will be entirely annulled if a part of it is not even consulted.

Mr. Denham: It is important to remember that this, like all processes, I suppose, is a sequential process. A series of stages must be passed in implementing the measures in the new clause—assuming that the earlier clause, clause 4, has not previously been used in an attempt to direct the police authority. Before dealing with action plans, the Secretary of State will have to inform both the chief officer and the police authority of the grounds on which he believes that there may be a basis for him to intervene, as I shall explain more formally in a moment.

The circumstances in which an action plan is drafted on which the police authority is invited to comment can come only after clear notice has been given of the Home Secretary's concern and an explicit statement has been made about why he is concerned and believes that there may be a need to act. It would be wrong to give the impression, as the hon. Gentleman may have inadvertently done, that the first that the police authority will know about the matter is when an action plan is kicking around. In fact, there is plenty of opportunity for action to be taken to tackle the problems about which concern has been expressed before that stage is reached.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I urge the Minister to reconsider his words, because he will find that he is wrong. He said that the provision could be used only following directions to police authorities—if, as he said earlier, that had already failed. However, there is a fundamental difference. Clause 4—''Directions to police authorities''—does not include two words that are very significant in new clause 4—old clause 5—''or otherwise''. In clause 4, directions can be made to a police authority only as a result of a report by the inspectorate, whereas under new clause 4 the Secretary of State will have powers to require an improvement plan to be developed—

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Prepared 11 June 2002