Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Osborne: I too visited your constituency last week, Mr. Stevenson, as I do every week when I drive to my constituency—I go through Stoke on Trent on my way to Cheshire.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and the hon. Member for Lewes in their opposition to new clause 4. It is the most centralist, interventionist and prescriptive clause in a Bill that was described by my local chief constable in Cheshire as centralist, interventionist and prescriptive. In the view of almost every organisation—I am covering my back by saying almost, because I have found not a single organisation apart from the Home Office that supports it—the power to issue directions to chief officers undermines the tripartite relationship that has worked so well to guard the independence of the police force from the politicians of today.

I remind the Committee of the strength of opposition to the clause from organisations. The Association of Police Authorities, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred, said:

    ''We urge MPs not to reinstate these provisions which fundamentally undermine local accountability for local policing.''

In response to the Select Committee on which the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Bridget Prentice) served, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Condon, said:

    ''The tripartite structure for the governance of policing . . . has provided the checks and balances that underpin our policing system . . . the cumulative impact of the clauses in the Bill which give the Secretary of State new powers to direct and control policing will dramatically alter that balance of power in favour of the Secretary of State.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 524.]

Even the chairman of the Metropolitan police authority, who is, I believe, a member of the Labour party, said in the other place:

    ''Why do the Government need to intervene directly in forces rather than work with and through local police authorities?''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 February 2002; Vol. 631 c. 1624.]

In conjunction with the chief constable, my own police authority in Cheshire wrote to all the MPs representing Cheshire constituencies, saying:

    ''The provisions of the Police Bill would radically shift the current balance of responsibility for policing away from local people and local accountability, towards greater central direction and control by the Home Secretary.

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    Such a step would in our view damage local policing and make policing more remote from the local communities it serves.''

Labour Members must wonder why, apart from the Home Office, almost every organisation involved seems to believe that the Bill will achieve that.

5.45 pm

Over the very enjoyable recess, I decided to look back at Hansard. When such powers were being given by previous Governments, the Labour party was the first to jump up. In 1994, at the time of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which gave powers to direct police authorities that are far superseded by the Bill, the Opposition spokesman said that

    ''the Bill represents the most determined and least popular attempt ever made to centralise policing in Britain, to give Ministers unprecedented control over the way that the police do their work, and to undermine police independence . . . an ideology that resents local freedom''.

He continued by saying that

    ''crime is fought most successfully locally, where police and the local community work together. Every measure that ruptures or weakens that link diminishes our primary purpose which is to fight crime.''—[Official Report, 26 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 122–23.]

That spokesman was the Prime Minister. What has changed? First, Labour Members are in government and have started to listen to their civil servants, who want more power. Secondly—I refer to the interventions on the hon. Member for Lewes—they have been in power for five years, nothing seems to be improving and public services do not seem to be getting any better, so they start to blame the police, nurses and teachers and suggest that if only Whitehall had a bit more power, everything would be fine and the reasons why the country supported new Labour would become apparent.

The Bill represents the Government's authoritarian streak. They have a deep instinct for centralisation. Labour Members may think that the Conservatives were no better. However, the Bill goes far beyond what we did. We did not take those powers. No such powers were ever proposed by any Conservative Government.

Ms Prentice: Fascinating though that is, can the hon. Gentleman tell us why, in 1994 or 1996, the Government whom he supported did not uphold the wonderful tripartite system in London by separating the powers of the Home Secretary from those of a police authority for London?

Mr. Osborne: Those Bills, in 1994 and 1996, did not take the same sort of powers that the hon. Lady will no doubt support in Committee. She talks about undermining the tripartite relationship of the police because the Home Secretary took powers to direct police authorities with the provisos that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned. This Home Secretary is now taking a power to intervene directly with chief constables in a way that the chairman of the Metropolitan police authority, a Labour party member—

Ms Prentice: Which we set up.

Mr. Osborne: The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, ''which we set up''. If you set up the thing, should you not listen to the person you put in charge—I apologise for using the term ''you'', Mr. Stevenson—

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who objects to the Bill and says that it is wrong? The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. The Government set it up and put in charge a Labour party member, who has said in the House of Lords that the Bill is over-prescriptive and too centralising and that the powers are unnecessary. The Government are ignoring that.

Last week, I met my local chief constable. The Minister and the Home Secretary always say that the buck stops with the Home Secretary, who is held to account in the Daily Mail, of which we know he is an avid reader. In fact, in almost all circumstances, the legal buck, as I understand it—and as the chief constable told me—stops with the chief constable, as he is responsible for local policing.

My chief constable wanted me to ask the Minister how the Bill will affect that position. If a chief constable acts under direction from the Home Secretary, will he continue to remain legally responsible for the action he takes under the plan, or will legal responsibility pass to the Home Secretary? He gave me an example that relates to another clause but is pertinent to this one, too.

Let us suppose that, under the powers to direct the use of equipment, the Home Office directs the use of a pepper spray instead of a CS spray, against the wishes of the local police service, and legal cases are brought against the local police. Who would carry the can in such circumstances? [Laughter.] Indeed, ''can'' is appropriate—hopefully, the police officer would still have it. If charges were brought or accusations were made, where would the legal buck stop? Although the Minister is right to the extent that we and the press hold the Home Secretary accountable for the overall law and order of the country, it is clear that legal responsibilities actually stop with the chief constable. Will the Minister address my specific point on the aptly named new clause 4—if one were to pick a name for a clause that sums up everything one needs to know about the new Labour party, it would have to be new clause 4? Does he accept the judgment of almost every organisation on the new clause? If the Minister can name an organisation that supports the measure, I shall be happy to listen. The almost universal judgment of organisations and people involved in policing and the Labour party when the Prime Minister was shadow Home Secretary is that the powers are over-prescriptive, unnecessary and not needed.

Patrick Mercer: I shall not detain the Committee for long. I make a point to Labour Members. My constituency is semi-rural and has a dearth of police officers. It has a problem with policing and that is the subject of 60 per cent. of my postbag. However, not one of my constituents has said that what is wrong is the Home Secretary's powers. Not one has had an intellectual argument with me to say that the administration, bureaucracy and empowerment of the authorities are what is wrong with the police. I hear every day that the problems are police numbers and police response times. I have no doubt that the Bill is designed—it is well designed in parts—to improve the powers of the police and to reduce the problems

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that hon. Members and I face daily, but I do not believe that new clause 4 is the way to proceed.

I have spent considerable time with the police. I have been on patrol and I have talked about the ins and outs of the Bill with officers. However, my police authority is more pertinent to the new clause. It considers that it is wrong and it feels sidelined by it.

Hon. Members have made the point better than I that the measure will almost certainly threaten the tripartite relationship. A police authority must be consulted only on a remedial action plan that it has no need to approve. I take the point that the Minister made earlier but I reiterate the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton by saying that that leaves a chief constable and a police authority feeling that they are constantly watched and that the Home Secretary can step in to take powers out of their hands with no recourse to the other two legs of the tripod.

Similarly, the provision will extend the powers of the Home Secretary to intervene on tactical matters at force level. That smacks of involvement at too high a level with matters that should not involve the Home Secretary from day to day. He will be allowed to set improvement targets for forces without reference, yet again, to the police authority.

The ladies and gentlemen in the Nottinghamshire police authority to whom I have spoken dedicate much time and effort to ensuring that the relationship of the police and the constabulary is well evolved and practical. They resent deeply the provision and the idea that the Home Secretary may rob them of the powers that they have worked for many hours, days and weeks to make effective. The performance monitoring and assessment of progress against the action plan may be done directly by the Home Secretary, which, again, undermines the police authority.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said:

    ''There are no difficulties with the concept of tackling inefficiencies and ineffectiveness robustly but the powers currently available to the Secretary of State and the 'best value' regime already enable that.''

There are already extensive and adequate powers to intervene. Clause 4 empowers the Home Secretary to direct police authorities. Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 allows best value to be secured and includes powers to take over or nominate someone else to take over police functions that are not achieving best value.

With those powers in place and the chief constables empowered as they are, why does the Home Secretary need further power? Why should he be allowed to interfere and meddle at tactical level? Why should police officers on the beat feel that the police authority is no longer in a position to mediate? Why should they be looking over their shoulders all the time at the Home Secretary? The move smacks of meddling and micro-management, and is wholly unnecessary.

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Prepared 11 June 2002