Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): It is a great pleasure to speak for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Stevenson, and in the presence of so many former

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comrades from the Proceeds of Crime Bill, in whose salt mines I had the honour of serving for 36 glorious Committee sittings. I see many veterans of those disputations, including the hon. Lady for 2 Fountain court, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), and the Hammurabi and great lawgiver, the hon. Member for Wellingborough. It is a great pleasure to see them, and I am sure that we will hear more from them. Of course, it is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath who will speak in a moment and has contributed so much to the Committee's deliberations.

It must be a tribute to our collective forensic brilliance that the Whips have decided that we should serve again on Committee, and I must say that the Opposition have had the better of the argument. You may call me partisan, Mr. Stevenson, but that is my impartial opinion of the debate so far. The Government are seeking to reintroduce a clause that was happily removed by Lord Rooker, who has since been removed from his position in the Home Office. We are told that it is all right to reintroduce the clause with lots of safeguards to prevent the meddling to which the Opposition object, but I have an elegant solution for the Government. They should not bring back the clause with the safeguards; they should get rid of the clause altogether and save themselves a great deal of ink in the printing of the Bill. It would be neater, and less invasive, bossy and meddlesome.

The Minister made a good point about responsibility and how Ministers in Whitehall must ultimately carry the can. Another Labour Member made the point that it is no good to expect Ministers in Whitehall to be abused by the Opposition for failings in policing if they cannot direct or have some way of controlling it. However, they have fantastic powers already, and that has been demonstrated time and again by Conservative Members. With the new clause, the Government are seeking to micro-manage to an extent that is unhealthy for not only policing but the Ministers themselves. They want to be able to revise plans in accordance with the direction of the Secretary of State and force chief constables to resubmit plans with the required revisions. That is far too invasive and prescriptive.

I should like to make a psychological point about how senior policemen will respond to such direction if it is carried out top-down from Whitehall. Not only will it lead to a deterioration in good policing, but there is a secondary risk. If Ministers intervene and prescribe in this way, they will not only impede policemen, break up the tripartite structure about which we have heard much, and excessively fetter chief constables, but give chief constables and senior police officers the perfect excuse not to carry out their performances properly and for not achieving the results that we all want them to achieve. They will always be able to say, ''It wasn't me, guv. It was Whitehall. They festooned me with bureaucracy. It's all these directives; it's all these diktats. What can I do?'' I say that because I care about the Ministers. I want them to be protected.

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Huw Irranca-Davies: I care deeply about the Ministers and their performance, too. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman about micro-management. I suspect that it will not reach to every police force each minute of every day, because Ministers may have other things to get on with.

Mr. Johnson: I am so grateful for that perspicacious intervention. If there is to be no interference and if the new clause will not be used, let us get rid of it. Let us follow the action of Lord Rooker and abandon it, and get rid of the saving clauses, too. I agreed strongly with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, the hon. Member for Lewes and others. The measure is too prescriptive. It will take away the power of local police constables and authorities to set their own priorities.

I shall conclude with a quotation that has been thrust into my hand by my brilliant and learned colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. While in Opposition, a Labour Member of Parliament said:

    ''The difference between the two of us is that, while the Home Secretary wants objectives to be set centrally by central Government, the police, the Opposition and virtually everyone else believes that they should be set by local people.''—[Official Report, 5 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 272.]

The Committee will be amazed to discover that that speaker was—again—the Prime Minister. I make such points not only in the interests of good policing, but to address the matter of responsibility. If Ministers want to protect themselves against the charge from senior policemen that they have unnecessarily fettered them and hedged them about with excessive diktats from Whitehall, they must do as Lord Rooker obligingly suggested and drop the new clause.

Mr. Hawkins: I echo the concerns that have been expressed by not only my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but my hon. Friends the Members for Henley, for Newark and for Tatton. Worries have been expressed to me about the Bill from those in my constituency of Surrey and the surrounding area. I also want to speak more widely about the general principles that were discussed at length by some experienced people in another place when considering what was originally clause 5, which was wisely defeated and removed.

I start with the worries of my local police federation. Reference has already been made to the views of the Association of Police Authorities—which Conservative Members share—and those of ACPO, and to concerns that have been expressed by others. Not much reference has yet been made to the views of rank-and-file officers on the Government's attempt to reintroduce the proposals. I am always worried when local organisers of the Police Federation in my area say that their rank-and-file members are as concerned about such issues as the senior people in organisations such as the Association of Police Authorities.

I am delighted that the Minister of State is back in Committee to hear my point. Each part of the police service from the Association of Police Authorities through to ACPO and the Police Federation are all

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saying that the Government's proposals are wrong and far too draconian, and that they will lead to all sorts of difficulties. John Miskelly, who I know personally, and who does a tremendous job as chairman of the joint branch board of the Police Federation for Surrey, said that the Home Secretary

    ''appears to be seeking the power to regulate and impose on chief officers working procedures and practices that they must adopt. Given the diverse nature of the country, it is difficult to see how a working practice can be imposed on every force and expected to yield the same results. What may be a highly successful and useful procedure in a large metropolitan force may be of limited value, if any, in a provincial rural force and vice versa. The Home Secretary also appears to be seeking powers so as to circumvent the Police Advisory Board when issuing codes of practice and regulations on equipment.

    The consequences for the current tripartite arrangements and the impact on 'local accountability' that such a change would have, are issues that must not be ignored or overlooked. As such, I would urge you to question these powers, and whether the same effect could be better and more sensible achieved through recommendations by the HMIC''.

Mr. Denham: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the official response to the Government's White Paper ''Policing a New Century'' on 18 January in which the Police Federation said that it believed that it was necessary for the Home Secretary to have that power. I understand that to be the position of the Police Federation nationally, notwithstanding the views of the hon. Gentleman's local branch.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is somewhat out of date. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire says sotto voce, it has moved on a lot since then. I urge the Minister and his officials to go back and talk to the Police Federation at every level. Perhaps to reinforce the point that the matter has moved on, it is not just the Surrey joint branch board that has written to me and I am sure that joint branch boards all around the country will be saying similar things. Les Allen, the deputy chairman of the joint branch board for Thames Valley, which is not far from my constituency, says:

    ''There is considerable concern that the Secretary of State will be given powers within the Bill to regulate that all forces adopt specified operational procedures and practices, and that the Secretary of State is not required to consult the Police Advisory Board for England and Wales . . . before issuing codes of practice or regulating equipment. It is felt that the power to standardise operational procedures and practices would undermine the local accountability of forces and stifle initiative. There is a view, which I subscribe to, that a much better solution would be provided by the Secretary of State using his power to issue codes of practice on operational procedure and practices which chief officers 'shall have regard to', but which allow for local variation.''

Those are concerns expressed by experienced senior officers of Police Federation joint branch boards in different parts of the county. The view of Mr. Miskelly in my own county is clearly not isolated.

In response to the Government's suggestion that Whitehall always knows best, I urge the two Ministers and their officials to consider carefully the comments made by my noble Friend Lord Dixon-Smith in another place. He speaks from his great experience and expertise in public life; I know of his work over many years in Essex. He said:

    ''A second concern is that the Bill takes the Secretary of State into the micro-management of the police service. I have two

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    problems with that. I have spent a long time in public life and I am not yet wholly convinced that Whitehall knows best when it comes to administering services to the public. My experience suggests that, on balance, Whitehall probably does not know best and that it is better to let the people who are dealing with the problems on the ground get on with running those services, to encourage them in doing so and, of course, to steer them''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 1543.]

The Government already have the powers to steer, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire pointed out, and those powers have never been used. They were introduced in the first instance by the Conservative Government in 1996 and further extended by the present Government in the Local Government Act 1999. The existing powers have not been tried and found wanting: they have either never been needed or have been found difficult and not tried. The Government acknowledge that they have not used their existing powers and that they have not even tried them out to see how they work, yet they want to take even more powers. That is why the Opposition are so suspicious that the Government have a not terribly well hidden agenda to be draconian, centralising and like Big Brother. That is why police authorities are so worried and we think that they are right to be worried.

My noble friend Lord Renton spoke in another place on 5 March 2002. He is one of the most experienced Members of the other place and he said:

    ''I was responsible for police matters in the Home Office, where, for four and a half years, I was Under-Secretary and Minister of State. My noble friend Lord Carlisle and other noble friends have had those responsibilities in more recent years. In my time, we simply did not have the staff, expertise or experience to exercise such control over the police. I do not know—it is right that none of us knows—whether the Home Office now has officials with such responsibility and expertise. However, even if the situation has improved, such bureaucratic control over chief constables would not help them to do their work more effectively and put matters right. It would be time-consuming and tiresome for them and direct their attention from their true responsibility of keeping order. I hope that the Government agree to withdraw the clause altogether.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 157–58.]

That is the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley referred. A great deal of interference will lead to bureaucratic arguments. The hon. Member for Lewes rightly referred to Lord Phillips of Sudbury who spoke for the Liberal Democrats in another place about the arguments that might occur if micro-management powers are allowed to remain.

It is pretty clear, not least given the size of the majority against the clause in another place, that the Government would be unwise to insist on putting it back because the other place will insist on taking it out again. The Minister will not win the argument. He lost the intellectual argument and he has lost the argument with every level of the police force, police officers at every level and ACPO. He cannot convince people that the powers are necessary.

I referred to a not terribly well hidden agenda. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said on Second Reading, we think that quite a bit of the reasoning behind the measure is that the Government want to be able to exert influence to try to make police forces use several of the Government's

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ideas that they might not be especially keen on, such as community support officers, which we shall debate later. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend challenged the Minister to say firmly that the power that the Government are trying to put back in the Bill would never be used to force police authorities and chief constables to use specific weapons in their armoury, such as community support officers. The Minister gave a half-hearted reply and said that he was not prepared to rule anything out. That gives the game away, and we have divined what the Government are up to.

If the Home Office—under any Government—had an unblemished record for fantastic efficiency and success in its entire works, that might be a different matter. In that case, we might be able to say, ''Although we have some concerns, okay. A Home Secretary with a really effective Department is able to do this.'' However, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pointed out on Second Reading that we are discussing the Home Office that brought us the asylum crisis, the passport shambles and, most recently, the complete disaster of the Criminal Records Bureau's information technology system. The Government have even decided that they must have an extra, unpaid Minister in charge of IT because that is such a disaster. If there were a Department that one would not want to be given extra powers because of arguments that would be caused in micromanagement, I submit that that would be the Home Office.

Given not only the Government's badly hidden agenda, Big Brother powers replacing those that have not been needed and their failure to convince any part of the police service, the Government are incredibly unwise to try to put back the measure. It is not sensible and, worse, it is draconian and wrong.

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