Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker: The amendment stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), who is on parliamentary business elsewhere this afternoon. Amendments Nos. 257 and 258 seek to insert into clause 29 an overtly independent element with regard to considerations of whether it is appropriate to take action to remove a senior officer.

As the Minister will be aware, the wording of those amendments closely mirrors section 42 of the Police Act 1996, which relates to the Secretary of State's powers. These amendments relate to the police authority's powers, but it seems appropriate to us that these provisions should be explicitly set out here.

I am sure that the Minister recognises that the removal of senior officers is not a step to be taken lightly. It is also a step that must be seen to be fair and just, so that—hopefully—it commands support not only within the police force, but within the police authority, the wider public and the media.

It is unhelpful and damaging if the removal of an officer is surrounded by controversy, as was the case with regard to the removal of the previous chief constable of Sussex. That was unhelpful to the Government and the police force in Sussex, as well as to the holder of the post, Mr. Paul Whitehouse. To be seen to be fair, it is important to write into the Bill the safeguard—as I would describe it—which was present in relation to the Secretary of State's powers in

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the 1996 Act, for the presence of at least one person who is not an officer of police or a Government Department to be party to an inquiry into the reasons for the removal of an officer.

We have inserted an extra phrase:

    ''the reasons for the exercise of the power''.

That is not intended to make it more difficult to remove an officer who is not acting with efficiency or effectiveness, or in the interests of the force. It is intended to ensure that the process is seen to be fair and just, because if that is the case, if the conclusion is that that officer should go, that is more likely to command public support. Amendments Nos. 252 and 255 are largely consequential on those amendments.

The Minister may be able to give me an assurance, or point to somewhere in the Bill that I have not found that provides the safeguards that I am trying to insert. However, I hope that he takes on board that it is important to have that independent element, for the sake of justice and the public perception with regard to such matters.

Mr. Hawkins: The Opposition support the spirit of the comments of the hon. Member for Lewes, and we will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.

In the next group of amendments, which my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will be dealing with, we have raised the same kind of issue about the making of representations. Perhaps we will have a slightly wider debate when we address them. It is fair to say that, when the Bill was first drafted, my hon. Friend tried to find ways of incorporating this concept into amendments. We were advised that the type of amendments that we were considering would not be in order, because of existing legislation in the 1996 Act.

The hon. Member for Lewes has found another way of introducing precisely the type of concepts that interest us, and we will listen with interest for the assurances offered by the Minister. These matters are serious because of the reasons given by the hon. Member for Lewes and recent controversies in Sussex and other forces. Whenever such serious steps are contemplated, an inquiry would be helpful. Certainly, representations would need to be made. Something along the lines of—if not precisely—the amendment should be in the Bill, given that so much of it amends the 1996 Act. When that Act is being amended, something along the lines of the amendment should be included in the Bill.

4.45 pm

Mr. Denham: I can understand the Opposition's arguments. Indeed, I have discussed such issues with the Chief Police Officers Staff Association, which has been active in pushing them. However, I ask the Committee to resist the amendments.

By way of broad background—I stress that I do not refer to any named case—over a 20-year period, chief officers have occasionally ended their careers earlier than might have been expected, but without the use of the provisions laid down in law for their retirement. They have retired from their posts in some other way.

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That is not necessarily a satisfactory state of affairs. We should have ways of dealing with such matters properly. Those ways should be seen to be fair to everyone involved, but not present the sort of difficulties in the practical use of the powers that another route has used to the same end. One danger of requiring in the Bill the establishment of an inquiry is that it makes the existing powers, which have been in force since 1964, more difficult to use at local level.

It is important to stress to the Committee that the powers available to the police authority are not new or being introduced by the legislation, except for the change about resignation rather than retirement that we discussed earlier. They are powers that have been in primary legislation since 1964. Despite the many occasions on which the legislation has been examined since then, nobody has previously thought it necessary to include the requirement to hold an inquiry in the Bill.

In framing the legislation, we have looked for improvements that we think have been omitted in the past and put them in. Such things may have been past practice, but have not been included in Bills. In contrast to what has been done previously, for example, in clause 29 we have placed a new responsibility on the police authority, should it wish to take action, to set out fully its reasons for so doing. It must give reasons as well as consider any representations—as under existing law. There is another new requirement: the officer must have a chance to make representations in person.

The two new provisions relating to representation and the giving of reasons have not existed in the law since 1964—we have built them in. It is worth remembering that we have retained the existing constitutional safeguard, which is that the action of the police authority continues to be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State, as it has been since the 1964 Act.

I judge that there are sufficient existing safeguards. Police authorities must consider representations and secure the Secretary of State's approval. The new requirements that we have introduced are for authorities to give grounds for their actions and for officers concerned to be offered a personal hearing. Put together, they provide reasonable additional safeguards in the Bill since the original drafting in 1964, but do not overload the procedures with specific requirements that would make the power difficult to use in practice.

Norman Baker: Two issues arise from what the Minister said. I am not clear why the inquiry process is appropriate for the Secretary of State's initiative but not that of the police authority. If officers have retired earlier than they might have otherwise—or another gentle phrase that the Minister used—surely putting in place a system in which officers have more confidence suggests that they will stay and go through the process rather than taking the action that the Minister wishes to avoid.

Mr. Denham: On the latter point, the difficulty has been that people on the employer side have been

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unwilling to initiate procedures, rather than people dropping out as the procedure progresses.

The difference is very clear on the hon. Gentleman's first point. If the Secretary of State, rather than the police authority, required action to be taken, he would not have a person to oversee his decision. It would be necessary for the Secretary of State to be advised by an inquiry. If the police authority decides to initiate action, the Secretary of State will provide the second look at the facts of the matter. In a case initiated by the police authority, the Secretary of State is the long stop or second opinion. If the Secretary of State initiates the process, it is right that he needs a process set down for he or she to be advised through an inquiry.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand the distinction that the Minister is drawing between the two circumstances. However, there could be a case in which the perception of a police authority was that it was dominated by representatives of a political party that happened to be the same party that formed the Government and was, therefore, the Secretary of State's party. Does the Minister accept that there might be worries if it were thought that political issues—with a small ''p'' and capital ''P''—were involved in the departure of a chief police officer? It might be wiser to have an independent inquiry into what had gone on in such circumstances because, otherwise, one political party would dominate both arms of the second look?

Mr. Denham: We need to keep a sense of perspective on the whole procedure. A case in which anyone envisages it necessary to remove a chief constable will be rare. I referred to a few examples over the past 20 years when chief constables have finished their careers earlier than might be expected, but there are not a huge number of cases and we cannot be entirely certain about what happened in each case. Saying that we must build in an inquiry procedure in case of the exceptional circumstances or concurrence of events that the hon. Gentleman suggests has the danger of overloading the procedure and making it too bureaucratic.

I met the chief constable of Gloucestershire police last week and discussed these issues. The Government have agreed to develop guidance with CPOSA on the way in which police authorities should conduct the procedure. That is a better way forward. It allows us flexibility and the ability to set out further detail than we would want to include in the Bill. I cannot speak for CPOSA, but I am sure that it would prefer such statutory provision. It welcomes that approach and we should develop fuller guidance that police authorities would find useful through discussion with CPOSA. The range of circumstances that might confront a police authority will vary from rare circumstance to rare circumstance.

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