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House of Commons
Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Police Reform Bill [Lords]

Police Reform Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee A

Thursday 27 June 2002


[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]

Police Reform Bill [Lords]

9.30 am

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe. The Committee may recall that, at our previous sitting, we discussed legislation allowing for blood samples to be taken from unconscious victims, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) referred to representations that had been made by the British Medical Association. I told him that we would reconsider the matter, although the intention of the clause was in line with the issues that he raised. We have now had a chance to consider those representations and we shall table an amendment on Report to put such matters beyond doubt.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Further to that point of order, Miss Widdecombe. I thank the Minister for taking seriously the points that we raised and I look forward to the tabling of the amendment.

Clause 63

Ministry of Defence police serving with other forces

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

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am sure that the Minister is aware that there are sometimes sensitivities between the Royal Military Police and the Ministry of Defence police. Has the right hon. Gentleman looked into the matter? Does he consider that the proposals may improve the position? I represent a military constituency. Camberley is the main town, and I have a lot of contact with senior Army officers, including some who are senior—either currently serving or retired—Royal Military Police officers. Such tensions are well known to anyone who has had anything to do with the Army and we hope that they will reduce over time.

Mr. Denham: I shall decline the invitation to say too much about that issue. The clause does not deal with interaction or interface between the two forces. It concerns the MOD police and is set against a wider background. It recognises that greater flexibility in the operation of the MOD police with other forces is desirable. The clause provides proper legal underpinning to enable that to take place. It does not deal with the relationship between MOD police and the Royal Military Police. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise certain issues on that subject, I undertake to pass them to my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 63 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Column Number: 384

Clauses 64 to 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 67

Nationality requirements applicable to police officers etc.

Mr. Denham: I beg to move amendment No. 240, in page 62, line 47, at end insert—

    'and, in a case where the power to make provision with respect to qualification for appointment as a constable or as a special constable, or for membership of a force, Service or Squad, is exercisable by any such regulations as are mentioned in that subsection, the regulations made must impose requirements with respect to all the matters mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b).

The clause was debated extensively in another place, and the amendment honours a commitment that was made by Lord Rooker. Police forces want to employ the best and most suitable people as police officers. They want to select people on merit and do not want to exclude people because of factors that have no bearing on their ability to do the job. Forces have found that the existing nationality rules hinder the recruitment of good people who may have been living in the United Kingdom for many years, but who do not qualify on account of their nationality.

The current rules allow Irish citizens to become police officers, but exclude people from other member states of the European Union. They also allow people from the Commonwealth who are resident here to be police officers, but exclude other foreign nationals resident here. We believe that the removal of the nationality bar will widen the pool of potential recruits, and so help the police service to improve its diversity and better reflect our society. It will make the police service more inclusive than exclusive, and it will enable us to concentrate on selecting on merit.

The police services of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland support the removal of the nationality restriction, as do the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the British Transport police, the Royal Parks constabulary, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary, the Special constabulary and the Association of Police Authorities.

In the other place, several Lords expressed concern about the fact that Britain could be policed by people who did not speak English, could not be understood by the public, or knew nothing about this country. I think that those fears were misplaced. None the less, the amendment responds to those who expressed such fears. Clearly, the ability to communicate effectively with the public and write plain English is essential for police work. It is also essential that police officers have knowledge of Britain and the society that they police.

The amendment requires the Government to make regulations that will ensure that police officers cannot be appointed unless they are competent in written and oral English. Candidates' skill in oral and written English will be tested, and if they do not reach a satisfactory standard they will be rejected, even if they have all the other skills and competencies needed.

Foreign and European Union nationals—indeed all candidates—will need to satisfy our rigorous vetting requirements. It might, for example, be unlikely that

Column Number: 385

someone who has lived here for a short time could be vetted; that person would therefore not qualify for appointment. There will also be a provision to reserve posts that are particularly sensitive to national security. That combination of safeguards will be put in place and those requirements will need to be met before a candidate of whatever nationality qualifies for appointment.

We do not intend to change the immigration rules to allow us to recruit people who have no right to work and live in the UK from abroad. To be eligible to serve in the police force, foreign nationals will need to be resident in the UK and have no restrictions attached to their stay. We will not actively recruit from abroad. The intention is to allow those who already live in the UK or have the right to work here, such as EU nationals, to join the police service if they have the right qualities and skills.

The lifting of the nationality bar will not lead to a reduction in the quality of recruits. Robust recruitment standards will maintain the quality of recruits, and all applicants, whether British or not, will have to meet certain criteria before they qualify for appointment, including those specified in the regulations that I discussed earlier. Applicants will need to show that they have the key competencies required for policing. If they do, there is no good reason why they should be excluded from the police service.

Mr. Paice: As the Minister rightly said, deeply held concerns were expressed in the other place about opening up the nationality bar. Lord Rooker—recently departed to other pastures—and the Minister sought to allay those concerns. I appreciate the amendment, which also endeavours to do that. I fully recognise the strength of the argument that there are people who have made this country their home and have been here a long while who are debarred on nationality grounds, and that seems unfair. I am not sure how many such recruits there will be; the implication is that there will not be a huge number. We will probably only find out what effect the amendment has on recruitment in due course. I accept the principle of the Minister's argument, although a part of me retains concerns.

First, I am puzzled as to why subsection (4)(c) does not appear in the amendment, which says that

    ''regulations made must impose requirements with respect to all the matters mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b).''

Why not (c) as well? That is a puzzle, and I hope that the Minister will explain. He said in his opening remarks that in some cases, involving particular sensitivities, nationality is significant. I should have thought that that still has to be covered in regulations. It may be difficult to do that, but a framework must be found, or the Commission for Racial Equality, if no one else, will scrupulously examine every appointment for which a bar on nationality grounds seems to have been introduced.

Secondly, the Minister touched on the issue of people who live here, and residency. In the other place,

Column Number: 386

his former colleague said that that would apply only to people who had made their home in this country or possibly, as the Minister says, other EU nationals. Will he give us some guidance about what is expected to be laid down in guidance or regulations about residency qualifications? That is important. It will be a widespread view among the public that a police officer, who has all the powers that we spent so much time discussing, should have demonstrated total commitment to this country. There may be understandable reasons why they have chosen not to become a British citizen, but that commitment to this country needs to have been shown for a considerable period. Competence in English, important though that is, or knowledge of British life, which can be gained in other ways, are not necessarily adequate.

What are the Minister's thoughts about residency qualifications? Certainly Lord Rooker implied that there would be residency qualifications. I am slightly worried that they have not appeared. I welcome the amendment as a step forward, but I remain puzzled about the exclusion of paragraph (c), and I should be grateful if the Minister would explain.


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