Police Reform Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 71, line 6, leave out from first 'plan' to the end of line.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 70, in page 71, line 12, at end insert—

    '(6A) Any guidance, or any modified or revised guidance, issued by the Secretary of State under subsection (6) above shall be issued no later than 30th June in the year preceding the beginning of the relevant three year period to which it applies.'.

Norman Baker: We discussed this subject at length earlier in the Bill when we debated part 1, which related to the appropriate extent of the Home Secretary's powers and how far he or she should be able to go in directing or cajoling police authorities or individual chief officers. Proposed new subsection (6)(a) requires the Secretary of State to:

    ''issue guidance to police authorities and chief officers of police as to the matters to be contained in any three-year strategy plan''.

We do not object to the idea of the Secretary of State issuing guidance, and it is sensible that police authorities and chief constables are made aware of national priorities and good practice. It is also appropriate for the Secretary of State to say, ''Given the changes in technology, you should be looking at this,'' or, ''Given this experience and training, you should be looking at that.'' That is entirely sensible.

Column Number: 401

The form of words that we object to is:

    ''and as to the form to be taken by any such plan'',

which we believe to be unnecessarily over-proscriptive. If the Secretary of State can issue guidance, he or she has other levers to pull elsewhere in the Bill or in existing legislation—throughout the Police Act 1996, for example. Why is it necessary to include those words?

I am sure that the Secretary of State could achieve what was required without inclusion of the words in question. As drafted, the new subsection goes too far in restricting the ability of the police authority or chief constable to respond to local conditions. Those bodies should be able to understand the guidance from the Home Secretary, to take full account of it and include it in their plans, but nevertheless produce a plan that reflects the local community and its needs.

The form set out by the Secretary of State may be too much of a straitjacket, making it difficult for the Secretary of State's wishes to be delivered at local level because the form is not applicable to the area in question. The form would be very different for London and for Sussex or other shire counties. We oppose such unnecessary inflexibility.

Amendment No. 70 concerns timing. We seek to ensure that the Secretary of State gives police authorities and chief constables adequate time to draw up a plan that works and meets the Secretary of State's own requirements. The Minister may argue that 30 June is the wrong date and we may disagree about the exact date, but we believe that November—as is currently proposed—is a little late.

Those of us who have been in local government—I served for six years as leader of a district council and I am sure that other Members of the Committee have council experience—will know that local authority officers complain that they are given insufficient time to respond to Government circulars, diktats and requirements. They need to be given their budgets in time. They have to respond in a haphazard and unco-ordinated way to meet deadlines for the beginning of the financial year. Amendment No. 70 is intended to install good practice—from the Minister's point of view, to ensure that the Secretary of State's wishes and guidance are properly taken into account. If the guidance comes out late in the year, that will hinder the police authority and the chief constable from responding to it in a positive and constructive way.

These are sensible amendments, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to them.

Mr. Denham: Amendment No. 69 is about form rather than substance. We want to enable the Secretary of State to say, for example, that it is not adequate to have one copy of the plan that is kept in a locked room in police authority headquarters—although that is not a hugely important point. We want to encourage a proper balance between traditional and modern forms of communication, so that the plans can be made available on the internet, as well as in the form of leaflets and so forth.

Column Number: 402

There is nothing particularly exceptional about having such wording in legislation of this nature. A best value provision in the Local Government Act 1999 has a different but similar form of words. It states:

    ''The Secretary of State may issue guidance on the form and content of plans and the manner in which they should be published.''

Therefore, there is nothing sinister about the use of the word ''form'' in subsection (6)(a).

Amendment No. 70 raises a more substantive point. It is important that guidance about the preparation and publication of the three-year plans goes out to the police authorities and the police service. We will soon be into the annual programme of updating the national policing plan, the first of which will be published in the autumn. The national policing forum, which advises the Home Secretary on the plan, met for the first time on 24 June, and there was a good discussion about what would be valuable to have in the national policing plan in future years. That plan will develop incrementally, and it will become the document to which police authorities will be able to refer from year to year, when they draw up their one-year or three-year plans.

I acknowledge the point that if there is any additional guidance ahead of that, it should go out in good time. For reasons that we discussed in earlier debates, it will not always be appropriate to tie ourselves to a specific calendar date, but I accept the point that Governments have a responsibility to ensure that such advice is put out in good time, so that those who are meant to act on it can do so.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for his constructive response. On the words in the Bill to which amendment. No. 69 refers, I accept that his intentions are good. We must ensure that police authorities do not keep a single copy of their plan in a locked room, and in a safe with a combination that is difficult to crack. However, we must examine what the words that are employed in legislation could be used to achieve. I submit that the words that amendment No. 69 seeks to delete can be used to achieve a different purpose from that which has been described, but that is not a particularly important point, so I will not pursue it.

On the issue of time for guidance, it is important that the Minister said what he said, and that those comments have been put on the record. He recognised the need to allow proper time. In the light of his comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 71, in page 71, leave out lines 20 to 22.

The Chairman: With this it will also be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 72, in page 71, leave out lines 32 to 41.

No. 102, in page 71, line 33, at end insert 'in preparing'.

No. 103, in page 71, line 37, leave out

    'may not be consistent with'

Column Number: 403

and insert

    'the police authority in question has not taken into account'.

No. 104, in page 71, line 37, leave out

    'may not be consistent with'

and insert

    'has not had regard to'.

No. 105, in page 71, line 40, leave out

    'is in fact so inconsistent'

and insert

    'did in fact fail to have regard to the relevant National Policing Plans'.

No. 73, in page 71, line 42, leave out from beginning of line 42 to end of line 2 on page 72.

No. 74, in page 72, leave out lines 14 to 21.

No. 75, in page 72, leave out lines 22 to 24.

No. 107, in clause 82, page 76, line 28, leave out 'include' and insert 'take account of'.

No. 108, in page 76, line 34, leave out

    'so as to include in it a'

and insert

    'to take account within the'.

Norman Baker: This group of amendments again raises the issue of the proper powers of the Home Secretary vis-à-vis the police authority and the chief officer. It returns us to the discussion about the appropriate weight on each leg of the tripod. I make no apology for raising that issue here, and for tabling these amendments.

I return to the point that I made in our discussion of the previous amendments: this Bill and earlier legislation give the Home Secretary many levers to pull, and these amendments have been tabled because we object to some of those powers—they are a lever too far. We particularly object to the powers in clause 82.

The amendments would remove the requirement for the police authority to send a copy of the plan to the Home Secretary for amendment—it would have to send the plan, but not for amendment.

When the matter was discussed in the Lords, Lord Rooker was keen to emphasise that in his view the clause does not give the Home Secretary a power of veto over the three-year plan. However, that is a matter of interpretation, and we believe that there is a possibility that that might be concluded from the drafting of the Bill.

10.45 am

Having read the Lords Hansard carefully, we do not believe that Lord Rooker made a persuasive case for the Home Secretary to have the power to call in draft plans to be checked, presumably by his officials, and to make comments to the authority if he or his officials are not happy with a plan. I do not understand why the Home Secretary feels that he needs those powers. There is no evidence that police authorities will not have regard to the national plan in developing their three-year plan. There are many other checks on police authorities. The Home Secretary issues guidance, and

Column Number: 404

there is HMIC and a police standards unit. There is a range of other ways of ensuring that police authorities and chief constables do their duty properly, without such micro-management, poring over plans in great detail and having Home Office officials checking them and sending back comments as though they were recalcitrant pupils who need to be ticked off by the teacher, which is how the clause reads. In practical terms, a point might also be made about whether Home Office officials in Queen Anne's gate are in a better position to know what is best for micro-managing a police authority or force elsewhere in the country than are people who live, work and regularly deal with police matters in that area.

I am at a loss to understand why the Home Secretary feels that the powers are appropriate. I hope that he will explain why he feels that they are and that he will accept that the provisions are in some ways offensive to police authorities, according to comments that I received from the Association of Police Authorities. They do not believe that the proposal will enhance their role or that it is innovating. On the contrary, they believe that it will undermine their role in a way that suggests that they are not to be trusted. The Minister may not like what I am saying, but he will have to deal with the APA's view. I urge him to give further consideration to the provisions and to consider whether they are necessary or may in fact unnecessarily damage the tripartite arrangement.

We are happy to endorse Conservative Members' amendments. I shall return if necessary to the subsequent group of amendments, but the key point relates to arrangements in the tripartite structure and the erosion of the police authorities' powers.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 27 June 2002