Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman knows that our views on the matter are very similar, and I am sympathetic to his amendment. Inevitably, however, I shall resist it, because although I believe that information should be provided, even below local authority level, people are most interested in the crime levels in their neighbourhood and what is happening on the few streets where they live, and what things are like when they walk out at night and take their children to the park and when they catch the bus to work. They also want to know how to contact their local police officers; we talked, for example, about beat officers making their mobile phone numbers available. All that is now happening and is part of our drive towards better and more responsive neighbourhood policing, but the duty in the clause is on the police authority. We certainly intend in our guidance to encourage the police to provide information at the lowest possible level, because that is how one secures real engagement with the community.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) knows that it is particular passion of mine to try to engage local people in their own services. A key part of that engagement is information. As well as needing to know who their police officers are, people need information about performance and how their police are performing in comparison with other police services so that they can help to drive the improvements in their area. The Association of Police Authorities is very keen to provide that information, but has asked us not to be too prescriptive. I believe that to be right, because there will be a whole range of ways in which that information can be provided to local communities, which we want to encourage the police to use.

We will set minimum standards, which authorities can obviously exceed if they choose to do so. Liverpool authorities, for example, have divided their areas into particular beat districts, and each member of the public receives a card with details of their local commander and how they can get hold of their beat officers, which has dramatically improved public confidence in and satisfaction with the services that are available.

This is an important clause, and I do not agree with the amendment. Local authority boundaries are not necessarily coterminous with basic command units. Coterminosity is a problem that bedevils us, so
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conferring a duty on police authorities to implement it at crime and disorder reduction partnership and neighbourhood level, which will be increasingly important in the policing landscape of the future, is an appropriate way to proceed.

There is very little difference between my argument and the hon. Gentleman's, and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Heath: I am extremely grateful for the Minister's reply. We obviously do not disagree at all.

I specified district council or borough council because of the requirement under subsection (4)(b) for the local policing summary to be sent out with the council tax demand. That is how I interpret it. Although it can also be sent out in other ways, the implication is that an appropriate way of issuing the summary is to include it in the bundle that accompanies one's council tax demand. That, of course, is the collecting authority's responsibility. In purely logistic terms, I suspect that many police authorities will not want to send out several different versions to different people within a district council's area because of the nightmare of postcoding and so on. The whole thing becomes too complex to be entirely manageable.

Provided that the guidance is issued—we have the Minister's assurance, which she was more than happy to give—and given that we agree, it would be perverse to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 134 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 135

Responsibilities in relation to the health and safety etc. of police

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 309, in clause 135, page 102, line 21, leave out subsection (5).

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 310, in clause 135, page 102, line 30, leave out subsection (7).

Mr. Grieve: The clause is designed to remove the problem that occurred recently whereby a chief commissioner of police and his predecessor had to sit in the dock at the Old Bailey as the persons responsible under a health and safety prosecution concerning an injury to a police officer. I therefore welcome the development in clause 135. Having done a great many health and safety prosecution, I have always found it strange that corporations enjoy so much more protection than unincorporated associations or individuals.

I have, in my time, been involved in the prosecution of the trustees of the Blenheim estate, where, as I recollect, a distinguished QC, the senior partner of a firm of London solicitors and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all were all sitting in the dock in Oxford Crown
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court, even though their direct involvement in the injury of the person whose arm had been cut off by a rotary saw in a sawmill in Oxfordshire was completely peripheral. They just happened to be the trustees of the operation that ran that mill.

I was also involved in the prosecution of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, which involved some 40 trustees, including the Duke of Edinburgh. On that occasion, in order to avoid having to bring all those people to the Crown court to sit in the dock, we used a device whereby we agreed simply to prosecute them in the name of Lloyd's Register of Shipping and not require the individuals to attend. If I may say so to the Minister, that issue should be looked at as well.

I have one query, however. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that in future the chief commissioner or chief constable can be prosecuted in his name but not personally. At the same time, the Government have rightly introduced another clause, which is in line with the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, to the effect that personal liability may lie if a person has consented to the commission of the offence or personally connived in it, or if the commission of the offence was attributable to personal neglect on his part. That is entirely compatible with the 1974 Act and very sensible too.

There is one oddity, however, which I have sought to highlight and on which I should be grateful for the Minister's comments. The Government have chosen to make the operation of the change retrospective, by removing the liability of the police chief from being prosecuted in his own name under the 1974 Act. However, they have not been able to make the connivance clauses apply retrospectively, which will bite only when the Bill becomes law.

If I understand it correctly—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—current police chiefs must be keeping their fingers crossed that if anything terrible has happened in respect of health and safety, it will have been between 1998 and 2005. If an incident is in that period, a police chief will not be prosecuted in his own name and will not have to sit in the dock, but will be prosecuted as a corporation sole. Fortunately for him, however, the connivance clauses will not yet have come into operation, even though he might have connived in the commission of the offence. That is the slight oddity on which we should like the Minister's views.

Ms Blears: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's general support for the steps that we are taking. The commissioner in question—shortly to be the ex-commissioner—and his predecessor were put in an invidious position by being prosecuted personally.

A couple of years ago we undertook to make a change. The original proposal was to transfer liability to police authorities, but we re-examined that and realised that it was not appropriate because it should still be possible to look at the force activities rather than the police authority. The provision that we enacted was not, therefore, commenced. The provisions before the Committee today take a more
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sensible approach, so that the prosecution would be in the name of the corporation—the office of chief constable rather than the chief constable personally.

The transfer of liability from the individual to the corporation does not mean that we take health and safety any less seriously than previously. Health and safety is incredibly important in the police service, and we want it to continue to be important.

9.45 am

As to the hon. Gentleman's points about retrospective action, I hope that he welcomes it, because we do not want chief constables to continue to be liable with respect to incidents where there was no personal connivance, occurring between 1998, when the liabilities were first placed on the force, and the granting of Royal Assent. The distance between us is narrow and concerns instances in which the retrospective aspect of the provision would prevent someone who had personally connived at an offence and been responsible for it from being brought to book for what they had done.

The hon. Gentleman has a point, and I should consider it in more detail. An important distinction can be made: if an offence is made out in an organisational way, the organisation is clearly responsible, but where an offence is made out on the grounds of someone's personal neglect and culpability the issue is important. We do not want to allow people to escape if they should be brought to account for their actions. I undertake to consider the matter in more detail and discover whether the clause could have results that none of us would want. If so, I undertake to do something about the situation.

Mr. Grieve: I think that the Minister will have a problem. Retrospective effect is all right when it confers a benefit, such as removing the liability to prosecution in person, as opposed to prosecution of a corporation sole, but it cannot be used to backdate the creation of a new criminal offence, which is what the connivance clauses are. The Minister is probably saddled with the consequence of the decision to make the change in question. The other approach is to provide that the change by which a chief constable will be prosecuted as a corporation sole should come into force only when the Bill does. The Minister may decide that that is too onerous. I think that what I have outlined is the reason why the provision has been drafted as it has, and if I am wrong, the Minister will no doubt write to tell me.

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