Previous Section Index Home Page

6.51 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The central premise of the Bill is that Ministers believe that they know what is best for local communities. They make the mistake of thinking that extending Government control over policing will cause standards to rise. If the Government had a record of excellence in administration, the people might be willing to trust them in the matter, but they do not: the Home Office is a shambles, and the National Audit Office has failed to sign off on its accounts. In addition, there have been the catastrophic failures to deport foreign offenders and to deal with offenders on release from prison.

What is in the Government’s record that makes them think that they will do a better job of running the police than police authorities or forces? The centralising measures in the Bill are clear, and include new powers for the Home Secretary to shape police authorities and to intervene in them. The powers of CSOs will be standardised, and the National Policing Improvement Agency created.

On the other side of the equation, there are very few decentralising measures. The only one that I can see is the community call for action, but the former police Minister said that that involved powers of last resort and that it was not a

We had real concerns about some of the proposals in the Bill. They include the extension of summary justice, which we debated this afternoon, and the combined inspectorate of justice, communities, safety and custody. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) noted in a point of order before this debate, we did not discuss that latter provision this afternoon. Thus, the timetable for this Bill denied debate on a very important matter that is causing wide concern outside the House, especially in relation to the prisons inspectorate. There is concern about that inspectorate’s independence and the calibre of the inspector himself. In addition, the need to inspect prisons is a special case, as it is important to ensure that performance targets are met and human rights observed. We will have to leave to another place all those serious matters, which were barely discussed in Committee.

We tried to improve the Bill with amendments that would have made it clear that the Home Secretary should intervene in police authorities only as a last resort and given chief constables more discretion over the powers of CSOs. They were rejected, as was every Conservative and Liberal Democrat amendment. Although the Minister said that he thought that the Bill had been improved—I accept that our debate has
10 May 2006 : Column 434
been good natured—the truth is that the Government have not accepted a single Opposition amendment. I recognise that the Government exhibited good will in relation to the amendment on child protection measures tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), but that is the exception that proves the rule.

Local accountability is being weakened. Policing in this country emerged from localities, and that is where it must surely remain if it is to retain legitimacy and consent.

A distinguished former Member of the House, Tony Benn, set three tests for institutions. He asked: who has power, where does it come from, and how does the citizen call an institution to account? Being able to communicate with local policing teams is no substitute for a proper link between citizens and chief constables. This Bill, together with police force amalgamation, seriously weakens that link. I therefore regret very much that we have been unable to improve it.

There is just enough in the Bill for us not to want to oppose it outright; in particular, there are the provisions on computer misuse and the forfeiture of indecent photographs of children. But that was a finely balanced decision on our part, and I regret that we have not had more opportunities to debate some of the more contentious measures.

In conclusion, the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on constitutional issues, has said that the Bill

I emphasise that he is the spokesman for ACPO on the matter. We know, because the Minister confirmed it, that the Government are planning to introduce a national policing board with the Home Secretary in the chair. Let us be clear—

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Nick Herbert: No, I apologise to my hon. Friend but I do not have time.

The Home Secretary is steadily assuming control of policing. That is the choice that the Government have made. Ultimately, that will make the Government, the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers accountable for the performance of the police. That is their choice, and we will hold them accountable.

6.56 pm

Lynne Featherstone: Our debates on the Bill have been good natured, especially in Committee, and some interesting amendments were proposed. Unfortunately, the Government took none of them on board, although I have to correct the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) in one respect. The former Minister produced the same version of our amendment on computer hacking but it was very cold comfort in a Bill that will give the Home Secretary the biggest ever centralisation of power over the police.

10 May 2006 : Column 435

Why were the Labour Government so unmoving on provisions that were eminently sensible and obvious to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives? With their complete centralisation of power, the Government seem to be getting tenser and tenser. Their grip on control is the result of fear. It has nothing to do with winning the arguments; it is fear of headlines. They need to legislate and intervene—to be seen to be active—rather than really getting to the bottom of a problem, or allowing the democratic processes of accountability and the police to do their job properly. There is a complete undermining of professional opinion and practice, which will spiral down and bring less effective and less local policing.

I object strongly to the doublespeak that the measure is about localism and local policing. In fact, it will bring a sweeping centralisation of power, such as we have never seen.

It is a great tragedy that we did not have time to debate the inspectorates. The changes to the prison inspectorate hold dangers for prisoners in future. That inspectorate casts a light where no light shines through its expertise and independence, both of which will be compromised in a joint inspectorate. The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that it would be a dilution of all the special protection for prisoners. Well trained prison inspectors can spot human rights abuses in a way that will not be possible if the inspectorates are merged. I am sorry that we did not have time to discuss a joint amendment to provide that prisons were not included. Prisoners need special arrangements to protect them.

Sadly, we are now dependent on the other place to put into the Bill all the proposals that the Government would not accept—amendment after amendment. Although the debate has been informative and interesting, it has not been at all rewarding for Liberal Democrats. We tried to work with the Government but all our good work and good intentions were rejected, so it is with a heavy heart that I leave it to the other place to make amends.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

10 May 2006 : Column 436

Conventions (Joint Committee)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

7 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I am very interested in the motion, and I am disappointed that the Minister did not rise to say something about it. There are certain assumptions that I find puzzling—one is to try to reform the conventions between the two Houses of Parliament, without knowing what the shape, form, powers or responsibilities of the House of Lords will be. At the moment it is at a discount, because it is accountable to no one. If the proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, which I understand are under discussion, suggest that it should be legitimised by being accountable to the electorate, the question of its being a subordinate House does not necessarily arise. It will be what it was historically: co-equal—the two parts of Parliament. I just make that point because it is very important. We are now trying to reform our constitution in the absence of any knowledge of what the House of Lords will be after the deliberations between the major parties. That is the first thing.

The second thing is that the motion—I recognise that it comes from the House of Lords—states:

Every hon. Member who has heard the doctrine of the manifesto and served in the House for a long time knows indeed that it is a very thin concept for a variety of reasons, one of which is the nature of party manifestos. I must confess—it often shocks people— that, until the last election, I had never read my own party’s manifesto from beginning to end, and I will give the House an indication of why.

10 May 2006 : Column 437

I travelled the Library for a few minutes to look at some of the past manifestos. In 1997, my party’s manifesto, under the glorious title of “You can be sure”—or something—was 56 pages long. The Labour party was more realistic; it recognised that, in fact, the electorate would probably grasp only five concepts, so it issued a pledge card. “Make the Difference” was the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto—63 pages. By 2001, we had learned something. “Time for Common Sense” was the Conservative manifesto—46 pages. I could not find the Labour manifesto for that election, but I looked at “Ambitions for Wales” and I take it that it was identical, because the Scottish one was “Ambitions for Scotland”, and I guess that there was an “Ambitions for England”. That was 44 pages.

By 2005, the Conservatives got down to “It’s Time For Action”—28 pages. The Labour party had made great advance with “Britain forward not back”, which it published as a paperback, retailing at £2.50. I cannot imagine the warehouses filled with that important document.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman refers to “Britain forward not back”—112 pages, and it is a right riveting read, I can assure the House, but does he accept that length does not necessary imply detail? Even a manifesto of that length will include something like:

I support that, but what would a breach of that mean if the House of Lords rejected some local government legislation in a future Parliament? That is very difficult to establish.

Mr. Shepherd: I am glad that the very point is reinforced by what the hon. Gentleman says, because of course a generalised statement is not a detailed policy, so the consent to the general proposition does not of itself mean consent to the interpretation of what that general proposition means. I always explain that to my constituents by saying that the Government propose—it is in our manifesto—to build a new road to Birmingham; let us say, and we all say, “Hurray!”

David Taylor: A road out of Birmingham!

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman is thinking of Scotland, I think.

When the detailed Bill comes before the House, we discover that the road goes by way of Ipswich. Am I going to vote for a road that goes to Birmingham via Ipswich? I put it in such simplistic terms because the truth is that the doctrine of the mandate is a wearisome concept that cannot bind Members of Parliament from dutifully examining the detail of legislation and, if necessary, rejecting it. However, that is what is inscribed in the motion—the doctrine of the manifesto.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We have not yet heard from the new Leader of the House, but my understanding is that the job of the Committee will be to discover what it is thought that
10 May 2006 : Column 438
the conventions are and simply to offer that wisdom to both Houses of Parliament so that they can decide whether to keep them or change them. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not signed up to a convention that says that whatever the manifesto is, Parliament has to follow it, but surely an academic exercise cannot do too much harm.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I notice that his name sits on the list—he is the only representative of the Liberal Democrats on it. I will leap to the part of the Order Paper that is of substance. It names a number of Members to sit on the distinguished Joint Committee. I notice that there are seven Members from the Labour party, three from the Conservative party and one from the Liberal Democrats. That is no longer representative of the many passions and interests that this House, of necessity, as a representative body, must have in the construction of our constitution. Where are the disparate souls from Scotland, Wales or the other parties? It looks to the observer like a carve-up between the three principal parties.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, which have been to the fore in cleaning up the scandals that are happening in the far corridor, are not on the Committee at all.

Mr. Shepherd: I had hoped that I was not going to be the only one to speak in the debate. I hope that I have encouraged wider participation. The very fact that the motion was moved formally is an indication that it was expected that it would go through on the nod. However, I look to the Leader of the House, because I know of his concern. I am delighted to know that we have a man who is much respected in the House to make a case for the motion. We have a genuine Leader of the House of Commons and we should respect that. I certainly do and I wish him well in his great appointment. The Leader of the House was someone who represented not only the interests of the Government, but the interests of the House as a personality and an authority in its own right. I remember, as he will, John Biffen standing in the Chamber when guillotines were being proposed and saying, as the Leader of the House, that the routine guillotining of Bills would undoubtedly benefit the Government—and he was absolutely right. However, we have to remember that today’s Government may be tomorrow’s Opposition.

I hope that we will hear a little more about the thinking behind the motion. As it stands, we are examining the conventions against the background of a sudden lurch and rediscovered interest in reform of the House of Lords by the Prime Minister, no less, who ruled out an elected element. That is being discussed between the leaders of parties and not by any constitutional forum, as is the tradition of this House and other great constitutions.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend has just used the word “examining” the conventions. That word does not appear in the motion that was moved so briefly. Will he tell me whether he understands the word “codifying” to mean examining or to mean something more elaborate—perhaps institutionalising or institutionalising in a code that is binding? That is an important element of the proposal before us.

Next Section Index Home Page