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The Bill widens the sources of information that the Home Secretary can consider in deciding whether to exercise his powers. At present, intervention can only be triggered by an adverse report from HMIC, but there might well be other relevant sources of
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information such as the findings of a public inquiry—the most germane recent case in that respect being the Bichard inquiry.

Secondly, the Bill streamlines the intervention process. In all but the most exceptional cases, statutory intervention will be considered at the point when all other means of collaboration and support have been attempted, but performance has failed to improve. In such circumstances, it may be that it is taking too long to show an acceptable level of performance improvement; that the force in question simply does not have the capability itself to address its problems; or, in the most extreme and unusual cases, that it refuses to co-operate to remedy its failings. In these circumstances, it is only right that we be able to act decisively and swiftly to address problems that are failing the communities whom the force and the police authority serve.

It is interesting to note that the debate on intervention powers has moved on from that of five years ago. There seems to be more of an acceptance that the Home Secretary should have the powers to take action where the circumstances necessitate, and we have debated instead the right safeguards and the most appropriate path for their use. We recognise the strong feelings expressed about the changes, which would allow the Secretary of State—on some occasions—to direct a chief constable on performance matters, and not require him to route such direction through the police authority first. That is an entirely fair point.

The provisions were by no means developed to shift the balance of power, and it has always been our intention that the usual route for intervention be directed through the police authority. The ability to direct the chief officer had been developed in the light of experience, which shows that there could be occasions when a police authority might not feel able—or, indeed, be able—to take the necessary steps. It was in such circumstances that we proposed direct intervention with the force, to enable us to get to the heart of the problem quickly and to take the necessary remedial action. We listened to the concerns raised in debates about this issue, and our amendments restore the position under the Police Reform Act 2002, which routes the intervention power through the police authority on all occasions. The amendments recognise that the police authority is primarily charged with holding the chief constable of a force to account.

The second main concern has focused on what we feel is a misrepresentation of the intention behind these powers—namely, that the Secretary of State could use them on a whim or for trivial purposes, which he clearly would not. We have made it clear throughout that they are intended to be used only where serious and persistent performance concerns have arisen and other attempts to address them have failed. However, to provide further reassurance we are introducing an amendment that requires the Secretary of State to consult the inspectorate of constabulary when he proposes to use these powers and imposes a duty to publish the inspectorate’s opinion on the evidence leading to the proposed course of action.

The intention is to ensure that the inspectorate’s professional and independent advice is available to the Secretary of State on whether the use of the powers is, in its opinion, the right course of action. That should
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provide confidence that the inspectorate’s opinion will remain in view when deciding whether to invoke the powers. The Government agreed on Report in the other place that it is right that this safeguard also be extended to include police authorities, and our amendments make such provision accordingly. So our amendments are intended to provide the Government with effective but proportionate intervention powers. We have listened to the concerns expressed about how those powers might be interpreted or used, and we have responded accordingly with some specific safeguards.

These amendments need to be seen in the context of a series of Government amendments tabled in the other place that rightly reflected the concerns expressed there, and by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and others over the summer. We have sought to listen and to get this right, so it is almost with regret that I ask the House to reject amendment No. 1. It is important that the Home Secretary retain this reserve power, regardless of what party and Government he represents. I believe that we have moved sufficiently to deal with the concerns expressed about the extent of the Home Secretary’s intervention powers. Routing the process through the inspectorate and taking full account of the police authority, in the way outlined in our amendments, is the way forward and addresses those concerns. I therefore ask the House to accept our amendments and to reject the Lords amendments.

7.15 pm

I cannot deal fully now with the question that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) asked earlier. Regarding the powers that have been in place since 2002, the answer to his question is none. As yet, intervention of that sort has not been required. But that is not to say that the police standards unit, as was—the Home Office changes its name all the time; I cannot remember what it is called now—has not engaged with constabularies in need of assistance in a largely informal, supportive and professional way to try to turn them round. The baseline assessments published by HMIC and the Home Office today show that such engagement does work. In the past couple of years, some eight forces have been engaged in such a fashion. As of today, the figure is only three, and their baseline assessments show a significant improvement compared with last year and that everything is moving in the right direction. I do not have to hand the figures on the use of the powers since 1994, about which the hon. Member for Broxbourne also asked. If I do not get some inspiration by the time the debate finishes, I shall write to him.

I therefore ask the House as humbly as I can to reject amendments Nos. 1 and 71, and to accept the words in lieu.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of why the Government disagree with Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 71, but I want to explain why we believe that the Lords are correct in seeking to amend the Bill in this way.

On amendment No. 1 and mergers, the Government are asking us to agree to the retention of a power to enforce the merger of police forces, against the wishes of police authorities, to drive through compulsory
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mergers. Let us examine the manner in which the Government attempted to use that power in the past year, because doing so will inform the House as to whether it should continue to be happy that the power remain available to the Government.

The uncomfortable fact for the Government is that they tried to drive through the biggest reorganisation of the police for 40 years with minimal debate and consultation. They dismissed the concerns of police authorities, many chief constables and councillors, and were frankly contemptuous of opinion in this House. They did their level best to avoid parliamentary debate, and when we finally secured a debate just before Christmas, it was only on a motion for the Adjournment.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): My hon. Friend will know that as recently as today, the Government published a league table. Staffordshire came right at the top with 18 points—the Associated Press worked out the points system for what is virtually a league table—and West Midlands had only 12 points. Does that not demonstrate that if the Government’s original plan to merge Staffordshire with the West Midlands police had happened, Staffordshire’s standards would have been lowered to those of the West Midlands?

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, which he makes very well. He is rightly proud of his local police force. Had that merger been enforced, it would have been against the will of one of the major police forces concerned, which felt very strongly that such a merger would have resulted in its being subsumed into the larger force, and in a loss of accountability. People in rural areas in particular felt very unhappy about the creation of a West Midlands super-force, which, ultimately, is one reason why the proposal fell. But the absence—

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman mid-flow, but I just want to make clear two points. First and importantly, Staffordshire was not the force resisting merger with the West Midlands. Secondly, I need to correct the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant): we did not publish any such league table. Indeed, I have spent all day on TV and radio saying that league tables are utterly invidious and meaningless in this regard.

Nick Herbert: The Minister knows that he has published performance assessments. People are entitled to compare different forces’ performance. He is right about Staffordshire—the force did not object to the merger. Indeed, the former chief constable of Staffordshire was the Minister’s chief adviser on amalgamations. However, that does not reflect the view of the people of Staffordshire, for whom my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) spoke. They greatly opposed the merger, as every opinion poll showed and the Minister knows. Local people opposed amalgamations. Not a single police force area showed a majority of the public—the people who experience the policing—in favour of the mergers.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend is right. The Minister knows that Staffordshire Labour Members were also greatly concerned about the merger, just as we were worried about the merger of the Staffordshire ambulance service with that of the west midlands.

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Nick Herbert: It is generally true that the public have been left behind in the reorganisation of public services—the police are not alone in being reorganised. The public have not been properly consulted about health service and police changes. We tried to draw that major point to the Government’s attention when the proposals were considered.

Before the interventions, I was considering the absence of parliamentary debate. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members always initiated discussion and the Government tried to avoid parliamentary debate. That was one of the worst aspects of their proposals for mergers. They drove the process to an absurdly tight timetable, giving police authorities only three months to prepare their cases before Christmas, and ignored the offer that we made in February to allow a year for proper consultation. They gravely damaged the perceived independence of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, and many Conservative Members fear that the inspectorate’s reputation was unnecessarily undermined by the Government’s pressing for early publication of an inadequate report. The Government proceeded regardless of the financial implications, and before they had secured adequate financing from the Treasury to make even the first voluntary merger, between Cumbria and Lancashire, work.

As the Home Office director general of crime, policing and counter-terrorism said last month, the process was

That is a masterpiece of official understatement. What did the Government achieve? They secured a delay in voluntary co-operation, which we and the Association of Police Authorities had urged, to strengthen protective services, and a bill of more than £10 million that police authorities incurred in preparation for amalgamation. The Government have had to pay compensation for that—money that will come from the police budget.

The expensive waste of police time has made us wary of potential abuse of the power to force mergers in future. The Minister said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) had originally proposed that power, but I could as easily have quoted the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who opposed it and warned that forcing police mergers without proper process would be

We cannot support the retention of that power unless the Government reassure the House that it will be exercised properly.

I therefore request five key reassurances. If the Minister can provide them, we will feel more comfortable about allowing the power to remain the Bill. First, we need to be confident that other options for improving protective services or otherwise enhancing force co-operation have been exhausted before the Government resort to amalgamation. The Minister has told the press that the power will be used as “absolutely” the “last resort”. Similarly, Baroness Scotland said that it would be used only as a “last resort” and a “back-stop”. It would be helpful if the Minister repeated that assurance in those words today.

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Secondly, a proper case must be made for amalgamations with robust, costed and preferably independent evaluation of the options. Many of us believed that the O’Connor report—the report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—on which the Government relied to pursue amalgamations fulfilled none of those criteria.

Thirdly, adequate public consultation must take place, and not only during the statutory period of four months’ consultation once the Home Secretary has decided to press ahead with a force merger. There must be proper consultation with local people, police authorities, police forces and hon. Members before then.

Fourthly, the Minister mentioned due parliamentary scrutiny, which I welcome. However, there must be proper parliamentary consultation—not simply a short debate on any order that is laid, but proper debate on all the issues relevant to a compulsory merger, which, as Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary conceded in the report, has constitutional significance.

Fifthly, we must have an assurance that the financial implications have been tackled, not least precept equalisation, which effectively sank the merger between Cumbria and Lancashire.

I hope that the Minister accepts that those requirements are reasonable. Let me repeat them, because I am serious about our offer. First, we must be confident that all the options for improving services have been exhausted and that the power will be used as a last resort. Secondly, a proper case for amalgamation must be made. Thirdly, there should be genuine public consultation. Fourthly, proper parliamentary consultation and scrutiny must take place. Fifthly, we need an assurance about the financial implications.

We previously sought a local referendum on force mergers and an independent cost-benefit analysis of the proposals. We do not request those checks today. We simply ask the Government to assure us that if force mergers become necessary—in the main, Conservative Members hope that they do not—they will conduct the process properly and thoroughly. I hope that the Minister can give us the reassurances that we seek about the process. If so, we will not try to oppose him when he asks the House to retain the power for force mergers as a last resort. We dislike the power, but the reassurances will give us the knowledge that the House and, importantly, the other place, can hold the Government to them should we and they consider and vote on a proposed merger in future.

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that there should be a debate on outcomes rather than structures. We will support him in encouraging voluntary co-operation between forces to strengthen protective services. We accept that the gap needs to be closed and that the issue is important. We urge police authorities to be serious and to take forward as robustly as possible the proposals to make savings, which they can reinvest in protective services. Such savings should be achievable through sharing, for example, back-office functions. We support the Government on that.

Despite the concessions that I acknowledge that the Minister has made, we are not happy about the new power that the Government seek to direct police forces and intervene in their performance. Lords amendment
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No. 71 deals with that. The Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers perceived the power as a major shift in the tripartite balance between chief constables, police authorities and the Home Secretary, and an unwelcome step towards the accrual of central power. I acknowledge that the Government amendments would, to some extent, redress the balance, but they are not adequate to allay our concerns.

The Home Secretary can currently intervene only in the case of a negative report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. However, under the proposals the Home Secretary could intervene without such a report. The intervention could be based on his or her opinion, and the measure contains no definition of failure to discharge any of a police force’s or authority’s functions effectively. Indeed, the Government could intervene pre-emptively, so that the Secretary of State could divine that forces or authorities were about to under-perform.

7.30 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his clear explanation of these issues. Does he think that the Home Office would have the power to intervene if local people were demanding from their police force a set of priorities to deal with their own local circumstances that was different from the national priorities that were being imposed? Such national priorities are now the driver of much of Britain’s policing.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The powers are not circumscribed at all. It is not clear how they could be used, and there appears to be no limit on their use. The judgment as to whether a police force or authority is failing is largely a judgment for the Home Secretary, and there could indeed be a conflict between the way in which a police force was responding to local demands and the Home Secretary’s desire for some other aspect of policing. I will return to that point in a moment.

During the passage of the Bill, Ministers have claimed that these powers of intervention will be used only as a last resort. That explanation appeared in the notes that accompanied the publication of the original Bill. However, Ministers have consistently refused to put the expression “last resort”—or a similar check—into the Bill. It was in the explanatory notes, but it has never been in the Bill. The power that the Government are now seeking to take is not circumscribed; it is entirely open-ended.

The Minister said that he had made a concession to the Association of Police Authorities and to ACPO, and indeed he has. We need to examine the extent of that concession, however, and ask whether it really addresses the concern about the centralisation of power. Part of the concession is that the Government can now make a direction only through a police authority. But what that means is that it will be the police authority that is directed, rather than the force. If the police authority is so directed, it is not clear that it will have the discretion to do anything other than obey the direction. That change might preserve the amour propre of the Association of Police Authorities,
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but if authorities have to comply with a direction, what difference will the change actually make?

The Minister said that the Secretary of State would now have to consult the inspectorate of constabulary about an intervention, but the Bill does not use the word “consult”. It simply says that the Secretary of State has to inform the inspectorate, and that the inspectorate can then make its own views known. I am not sure that that amounts to consultation. It certainly does not resemble the existing power that the inspectorate has to initiate the intervention of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is now taking that power to himself.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman is not quite right. We would be obliged under the amendment to inform the inspectorate of the grounds of any intervention. It would then be obliged to put in writing to us any concerns that it had about the matter, and we would be obliged fully to publish the result of the inspectorate’s deliberations. That sounds an awful lot like consultation to me.

Nick Herbert: That might pass for consultation in the Government, but I do not think that it is meaningful consultation at all. The Government would simply inform the inspectorate of what they intended to do, and allow the inspectorate to publish its views. That is not the same as consultation, and it is certainly a major shift from the present situation, in which the request for an intervention comes from the inspectorate. That power is effectively being taken away from the inspectorate and accrued by the Secretary of State.

It is not clear why the Government are seeking this power. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have never been given an explanation of what the Government are seeking to direct. When will they want to intervene? It has been difficult for us to accept this open-ended power when we have no understanding of the circumstances in which it might be used. The Minister in the other place, Baroness Scotland, made an interesting concession, saying:

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