[back to previous text]

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I am intrigued by that. What happened when the prisoners did—to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase—“cough up”? Were they then taken to court, and, if they were, what incentive was there for them to cough up? If they were not taken to court, on what legal basis were they not taken to court, having admitted to committing a crime?
Mr. Cawsey: They were certainly not taken to court—quite the reverse. I think they were encouraged to believe that their life in prison might be better if they did cough up. More to the point, the crimes were written off as solved crimes; victims were told they had been solved, and they were no longer on the books as unresolved. This is a common practice across the country; it is not just happening in my area.
Mr. Burns: Can the hon. Gentleman explain under what legal basis such people were not taken to court if they coughed up?
Mr. Cawsey: All those things are a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. It is not at all unusual for someone to be prosecuted for one crime, and lots of others to be taken into consideration. It does not necessarily change the sentence.
Irrespective of the mechanisms, the point is that it was a dishonest practice employed so that police forces could put out better figures on crime than was the reality. Do not tell me that once bosses are been elected, they are not going to start to bend in the wind under those pressures when elections are close, because they will.
Mrs. Dorries: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, if there were a directly elected police commissioner, residents would have the ability to choose the kind of policing that they wanted on their streets? Policing would be delivered in a much more diverse and locally required way. There would not be any need to go around getting prisoners to cough up for things they had not done, because such statistics would not be the basis of people’s votes when directly electing the chief commissioner. They would be voting on the basis of how safe their streets were, and how safe they felt, not on statistics.
Mr. Cawsey: Much as I like the hon. Lady, I think that is an extremely naïve view. It also implies that crime and disorder in a neighbourhood are all just about the police, which they most certainly are not. The way to get good crime reduction in an area is through partnerships, in which the police are only one partner. I agree in this regard: it is about what local people do in their neighbourhoods in conjunction with the people who actually deal with crime. The idea that only police deal with crime is nonsense. To blame the police for crime is like blaming an umbrella for the rain. They are only one of the partners in this.
Mrs. Dorries: I like the hon. Gentleman him very much, too. I grew up on a very rough council estate in Liverpool and I assure him that, at the end of almost every street in my estate, there was a blue and white police car. We did not dare to misbehave: if we did, we quite often got a belt in the bizzie. But they were ever-present and the high-level, visible policing on our streets acted as a deterrent that meant that we as kids owned the streets we played in, not the criminals. If we had somebody accountable, residents would have that power to reclaim the streets for themselves and their children, because they would be able to demand high-level, visible policing. It would make a huge difference.
Mr. Cawsey: The hon. Lady should, if she can access the records, look at the number of calls to the police for service in the days when she was a young girl, compared with the situation now, when she is a mature lady. I think she will see that there has been a significant change, and it is those sorts of demands on police which have led to changes in the way they do their jobs. I do not disagree with her about accountability, but am simply saying that if the top man is elected personally, the grubby electoral process will have its effect. We will see the sorts of practices that brave chief constables like Tony Leonard kicked out of the system. When Humberside’s figures came out, they were right down at the bottom, because they stopped counting all the crimes they previously wrote off. He was castigated for that, but he was the one who was doing it honestly. Do we really want to return to a time when all the incentives were perverse?
I once had the great honour of going out in America with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and meeting lots of police officers there. They have elected chiefs of police there. When we spoke to police officers at a lower rank than commissioner, I can say that they all, to a person, said, “Why do we have to be involved in a system in which if we want to go higher than lieutenant”—I think it is lieutenant in America—“we have to become politicians? That is wrong; we are professionals who do a professional job, and it is not for us to enter the world of politics. That is for politicians. We should do our job professionally and under the accountability of politicians, but not as politicians.”
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman is clear that the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition is not for the election of a sworn officer or of a chief constable—[Interruption.] If he can contain himself, in his sedentary position, I will explain. Some Back Benchers and Opposition Members have said that that should be the case, following the pure American model, but that is not official Conservative party policy. Our view is that there should be a lay commissioner who is not a sworn officer. We are not in the business of electing sworn officers. I wanted to make that clear, and I would be grateful if he acknowledged that he is clear on that.
Mr. Cawsey: I was responding to the hon. Lady’s comments, not those of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, although I think that some of those issues are still relevant.
I hope that the Committee will bear it in mind that it is easy to get sucked down the route of greater accountability and more elected posts, but that the police provide an important service to all our communities and what they do deserves all our support. We need to find ways of making them accountable without having the perverse incentives that end up giving us dishonest figures. Such figures might make us feel better, but the reality on the streets would be much worse.
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bayley? It is the first time that you have chaired the Committee’s formal proceedings, and I am sure that we all look forward to serving under you.
The debate has been interesting and I must say to all who have taken part, including Opposition Members and my hon. Friends, that it has been good and brought several relevant issues to the fore. There is no one on this Committee, in this Parliament or outside, who is not reflecting on what we need to do to improve the accountability of police officers and on how to ensure that the public have an effective and informed voice in trying to influence how the police operate. The police are also reflecting on that. If one goes to different police forces, one will see that they are trying all sorts of different ways of involving the public, through face-to-face meetings, more leaflets, the internet, neighbourhood policing and mobile police stations. They have longer opening hours at police offices, make greater use of civilians and go into schools. All those things are going on as the police strive to give to policing the public face that people want, and try to ensure that people feel that there is a proper response when they contact the police.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds challenged me on an issue on which there is real disagreement, but he knows that there are difficulties with all the various models. One reason why he knows that is because his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bromsgrove has said that she sees why the Government are acting with caution, and that she is worried about some issues in respect of her Front Bench. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire showed a much more robust and dynamic desire and passion for directly elected commissioners. That is why the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds had to intervene to clarify that that is not official Conservative policy, which is for a lay commissioner, albeit elected, and for the abolition of police authorities. Conservative policy is not for an elected police chief who would have operational control, whereas the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire appeared to be going down that route.
Mrs. Dorries indicated assent.
Mr. Coaker: The hon. Lady is nodding, so that is clearly what she wants. I have problems with the idea of an elected lay commissioner, so I think that the idea of having an elected police chief would be fraught with difficulty in this country, as do her Front-Bench colleagues. That is why her colleague was quick to intervene.
Mr. Ruffley: To be clear, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising a Bank-Bench Member, from any part of the House, for expressing interesting views. Labour Back-Bench Members, too, might legitimately back the New Local Government Network and Local Government Association proposition. It has not been mentioned today, but is a valid take on enhanced accountability: it would match basic command unit areas with second-tier local district and borough councils and allow elected councillors to hire and fire BCU commanders. That is another model of which I urge him to take account. It is yet another contribution to a very wide-ranging and variegated debate.
Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman is right to put that on the record. A variety of views are held across Parliament and within parties. However, is that not a good reason for the Government to take stock and consider the way forward, rather than rush headlong towards the direct election of crime and policing representatives, which we originally proposed? Given the difference of views and the fact that no consensus exists across the political spectrum, is not the mature and responsible course not to continue to charge towards a road crash, but to consider ways of improving accountability and to take stock and reflect more calmly and rationally on how to take the debate forward? We withdrew the proposals in the Bill so that we can do that.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Following on from that point and to some extent a discussion this morning, will my hon. Friend describe, so that I can tell my constituents, what it would be like to have a BNP chief constable, lay commissioner, or whatever? We should bear in mind that Nick Griffin said on “Newsnight” recently:
“You can’t possibly separate the hard drugs trade from the question of Islam and particularly Pakistani immigration”.
Will my hon. Friend describe the effect of such thoughts and background on policing policy in the west midlands? It would be horrendous.
Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend is right to point out the danger of such a person becoming either a lay commissioner or a more directly involved commissioner responsible for an entire police force. Nobody wants a BNP candidate elected to office. I do not want to negate the serious point being made, but we are talking about providing the opportunity for BNP candidates to be elected to such positions. We can all recognise the danger of that. As law makers and legislators, we have a responsibility to decide whether to take that into account when developing laws. One can only begin to imagine the consequences, not only for the various communities in the west midlands, where my hon. Friend’s constituency is situated, but for London and all the other areas of the country. It would be catastrophic.
Mrs. Dorries: For the record, my Front-Bench colleagues were well aware of my views. However, I support their position on lay commissioners. Nobody wants to see a BNP commissioner or even a councillor, but, in effect, the Minister is saying that we cannot trust the people to vote.
Mr. Coaker: That is where we start to get into difficulty. The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point about trusting the electorate, but we have to be extremely careful when we are talking about the police. Let me show how careful we have to be.
Conservative Front Benchers are concerned about the problem, so they have come up with proposals to overcome it. Suppose an extremist is elected, or somebody who wants to ban road humps—every one of us could think not only of extreme politicians but particular issues. Members can imagine what would happen if debate on such an issue happened to coincide with the election of a police chief. I do not know what the question is in Bedfordshire—perhaps it is to ban farm animals walking down the road. In Durham, it could be to ban lap dancing, and so on. At a particular time, someone could get elected on that single issue. The more extreme case involves the BNP. That is a real issue, and those who want a single elected person must decide what to do about.
4.30 pm
The Tory Front-Bench proposal—the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds may say more about it—is reasonable, but it demonstrates that there is a problem. Their position is that the election would be rerun if a BNP candidate, or someone who says no to lap dancing in Durham, or anybody who is not regarded as acceptable were elected. I take the point about democracy, but there are consequences that have to be thought through.
This is a serious debate, and I am not trying to score points. The Government have taken a hit, but it was the right thing to do. We have withdrawn from direct elections for crime and policing representatives because we need to proceed with caution. Others who continue to propose direct elections in whatever form are wrestling with the same problems. If they were in Government, I believe that they would step back and reflect on how to deal with those problems.
Mr. Ruffley: I do not wish to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but on a point of clarification, my predecessor in this post, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), indicated that we would consult on a power of recall, of the sort that is found in California, as a possible check and balance. There would not be an automatic recall if a left-wing or right-wing extremist were elected. The power of recall would operate as it does in the United States, particularly in California: if a certain percentage of those who voted at the previous election petitioned for a rerun of the election—a recall election—that would happen. Certain triggers are required before a rerun could happen. I hope that that is of assistance to the Committee when considering the Minister’s comments.
Mr. Coaker: Of course that is of assistance to the Committee, but it also demonstrates the point that I am trying to make. Others who are thinking about models for taking the proposal forward are concerned about some of the dangers that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove raised. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asks, “Don’t you trust the electorate?” but people from every political party and in every area of the country are concerned about the matter and are trying to find a balance—to square the circle. If there are direct elections and somebody is elected who is unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination—I prefaced my remarks by saying that nobody wants a BNP candidate to be elected—what would we actually do about it?
To be fair to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, he recognises the problem and is trying to find a way to deal with it. Because we are in government, we do not think it acceptable, when we are putting a Bill through Parliament, to say that we are wrestling with the issues to see whether we can produce a reasonable set of proposals. We were concerned that virtually every authority, council and police force in this country opposed what we said we would do. In government, one has to make a choice. The hon. Member for Chesterfield rightly said that we have to show leadership. I agree with that, but sometimes we have to show leadership by saying that perhaps we ought to think again.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes the police have to police to protect minority interests? That could pose a real difficulty if somebody has to answer in an election that is just around the corner. I am thinking of the policing of some of the early fascist marches in Birmingham and around the black country. Someone who had to stand for popular election later might not have taken the position that the police did then. They were absolutely right to take that position and have now got public opinion with them.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 4 February 2009