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Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 4th February 2011|
Publications on the internet
Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
Police Reform and Social
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
James Rhys, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Good afternoon, Mr Chope. In relation to the point made this morning by the hon. Member for Gedling about the need for police and crime panels to engage with young people and his specific proposal that some members of panels should be under the age of 18, I was saying that such a formal requirement was not the right approach to take, not least because it is the police and crime commissioner who should principal ensure engagement with young people, but we need to think about how best that could be achieved. It is not necessary for the legislation to be prescriptive, but it is helpful to debate the matter. It is something that all elected police and crime commissioners will want to attend to, not least because of violent crime and other issues of concern to young people. I hope that, on reflection, he will not press his amendments to a Division.
On the wider geographical and political balance raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West, I have said that I shall reflect on that. There are significant difficulties in achieving overall political balance without creating complexity, but I am certainly willing to consider such proposals.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): Good afternoon, Mr Chope, and members of the Committee. I shall not press the amendments to a Division. What the Minister said about amendment 504, and the need to consult and involve young people is on the record. We now need to reflect on how to deliver our common objective.
Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): I absolutely agree with the Minister that the key principle is that all areas within the commissioner’s scope need to be represented, and I have been careful not to challenge that principle through the amendments. Of course, each local authority will choose whom they send to the panel, but that is likely to make paragraphs 6 and 7 difficult to achieve, which is why I proposed a small extra capacity. I am happy that the Minister has agreed to take away that proposal and think about it. The hon. Member for Gedling said his amendments were probing amendments, although I realise that I could press them to a Division. [ Interruption. ] However, I choose not to do so, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment centres once again on paragraphs 6 and 7, which deal with the political and geographical make-up of a police and crime panel. It would include in the Bill our statutory responsibility to ensure that police and crime panels are politically and geographically representative as far as is reasonable and practicable. At the moment, all parts of a policing area are represented as far as possible, but the schedule does not set out which body or bodies are responsible for ensuring the balance. Under the amendment, the participating local authorities would have a duty to ensure that, as a whole, the panel is balanced. It would force them to come together and arrange details of membership rather than just sticking a random cabinet member on the panel. It is not prescriptive about the process that should be gone through to meet the requirements of paragraphs 6 and
Vernon Coaker: The hon. Member for Edinburgh West is right that we touched on this issue in earlier debates, but it is relevant to paragraphs 6 and 7, as he said. The Minister said that he would reflect on these issues, which are important. If I might tease the Minister, the proposals once again reflect the lack of clarity about some aspects of the panel’s composition and functions. I appreciate that this is a difficult conundrum for the Minister, but there is a need for flexibility somewhere along the line so that we can deliver what paragraphs 6 and 7 say. If we do not get those two aspects right, the consequences will be quite significant.
Nick Herbert: We recognise the importance of ensuring that members of the police and crime panel are geographically and politically representative of the area. We also recognise that the duty to ensure that appointments to the panel are representative must lie with the responsible authorities. That is why all participating authorities will be required under paragraph 19 to agree to the making of panel arrangements, including arrangements to secure a geographical and political balance of members on a panel. That will ensure that all local authorities in the area are represented on the panel and that local authority members are representative of the area’s geographical and political make-up. It therefore follows that the amendment does not really add anything to the Bill. For those reasons, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West will withdraw it.
As to the additional point made by the hon. Member for Gedling, I do not accept the assertion that there is no clarity in the Bill. There is absolute clarity about how police and crime panels are to be constituted. The fundamental principle is one member per representative authority, except for those authorities that are too small, where a number is made up, and two independents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West, however, raises the wider issue of whether it is desirable for a panel to achieve some kind of overall political balance in its membership, even recognising that each authority should be entitled to nominate a member. That is a real and important issue for us to discuss, and I have said that I am happy to go away and think about it. However, it is a new issue, and it is necessary to point out that it gives rise to difficulties, because it would be a question of determining which authorities were to send additional representatives and whether that would breach the principle that they are meant to send one each to reflect the political balance. How would a council feel if it sent two, but one had to be from an opposition party?
Those are the sorts of issues that I need to reflect on, and we can discuss them at a later stage if necessary. They go to the big question of whether it is proper or desirable for the panel as a whole to represent some kind of political balance in a particular police force area. They might, therefore, go to issues of proportionality in voting. However, I am concerned about the potential breach of the principle that each authority nominates one member.
As the hon. Member for Gedling himself said, these are not straightforward issues. I want to draw a distinction between what I am seeking to respond to here—the wider points that have been raised—and the fact that the Bill is absolutely clear.
Mike Crockart: I accept the Minister’s argument, but the issues arise in the Bill for panels with fewer than 10 participating authorities. There is already capacity to make up geographical or political balance, so those questions will still come up in such circumstances. We are trying to lessen the impact, especially when there are larger numbers of participating authorities. The issue is difficult, but I accept that the Minister will take it away and have another look. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Vernon Coaker: This is a probing amendment. In September 2010, 9.5% of all police authority members were from a minority ethnic group and, according to the figures, a little more than 30% were women. The diversity of some police authorities is one of their strengths. It is not as good as it should be, but it is certainly better than in other bodies that we could mention. Will the Minister put on the record the importance of that diversity, which I know he appreciates? Whether through guidance, regulation or whatever, as far as is practicable, we should encourage diversity in its broadest sense in the membership of police and crime panels.
Nick Herbert: I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, and I share his concern and interest. It is certainly true that the independent members of police authorities often bring to those authorities, particularly in areas where it does not otherwise occur through the representation provided by councillor members, the ability to represent, for instance, black and minority ethnic communities. That is one of the advantages offered by independent members, and it is one reasons why, in considering the composition of panels, I felt it important to continue to provide a role for them. Having two independent members provides the opportunity to ensure that such issues can be taken
I would not want to include such amendments in the Bill, but I note what the hon. Gentleman said about guidance. It will be important to ensure that the panel addresses the issue if, for instance, it finds that it lacks sufficiently broad representation through council nominations. Of course, it is not only the panel that can take action; the police and crime commissioner can make whatever appointments he or she wants.
Such issues of diversity, in particular in certain force areas, were discussed yesterday in a Delegated Legislation Committee in the context of changes to the codes under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. There was general agreement that the issues are important for community confidence for the way in which policing is conducted. The police and crime commissioner might well want to appoint advisers or an advisory group. That is completely open to them. There is nothing to stop them appointing advisers on the issues to ensure that they address the question of diversity. It does not have to come from the panel, whose job is to scrutinise the commissioner.
I find myself in a place where I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling about the importance of the matter, but I do not think that it is right to include it in the Bill. I do not think that that was what he was seeking in his amendment, which is a probing amendment, so I hope that he will be able to withdraw it.
Vernon Coaker: That was helpful. I do not think that it would be helpful either to put the provision in the Bill, and the fact that the Minister said that we can see whether it is appropriate to address the matter in guidance is helpful. Presumably, the advisers that the Minister has mentioned will be politically restricted posts. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment goes back to the membership of police and crime panels, focusing on co-opted members and asking whether they should be voting members. While I am absolutely certain that co-opted members who serve on police authorities are invaluable and bring great experience and relevant knowledge, the central tenet of the Bill is to advance the democratic accountability of policing decisions and introduce a police and crime commissioner with a mandate from a vast number of people to be involved in the strategic leading of those decisions. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive then to have a police and crime panel that could have co-opted voting members who do not have democratic accountability.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I can understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. However, with reference to the previous debate, if the co-opted members were there to represent, say, black and minority ethnic communities because they are not represented in any other way, to have them there and then deprive them of the right to vote is surely a touch absurd.
Mike Crockart: I draw the line there. There may well be co-opted members who would be good proponents for the views of black and minority ethnic groups. However, as young people are the major victims of crime, they should be represented as well. With only two co-opted members, where do we draw the line as to the most important area to be represented? Should we be trying to ensure that we have relevant experience or previous knowledge in criminal justice? Should we look for someone who could give technical advice to the police and crime panel? It is not just young people who are victims of crime. What about victims’ groups? By the time you have a large number who could be co-opted, you will have a difficult decision as to who to co-opt as a voting member and who to co-opt as a non-voting member. That is one option for working round the problem.
The point that I am trying to make is that there is relevant knowledge and experience out there that can be brought in. There may be an argument for raising the number of co-opted members; perhaps two is not enough. However, at its core, the Bill is about advancing the democratic accountability of policing decisions. If one individual member has the same input in the scrutiny of policing decisions made by the commissioner, and if their vote has a value equal to that of someone who is a representative of quite a large unitary authority representing hundreds of thousands—perhaps up to 1 million—voters, there is a definite imbalance. That is why I have raised the matter. What are we looking to advance? Is it democratic accountability or is it the relevant experience on the panel? I certainly would fall on the side of democratic accountability.
Vernon Coaker: My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak made exactly the point that I was going to make. With a blanket ban, we might exclude people whom we would not wish to exclude from taking part and voting. From that point of view, it would be difficult.
I want the Minister to further clarify the provisions in the Bill. In the arrangements that an individual panel makes for itself, can the individual panel decide that its co-opted members should not be able to vote? In other words, is it a blanket across-the-country thing or could the individual police and crime panel make that decision, and is that in the Bill? Does that therefore make the amendment irrelevant, because the individual PCP could do that if it wished to do so, but if it was worried about the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, it could decide not to do that. I have doubts about a blanket ban on voting, full stop. A blanket ban would not be appropriate.
So it is clear that the two co-opted or independent members could vote. I am always particularly pleased to be outflanked by my hon. Friends with democratic arguments on how we should strengthen the Bill. I am genuinely glad to have that bulwark. That was the case when we were discussing the operational independence of chief constables, when my hon. Friends were saying, “Be careful not to take that argument too far. Accountability is important.”
For the very reasons set out by the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that we would want to return to the position that we have at the moment with a significant number of independent members. It is clear that a large majority of members will be elected councillors—a minimum of 10. Therefore, the balance of decision making will lie in the hands of elected members. However, there are circumstances in which the independents can bring something to the deliberations that may not be available by the nomination of a councillor by the authority. We have already discussed the potential to address diversity issues, although the Bill is clear. Paragraph 11 of schedule 6 states:
“In co-opting members, the panel must secure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, the members of the panel have, between them, the skills, knowledge and experience necessary for the police and crime panel to discharge its functions effectively.”
Back in 1964, when police authorities were established by the Police Act 1964, I was just one year old. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase was not even a thought in his mother’s eye, still less a gleam. There were no independent members on the police authorities until they were added in 1994. I am clear that having two independent members does mean, by definition, that they have no democratic mandate whatever. However, they will be co-opted by the panel itself—by the councillors. They will not be appointed by the Secretary of State, so there is a localist aspect to this. There are only two of them and the principal democratic mandate, of course, rests with the police and crime commissioner. For that reason I am comfortable with the balance of the arrangements that we have set up. It is right to give a place for independents. Actually I think that, if the Government had not done so, we would have been attacked for airbrushing independents out of police and crime panels. On that basis, I hope that I may persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West to agree with me and withdraw the amendment.
Mike Crockart: Could this be an ambush? I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister said, but I still think that, although there is a restriction to two members, that is still a significant proportion of a police and crime panel of 12 members. In fact, it comes to 16%. I return to the central argument that each one of those independent members would have a vote of the same value—
Nick Herbert: I am sorry, I did not address the substance of my hon. Friend’s point, which was not to exclude independent members at all, but to say that they should not have an equal voting right. Would he agree that there is a strong case for saying that if they are to be on the panel they would be second-class members without a voting right? Does he at least understand why, therefore, the Government feel that they should have it?
Vernon Coaker: I just want to deal with a couple of points that arose earlier, for clarity, and to aid my understanding of the Bill, and I hope other people’s. As to the panel arrangements for the appointment of members, including independent members, is it for the panel itself to make those arrangements? I think that is the case. If it is, will the Minister explain the purpose of paragraph 21 on the “Application of other legislation”, which talks about other things that the Secretary of State “may, by regulations” do?
All I am trying to understand is whether paragraph 21 applies to the local panel arrangements. My reading of the provisions is that it is for the panel to make its own arrangements, but under paragraph 21 the Secretary of State can make regulations about all sorts of different things. I just want clarity from the Minister as to whether I have misread the Bill.
On a broader point, I agree about the importance of independents. There is an interesting debate, and I expect it will continue, about whether two is the right number. I do not want to dance on the head of a pin and say that it should be three or one and a half or anything ridiculous, but I agree that the change in 1994 to bring independents on to police authorities was important. They can bring variety, skills and experience to the authority that it did not have, and I think that it is a good thing to replicate that with police and crime panels.
The more substantive point, which the Minister needs to spend a few minutes explaining to the Committee, is the business of the elected mayors. That is the point that troubles me. Under paragraph 3(6) of the schedule, elected mayors will automatically be members of the police and crime panel. That is probably quite reasonable.
I was making this point earlier. Let us say we have an elected police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire —I will use that area as an example, because I know there is a proposal in the Localism Bill for more elected mayors there—and three or four elected mayors, perhaps for Bradford and Leeds, who are automatically members of the PCP. Presumably, when they stand for election, one of their big manifesto pledges will be on policing. The PCC can say, “I have a democratic mandate to police West Yorkshire in this way”, but the elected mayors on the PCP can say, “But I have a democratic mandate for Leeds and Bradford.” The hon. Member for Amber Valley and I were starting to have a little to and fro on that.
Which democratic mandate has greater legitimacy? I suspect that the Minister will have to say the PCC, because he is elected for the whole force area. I can imagine the response. There is significant potential for there to be a clash on this. I understand why the Minister wants elected mayors on the panel—that is perfectly reasonable—but who has greater democratic legitimacy for the policing of an area?
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept the point that this has been an issue in many fields of local and national government? For example, say, in Scotland, a Member of this Parliament was elected with a different mandate from that of the local MSP. That would create the same conflict, as would be the case if a Member of Parliament was elected on a different mandate from a police commissioner. Those tensions will always be around where there are different tiers. Council elections are coming up in May. Local councillors could stand on different policies from those on which MPs had been elected. The public will be clear on who has a mandate to do what at each level. I am not sure that this is a new confusion, or one where the public would feel bothered.
Vernon Coaker: Up to a point, the hon. Gentleman has a point, but we are discussing a specific function, not a generality. This is about one specific aspect of policy, perhaps with respect to policing, where somebody could say, “This is what I will do about policing,” and be put on a board that is responsible for policing, vis-à-vis someone who has been elected to deliver policing. The narrowness of focus is the issue. I accept that such a clash can occur if someone is elected in generality on an issue, but when the issue is more specific, the potential for a clash over who has the democratic mandate is significantly greater. All I am asking the Minister to tell us is how he sees that issue evolving with respect to police and crime panels. It is legitimate for us to ask in Committee how those PCPs will function.
Steve McCabe: I was just pondering the point raised by the hon. Member for Amber Valley. This occurs to me: if someone ran for mayor on an explicit ticket of challenging what the police commissioner was doing because it was not properly representing the area, and was elected, who would have the greater moral legitimacy?
Vernon Coaker: Those are the sorts of issue that will arise. Interestingly, on a localism agenda, the person with the more local mandate would be the elected mayor, because they would have been elected in a smaller, more identifiable, community, rather than the broader force area, which the police and crime commissioner is elected for. This democratic legitimacy argument is important. The case can be made that that will not be a problem, but I say to the Minister that, as the PCPs roll out, it will be quite a problem, in my view. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has raised one issue of how that might be a problem; it could be a very real one. I am interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the points I have made.
It occurs to me that a Member of the House of Commons will be excluded, but not a Member of the House of Lords. As I have mentioned, it would be perfectly possible for a Deputy in the Channel Islands to be on a police panel in Exeter, Weymouth or somewhere in that area, as it would be for a member of another police commissioner’s staff in a nearby force. That would certainly be the case in Warwickshire and the west midlands. If we think about what happens in Parliament these days with relatives or connected persons under the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority rules, why are people who may have a closely connected interest not excluded, while the specific people listed in paragraphs 9(a) to (g) are?
Nick Herbert: First, on the question asked by the hon. Member for Gedling about paragraph 21, the schedule will allow us to apply local government legislation to the panels—for instance, on local authority committees—but it cannot be used to make panel arrangements. For example, if there were rules about the publication of documents or on scrutiny, those could be applied to the way panels operate. That is the purpose of that enabling provision.
Vernon Coaker: That is a clear explanation, but given our earlier debate about ensuring geographical and political balance, how will the Minister make sure that that happens if the Secretary of State is not involved in panel arrangements relating to issues that he identified as problems when we discussed amendments including those tabled by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West?
Vernon Coaker: I am sorry to intervene again, because this is becoming technical. The Minister said in his opening remarks that paragraph 21 did not apply to panel arrangements, which will be a matter for the individual panel. If that is the case, there is no leverage to deliver solutions to the issues that were rightly identified earlier by members of the Committee. He is now saying that there is leverage in the schedule to deliver solutions. I do not understand where that is in the schedule, unless I have missed it.
Nick Herbert: No. I think we need to be clear about how those powers are made and the ambit of them, because they are powers that may be taken by the Secretary of State by regulation. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and I will provide clarification at an appropriate moment.
The wider point that the hon. Gentleman made was about elected mayors. I had addressed the issue when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government a couple of weeks ago, so he will be able to read the transcript of my oral evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley was absolutely right: the matter goes to the clarity of the function. It is absolutely clear that the elected police and crime commissioner will have the responsibility for holding the force to account, appointing the chief, and setting the budget and the plan. It is absolutely clear that those will be the responsibilities of that elected individual.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Localism Bill, which is being debated in the Committee Room next door, he will see that there is no proposed power for mayors to cut across that. It is important that there is no confusion about who has responsibility for such matters.
Of course, some have suggested that it would be desirable for a directly elected city mayor to take some responsibility for the governance of policing in their area—say, Birmingham. The difficulty is that that would mean twin accountability for part of the force. It could mean hollowing out the West Midlands force: the commander of the Birmingham unit within West Midlands police would answer in one direction, the rest of the force in another. That would be a recipe for confusion, so it is right to have clarity about the role and say that the elected police and crime commissioner will have responsibility for the force.
However, just as local authorities have a role in community safety, which is why we have sought to give them a role on the police and crime panel, so will city mayors. That is why we have said that city mayors should have a place on the police and crime panel. The electorate will need to be clear exactly what are the functions of a city mayor when they elect them. That never stops individuals going more widely than their specific mandate, and they may give views about things in their areas. Such people have significant influence, which they will be able to exercise through the police and crime panel, but the police and crime commissioner will have the direct mandate given to him by the people for the force.
Steve McCabe: My question is a quick one, just to ensure that I have understood the issue correctly. It is conceivable in a place such as the west midlands that by 2014-15 we could have three or four directly elected mayors as part of the seven authorities. Is the Minister expecting that they would all be on the police and crime panel?
I think I said to the Communities and Local Government Committee—I have certainly said this elsewhere, and would be happy to repeat it to that Committee—that in an ideal world, if we were starting again, we might redesign police forces around new mayoral boundaries. However, that would require us to start changing the boundaries of existing police forces. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Gedling is rolling his eyes because he knows what a row that would create.
Even trying to pursue the amalgamation of police forces, which the previous Government did and then abandoned, encountered massive opposition. It was my judgment that there was no desire to do it, nor was there any desire to create smaller police forces, which would have been the implication for the west midlands—the boundaries that the city mayors cover are much smaller than the area that the force covers. Given that they face significant challenges in having to reduce spending, and that we are changing wider governance, I do not think that that would be right.
We have clarity about the roles. There are, of course, examples of other countries around the world where there are elected individuals in the same area who have different mandates, which electorates understand. New York, for instance, has an elected district attorney, an elected mayor and an elected state governor, all of whom have differing roles that the public understand, but they have to work together. Equally, they are all significant figures who have influence in the many areas of policy on which they are required to work together. I hope that that explanation of the Government’s position is reasonable.
I shall try to provide clarity on paragraph 21 for the hon. Member for Gedling. The provision allows the Secretary of State to apply to the panel existing rules that apply only to local authority committees. It cannot be used to make specific provision on panel arrangements, which is for the panel to do, although the panel could be influenced through non-statutory guidance that the Secretary of State might offer. Does that give the hon. Gentleman the clarity that he seeks? If not, I may have to write to him.
Am I misunderstanding? Are the two references talking about different things? It seems as if they should be referring to the same thing and should have the same meaning in the Bill. Are we talking about offences with maximum terms greater than two years or with maximum terms greater than or equal to two years?
The question might seem technical, but the answer could change the meaning of the Bill substantially. If we look at offences with a maximum term of two years, so falling within one definition but not the other, they include assault with intent to resist arrest—
Equally, a number of offences, while carrying shorter terms generally, carry a maximum term of two years when they become racially or religiously aggravated. Common assault with those aggravations is an offence with a two-year maximum, as is racially or religiously aggravated harassment.
On top of that, some sexual offences carry a maximum term of imprisonment of two years, such as exposure or voyeurism. Again, should we leave a police and crime panel unable to suspend a police and crime commissioner who has been charged with such offences? A significant
However, a potential embarrassment would remain if a police and crime commissioner were charged with offences carrying a maximum term of six months. I am not entirely sure that we would want a PCC to continue in post if he had been charged with any of the offences that carry a maximum term of imprisonment of six months—vehicle taking without consent; disorderly behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress; threatening behaviour, where there is fear or provocation of violence, under the Public Order Act 1986; and, interestingly, assault on a police constable, which carries a six-month maximum term of imprisonment under section 89 of the Police Act 1996.
Imagine a scenario in which the PCC goes to meet the chief constable to discuss the draft police and crime plan. Things get a bit heated and out of hand, and the commissioner ends up assaulting the chief constable, and is charged with such an offence. As the Bill stands, the commissioner would be looking at a maximum term of imprisonment of six months. It would fall outwith the powers in the Bill for the police and crime panel to suspend the commissioner, so he would continue in post until such time as guilt was proven. Interestingly, once the charge is proven and sentence is given, the PCP can remove the commissioner under clause 67 if he is sentenced to only three months or more. That seems to point to the potential for suspension needing to be applied at a much lower level.
I leave it to the Minister to make clear the intent of the Bill; to say what level of maximum sentence should apply and whether he feels that we need to look at this issue again. Should we try to catch some of these other offences? Do we want the embarrassment of police and crime commissioners, whose main job is to oversee, scrutinise and take strategic decisions about the fight against criminal behaviour, remaining in post if it is possible that they have committed such offences themselves?
Vernon Coaker: I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh West. We tabled a similar amendment. Obviously we tabled amendment 311, which has been selected, but we also tabled amendment 310, which has not been selected because it is exactly the same as amendment 27, which the hon. Gentleman tabled.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Is not the fundamental issue here that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and we are referring to a suspension before conviction? We are not talking about disqualification, which we will discuss when we debate a later clause—I think that it is clause 67. We are talking here about someone who has not been convicted of an offence, and I am very comfortable with a period of two years. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we ought to assume someone is guilty before they are found guilty?
Vernon Coaker: No, I am not saying that, which is why the PCC would be suspended, not sacked. I guess that if someone is sacked on the basis that they have been charged with an offence, that would be pre-empting the decision of the court. However, I think that the point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is making is not that someone should be sacked but that they should be suspended, and not because they have been arrested for something. Clause 30 says that they should be suspended when they have been charged. If someone has been charged, the prosecuting authorities clearly think that there is enough evidence to take them to court and for the court to determine their guilt.
The hon. Member for Northampton North will know that there are certain standards that have to be met before those decisions are taken. So, I assume that the prosecuting authorities would believe that there was a reasonable prospect of conviction, that it was in the public interest to charge the individual and therefore that individual should be charged. In those circumstances, the individual should be suspended, pending the outcome of the process.
One must bear that in mind, as well as the fact that the police and crime commissioner is likely to be a high-profile individual who might be subject to spurious or malicious complaints. The test for charging is not the same as the test for convicting, and people can be charged with offences and very often acquitted. In my experience, it can take anything up to a year for them to be acquitted. So a police and crime commissioner could be obstructed and the process of scrutiny could be obstructed by a charge that results in acquittal many months later. I would be concerned about reducing the period to make it easier to suspend a commissioner. Does the shadow Minister not feel that it is in the wider interests of justice that penalties should not be applied until after conviction?
Vernon Coaker: If the hon. Gentleman feels that clause 30(3) is unfair and prejudges the outcome during the period of suspension, he can table an amendment to say that allowances and pay should continue to be afforded to the commissioner. Many people suspended from their posts continue to receive pay and so on, although I am not sure about allowances. If he feels that that is one aspect of the unfairness, he can table an amendment.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, the Bill sets the threshold at such a level that the charges that trigger suspension are for what the public see as serious offences. I do not think that the public would understand if somebody were not suspended after being charged with—if not arrested for—such an offence. They would find it bizarre, for example, that a police and crime commissioner could be charged with assaulting a police constable and not be suspended from his post. According to my information, that carries a maximum sentence not exceeding two years. People would find that difficult to understand.
The Chair: Before he intervenes, I hope that the hon. Member for Northampton North will be rather briefer than last time and bear in mind that it is open to him to make a speech on the issue if he so wishes.
Michael Ellis: I am grateful for that guidance. My point about subsection (3) is that it is fair in the context of the rest of the clause. In other words, if the threshold is two years, I have no problems with sub-section (3). However, if we reduce the threshold, it may well become unfair.
Vernon Coaker: That is a reasonable point. I do not know what the Minister will say, but my guess is that there will be reflection on it, if not here then certainly in the other place. Perhaps other changes will be made to the clause to reflect any changes made to the threshold. The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point.
I am not a lawyer or a legal expert, but that is what the LGA briefing says. If a police and crime commissioner could be charged with those offences without being suspended, people would find that difficult to understand. I find it difficult to understand. The police and crime commissioner is of such importance that their integrity, honesty and law-abiding nature will have to be of the highest possible quality. Otherwise, they will have no credibility.
Imagine if a PCC could commit such offences, or at least be charged with them, and carry on. Imagine that they could go to a public meeting and talk to people, or talk to the police and crime panel, about policing, criminality, antisocial behaviour, loutish behaviour and violence, while under charge for one of those offences. It would be untenable. I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West will press the amendment to a Division if the Minister does not come forward with a good explanation of why the threshold is appropriate. If it is accepted, but it is defective and inappropriate, the Minister will have to table a Government amendment on Report to put the matter right. I cannot say how serious the public will consider the position. People will find it difficult to understand.
Michael Ellis: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that Parliament has a responsibility to uphold the principle of innocent until proven guilty? It is all very well citing offences, the maximum penalty for which is below two years, and saying that they sound serious, but assaulting a police constable—the maximum penalty for which is six months—can be as little as a push. It can be as little as putting a constable in fear of being pushed. That amounts to a technical common assault. Surely we must create some proper boundaries. Is not the hon. Gentleman in danger of falling into the trap of saying that a person is guilty until proven innocent?
Vernon Coaker: I have never pushed a police constable in my life, and I cannot imagine the circumstances in which I would. I do not know whether any other member of the Committee has pushed a police constable.
Vernon Coaker: I apologise. Is the hon. Member for Northampton North saying that a police and crime commissioner charged with pushing a police officer would have any credibility? Of course someone is innocent until proven guilty. I accept that, and Parliament has a duty to uphold that principle, as do the courts. We are talking not about sacking, but about suspension pending the outcome of the process. The example cited by the hon. Gentleman was that of pushing a police officer. I cannot imagine how a police and crime panel could do anything else but suspend someone charged with that offence.
Mr Burley: I am not a lawyer, but I have a big issue with such matters. People are innocent until proven guilty. The cases going through my mind are those we read increasingly about in the press of men accused of rape who then go on to be cleared after more than a year. Last year, a chef called Peter Bacon was cleared by a jury in just 45 minutes, despite being accused of rape following a drunk, one-night stand. He felt that his reputation was so destroyed that he changed his name and left the country. Had he been a police and crime commissioner, he would have had to be suspended for a whole year if we accepted the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Who would replace him in that role for a year? It is bizarre.
We obviously do not want malicious allegations, but we are framing legislation. It is not only me who has tabled amendments. The Minister’s hon. Friends have similar concerns. Moreover, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West has experience as a police officer and, to an extent, he is making the same point that I am making.
Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman was saying that he could not imagine why anyone should not want a police and crime panel to be given the power to suspend a police and crime commissioner for assaulting a police officer. Does he accept that the maximum sentence for that is six months, and that suspension would therefore not be possible under the amendment that he tabled?
Vernon Coaker: If that is so, I think the Minister makes a good case for saying that six months is wrong. We ought to look at what offences are captured and what the threshold needs to be. That, I think, is an argument for not keeping the threshold as it is but saying that the amendments that have been tabled are pertinent, and that the Minister needs to take them away to look at them. If the threshold needs to be lower than that, again, perhaps the Minister will take the matter away to look at it.
Vernon Coaker: The amendment for 12 months was a probing amendment. Amendment 310 is exactly the same as amendment 27 tabled by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, which is why it was not selected. It is why amendment 27 is the lead amendment, and related amendments come after it.
The Minister has heard the arguments. All that I am asking him to do is to reflect on the matter. If the hon. Member for Edinburgh West presses his amendment to a vote, we will support it. There are some real issues here regarding the offences, and the least that the Minister needs to do is take the matter away and look at it.
Nick Herbert: First, let us be clear that we are talking about the power that the police and crime panel will be given under clause 30 to suspend a police and crime commissioner if the commissioner has been charged with, not convicted of, an offence. That is an important distinction. There is agreement on both sides of the Committee—I think—that the threshold should be different, that the threshold for a conviction should be lower.
The reason I question whether there is consensus in the Committee is that we will come to clause 67 later, which provides for the disqualification of police and crime commissioners. As hon. Members will see, the Government will table an amendment to reduce the threshold so that any imprisonable offence will render the police and crime commissioner disqualified from office. That threshold is lower than what any hon. Member has proposed. That is a reflection of the fact that while we originally set the threshold for disqualification at three months, which is the same as existing local government legislation that applies to councillors, we recognised, on the basis of representations made to us, that because police and crime commissioners have a responsibility to hold the police force to account, a higher standard should apply to them. I think it is common ground that we should apply that higher standard to police and crime commissioners. I will table the amendment, which I am sure that the Committee will support. Others argue that we should go further still, and we can come to that when we discuss the matter.
On this occasion, we are talking about suspension. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North made some good points, saying that we have to be careful to ensure that there is proportionality, as it would be possible for a police and crime commissioner to be charged with an offence and then acquitted. We must be careful to set the threshold of the offence at a
The six-month threshold for suspension would include assaulting a police officer, common assault or battery, threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, harassment, taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent, driving while under the influence of drink and drugs, driving while disqualified, and failing to stop and report an accident. Those are all offences, which, up until this moment, the hon. Member for Gedling did not think were suitably serious to be included in the provision.
The hon. Gentleman invited me to reflect, so I too invite him to reflect whether he was right in seeking to set the threshold rather higher than six months at 12. I do not think, as my hon. Friend said, that there is much of a practical difference between the amendment moved by my hon. Friends, which is for a maximum sentence in excess of six months, and that proposed in the Opposition’s amendment, which is for a maximum sentence of 12 months.
Vernon Coaker: Will the Minister put on the record that we tabled amendment 311, which was for 12 months? Also on the amendment paper is amendment 310, which was for six months, but that was not selected because it is the same as amendment 311.
The Chair: Order. We cannot refer to amendments that have not been selected. It would have been open to the hon. Gentleman to sign the amendments that have been selected if they accorded with his views.
That is of course a different thing. I want to make it clear that that is therefore a drafting error, for which I apologise, and “exceeding two years” was intended in the legislation. In any case, the Government will wish to come back and amend the clause to correct that error.
However, we should also reflect on the sentencing threshold, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West and the hon. Member for Gedling invite me to do. I have already made a judgment that we should lower the threshold very considerably in relation to disqualification. It is hard to look at some of the offences that are caught in relation to maximum sentences of six months or less—which, as I said, no member of the Committee has proposed should be included—without
I invite the Committee to reflect on the position that Ken Livingstone found himself in when he was Mayor of London. His case was considered by the Adjudication Panel for England after he made comments about a reporter who had accused him of being a Nazi. The Standards Board for England investigated and found the Mayor guilty of breaching the GLA code of conduct and he was sentenced to be suspended for four weeks. It was very controversial at the time and was overruled by the High Court. I make no comments on the merits of the allegation, but what it reveals is the extent to which a tool was being used, and there was some debate at the time We are talking about elected individuals with a mandate.
It is rather more significant if an individual is charged. They would have had to have gone through a legal threshold in order to be charged, but it is a lower threshold than for conviction. I am trying to gauge from the Committee whether there is general agreement that the threshold should be lower for a suspension than for a conviction. My feeling is that it should be lower. I am certainly willing to reflect on the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West that it should be lower than we propose, but I am not sure that it should be the same threshold that I will propose for disqualification. That is a very low one and is for an imprisonable offence.
Nigel Mills: Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that, in many situations where the panel cannot force a suspension, we and the public might reasonably expect commissioners to voluntarily stand down while they seek to clear their name. The power that we are being asked to give would force them to be suspended against their own will, and we would all hope that they chose to stand down.
Nick Herbert: That was exactly the point that I was coming to in my conclusion, and my hon. Friend made it very well. The clause gives the panel the formal power to require a suspension. If a police and crime commissioner is charged with an offence that might be much more minor, he or she might nevertheless choose to stand down until his or her name is cleared. Equally, the PCC might strongly contest a charge, but the amendment would enable the police and crime panel, which may be no friend of the PCC, to require the PCC to stand down.
In the interest of justice, we have to be careful to get the balance right. I repeat that I have tabled an amendment to clause 67 and that the Government have indicated that we take such matters seriously. We will adopt a very strict test for conviction. I am certainly willing to consider the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West that the test for disqualification should be lower than in the Bill as it is currently drafted, but I want to signal that we should take great care.
Nick Herbert: Well, I expect that the legislation will enable a police and crime commissioner to step down temporarily if the PCC chooses. I will ensure that that is the case because, as my hon. Friend has suggested, we must provide for the possibility of a PCC voluntarily choosing to step down.
The issues that have been raised are important, but I am not sure that there is much difference between what Members on all sides of the Committee are seeking to achieve. However, we must be careful that we do not trespass on the principles of natural justice and of people being innocent until proven guilty. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West that the panel would have a discretionary power to suspend, not an automatic one, but that would nevertheless be a very serious step.
Mr Burley: I want to reframe the slightly convoluted point that I made earlier. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned malicious charges. Will there be any safeguards for people who are maliciously accused and charged, where it is a case of one person’s word against another’s? Will they be automatically suspended if the maximum sentence is more than two years?
Nick Herbert: There is a difference between a malicious allegation and what we are discussing, which is a charge that will have to cross a certain threshold. I hope that that will give my hon. Friend some reassurance, although there is also a difference between charge and conviction.
Nigel Mills: While the Minister is considering that point, may I ask him to consider another? Is there any significance in the fact that the charge has to be only in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man? What would happen if I was charged with murder in the Republic of Ireland? The panel would not be enabled to force me to stand down, but one might expect that to be a good idea.
Nick Herbert: That is the kind of question that I hope not to be asked, especially by one of my hon. Friends. I am not sure that that is a major lacuna in the legislation that we will have to address.
Michael Ellis: I think it is standard practice to incorporate that type of protective clause on convictions outside of British jurisdiction, because we cannot always be satisfied that countries elsewhere are following the same standards of natural justice that we follow in this country. I see nods from certain quarters to confirm that general position. That exists as a standard clause that is usually put in, in these circumstances.
Nick Herbert: I have expressed gratitude to the lawyers before, and I am once again grateful for the contribution from my hon. Friend, as the Opposition are as well. That kind of extraterritorial issue has been hotly contested
Nick Herbert: I have so thought. With that response, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West will feel able to withdraw his amendment. It is clear that the Opposition want to do some more thinking about this, and we will too, based on the views expressed by the Committee.
Mike Crockart: I thank the Minister for his constructive comments. I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North, who made a strong point that I had not picked up on in my examination of the Bill, on the removal of pay on suspension. I accept that a balance has to be struck between the level of offence and the removal of remuneration as a punitive measure. I accept his view that if punitive measures are to be introduced, a higher level of sentence would be fairer. It would be even better and fairer to have the suspension at the right level, but not to introduce the punitive measures until such time as a person moves from being presumed innocent to proven guilty. I accept that the amendment is incorrectly drafted, and should have read “six months or greater” given the arguments that I made. I should have tabled a subsequent amendment that removed punitive measures.
I am glad, however, that the Minister has agreed to take it away and consider it and correct the drafting errors pointed out. As I have said previously, if the limit were changed to “two years or more” rather than “exceeding two years” it would go a long way to addressing my concerns. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I now find myself in the position of wishing that I had not tabled quite so many amendments. I will be brief. This amendment seeks clarification as to what the procedure would be as a result of the Bill, especially in terms of the resolution of small complaints. It is clear that if serious complaints are made, such as the commission of criminal offences, or other corrupt behaviour, a process is set in train to investigate those complaints and deal with them effectively. I am less clear, however, on the section that deals with the resolution of other complaints. Paragraph 3(2) to the schedule states:
I am not entirely sure what process would be involved in that or what investigative measures a PCP would be expected to take. If investigation were needed, surely it
Nick Herbert: As elected individuals, police and crime commissioners are most directly accountable to their local communities. If, however, a complaint is made against a commissioner, clear and established procedures should be in place for its resolution, for which Government have sought to provide.
The Bill ensures that regulations will provide for serious complaints to be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, including those that concern criminal or corrupt behaviour. Police and crime panels will deal with lesser matters through a process of informal resolution.
The amendment would remove clarity by taking away the stipulation to make provision for panels to resolve less serious complaints informally. The proposal puts nothing in place of that stipulation and does not state how the regulations should deal with lesser complaints. If the suggestion is that the regulations should provide for such complaints to be the subject of formal investigation by the police and crime panel, or some other body, we cannot agree with it. I do not think that that was the purpose of my hon. Friend’s amendment, however.
The fundamental aim of any complaints system is that complaints be dealt with promptly and effectively, commensurate with the seriousness of the issue. Police and crime commissioners will be in the slightly unusual—although not entirely unique— position of not being part of any corporate body that has internal structures for dealing with staffing or complaints. That does not mean that they should or will be unaccountable. When a complaint is not so serious as to warrant a police or IPCC investigation, however, the panels are the most logical forum within which to seek resolution, given their general role to scrutinise the actions of the commissioner in the public interest.
At the same time, it is not appropriate to create an unwieldy or bureaucratic system. In the vast majority of cases, the most satisfactory, proportionate and economic solution will be informal resolution of complaints that do not amount to criminal conduct.
Schedule 7 paves the way for regulations to be prepared within the framework that I have described. The precise content of such regulations will, no doubt, be the subject of further discussion to ensure that all necessary aspects are covered. Nothing will prevent the panels considering a variety of routes, or the involvement of other parties as necessary, to achieve a satisfactory informal resolution process. I hope that that has explained the procedure and position to my hon. Friend and that he will therefore feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mike Crockart: I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. Importantly, he has said that individual panels can take whatever assistance they need from other bodies to carry out investigations. I was concerned that we might leave the panels to carry out investigations and they might have felt unable to do so adequately. The Minister has said, however, that they will have
Nick Herbert: In resisting the amendment, I underline that the provisions under schedule 7 allow the Secretary of State to make regulations for handling complaints and conduct matters in relation to police and crime commissioners. They allow us to establish proportionate mechanisms for handling problems at the right level; they are deliberately not about central Government wading in and undermining local decision making and local accountability.
Naturally, police and crime commissioners must uphold the highest standards of office, and where there are complaints and allegations that such standards are not being met, there must be a clear process for investigation. The role of the Secretary of State is to set out in regulations how complaints or other conduct matters will be handled and investigated, so that the process is clear to those responsible for investigating and for those wishing to make a complaint.
The Bill already makes proper provision for investigation and the necessary decisions that follow to be made by the relevant organisations at the proportionate level. The most serious, concerning the suspected criminal or corrupt behaviour of a police and crime commissioner, will be the responsibility of the IPCC, which has extensive experience of handling high-profile and sensitive cases. The Bill does not, however, allow for a police and crime commissioner to be removed from office by central agency or the panel.
Decisions as to whether to bring criminal charges rest with the Crown Prosecution Service. In recognition of the seriousness of such a situation, elsewhere in the Bill, as we have just discussed, we have given the police and crime panels the power to suspend a police and crime commissioner who has been charged in certain criminal matters. The Bill is also clear that a suspended police and crime commissioner, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North noted, will not be paid a salary, and so on.
Schedule 7 also allows the Secretary of State to make regulations that will specify matters of a less serious nature, how they are handled and how the police and crime commissioner will engage in the informal resolution of such complaints. As the provisions currently stand, the police and crime commissioner may be suspended when charged with some criminal offences, but cannot be removed from office as a result of a complaint or a conduct matter.
I hope I have explained to the hon. Member for Gedling what the limitations on the role of the Secretary of State should be, what the proper procedures are in relation to the IPCC and what action should be taken in
Vernon Coaker: The Minister has put on record the reasons for the provision. I only say that I would not underestimate the chances of something happening in the future whereby the Secretary of State wished that the provision was not there, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Clive Efford: The amendment would effectively re-establish a similar structure to the Metropolitan Police Authority for the police and crime panel in London—mirroring the MPA in terms of numbers and make-up.
I feel that I have been getting under the skin of the Minister at times by pointing out things about his understanding of arrangements in London. I feel a bit wounded, because it falls to me to point such things out, as I have been dealing with the London amendments. I apologise if I am about to upset him again.
The clause highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of the arrangements in London and of what has worked. The Minister himself said, in previous discussions about the structures of accountability for police and crime commissioners, that what has been going on in London has worked and, therefore, that that structure is worth mirroring outside. However, what has worked in London has been a panel, the MPA, made up of a majority of assembly members—12 elected members—who then
The capacity within that arrangement is to ensure diversity of representation on the body and, as has been said before, a broad spectrum of experience that can be brought to bear on the scrutiny of the Mayor’s office. It is important that we continue with that arrangement because it is strong and it is recognised that it works—the Government have indicated that the arrangements in London have worked. That scrutiny role has fallen to the Metropolitan Police Authority, and it would clearly be a backward step to move away from that arrangement to having a single person dealing with the scrutiny role over the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who is then scrutinised by the panel.
There is a series of amendments to strengthen the scrutiny role of the panel, but amendment 206 deals with the size and scope of the panel. Scrutiny is important, so it is important that the people who exercise that function have a broad spectrum of experience and that the majority of members are democratically elected. Until 2008, it was up to the members of the Metropolitan Police Authority to appoint the chair. The Mayor appointed members from the assembly, who then set up the Metropolitan Police Authority by co-opting people, who then elected their chair. Since 2008, that responsibility has rested with the Mayor, but none the less, the person who chairs that body has to come from the membership of the Metropolitan Police Authority.
The Bill proposes that the assembly set up a sub-committee. If I have read the Bill correctly—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—can set up an assembly sub-committee to perform the function of the police and crime panel in London, without necessarily having an elected assembly member on that committee. Clearly, when someone is elected to the assembly, they should accept that holding the Metropolitan Police Service to account is an important part of their function, not something that they can just delegate to a body whose majority is not made up of elected members. I would appreciate some clarification of those proposals.
The reason, as the Minister has indicated in discussions of arrangements outside London, is that the London assembly, as a democratically elected body, is accountable for its decisions. It therefore falls to that body to decide whether it wants to have all democratically elected members, none, or a mixture of elected and unelected members on any sub-committee that it sets up to serve as the police and crime panel in London. That will water down the arrangements in London, and it is a backward step. If the current arrangements are working, and have served Londoners well, we should exercise a great deal of caution before we toss them aside.
Will the Minister say whether it is the Government’s intention that the assembly should be free to have the power to set up the sub-committee as it wishes, even if it has a majority of unelected members? Is there a requirement in the Bill—I cannot find any such requirement—for a majority of elected members? How can we guarantee through the Bill that a representative body will carry out the function of the police and crime panel in London in a way that is similar to the current structure? Will people be co-opted and elected members appointed
Nick Herbert: In large part, the hon. Gentleman seeks to open up a debate with all of the points that he made before about why he wishes to retain the Metropolitan Police Authority. I shall not rehearse the arguments about why it is right for the authority to go nor about the fact that that proposal to have a police and crime panel drawn from the London assembly is widely supported. It is a sensible approach that will reduce bureaucracy by removing an unnecessary tier of governance, and it will give greater clarity to the arrangements.
The amendments are much more prescriptive about how the panel should be drawn up by the assembly. I could go into detail about why some of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments are technically defective, but I shall deal with the bigger point. It is right that the panel should be appointed by the assembly, that the assembly should decide the composition of the panel and how members should be co-opted. As for the hon. Gentleman’s theoretical suggestion that the London assembly could set up a police and crime panel to scrutinise the Mayor, with no members of the assembly, is that really a serious suggestion? Why on earth should the assembly seek to abdicate responsibility for that crucial function? It is not possible to conceive that it would ever wish to do that.
The police and crime panel would be subject to the assembly’s standing orders. As a committee, it would be bound by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which means that the Widdicombe principles will apply, including the prohibition of single-party control. It is true that membership of the London assembly comprises 14 white males, but it also includes eight females, one of whom is black, two Asian males and one mixed-race male. There is some diversity on the assembly now, but it is open to the assembly, should it wish to do so, to make appointments that may change that balance on the panel that it sets up.
I say in conclusion to the hon. Member for Eltham that no one is in any doubt about the significance of such issues in London, when it comes to ensuring that the Metropolitan police have the confidence of black and minority ethnic communities. The leadership of the Metropolitan police is in no doubt about that, and I am sure that the Mayor is in no doubt about it, given the relatively recent history of the Met. Retaining the confidence of BME communities is important. Ensuring that the Mayor can have access to advice from representative groups is important. It is open to the Mayor to appoint such advisers as he or she sees fit. In making sure that it is scrutinising such issues properly, it is open to the assembly to make appointments to the police and crime panel as it sees fit. Given the population profile of Greater London as a whole, I am in no doubt that such issues will be properly addressed in the governance arrangements.
I do not think that the approach needs to be as prescriptive as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am afraid that we just disagree about the merits of removing the MPA. I am sure that the arrangements that we have set up are sufficiently flexible to address the concerns that have been expressed.
Clive Efford: I expected the Minister to say that I am just rehashing our arguments about the panel. I accept that perhaps I am—many parts of the Bill relate to one another and overlap—but the Government cannot have it both ways. Either they place a great deal of importance on democratic accountability or they do not. Currently, we have a body set up from the assembly with a majority of elected members, who then appoint people to create a much broader and more diverse representation of London’s community. It works, and it is strong. It may be criticised, but even the Government have recognised that what London has is strong, and they have suggested that they want to repeat it elsewhere.
I do not accept the Minister’s criticism. I did not suggest that the assembly set up a body made up entirely of unelected people; I asked whether the Bill would allow it. My reading seems to suggest that it is possible, and I think that that is a retrograde step. Either the Government place a great deal of importance on democratic accountability or they do not.
Nick Herbert: The Government are seeking to amend the arrangements in London by removing the MPA. The hon. Gentleman keeps trying to suggest that we support the MPA’s continuing role, when we do not. Does he accept that there is a difference between saying that it might be legally possible for the committee to be set up with no representatives at all and saying that that will happen? Does he think that it would ever actually happen?
Clive Efford: Whether I do or not is irrelevant. The point is that the Bill steps back from the extent of democratic accountability that we have stipulated in London. The amendment is part of a set intended to build up the role of the police and crime panel in London. That is why its structure is so important. I will not take up any more of the Committee’s time, but I intend to put the amendment to a vote.
Clive Efford: These amendments attempt to strengthen the role of the panel in holding the Met Commissioner and his staff to account for misconduct, and they require the panel to consult other relevant bodies. Amendments 210 to 215 similarly refer to holding to account the Mayor’s office for policing and crime and the Mayor’s staff. They also refer to carrying out reviews, investigating and having oversight of any misconduct in functions of the Mayor’s office. They increase the scrutiny role and the scope of the panel to hold the Mayor’s office and the commissioner and his staff to account. As we have discussed in earlier exchanges, we feel it is important that the police and crime panel in London has a stronger scrutiny role in holding the Mayor’s office to account and in being able to hold the police to account. In order to discharge that, they have to be able to carry out various functions in reviewing, investigating and having oversight of those offices.
The Mayor’s office is extremely powerful, so there is a need for checks and balances to be put in place so that the Mayor can be investigated, should the panel deem it necessary. We have had examples in the past of the Mayor being criticised—not in connection with a policing matter—and the Minister mentioned the case of Ken Livingstone. Boris Johnson was investigated when it was suggested that he had interfered in the operational decisions of the police. Clearly, there is a need for strong scrutiny of the powers of the Mayor and the Metropolitan police. That scrutiny role should be independent with a broad base of democratic accountability. I am sure the
The amendments are important, because they would give the police and crime panel in London powers to obtain information and to require documents to be given to it to carry out investigations. It would be able to ask for information that would give it greater understanding of the functions of the office of the Mayor and of the commissioner in order to carry out the scrutiny role. The amendments beef up the role of the panel, give it a greater scrutiny role, and sharper teeth in holding the Mayor’s office to account. They enable greater scrutiny of the Metropolitan police and how they go about local policing in London.
The Minister indicated the other day that it would be inevitable that police officers would attend the meetings of the panels if requested. We will come to the power to require that later. If the sessions are to be of any value, surely it follows that the panel in London should have the documents that enable it to make those sessions useful. Having the information before it is necessary if it is to carry out a scrutiny role. I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to those points.
Nick Herbert: The police and crime panel in London will have a general duty to keep under review the Mayor’s exercise of his functions through the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. For that purpose, it will have the power to scrutinise and make reports for any actions and decisions of the Mayor, the deputy Mayor for policing and crime and any member of staff of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. That wording reflects what is used in the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which sets out the general powers of the assembly.
The Bill gives the London police and crime panel powers that mirror those of similar panels elsewhere in the country. I do not see what can be gained by giving the London police and crime panel the ability to review the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime’s conduct when it already has the power to review the office’s actions, decisions and any other matters that it considers to be of importance to policing and crime reduction in London.
Likewise, I do not see what can be gained by specifying in legislation a power for the London police and crime panel to investigate any matter that it considers to be of importance to maintain the trust and confidence of the community, when it already has the power to investigate any matter that it considers to be of importance to policing and crime reduction in London.
In any case, the London assembly has broad powers more generally. It may call any politically restricted member of the staff, and any chair or former chair within three years of a functional body, to the committee. It can investigate any action or decision made by the Mayor or a member of staff, or any other matter related to the work of the GLA or of importance to Greater London.
The powers of the London police and crime panel and the London assembly more broadly are easily sufficient for it to be able properly to hold the Mayor and the
Clive Efford: I do not intend to press the amendments to a vote. The Minister has put his views on the record. Similar areas of responsibility are covered in the next group of amendments to the next clause, so we will be covering similar ground and I will make further comments then. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Clive Efford: Amendment 202 is about delegating the functions of the panel to a sub-committee or individual. It is a probing amendment to get a comment from the Minister on whether there is such a power in the Bill, and whether he thinks that functions that should be carried out properly by the scrutiny panel, as a sub-committee of the assembly, can or should be delegated to individuals. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.
Nick Herbert: We believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between allowing the London police and crime panel to delegate day-to-day functions as it sees fit and reserving certain special scrutiny functions in relation to the appointment of the deputy Mayor for policing and crime to the police and crime panel. The Bill is drafted so that the London police and crime panel will have the same powers of delegation in this regard as other committees of the London assembly, as set out in the Greater London Authority Act 1999.
I do not believe that the case has been made for why the London police and crime panel should be more tightly tethered than the other committees of the London assembly. Removing discretion in that matter runs counter to our commitment to devolving power, and I think it would represent an unnecessary and damaging interference into the London police and crime panel’s work.
Clive Efford: Amendment 208 would remove the word “review” and strengthen the powers of the panel to approve the police and crime plan for London. Although the amendment is brief, it is extremely important. In drawing up the plan for London, there should be greater influence for the directly elected assembly in the scrutiny of the plan.
on crime in London. I do not want to go over the same arguments again and risk another rebuke from the Minister, but the strength of the amendment is that a broad range of people—including from those who are democratically elected to be on a PCP in London—would bring their skills, knowledge and experience to that role. They surely have an important role to play in drawing up a police and crime plan for London.
It would be an extremely valuable part of the scrutiny process if they exercised a greater influence over the police and crime plan. They would bring knowledge of their local areas to the process, which perhaps even the Mayor does not have. As an MP, I can give examples of the issues in my area, from talking to my local community. The Mayor’s office would not be aware of those, unless I had the opportunity to tell it about them.
The representative in my area, Len Duvall, would be able to bring his experiences of the local community to bear, as well as use his scrutiny role to influence the police and crime plan. These amendments are trying to strengthen the scrutiny role and the wider democratic mandate for elected members in London, because their experience and that degree of democratic accountability will make the democratic process of drawing up a police and crime plan for the capital city much more robust. I will again attract the wrath of the Minister, but that is what happens currently with the scrutiny role. It works extremely well, so why would we not want it in the Bill? I welcome the Minister’s comments.
Nick Herbert: There is no disagreement whatever. The panel should play an important role in contributing to the police and crime plan in London. In saying that the panel would have to approve the plan, his amendments go too far, because that would cut across the mandate of the Mayor to set the plan. That would be wrong, because it is the Mayor who has been democratically elected. The panel will play an important scrutiny role, and we want it to do so. It will provide that support and constructive challenge, but it is not responsible for setting the police and crime objectives. That is the remit of the Mayor, or the Mayor’s office.
The panel will be able to review the draft police and crime plan. It can submit a report or a series of recommendations, which the Mayor’s office must have regard to. That will mean that the panel can flag any concerns that it may have. By allowing the panel to set the police and crime objectives, the hon. Member for Eltham would move the Bill away from its most important principle—that there is a single individual who is accountable to the public for their policing. The hon. Gentleman goes too far, but I agree with him on the important scrutiny role that the panel will exercise. I hope on that basis that he will withdraw the amendment.
As the Minister knows, there is a to-ing and fro-ing between the panel members and the Mayor’s office when these negotiations take place, even now, under the MPA arrangements. That results in both sides influencing the drawing up of the policing plan, which weakens the role of the elected members of the assembly. The step is retrograde but, with that said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment touches on something we mentioned when dealing with amendments 204 and 205. It is about strengthening the role of the panel in London, to carry out investigations into allegations of misconduct by the Mayor’s office. Unless I am mistaken—if I am, the Minister will correct me—the Bill seems to contain no provision allowing the panel to carry out such a function. Where are the checks and balances on the Mayor’s office, in terms of scrutiny of misconduct, the carrying out of proper investigation, the making of a report if necessary and the sending of that to the Secretary of State? There must be some form of democratic mechanism for holding the Mayor to account, in between elections, over any allegations of misconduct.
I mentioned earlier the investigation into the current Mayor for interfering in an operational matter, for commenting on that in the press and for commenting on private conversations about the operation with police officers. Clearly, at times the Mayor’s office will need to be held to account by the democratically elected body for London. Also, the arrangement as set out in our amendment would give the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the opportunity to give his or her side of the story to the panel.
That would be an important part of the scrutiny role, because the Mayor is an extremely powerful individual. Some bring a powerful personality to the role—we have
The democratic body ought to be charged with the scrutiny role. The Bill is changing the arrangements—that is the intent of the Government—so that it will be the Mayor’s office that carries out the function of scrutiny and oversight of the Metropolitan Police Service. The Mayor will be accountable for that to the panel in London. Therefore, when such situations arise under the new arrangement, it must follow that the panel is entitled to investigate and, where necessary, to write a report, to invite comment on it and to send recommendations to the Secretary of State, if it feels strongly enough about the situation. Not to have such provision is to weaken the role and function of the panel.
If we consider the role of the Mayor, in the Bill he or she has the power to dismiss the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. That power similarly needs to be subjected to checks and balances by the scrutiny body that oversees the activities of the Mayor’s office. I strongly urge the Government to consider the amendment because it deals with a serious weakness in the proposals for the panel in London. It is an important area of scrutiny, and the Government are not dealing with it under the Bill.
Nick Herbert: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. I recognise his intention to ensure a robust mechanism for responding to issues of misconduct or complaints in relation to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, but I believe that such a mechanism will be in place. That will not be the role of the police and crime panel in London, which will be to provide the support and challenge to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. It will not be its role to investigate complaints or misconduct, or any form of complaint. That will be different from the position outside London because the Mayor of London is already subject to disqualification arrangements created by the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the standards regime that applies to all local government under the Local Government Act 2000. The Localism Bill will simplify the standards regime that applies to local government. Police and crime commissioners outside London will have a much more restricted role than the Mayor of London, which is why they will not be subjected to the same regime and why we have given the panels the role of investigating minor complaints.
The police and crime panel has a role in consulting individuals, including the public in the exercise of its functions. That is already set out under legislation that applies to the London assembly of which the panel is a sub-committee. Therefore, the amendment is considered to be a reiteration of current legislation. The hon. Gentleman’s worries are not borne out by the reality of how such issues will be dealt with in London where there will be a robust regime, and I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Clive Efford: Again, this is an extremely important function of the panel. Clearly, there is a difference of opinion between the Minister and me. We believe that the function of the panel, as the main scrutiny body of both the Mayor’s office and the Metropolitan Police Service, is vital. It is a much stronger and more robust system, as has been proved by the function of the MPA in London. The amendments would enable the panel in London to require the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to attend meetings. The Minister will say that it is unlikely that the commissioner would not attend the meetings, if invited, but let us suppose that the MPC were required to attend meetings about the recent kettling arrangements for London at which members of the panel wanted to question the commissioner about the use of kettling when dealing with protesters. That is a controversial issue.
Can the Minister envisage a stand-off between the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and his office? The commissioner might say, “It is not our function to attend your meetings and answer for operational matters; we answer to the Mayor, so speak to him. We will not come down to a media circus and answer the questions of the assembly.” Such a situation would not be acceptable. As the Bill is drafted, however, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner would be well within his rights to respond like that.
I know that London assembly members do not feel that such a situation would be satisfactory. If there is to be a proper scrutiny role for them, it is essential that they have power. I suspect that such power would seldom be needed, but either we believe in strengthening democratic accountability or we do not. The Minister will say, “Yes, but we have put that power in the directly elected Mayor—or whoever he appoints as his deputy—who carries the democratic mandate.” In a place the size of London, however, that is not good enough. The assembly must have more clout and more say through its sub-committee, the policing panel, so that it can question the Metropolitan police.
The assembly is able to drill down on questions about policing at local levels, from experience from respective communities. If it wants the Metropolitan police to attend meetings, it should be able to require them to do so.
I know that the Minister will say, “Why wouldn’t officers attend?” Under the current Metropolitan police arrangements, however, there is no requirement for them to do so, but that is the scrutiny body. I can find nothing that states that Metropolitan police officers must attend Metropolitan Police Authority meetings—and I have asked the Library and members of the MPA to look into that. Under current scrutiny arrangements, it is inconceivable that they would not go along to such meetings, but the MPA will no longer be our scrutiny body. The body will be an assembly sub-committee that is set up to scrutinise the function of the Mayor. Therefore, if such a panel is to have any real impact on policing in London, it must have power to be able to require Metropolitan police officers to attend alongside the Mayor’s office, which the amendments propose. I would welcome the Minister’s comments.
Nick Herbert: For the benefit of my hon. Friends, who are probably in a soporific state, the hon. Gentleman has shot himself in the foot with his closing remarks. He has said that it was inconceivable that the commissioner would not appear before the MPA, even though the MPA does not have a power to summon him. I could not have put it better myself.
I shall respond briefly to the hon. Gentleman, who has made the same points before. He seeks to interfere with what we regard as the essential architecture of the Bill. It is for the Mayor and—if nominated—the deputy Mayor for policing and crime to hold the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to account. That is not the function of the Greater London authority, or the committee of the GLA that will be set up as the police and crime panel.
The panel’s function is to scrutinise the Mayor or the deputy Mayor for policing and crime. The hon. Gentleman either does not understand or does not accept that, but it is our strong view. Such as system will ensure clear accountability and ensure that there is no confusion about whether the Commissioner of the Met answers to the Mayor or to the assembly. That means that everybody is clear what their scrutiny job is. The amendments would cut across that. Requiring the commissioner of the Met to appear before the panel, and everything else that the hon. Gentleman said, would suggest that it is the panel’s job to scrutinise the Met. It is not. The panel’s job is to scrutinise the performance of the Mayor, just as it is the Greater London authority’s job. We must not confuse those two positions. The amendment does, which is why we should resist it.
Clive Efford: This is a fundamental difference between us. Either the Government respect assembly members’ role in scrutinising the Metropolitan Police Service or they do not. The amendment would give assembly members a mandate to hold the Metropolitan Police Service to account on behalf of the people of London.
The reason that I pointed out that the current arrangements do not require the Metropolitan police to attend the MPA is that the MPA is the scrutiny body and it is therefore inconceivable that the police would not attend. However, in some circumstances, assembly members will have legitimate concerns affecting people across London, such as kettling, the retention of safer
Clive Efford: These are probing amendments. The clause refers to the Secretary of State’s ability to prescribe what information cannot go before the panel. I understand that the Metropolitan police deal with national policing issues for which such measures might be necessary, but I seek clarification that the power cannot be abused. I know that I will incur the Minister’s wrath again, and I am sorry to keep doing so, but we currently have a Conservative Mayor and a Conservative Home Secretary. Is it possible that they could phone one another and say, “We’d rather this information didn’t go before the scrutiny panel”? I seek reassurance on that issue. Will the Minister put it on the record that hell would freeze over before politicians came to such a cosy arrangement?
Nick Herbert: I accept that the hon. Gentleman’s intention is to ensure that the London assembly police and crime panel has all the information that it needs. We have put in place provisions to ensure that information cannot be improperly withheld. I am fully committed to openness and transparency, which are the principles that run through the new arrangements.
The first issue raised by the amendments is on the disclosure to the London assembly of advice and documentation given to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime by its staff. The London police and crime
The London assembly police and crime panel will be able to scrutinise the actions and decisions of the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, including by calling for evidence from his staff. Proper regard and challenge will therefore be given, where necessary. The professional relationship and exchanges between the deputy Mayor and his staff are outside the remit of that panel. We have opted to ensure that the provisions for the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Greater London Authority are consistent. To that end, a refusal to answer questions or to disclose documents to the London assembly police and crime panel will be a criminal offence, which makes it important to apply exceptions sensibly.
The second issue is about the power of the Secretary of State to prescribe categories of information that an individual can withhold. I am committed to the principles of openness and transparency, but there might be information that should be withheld when that is in the public interest, for example over protected information related to national security, which might be particularly relevant in the case of the Metropolitan police. I am sure that the Opposition accept that, and it is important to continue to have that provision.
We agree that the safety and security of the public should be of paramount importance in considering the functions of the clause. In a similar vein, we will also include provision for the chief officer of police to be able to prevent the disclosure of information, where it might be used against national security, jeopardise the safety of any person or have a detrimental effect on policing operations, or where that disclosure is prohibited by legislation. I hope that we have the right balance between ensuring transparency wherever we can and preserving security where necessary.
Mike Crockart: I will not detain the Committee long on this group of probing amendments that seek to explore whether police and crime panels should have a role in obtaining local views on crime and disorder, and in providing information on policing in local neighbourhood areas.
Clause 34, on “Engagement with local people,” deals with obtaining views in local neighbourhoods across the many local authority areas, and with providing information to those neighbourhoods about how those local areas are policed. It also deals with arrangements for setting up meetings in local neighbourhoods, and it determines what constitutes a local neighbourhood. Given the number of times that the words “local” and “neighbourhood” are mentioned in the clause, it seems strange that no role for the police and crime panel is identified. We have already discussed how much experience and local knowledge will reside in the police and crime panels, and how they could be an invaluable resource to police and crime commissioners, giving them advice and a local link across areas that are, in some cases, very large.
That is equally true in this situation; chief constables could use such assistance. In reality, I have to admit that it is probably difficult to believe that a chief constable would try to carry out their function without involving local councils and councillors, but I feel that it is worthwhile exploring the reasons why the police and crime panel’s role should not be hard-wired into the Bill, and I would welcome the Minister’s view on the matter.
I must share an experience, since we are getting to that time on a Thursday afternoon. As you know, Mr Chope, I had a comfort break a few minutes ago, and when I came back I went into the wrong room—Committee Room 8. It was completely empty and dark, and I thought for a moment that everyone had done a deal between different people to end my shadow ministerial career prematurely.
On a more serious point, which in some ways is also quite amusing, in every sitting the hon. Member for Edinburgh West tables amendments—I am going to count them, or get someone to—about which he says that he has tabled a probing amendment because he is worried about the relationship between the police and crime commissioner and the police and crime panel or, regarding the matter at hand, between the chief constable and the police and crime panel.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman now that the Minister will say to him, “The amendments are worthy but unnecessary because it is a matter for local discretion”, but that he makes a good point. As I keep saying, the role of the police and crime panel and what is expected of it is not at all clear, which is why the hon. Gentleman
Vernon Coaker: I think the hon. Member for Edinburgh West might respond to that when he decides whether to withdraw his amendments. My point is that it is not me who keeps saying that there is an issue with police and crime panels, but other members of the Committee.
Steve McCabe: Is not the problem with the amendments that they are designed to strengthen the power of police and crime panels and enable them to have a local element? What the Minister wants to do, which he has yet to persuade his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West of, is limit the role to that of simply scrutiny of the police and crime commissioners. The problem is that his own coalition partner does not understand what he is trying to do.
Vernon Coaker: Again, that is an extremely good point, particularly regarding amendment 31, which relates to the chief officer consulting the police and crime panel in determining what the neighbourhoods are in the relevant police force area. All of us want to understand the relationship between the various parts of the new model proposed by the Minister to ensure that the local voice is not lost.
Nick Herbert: I sympathise with the hon. Member for Gedling. There have been occasions during consideration of the Bill when I would have liked to have found a darkened room. In fact, if he would tell me which one it was, I would be grateful—usually when the hon. Member for Eltham is moving his amendments, I have to say. That was said with affection.
I am inclined to agree with some, though not all, of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said. The matter goes to the reply that I gave regarding the previous group of amendments. I simply want to be clear that we draw the distinction between the roles of the panel, the police and crime commissioner and chief constable. If we start creating direct lines of responsibility between the chief constable and the panel, we are blurring the line of accountability and potentially creating confusion or a bureaucratic requirement, even if the intention is absolutely benign.
The force of clause 34 is to require the chief constable to make arrangements for finding out what is going on in the neighbourhood. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, the police and crime panel’s job is to scrutinise the police and crime commissioner. It is therefore able to ask about all the arrangements. Placing a requirement on the chief constable to consult the police and crime panel in every case leaves out the question of the role of the police and crime commissioner. It is simply an unnecessarily bureaucratic burden. I entirely understand the force of what my hon. Friend said in relation to the constructive role that the police and crime panel can play, but I want it to be a focused role. I repeat that we need to take care and ensure that the police and crime panel is not seen as a replacement for the police authority. It is not. I am saying that as much to the hon. Member for Gedling, who has sprung to life after his period in a darkened room, as I am to my hon. Friend. I hope that on that basis he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Mike Crockart: I thank the Minister for his response. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that I understand perfectly what the Minister is trying to do. The provision deals with the requirements placed on chief constables. I am clear that I am not trying to introduce any type of bureaucratic responsibility. That is why we used the word “consult”. It is not my intention to introduce a huge responsibility for chief constables to constantly go to the police and crime panel and say, “I need to now speak to this area”.
Steve McCabe: Is it not the hon. Gentleman’s intention to extend the remit of police and crime panels beyond that which the Minister is advocating? Otherwise what would be the purpose of consulting them?
Mike Crockart: I made it quite clear that the purpose of consulting them was to use relevant experience and knowledge. I equally made it clear in what I said at the beginning. In reality, I think that it is very likely that a chief constable would do exactly that, so this was, as I said at the start, a probing amendment to see how that relationship should work and whether there was a need to strengthen that role in the Bill. I accept what the Minister has said. I still think that that relationship will develop, but I accept that it might produce an unnecessary burden by putting it in the provision, which deals exclusively with the role of the chief constable and the requirements of the chief constable in his or her engagement with local people. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 4th February 2011|