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Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 9th 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
Vernon Coaker: Good morning to you, Mr Benton, and to everyone on the Committee. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton North on his elevation to the Select Committee on Home Affairs? It will be interesting to see how much he charges them. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase who, along with me, has been made a trustee of the UK Youth Parliament, which is not particularly relevant to this Committee, but young people are very important to any matter we discuss, and the hon. Gentleman and I bring experience to that role.
The amendments go to the heart of our debate about the powers of the police and crime commissioner and of the police and crime panel. The amendments and schedule 8 are exceptionally important with respect to the appointment, suspension and dismissal of a chief constable. Amendment 234 simply states that the commissioner must act
In other words, we are trying to strengthen the role of the police and crime panel so that it is involved at a much earlier stage in the appointment process. It would be a joint process rather than the police and crime commissioner acting alone and then coming to the police and crime panel. I appreciate the point about confirmation hearings and the veto powers that exist, but the debate is important and goes to the heart of the Bill.
We have said all along that the police and crime commissioner acts almost as an omnipotent figure over the chief constable and over policing in their area. With regard to the power of the commissioner and of the panel over the chief constable, the checks and balances are not correct. Many of our amendments and indeed some of the comments that I will make regarding the submission that we have received from Paul West lend power to that particular point.
Turning to amendment 232, I am interested in the Minister’s view of the appointment of a chief constable by the police and crime commissioner. Can the commissioner appoint anybody whom he thinks has the relevant experience? Does he have to take account of the existing structures to appoint a chief constable who he thinks has the necessary qualities? The amendment lists the sorts of experience that I would expect of a chief constable if they were thought appropriate by a commissioner and appointed. Does the Minister expect a chief constable to have served as a deputy chief constable or an assistant commissioner? How long would the candidate have served in such a post? The same applies to the Metropolitan police. Does the Minister expect candidates to have attended both the course at the Senior Police National Assessment Centre and the strategic command course? We are trying to find out what process the police and crime commissioner will go through to determine the appropriateness of a candidate for the post of chief constable, and it is important that we have that clarification.
Similarly, how will the police and crime commissioner’s functions work on such appointments? Will police and crime commissioners decide on their own who is the appropriate person, or do they have to work with others? There will be a confirmation hearing before the police and crime panel, but what will be the initial process in deciding who is an appropriate candidate for chief constable, before that confirmation hearing? Will the
Those are important questions for the Minister. The amendments go to the heart of the Bill, as we believe that the police and crime panel does not have enough power vis-à-vis the police and crime commissioner. It is not clear from my reading of the Bill and the associated notes what the process is for the appointment of chief constables. I have tabled amendment 232 to try to draw from the Minister an explanation of what people will come forward and what sort of process the police and crime commissioner will go through. Having made those few opening remarks, I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
On the wider questions raised by the hon. Member for Gedling, it is important to understand the purpose of the legislation, which is to change the current position of chief constable appointments having to be approved by the Home Secretary to one reflecting the stronger local accountability that the Bill will introduce, with the police and crime commissioner being responsible for making those appointments. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments attempt to reassert the role of the Secretary of State, which we will resist, because a fundamental proposition in the Bill is that those appointments should be made by the police and crime commissioner. That is fundamental to our proposed reforms.
There will be scrutiny by the police and crime panel, which is set out in paragraphs 1 and 2 of schedule 8. The provision will apply only to chief officers. It is important to note that we will change the position, so that chief officers will have the power of appointing the rest of their teams, and appointments below the rank of chief constable will not be made by the elected police and crime commissioner. There will be different arrangements for London, where the commissioner and deputy commissioner will still be appointed by the Secretary of State, because of its special circumstances, including the various procedures over the effective agreement of the Mayor.
The specific question asked by the hon. Gentleman was whether the police and crime commissioner can appoint anyone. We must decide whether we specify closely in the primary legislation the appointment criteria, and there are several factors to be considered. First, we expect the Association of Chief Police Officers to evolve and take on the responsibility for leadership and professional development in policing. It will become a more accountable body in that respect. ACPO will supply the candidates for chief officer positions. ACPO or its successor body will ensure that people who apply for such positions are of a suitable standard and have attained the various qualifications and so on. It is not possible to write that into primary legislation.
Secondly, there is an existing power to make regulations regarding appointments under section 50 of the Police Act 1996. That will not be changed, and will still apply, so it is possible for us to make regulations that govern the nature of the appointments, thus enabling us to ensure a proper process. It will mean that the role of the centre is not eliminated entirely, but I think that the fundamental decision should lie with the police and crime commissioner. I appreciate that amendment 232 is a probing amendment because it aims to set specific eligibility requirements for the rank of chief constable. I do not suppose that the hon. Gentleman wants such a proposal to be outlined in the Bill, because it would extend the length of service at chief officer level from two to three years, and would not achieve the result that he seeks. I hope that I have explained why such procedures should not be in the Bill, and that they can be dealt with through both the reform of ACPO and the existing power of the Secretary of State to make regulations.
Vernon Coaker: I thank the Minister for his helpful clarification. It will be interesting to see what proposals ACPO introduces regarding leadership and professional development, as envisaged by the right hon. Gentleman. If I have understood him correctly, the police and crime commissioner recruits essentially from a pool of candidates drawn up by ACPO. Perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong.
Nick Herbert: The issue that we must determine is whether there should be a legal prohibition preventing police and crime commissioners from appointing anyone else or whether they should be able to appoint only from the pool of approved people drawn up by ACPO. It would not be appropriate that ACPO shortlists for such positions, but it may be appropriate to specify that people must reach a certain level to qualify for consideration by a police and crime commissioner. That is the distinction. We will continue to discuss such matters with ACPO. We do not disagree about the intent of the measure; we do not want unsuitable people to be appointed, and they must be suitably qualified. Equally, the decision should rest ultimately with the police and crime commissioner, who will be held accountable for it.
Vernon Coaker: The Minister has made an extremely interesting point. I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong, because I am trying to clarify the purpose of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman said that ACPO will draw up a pool of candidates although it would not be for ACPO to shortlist them. It would be for the police and crime commissioner to look at the pool of candidates and judge who is the most suitable on the basis of local knowledge.
The Minister then said that we would not want a legal prohibition on anyone else. What will happen is that people will test what he meant by such a prohibition. It obviously means that it would be possible for someone outside the pool of candidates to be selected for interview. Would that person have to be a police officer? Would it have to be somebody of a relatively senior rank? I accept the point that not everything in this measure can be prescribed through regulations. There are some fundamental points of principle to which the Minister will, at some point, have to return, to clarify what legal prohibition on anybody else means, to whom it applies and whether a civilian-type figure, who has impressed
Nick Herbert: We can all agree that it would be inconceivable that a PCC would appoint a chief constable who was improperly qualified for the job in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. The key question is the extent to which we have to prescribe that by regulation, because it is related to the reform of ACPO itself, which is why we cannot give all the answers at the moment. It is perfectly fair to establish the view on all sides, which is that people should be suitably qualified for the job of chief constable, but that the pool should not be so narrow that PCCs are not given a choice over whom they appoint, so the choice is made by existing chief constables. That would not be acceptable. It is right that there should be a standard. We may have to prescribe that standard by regulation—that is for determination and discussion, including with ACPO—but we should not narrow that decision too much.
Vernon Coaker: The Minister’s clarification, that it is not expected that a civilian could become chief constable—that it would be a warranted officer with the relevant experience—is helpful, although I still think that there will be some debate and discussion on what it means for the PCC not to be legally prohibited from going outside the ACPO pool of candidates. The Minister will reflect on that point, and others, in reading our proceedings, will no doubt seek clarification.
I was not sure whether any reserve power will be kept by the Secretary of State. The Minister said that there was a section of the Police Act 1996 which, if the Secretary of State feels there may be problems in an individual force, or if an unintended consequence arises, allows them to make or change regulations in respect of this process. The Minister, the Home Secretary and the centre, notwithstanding the Minister’s desire for localism, will clearly retain some power of oversight. The Minister must think that that is important, otherwise that provision would have been amended and removed from the Bill. I have no intention of pressing any of these amendments to a vote, because they are probing.
I return to my initial point on the amendments. We do not think that the division of powers between the PCC and the PCP is sufficiently clear in clause 38, the related clauses or schedule 8. Moreover, the PCPs do not have sufficient powers. No doubt we will return to that when we consider schedule 8. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Vernon Coaker: The amendments seek to constrain the police and crime commissioner’s power to suspend. Will the Minister clarify his point about the Secretary of State retaining powers to intervene in the process if it is not functioning properly? Is the PCC to monitor the chief constable for performance or misconduct, or both? I want to get an idea of the grounds on which a PCC might seek to suspend or dismiss a chief constable. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on those provisions and on those in schedule 8, which we shall discuss shortly.
Nick Herbert: Just as it is fundamental for police and crime commissioners to be able to appoint chief constables, so they should be able to dismiss them. We do not propose changing any of the existing criteria for dismissal. We seek to put a check and balance on the ability of the police and crime panel to veto dismissal. HMIC will also be consulted, at the request of the panel, to guard against a decision that might be regarded as capricious. In addition, all the existing employment law will continue to relate to the process of appointment and dismissal. I appreciate that that is a sensitive area for chief constables, but it is fundamental to the reform that police and crime commissioners have the same powers as police authorities to appoint and dismiss.
Vernon Coaker: Again, I shall not press the amendments to a vote, but will the Minister say whether the checks and balances in the system are right, in terms of the power of the police and crime commissioner? He said that the checks and balances on the PCC’s power in the provision will be exactly the same as those on police authorities. If I have got that wrong, perhaps the Minister will correct me.
Nick Herbert: To clarify, the system will be fundamentally different from the existing one, because police and crime panels will be separate from the police and crime commissioner. The panel will have a scrutiny function and the ability to veto a dismissal.
Vernon Coaker: It gets a bit confusing when our discussions move between appointment, suspension and dismissal. We shall get more clarity when we debate schedule 8. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Vernon Coaker: This is an important schedule in an important part of the Bill. We started to have an interesting discussion, with the Minister helpfully clarifying one or two points. In many respects, a lot of the amendments are about clarification, although there are some important points of principle.
Our amendments 124 and 125 seek to increase the power of the police and crime panel vis-à-vis the police and crime commissioner. I am not only the one worried about the issue: one of the amendments on police and crime panels and their powers vis-à-vis the commissioner has been tabled by the Minister’s hon. Friends. Clearly, although the Minister is confident about the balance of powers between the panel and the commissioner, others are less certain.
I refer the Committee to this month’s Prospect magazine, in which Jessica de Grazia, the prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, has an interesting article. The Minister will not agree with it, but it is interesting to read. She points out the danger of having one person, an elected commissioner, responsible for everything and the need for proper checks and balances—in terms of the Bill, the need for us to enhance the powers of the police and crime panels. I was interested to see that she, too, said that the police and crime panels as drafted are toothless tigers. Labour Members certainly agree with the description of the panels as toothless, but Government Members also have doubts, as well as others outside the Committee with broad experience of such matters. Our amendment 125 would therefore involve the police and crime panel in the appointment of a chief constable, because that would give the panel the power to work with the police and crime commissioner to bring about the best resolution, deciding on the best candidate to be chief constable.
As has been referred to in earlier debates, the police and crime panels are made up of members from each local authority area and, in Wales, an additional Assembly Member. All those people bring their experience to the question of who is the best person to be the new chief constable. The point being made in our amendments is that the involvement of the police and crime panel in, for example, the appointment of a chief constable should come at a much earlier stage than is currently envisaged.
In the Bill, the police and crime commissioner decides who the chief constable should be, and then takes the decision to the police and crime panel for confirmation. To be fair to the Minister, part of the process allows the panel to veto that appointment. The issue is not that there will be no confirmation hearing, or that the police and crime panel will not have any power, but that the involvement of the police and crime panel should come
Associated with that is an extremely important amendment—amendment 554. It would give the police and crime panel the power to veto not only the appointment of the chief constable, but the removal of the chief constable. In other words, it would give the panel the power to say to the police and crime commissioner, “Having reviewed your decision to sack the chief constable, we do not believe that you should be able to do so.” That is an extremely important point. The unfettered power of a police and crime commissioner to sack the chief constable—because of performance or misconduct issues, in the mind of the commissioner—is significant.
We have been through the following point, but it is worth repeating it. We will have a police and crime commissioner, elected directly by the people on a mandate or a manifesto to do x, y or z. What if a chief constable says, “In my professional opinion, I do not believe that that is the most effective use of resources,” and the police and crime commissioner says, “I am not satisfied with that. The standards and the performance of the chief constable are such that I want them sacked. I want them removed because they are not doing what I think they should be doing”? What possible restraint is there on the power of the police and crime commissioner to prevent them from doing that?
As far as I can tell, there will be no involvement of HMIC or the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The Minister, when he responds, will hopefully correct me, say that I am wrong, and tell me that if the police and crime commissioner says, “I am going to sack a chief constable because they are not performing adequately,” HMIC or the IPCC have to be involved.
Amendment 554 suggests that, in addition to HMIC or the IPCC, there should be a role for the police and crime panel. One person should not be able to sack a chief constable because they do not believe that the latter is performing adequately. The police and crime panel, made up of local representatives, people from various local authorities, independent members and a Welsh Assembly Member, should be able to say to the police and crime commissioner, “No, you have got it wrong. We do not believe that what you are saying is either right or in the interests of the policing of our community.” However, as the Bill stands, the police and crime panel will have no power over the matter. It will be able to look at the issue and make a recommendation, but it will not be able to do anything. That is why not only I, but many people outside, say that the police and crime panels will be toothless and will not be able to do anything.
This is an extremely serious matter. We are not talking about an insignificant figure, but a chief constable, someone who is operationally responsible for the safety of our communities, yet there is no role that means anything for police and crime panels, and that is not satisfactory. I do not think that people in this country believe that that is right, which is why they are so worried about politicisation and interference in operational matters. If a chief constable was worried about the unfettered power of a police and crime commissioner to sack them, why would they not be looking over their
Chief constables cannot go to HMIC, IPCC or the police and crime panel, because they cannot do anything about it. Well, they can kick off, and go to the papers and say, “the police and crime commissioner is acting in an outrageous way”, but upsetting the police and crime commissioner even more will not help, will it? We are debating one of the most significant faults in the Bill. It cannot be right that one individual has such unfettered power.
I suspect that if the matter is not considered in Committee or on Report, it will be discussed in another place. I cannot believe that people will find the provision acceptable. It risks politicisation, interference, and the police and crime commissioner acting in a completely unfettered way. The checks and balances between the police and crime commissioner, the chief constable and the police and crime panel are inadequate.
We are using what the hon. Member for Edinburgh West regards as a proper proportion of the panel—two thirds, not three quarters, as set out in other parts of the Bill. We want a two-thirds majority for the veto power. It would mean that the police and crime panel could not act in an irresponsible way just because it did not like the police and crime commissioner. There would have to be a two-thirds majority to veto, so the police and crime panel could not act irrationally and irresponsibly, and block what the police and crime commissioner was doing. Given the need for a two-thirds majority, it would have to act responsibly.
Amendment 554 goes to the heart of the contradictions in the Bill and the matters that we are worried about. I will listen to what the Minister has to say, but I caution him: to have no restraint is a dangerous mistake. I do not expect him to say that the amendment is right, but the problem needs to be not only reflected on, but acted on. With those opening remarks, I wait to hear what other Committee members have to say.
Nick Herbert: May I first get out of the way the amendments that the hon. Gentleman does not describe as key amendments? Amendments 124 to 147 would increase the power of the police and crime panel, to the exclusion of the police and crime commissioner, with regard to the appointment, suspension and removal of chief constables. They would fundamentally change the position so that the power would be given to the police and crime panel, and would undermine completely the purpose of the reforms and the separation between the panel and the commissioner.
Amendments 148 and 149 would make chief constables accountable to the police and crime panels, not the commissioner, by making chief constables notify the panel of suspensions and making them consult with the panel on the removal of senior officers, rather than with the commissioner. That would be giving the police and crime panel an improper role. The police and crime commissioner should hold the chief constable to account, and the panel should scrutinise the commissioner. The amendments would cut across that arrangement completely.
The crucial amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman is amendment 554, through which he raises his concerns about the removal of a chief constable. I want to challenge his characterisation of the powers under the Bill. The police and crime commissioner will simply not be able to operate an unfettered power. We have been serious about the checks and balances, but we do not agree that they should go as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
First, the hon. Gentleman said that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was not involved, but that is not true. The Bill is clear, and as I have already mentioned, paragraph 15(4) of the schedule states:
I wanted to include that provision in the Bill following a meeting I had with ACPO, in which it raised the issue of what continuing role the inspectorate might have in the processes. I agreed that it was wise for the panel to be able to consult the inspectorate. That view will, of course, become known because of the transparency, and that is a significant check on what the police and crime commissioner does. The inspectorate could express a concern about the dismissal, and the panel could have regard to that.
Vernon Coaker: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s reply, but would his case not be helped if paragraph 15(4)(a) read “must” instead of “may”, so that the panel must consult the chief inspector of constabulary?
Nick Herbert: Not really, because of the circumstances. We are presupposing that the panel has some concern about the dismissal, but in some circumstances the panel might have absolutely no doubt, so stating that it “must” consult the inspectorate is unnecessary. If the panel has concerns, it is allowed to consult the inspectorate. The provision brings the view of the inspectorate into play. That safeguard is significant. It was not in our original proposals, which went to consultation, but was added as a result of the consultation, in order to address such concerns.
I want to draw a concern that I have to the attention of the hon. Member for Gedling. He said that the inspectorate had no role, and because of what is being suggested and put about, I am concerned that, outside the House, the view might be that there are no safeguards. Actually, I have identified a safeguard in the Bill. With the greatest respect, he was wrong: the inspectorate does have a role.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that the police and crime panel should have a role. However, the panel does have a role. That it should be able to scrutinise such decisions is important. The schedule makes provision, in paragraph 15(4), for the police and crime panel to hold a scrutiny hearing. Indeed, paragraph after paragraph sets out the basis on which suspension must take place, so the whole process has proper checks. We must also realise that, in law, police and crime commissioners must exercise their powers reasonably and fairly, as the holders of a public office.
The central part of the case made by the hon. Member for Gedling was that the panel ought to have a power of veto over a police and crime commissioner’s decision to remove a chief constable, as it does over appointment.
The checks and balances that we have put in—consultation with HMIC, the role of the scrutiny hearing, and the fact that, in law, police and crime commissioners must act reasonably—are sufficient to ensure due process, with regard to removal. It is fundamental to the reforms that a police and crime commissioner should have the power to appoint chief constables and to remove them when there is a serious failure to perform. I appreciate that chief constables may not like that idea. Police authorities have the power to remove chief constables at the moment. If we over-constrain that power, we will allow producer capture and find ourselves in a position where chief constables cannot be removed effectively. That would be a step in the wrong direction, and it would mean that we failed to achieve what we need to achieve—reforms that strengthen the link between the police and public.
Vernon Coaker: The Minister and I differ, but I do not want to repeat all our arguments. I will withdraw the amendment, but I want to test the view of the Committee on amendment 554. It may be that there is a need to look at the dismissal and removal of chief constables. My contention is that there is too much power to bring about that removal vested in one individual. The Minister pointed out that police authorities have such power, but they comprise groups of people. In his vision of the future, a directly elected police and crime commissioner with a mandate has, as far as is reasonably possible, the power to do certain things—to shake up the system, change it and reform it. In the Minister’s view, as part of that, it should be easier for the police and crime commissioner to remove the chief constable where the PCC deems that to be appropriate. I think that the Minister has gone too far, and there needs to be a check and a balance that is currently not there. That is the point of difference between us. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I want to test the Committee’s view on amendment 554.
The Chair: No. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the amendment paper, he will see that that will be at the end of the group of amendments beginning with amendment 116. He will have an opportunity to move amendment 554 formally after the other amendments have been debated.
Amendment 42 would lower the threshold at which the police and crime panel could exercise its veto over the commissioner’s proposed candidate for chief constable, making the threshold a majority of two thirds, rather than three quarters, as required in the Bill. We discussed this before in relation to the veto power on setting up a precept, so I do not intend to go over the same ground again and I will not detain the Committee for too long. In our previous debate, we formed the view that there was not a huge difference between the positions in the Bill and in the amendment. However, we differed, in that the Minister’s view was, “It isn’t a huge difference, so why make the change?”, and our opinion was, “If it isn’t a huge difference, why not make the change?” Since that debate, we have discussed the composition of the panel’s membership and, despite my amendment on co-opting members, the Minister expressed his fondness for independent members. It is therefore worth while considering whether that will affect the levels at which the veto may be used.
As the Bill stands, there must be a 75% majority for the panel to exercise its power of veto. As we have discussed, that is nine members on a 12-member panel. If the worry is that political or geographical groups might somehow band together against a police and crime commissioner of another persuasion, that is surely less likely to affect the independent members. The Minister has chosen to describe such members not as “co-opted,” but as “independent” members. If they are not independent—if they have been appointed with some sort of sway that makes them vote more with one group—that would be an argument against having independent members in the first place. However, if they are independent, they are less likely to vote with a particular group. In such circumstances, in order to exercise a veto, there would effectively have to be nine votes from the 10 members from local authorities; that is a 90% majority rather than a 75% majority, which is a very significant hurdle to jump.
Even if the amendment is agreed to, the Bill would still require there to be a 66% majority, which equates to eight members—there is the small difference. That effectively means that there would have to be an 80% majority among the local authority members, which is still a significant body of opinion among those elected members, to bring about an exercise of the veto. That would still be a significant hurdle, and a major protection against the police and crime panel being open to any type of mischief making by any vested interest group on the panel.
In conclusion, a 66% majority would be a step forward. It would still allow robust scrutiny of the commissioner’s decisions, and it would still ensure that commissioners
Vernon Coaker: I was delighted to hear that extremely helpful contribution. The hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam is an extremely enlightened Whip if he allows his hon. Friends to make such interesting and lively contributions. My experience as a Whip was of saying, “Well, you can move your amendment, but you need to be a bit cautious about what you say because it is a Government Bill and you are part of the Government.”
I want to highlight one expression that stood out in the speech made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for the benefit of those who might have missed it, or who will read our proceedings. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West said that a 66% majority, as proposed in his amendment, would be a significant step forward, or certainly “a step forward”—if I am wrong, Hansard will show what he said. The Minister will not accept the amendment, so I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can say that it would be a significant step forward that would make a lot of difference, and then either not vote for it, or not even test the view of the Committee. As a former Whip, I find it enlightening to watch the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam put up with this not only once—
There is a serious point here. The Government Whip has allowed not only this amendment to be moved, because the hon. Member for Edinburgh West has tried to strengthen the Bill with amendment after amendment. He shakes his head, but I have not moved this amendment. We have deliberately not put our names to it in case we embarrass the hon. Gentleman and he thinks, “I had better withdraw it.”
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The hon. Member for Edinburgh West regularly makes a powerful case that totally convinces Opposition Members, but then we find that his amendments are withdrawn. It is amazing.
Chris Ruane: I completely agree. I was in two minds about supporting the amendment, but having listened to the fine oratory of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, I am certain that if it were pressed to a Division, I would support it.
Vernon Coaker: The only person who has not been influenced is probably the Minister. I thought that we had Cicero here. The Government Whip is getting anxious. Not only is he getting irritated by what the Liberal Democrats are doing, but he thinks that we are filibustering. We are not; we are making a serious point.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West clearly has concerns about the powers of police and crime panels, which is why he proposes lowering the threshold at which a veto on the appointment of a chief constable can be exercised. I agree with him, as will many people, just as I agree with other amendments that he has tabled. At some point, however, people will ask whether the hon. Gentleman believes the things that he is saying. All we can hope is that his hon. Friends in this House and the other place will look carefully at what he has said and see that Government Members moved amendments in Committee to alter significantly the balance of power between the police and crime commissioner and the police and crime panel. The Minister, with his good nature, will say, “I don’t mind a few amendments,” but he knows the seriousness and significance of what I have said. That is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for bringing up the serious point behind his amendments. They will be looked at by others and used to support changing the balance of power when the Bill returns to the House or goes to the other place. I am interested in what the Minister has to say.
Nick Herbert: I thought for a second that the hon. Member for Gedling was ruling himself in for a promotion to the other place, given his ability to speak at such at length, which would no doubt be useful in some of the filibustering operations that we have seen there.
Let me make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, he has moved plenty of amendments that he has not pressed to a Division. He has described them as probing amendments, often halfway through his speech, when he has realised what their effect would be. It is perfectly usual to table probing amendments. Secondly, I have already responded on the substance of the question of the voting threshold for the PCP. I have already indicated that I will reflect on it, because it is a serious issue. I am entirely comfortable with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West raising the issue and our debate was useful. I therefore do not accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Gedling that this is damaging or unhelpful. We are all adjusting to coalition politics, but it is interesting that Opposition Members are finding it harder than we are.
Nick Herbert: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has far less to do on this Committee than I have, so he can work out the percentages himself. I have already said that these are issues on which I would like to reflect. I have, however, indicated that we should treat the suggestion of lowering the threshold with considerable caution because the police and crime panel is not elected and there is a danger of cutting across the mandate. I have also questioned what the force of changing the threshold from three quarters to two thirds would be. We have had this debate fully when we considered a previous amendment, so I do not think it is necessary to repeat it. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West to withdraw the amendment.
Mike Crockart: I mentioned mischief making in the deliberations of a police and crime panel, and I am glad to have given some members of the Committee such fun this morning in that vein. However, I made it clear that I was seeking the Minister’s view on whether our subsequent debate on the membership of police and crime panels would affect the reflections that he has already agreed to make on the veto powers. I wanted to make that extra point to add to the debate. However, given that we have covered the matter and the Minister has agreed to reflect on it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Mike Crockart: Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that this is a group of probing amendments. I would like to break the group up by speaking first to amendments 43 to 45, and then to amendment 46.
Amendments 43 to 45 are related to the appointment of the chief constable following the veto of a proposed chief constable by the police and crime panel. They were tabled to get clarification of what the process will be and what powers the relevant people involved in that process will have.
Amendments 43 and 44 would simply limit the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations about the appointment of chief constables should a veto be exercised. They are designed to ensure that the Secretary of State cannot make regulations for the appointment of a candidate who has already been vetoed. Surely we could not countenance a Secretary of State being able to override the veto by a police and crime panel that had been expressed by local representatives through an extremely high level of vote—the threshold is currently 75%. The amendments would also prevent the Secretary of State from overruling local police bodies and protect the aspect of localism of the Bill.
Amendment 45 would remove that phrase and widen the scope for the appointment of a chief constable. That is intended to ensure that the pool of chief constable candidates is not limited to those who were previously considered, and that as wide a range of candidates as possible is considered in the event of a veto.
In any other business, if a selection process comes up with one candidate, and for whatever reason that candidate chooses not to accept, or their references do not come through looking quite like what they were supposed to, we would not expect the business to say, “We can now look only at the other candidates who we did not think were good enough,”, because if they had been good enough, they would have been selected in the first place. The amendment would at least introduce the possibility that as a broad a range of candidates as possible would be considered when finding the right person to become the chief constable.
Amendment 46 would strengthen the power of the panel. It would require the commissioner to notify the panel of the terms and conditions of the appointment of a chief constable. At present, although the panel may look at the appointment, it has no way of looking at the terms and conditions that are laid down for it.
Terms and conditions may be fairly standard or particular provisions may be imposed. I should hate to see particularly restrictive terms and conditions imposed on chief constables that would effectively restrict their ability to carry out their roles properly and efficiently. The proposal would ensure that commissioners would be more accountable and unable to impose their own conditions as a way of limiting the role of the chief constable.
I tabled the amendments to seek clarification on two points: the process following a veto by the police and crime panel; and the potential for the panel to be involved in limiting the setting of terms and conditions by a police and crime commissioner.
Vernon Coaker: I accept that amendment 43 is probing because it seeks clarification and detail about how the measures will operate. It proposes leaving out paragraph 8(3), which relates to the steps taken, if there is a veto, being subject to regulations under paragraph 10.
I do not wish to delay the Committee, but I want the Minister to lay out the process under the regulations if there were a veto. He will know that in a previous debate I referred to the regulations relating to functions involving the exercise of a discretion. What will be the process after a veto? What is meant by “exercise of a discretion”? If a veto takes place, can it be overridden by the regulations, because that seems to be what the exercise of a discretion means? It would help the Committee if the Minister would outline the process. What might happen after the police and crime panel has vetoed an appointment? It appears that if an appointment were vetoed, it could be considered again and be unvetoed.
The Minister helped the Committee by clarifying the veto on precept—he outlined the process and read into the record what the next steps would be if there were such a veto. It would help if he also clarified the veto on appointment by the police and crime panel. What would be the process? What regulations does the Minister envisage? What is meant by “exercise of a discretion”? The hon. Member for Edinburgh West and I want to know what steps will be taken after a veto of an appointment by the police and crime panel.
Nick Herbert: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West for tabling an amendment to enable us to discuss issues that are important in dealing with the possibility of deadlock between the
The hon. Member for Gedling asked whether a vetoed candidate could be appointed. Under paragraph 8(2), the police and crime commissioner must not appoint a candidate who is vetoed as chief constable. The provision is designed to make clear the force of the veto. However, it is subject to regulations we make under paragraph 8(3). It is possible to conceive of circumstances in which the panel might look again at an appointment, especially if it related not to the individual, but to remuneration that may be part of the reason for the veto. To have an absolute prohibition written into the Bill once the veto has been exercised means that the candidate could never come back again, even though the panel might, on the second occasion, want to accept that candidate, which would clearly be a mistake.
As we discussed in relation to the precept, we have to deal with a situation in which there might be deadlock between the commissioner and the panel, which is why we have to make regulations. In general terms, we will use the power given to the Secretary of State to provide for the panel and the commissioner to resolve the situation amicably. The regulations will be laid before Parliament in due course, and the guiding principle will be that in any regulations to deal with deadlock it will need to be borne in mind that the elected commissioner has a mandate from the people.
Combined with the need for a force not to be left leaderless, it is imperative to deal with deadlock quickly and with the public interest at heart. I am happy to listen to any further worries that the hon. Gentleman has about such matters, which will inform our consideration. However, I am not in a position to describe the regulations in more detail at this stage. We all agree that there has to be a process, otherwise a force could be left without a chief constable for some time. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West to withdraw the amendment.
Mike Crockart: As I said at the beginning of our debate, I tabled the amendment for the purposes of clarification. We are still in need of further clarification, and I look forward to receiving it at a later date. While we accept that the need for a speedy process, it must maintain the power for local members of the community to be involved to a large extent. We do not want something to be imposed on them, because we want to move away from such a position, as that is a central tenet under the Bill. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment is simple. If the police and crime commissioner rejects the panel’s recommendations on whether or not the candidate should be appointed, the commissioner would have to give the panel a response to such a recommendation, including his reasons for doing so, and that should be published. Under the Bill, will the reason have to be published?
Nick Herbert: May I reflect for a second on whether we are writing into the Bill a requirement that the reasons for rejection be given? For the panel to have to offer a reason seems like common sense—it would not remain silent about the reasons for rejection and, clearly, the police and crime commissioner would have to know. Our whole principle is to support transparency in all such decisions. The public, therefore, are part of the process as well.
Vernon Coaker: We discussed the main thrust of the amendments earlier. Again, this group of amendments would fetter, or put in place a proper check and balance on, the police and crime commissioner vis-à-vis the police and crime panel. The crucial amendment is amendment 317. As the Bill stands, the commissioner may accept or reject a recommendation, having considered it, but the amendment states that the commissioner “must” accept the recommendations of the panel.
I want to speak to the schedule stand part, so I will merely repeat for the record that the issue is about the commissioner’s powers vis-à-vis the panel. However, we had that debate earlier this morning, so I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer. The amendment continues the general thrust of our earlier amendments.
Amendment 116 will give a chief constable the opportunity to make oral representations, as well as written representations, following a police and crime commissioner’s notification of his intention to call for the chief constable’s resignation or retirement.
The Bill currently provides that, when a police and crime commissioner notifies a police and crime panel of his intention to call on the chief constable to retire or resign, the panel “may consult” the HMIC and “must hold” a scrutiny hearing. The amendments would mean that a police and crime panel “must consult” HMIC and the IPCC and must hold a scrutiny hearing. That would ensure that the police and crime panels access appropriate advice when discharging a particularly sensitive function.
Under the Bill, the panel may call the commissioner, the chief constable or both to appear at the scrutiny hearing when considering the commissioner’s intention
I heard what the Minister said earlier. To be fair, in the spirit of the Committee, when I suggested that it may be better to include a requirement that the panel “must consult” rather than a requirement “may consult” HMIC, the Minister said that if it was obvious, perhaps it was not really necessary to consult HMIC. I think the Minister should strengthen the role of HMIC, but I take the point that we may not want consultations in 100% of cases. However, I do not think that “may” is sufficiently strong with respect to the role of HMIC. As I said, with the exception of amendment 554, it is not my intention to press the amendments to a vote. I simply seek further clarification about the process from the Minister.
Nick Herbert: We have already discussed the role of the inspectorate, so I will not return to that issue, but I will speak to amendment 118. We have not included the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as the hon. Gentleman does in his amendment, because it is rightly independent from this whole process. Its remit is confined to complaints against individual officers. I do not think that it would be appropriate to bring in the IPCC. We already have a provision to bring in HMIC, and that is sufficient.
On amendments 119, 120, 121 to 122, the Bill provides for either the police and crime commissioner or the chief constable or both to attend the scrutiny hearing. The decision on whether to invite one or the other or both and how they are required to appear is for the panel to take. It is not for the Bill to stipulate. There may of course be a case for both to attend at the same time, but, depending on the reason for the proposed removal, it may not always be appropriate. That decision is for the panel to make on a case-by-case basis.
Similarly, amendment 123 should be resisted on the grounds that it is not for the Government or Parliament to seek to bind the panel on how it conducts its scrutiny function. Different circumstances will call for different procedures, and we must be careful of one-size-fits-all primary legislation. As we have already had a significant debate about these issues, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Vernon Coaker: I want to read into the record the submission by the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association, as I think it sets out clearly some of the association’s concerns about the Bill; I mentioned to you, Mr Benton, that I intended to do this. I think it is important to read it into the record and for the Minister to respond as he thinks appropriate.
This helpful submission is from Paul West, the chief constable of West Mercia police and chair of CPOSA. It lays out some of the association’s concerns about schedule 8, which I think is important to consider as we continue with the Bill’s proceedings. It states:
“Part 1 of Schedule 8 provides a…detailed explanation of the (multilayered and, in our view, unnecessarily lengthy) process to be undertaken before a preferred candidate for a chief constable vacancy can be confirmed in post. This process includes a role for the police and crime panel and introduces a new ‘public hearing’ stage that aims to bring the appointment of a chief constable more in line with the procedures followed by Parliament in relation to public appointments.
Nick Herbert: All of us have CPOSA’s submission. I quite understand why it is raising those points, and if there are specific points, we should address them. I just wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will read the whole submission into the record, which seems somewhat to be a waste of time, if we all have a copy of it.
The Chair: Order. It is perfectly in order if the hon. Member for Gedling wishes to read out the submission. I am not quite sure about the formal publication of the submission. Has it been published? [ Interruption. ] For the Committee’s information, it will be published, but there is nothing out of order if the hon. Gentleman refers to the document in full if he so wishes. It is a matter for him.
Vernon Coaker: Thank you, Mr Benton. I just think that it is an important document to read into the record. I rarely do that, as the Minister knows. He is quite right to ask whether it is in order, which is why I checked, as I said at the beginning.
Vernon Coaker: Or whether it is appropriate. Anyway, I think it is a good document, and I am sure that it will be an interesting one to read into our proceedings, helping to reinforce the points that have been made. It might take a couple of minutes, but the Minister knows that we have agreed on the progress of the Committee. Part of being in opposition is for Opposition Members to be able to use the time in the way that we think appropriate, and we will do that.
“CPOSA has no difficulty with this as a basic concept, however we do have some concerns regarding the practicality and impact of some of the suggested processes. For example, we are unsure as to the perceived benefits of the PCP publishing a report in which up to eight of their members may have objected to the appointment of the PCC’s preferred candidate. Furthermore, we fail to see why a chief constable confirmation hearing process should take up to three weeks as permitted in the Bill and believe that, with proper planning, it could easily be concluded on the day of the final interviews as at present.
Part 1 of the schedule is completely silent in relation to the details of the actual process to be followed by a PCC in selecting his or her preferred chief constable candidate. Similarly, no details whatsoever are known about the process to be followed by a chief constable in appointing a deputy chief constable or an assistant chief constable.”
“This situation contrasts markedly with the well established procedures that are currently followed by the vast majority of police authorities when recruiting and selecting chief officers in accordance with the best practice guidelines in chief officer selection jointly drawn up by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and the Home Office.
For example, chief officers are already wondering whether, in the case of chief constable selection, any interviews undertaken will involve the PCC sitting alone. Or will the PCC sit as the chair of a selection panel, but with the ultimate freedom to select the candidate of their choice (subject to their decision not being vetoed by a subsequent PCP confirmation hearing)?
Similarly, questions are also being asked in relation to what the proposed panel membership for a DCC or an ACC selection process might be? Once more, will these selections be undertaken by a Chief Constable sitting alone or is it envisaged that they will be the chair of a panel, but still retaining the freedom to select the candidate of their choice? In the case of ACC recruitment processes, we anticipate that, if adopting a ‘panel’ approach, a Chief Constable may wish – at very least – to have their DCC sitting alongside them during interview. However, if this approach is taken, who is it envisaged will sit alongside the Chief Constable in a DCC selection process?
CPOSA considers that any regulations made under section 50 of the Police Act 1996 and introduced in support of Part 1 of Schedule 8 of the Bill will need to contain sufficient detail to ensure absolute clarity and transparency in the selection procedures to be followed both by PCCs and by Chief Constables, within which (other than in cases involving a PCP veto) the power to offer promotion to and within the ACPO ranks will solely be vested in a single individual.”
“Part 2 of Schedule 8 describes in some detail the new arrangements that will exist to enable the suspension and removal from office of a Chief Constable by a PCC. Part 3 of Schedule 8 similarly refers to the new arrangements that will enable the suspension and removal from office of other chief officers by a Chief Constable, although the absence of detailed procedures in Part 3 is quite striking.
In contrast with the well established and transparent procedures that currently exist to cater for such rare events, the absence of adequate and appropriate checks and balances and the lack of independent, professional scrutiny in Parts 2 and 3 of Schedule 8 is a source of great concern to CPOSA members of all ranks.
At present, the power to remove Chief Constables in the interests of efficiency or effectiveness, by requiring them either to retire or resign, is contained within the relevant sections of the Police Act 1996 as amended by subsequent legislation (in particular Sections 30 – 33 of the Police Reform Act 2002). This same legislation also makes it possible for action that may lead to the removal of a Chief Constable in the interests of efficiency or effectiveness to be initiated by the Home Secretary. Within both scenarios, there is clear requirement for independent professional advice to be sought from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (or HMCIC in the case of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police). Full details of the procedures to be followed in respect of the removal of Chief Constables are included in a protocol agreed by HMCIC, the Home Office, the Association of Police Authorities and CPOSA in March 2004 and published as an Annex to Police Negotiating Board Circular 04/05.
CPOSA’s concerns in relation to Parts 2 and 3 of Schedule 8 of the Bill as currently drafted revolve around the fact that the proposed new arrangements for all chief officers move towards a model of accountability to a single individual rather than to a committee or panel. Thus, as regards suspension and removal from office, the PCC is effectively the final and only arbiter in relation to a Chief Constable, and in the case of other CPOSA members the Chief Constable is the final and only arbiter.
As mentioned above, existing procedures include a clear and specific role for HMIC throughout, in terms of providing independent professional advice. Such a safeguard is not contained in the Bill as currently drafted.
Thus, Part 2 of Schedule 8 makes no reference to a PCC needing to refer either a decision to suspend a Chief Constable or to call for their retirement or resignation to HMCIC. Furthermore, in scrutinising a PCC’s decision to require a Chief Constable to retire or resign, the Bill only indicates that the relevant Police and Crime Panel ‘may’ consult the chief inspector of constabulary.
Additionally, the powers of a Police and Crime Panel outlined in Part 2 of Schedule 8 are limited to making a recommendation as to whether or not their PCC should call for the retirement or resignation of the Chief Constable. The PCC needs only to consider this recommendation and is not in any way bound by it.
In summary, therefore, under the provisions of the Bill as currently drafted a PCC can remove a Chief Constable from office without obtaining any independent professional advice and could do so against the recommendation of the PCP. Equally, the provisions of Part 3 of Schedule 8 would seem to permit a Chief Constable to remove a DCC or an ACC from office without reference to any external body, so long as before doing so they have consulted their PCC.
CPOSA considers that any regulations made under section 50 of the Police Act 1996 and introduced in support of Parts 2 and 3 of Schedule 8 of the Bill will need to contain adequate safeguards, including the requirement for PCCs and Chief Constables to seek independent professional advice from HMCIC in all cases of proposed suspension and removal from office, to ensure that the powers to make decisions of this gravity are not solely vested in a single individual.
I am sorry to have imposed on the indulgence of the Committee, but some very important points are made in that submission, and I wanted to have them put on the record to give the Minister the opportunity to reflect and respond.
Nick Herbert: We have already discussed at some length the substance of the issues over appointment and dismissal, and I have set out the Government’s view. We are all agreed that safeguards are needed, and there is a discussion about the extent of those safeguards. It is a question of achieving the right balance between guarding against capricious decisions, which we have done, and ensuring that the elected individual can fulfil his or her mandate.
On the regulations that the Government may make under the Police Act 1996, to which I have already referred, I intend that we should consult fully about them, and we will continue to have discussions with ACPO and the Chief Police Officers Staff Association. I am not minded to make the alterations to the essential balance of the arrangements for appointment and dismissal that CPOSA is seeking, but we recognise the need for process, and that will be specified in regulations, as we have previously discussed. I do not agree with CPOSA that there will be no professional guidance or input on dismissal, because—this is worth repeating—the police and crime panel will have the ability to bring in the inspectorate, and to ask for a report. If any concern is expressed by the panel, that process would be initiated, which addresses CPOSA’s point.
Clive Efford: We can deal with the amendment briefly, as much of what has been discussed on arrangements outside London relates to the clause. The amendment is consistent with others that we have tabled relating to London. The Minister does not like it, but we do not approve of the downgrading of the role of assembly members, which will turn them into mere bystanders. They will be able to ask questions, but unable to do anything about any concerns raised.
I have a simple question on the amendments, and I would like the Minister to put his answer on the record. Under schedule 8, there will be confirmation hearings for the appointment of chief officers outside London; in London there is no such arrangement. I appreciate that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has national responsibilities for security and other matters, but there is still a local policing role. Surely there should be a similar function for the police panel in London as there is outside it to scrutinise the appointment of a chief officer. Aside from all the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has made about issues outside London, we want the Minister to answer our key question so that we can make progress in the Bill. Why will there be no role for the police panel in London to scrutinise the appointment of a chief officer?
Nick Herbert: The hon. Member for Eltham has answered his own question. There is a distinction between London and the rest of the country in how appointments are made. Such a distinction is necessary because of the national policing functions that the Metropolitan police undertake. The Secretary of State continues to have the power to appoint the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the deputy Commissioner, and the Mayor has a role, which is set out. Provision already exists, therefore, for the balance between local input, which comes from the elected Mayor, and the national decision on such appointments. It would be a mistake to add a third level of approval by the police and crime panel, the case for which has not been made. The amendment might mean that the Secretary of State is faced with differing recommendations from the Mayor and from the police and crime panel, which would add confusion and delay to the appointments process.
In addition, the Secretary of State must already have regard to recommendations and representations made by the Mayor. The process set out in clauses 42 and 43 permits the residents of London to have their say through their directly elected representative. The addition of the police and crime panels to the process would not, therefore, have a discernible benefit. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of our reform as downgrading the role of assembly members; it is they who will form the police and crime panel, which is an upgrading of their role.
Clive Efford: Will the Minister say whether I have got this wrong? Outside London, a directly elected police and crime commissioner makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State for the appointment of a chief officer. Before such a recommendation is made, a confirmation process involving the police and crime panel takes place. Will he explain how applying such an arrangement inside London would add an unnecessary level of scrutiny? That is all that we are asking for.
I accept that there is a national role in London, which must be taken into consideration—no one suggests that such a role should be dismissed. However, 7.7 million people in the Metropolitan police area are concerned about local policing, over which the chief officer will have a great deal of influence. It follows, therefore, that the directly elected Assembly panel should have some oversight—as is the case outside London—of the appointment of the chief officer and his deputy.
Nick Herbert: I have. My view is that the correct procedure is for the Secretary of State to make the appointment, because it is the highly significant appointment of a chief officer who has national policing responsibilities. That is why the Home Secretary retains that power of appointment. The local involvement already exists, and it is expressed through the Mayor. I do not see what is added by the introduction of a third level of de facto approval. The distinction here is that the Mayor does not appoint the commissioner, so the Mayor is effectively the local consultee.
Clive Efford: Clearly there is a fundamental difference of opinion. I cannot follow the logic of the Government’s argument as to why the arrangements outside London cannot apply in London. My understanding is that all chief officers are officers of the Crown, but I am willing to be corrected on that. We do not accept the Government’s argument, but having put my points on record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Clive Efford: In the interests of progress, I have not moved amendment 158 because such a debate would involve similar arguments to those in the exchange we have just had about what we believe is a downgrading of the role of assembly members. They have the power to
We feel that that turns assembly members into mere bystanders and, as we have said, paper tigers with absolutely no teeth. If we had been able to amend clause 48, we would have given assembly members a scrutiny role over the suspension of a commissioner and the oversight of that process. As we have said in an earlier debate about police and crime commissioners outside London, that would have given the panel influence and a scrutiny role over the power to force chief officers to resign or retire, and it would have put in place a process through which a case could be made to the police and crime panel. That would have taken place before any recommendations were made to the Secretary of State.
We believe that that is the proper process for scrutiny in London, as we have said consistently throughout all our debates on the role of the police and crime panel in London and the Mayor’s office. We will return to this area of scrutiny within the metropolis for further discussion as the Bill makes progress. The Government might even end up listening to the representations of the wide body of people who have serious misgivings about the proposed arrangements for scrutiny of the Metropolitan police.
Nick Herbert: The Government have tried to engage with all those who have expressed an interest in or concerns about the Bill. We have listened carefully to them, including in Committee, and that will continue to be the case. As for the hon. Gentleman’s wider point, the powers of the police inquiry panel in London will almost exactly mirror the general powers of the London assembly, in that it will exercise a retrospective scrutiny of the Mayor’s decisions. That is how the assembly works at the moment. There is no downgrading in relation to the assembly powers. All we are doing is removing the unnecessary tier of the MPA and ensuring a clearer line of democratic accountability through the Mayor. We have had this discussion before and I do not propose to prolong it.
Vernon Coaker: I apologise for delaying the Committee, but we will make progress—indeed we are making progress. I have a couple of simple points to make. A memorandum from the Electoral Commission—the Minister will be pleased to know that I will not read it out—makes a couple of interesting points about elections. In point 5, the commission talks about the importance of being
Nick Herbert: When I met the Electoral Commission last week—it seems a long time ago—we discussed these issues in a helpful meeting. I was able to reassure it that we have set up in the Home Office a transition board. I chair the board, which includes representatives from various organisations such as the Association of Police Authorities and ACPO. We have already started to address issues relating to the conduct of elections, and one of the board’s work streams relates to provisions for elections. We will certainly engage with the Electoral Commission. The work is, of course, cross-departmental, because of the Cabinet Office’s role in that respect, so matters are in hand.
Vernon Coaker: Will the Minister confirm that prisoners are not allowed to vote under clause 52, so that we can all be clear about it? I think that I know the answer, but the Committee will be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman will outline who can and who cannot vote, and explain the meaning of the clause.
Without prejudging our proceedings on clause 57 and what the hon. Member for Edinburgh West might say about it, I wonder whether—I am not making a sarcastic comment—how to vote in the election might be an important point. Given the model that the Minister is setting up, it is necessary that participation is encouraged.
The amendment would introduce the concept of a threshold in the election. An interesting argument can be made about thresholds, given what happened yesterday in the House of Lords, where they clearly thought that thresholds were important to a particular aspect of the Bill that they were considering. I want to test the Minister’s opinions on a threshold. What would he consider to be a good turnout? Going back to an earlier debate, what are his views on encouraging people to vote in the election? What will he do to discourage fringe or extremist candidates from being elected?
Perhaps with your permission, Mr Benton, we can have something of a stand part debate as part of our consideration of the amendment so that we can find out how the Minister believes the supplementary vote system will work and whether it will help to make a threshold unnecessary because the system envisaged under the Bill will help to ensure that extremist candidates are not elected, meaning that a threshold is unnecessary. Is a threshold more unnecessary in a supplementary vote system or an alternative vote system, as I note that the Liberal amendment that was tabled related to the alternative vote system? Perhaps I will leave that for our clause stand part debate, however, because I would like the Minister to explain to us why he has preferred a supplementary vote system to the alternative vote or first-past-the-post system. The clause is very important, but we will stick at the moment to the issue of the threshold.
The Minister and the Home Secretary have dismissed the idea of extremist candidates being elected as unlikely, saying, “Trust the electorate” and so on. To a certain extent, I agree with that, but I want to know what assessment the Minister has made of the potential danger. What turnout does he expect? Does he believe that there will be high turnout, that people will flock to the polls to do their democratic duty and vote for police and crime commissioners? I am not going to put it to a vote; I am just interested in the Minister’s view. How do we intend to encourage participation? That is my opening gambit. I particularly want to come back to the system that the Minister has chosen, but I will do that under clause stand part.
This is an entirely different matter. The aim of the amendment is to set a minimum turnout for an election that has to happen, because the position has to be filled. The hon. Gentleman is yet again adding to the cost of the proposals, just as he would with his policy for elected police chairs. Now he is adding to the cost again, because if the minimum threshold were not reached, there would have to be a rerun. His amendment is silent about how that would happen. Is he suggesting that if that turnout is not reached that there would be a rerun? What happens if it is not reached on the second occasion? He is not saying anything about that. It is a nonsensical amendment. No other election for office in this country has a minimum turnout requirement. I cannot believe he is serious about seeking to set a threshold, or that he has thought about it very hard. It is clearly a nonsense.
Of course we would like to ensure a high turnout for the election to this office. I believe there will be considerable local public interest in it, just as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to ensure a high turnout for his directly elected chairs of police authorities.
Vernon Coaker: That is interesting. I am particularly interested with what I am minded to do on Report, in the Minister’s suggestion that thresholds for elections to office are different from thresholds for referendums about whether a change should be introduced. That might be an interesting argument to explore on Report, on the lines put by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West in his amendment on a referendum in each local area to determine whether police and crime commissioners should actually go ahead. That amendment was withdrawn, but it may be an issue we return to on Report.
This is a probing amendment. There is no need for the Minister to lose his customary cool and charm. I am trying to establish the sort of turnout the Minister would want. Is he bothered about that? What steps would he take? I was hoping for an explanation about how he would expect the Electoral Commission to encourage people to vote.
Vernon Coaker: It is one thing to probe and another thing for Government Back Benchers to lay policy, which is clearly what has been happening. It has happened on numerous occasions and will no doubt happen again. I do not want to delay the Committee. The Minister was silent on the issue of how we will encourage participation. He was silent on concerns about extremists or fringe candidates being elected to this important post. It is a concern; many people say it is an issue for them. We should not just dismiss that, we should reflect on it. One of the ways of dealing with that would be through a threshold. I agree with the Minister. I do not think a threshold is appropriate, but it is appropriate to consider
Vernon Coaker: I think it is important for the Minister to explain to the Committee why the Government have chosen the supplementary vote system. The debate about electoral systems is important. The Minister will be enthralled—no doubt he will have spent many hours considering the different models of election for this particular proposal. But there must be a reason why the supplementary vote has been chosen.
Before the patience of the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam finally wore out, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West obviously saw his amendment with respect to the alternative vote system withdrawn. The amendment dealt with the alternative vote system. The hon. Gentleman went to great lengths to write a couple of amendments, plus a new schedule, which lay out a completely different electoral system. Unless the hon. Gentleman did it for fun, thinking, “I know, I’ll make this up, put it on the table and see what happens—no I won’t, I’ll withdraw it”, I presume he thought that it might be a better system for electing a police and crime commissioner.
I think it is perfectly proper for us all to say to the Minister, how does the supplementary vote system work? Why is it better than the alternative vote system? Why did the Minister discard first past the post? Did he discard first past the post because it is undemocratic—which would be difficult for any of us to say—or because he was worried about particular people being elected? I think we need to hear from the Minister for at least a few minutes. This is a very important issue. Electoral systems are issues for all of us at the moment. Quite rightly, people are debating them.
So here we are: we have set up this system. Why is it a better system for the election of a police and crime commissioner than all the other systems that the Minister could have chosen? For example, why does he think that it is better than the alternative vote? Before I respond I want to hear the Minister. It is also important that the Minister lays out what happens under the supplementary vote system so that all of us properly understand the differences between the electoral systems and can understand why that system will lead to a better process in the election of a police and crime commissioner. I leave the matter at that, but I shall want to respond to what the Minister has to say.
Nick Herbert: I have no intention of playing the hon. Gentleman’s game and getting into a long debate about electoral systems. It is quite straightforward: the supplementary vote system already exists in the London mayoral elections and in elections for all other directly elected mayors in England, which is why it is appropriate to use it in relation to police and crime commissioners. The Mayor who will have the responsibility in London is elected under that system. There is no need for me to describe it, because it is already in use, whereas the alternative vote system is not.
Vernon Coaker: I have disagreed with the Minister on many other points that we have discussed, but usually he has gone to great lengths to justify the decisions that he has made and the policies that he is pursuing. I respect that, and I think that that is good; the Minister engages in the debate. However, now is the first time that I have felt that he has failed to engage in the debate.
I am not playing games ; I am just anxious. I think people have a right to know why the supplementary vote is preferable, other than a statement saying, “As a couple of systems use it, it will be used for police and crime commissioners”, and why the alternative vote system, which would have been proposed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, was dismissed. Why did the Minister feel that first-past-the-post was not appropriate? With due respect to the Minister, I think there is a need for a bit more of an explanation than saying, “A couple of other elections do it, and we do not think that AV is the right system” and then sitting down—it is quite an important issue.
I am not playing games, and I do not expect the Minister to go on for 20 minutes about it. I just think that there is a little bit more of a need to explain why this particular system for electing police and crime commissioners was proposed.
Nick Herbert: I do not think it is difficult. The supplementary vote system is used in London, which covers a quarter of all policing in England and Wales. It therefore makes sense to use the same system for the remaining three quarters, as that is the tried and tested system for direct elections of mayors.
I have already said that the AV system does not exist for any of our elections at the moment. It will be the subject of a referendum decision on an issue of principle, and it will be decided by the people. I think the system would be wrong, and it would be a system that is different to the one that is used in London. If we were to set that up, we would have to change the existing system in London. I have detect no public demand for that, so the straightforward and logical thing to do is simply to use the same voting system that exists for London. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Gedling is making a case against that, but if he is, let’s hear it.
I just note in passing that, in spite of the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about the voting system, the Labour party agreed to the voting system for police and crime commissioners without pressing the matter to a vote.
The amendment will alter the powers of an acting police and crime commissioner in the event that the elected commissioner is suspended, removed or otherwise incapacitated. The original drafting of this clause allowed for all functions to be taken up by an acting commissioner, with the exception of those duties that are most pertinent to the democratic accountability of the role, namely, the issuing and varying of the police and crime plan; the appointment, suspension and removal of the chief constable; and setting the local policing precept.
The amendment will permit the acting commissioner to perform the latter two tasks. Therefore, the only function that will not be performed by the acting commissioner will be the variation or issuing of the police and crime plan. The Government are clear that that is the correct balance. Although the police and crime plan will be the embodiment of the commissioner’s manifesto pledges, and so should not be altered by anyone other than the elected commissioner, chief officer appointments and dismissals and precept setting are essential functions that may have to be discharged in the elected commissioner’s absence. Of course, in London at the moment, it is possible for senior people—in this case, the chief officer—to be absent for a significant period, but that could also apply in relation to an elected person.
The amendment is a practical one that will ensure that the essential business of policing governance can be discharged in an elected commissioner’s absence. For that reason, I beg that the amendment be passed.
Vernon Coaker: The Minister did not properly explain—other than to say why it was originally in the Bill—why varying the police and crime plan would not be an appropriate function for an acting commissioner. The Minister changed his mind, so that an acting commissioner cannot issue or vary a police and crime plan, but can sack a chief constable. I find that strange. Admittedly, the acting commissioner can be there only for a maximum period of six months—if I have got that wrong, the Minister will correct me—but even in a six-month period, there may be a good reason to vary a police and crime plan.
Given the Minister’s earlier desire to ensure that a police and crime plan could be varied at any time—to have flexibility, localism and not get people trapped in bureaucracy—I wonder why an acting commissioner cannot vary the plan but, fresh into the job, can sack a chief constable or ask them to resign or, indeed, set a precept. It seems odd that an acting commissioner can do the things that in most people’s eyes are more serious, yet they cannot do the things that might be regarded as less serious. I want a more in-depth explanation from the Minister. The acting commissioner, if he suspends the chief constable, will presumably be subject to the normal processes and procedures as an ordinary police and crime commissioner.
I find it strange that an acting commissioner can not only sack a chief constable but appoint a new one. Can someone who is in post for a couple of months appoint
Nick Herbert: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intention in probing this issue. It was our original view that the acting commissioner would not be able to do these things, so the exceptions were made for the appointment, suspension and removal of the chief constable and for the setting of the precept. Following representations and when we reflected further on the matter, however, we appreciated that these functions are absolutely vital to the operation of the force. They must be discharged if the business of governance is not to grind to a halt. A police force needs to have a chief officer. The hon. Gentleman is correct that the maximum period is six months. That is a long period for these things not to be able to happen.
As a longer-term document, the police and crime plan is fundamental to the mandate of the elected commissioner. These other functions have to be exercised. Saying that they could not be exercised would result in a paralysis in the governance of the force. That would not be desirable, so it is important that the acting commissioner is able, if necessary, to fulfil them.
I have no doubt that if, for instance, the commissioner was incapacitated or unwell and it was towards the end of the recuperation period and they were about to return, an acting commissioner would not make a vital decision over an appointment unless it was absolutely necessary, knowing that the suspended person may come back. There may be other decisions that have to be made because of the timetable—precept setting is a very good example. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that goes to a timetable and decisions have to be made by certain periods. That decision may not be avoidable, so that is why those powers are important.
Vernon Coaker: I understand the Minister’s point on the necessity for the force to be able to carry on and that a block cannot be put on everything, because important decisions will have to be made. To be fair, issuing the precept may be one example. The Minister discussed the PCC being incapacitated and the acting commissioner not being expected to take decisions if the PCC was expected back within a couple of months. Is that just an expression of hope? If an acting commissioner is there for only a couple of months, they could sack a chief constable and employ a new one. I am conscious that it is for six months and the necessity of the force being able to carry on, but I worry that, if it is only a month or two interregnum, the Minister may want a little more control over what is happening, rather than just saying, “Well, you wouldn’t expect a decision of that magnitude to be made in those circumstances.”
Nick Herbert: I am not sure that we can prescribe that. It is important that we have clarity on whether or not the acting commissioner can exercise powers, but beyond that, I do not see how we can prescribe in legislation what period those powers may be operated
Vernon Coaker: I accept what the Minister is saying and the need for practical arrangements. His example was reasonable. We would not want the process of appointing a chief constable to stop halfway through simply because someone was ill for a time. I accept that. Notwithstanding the points made by the Minister, there is the potential for a problem. I will not vote against the clause, but he, his officials and others might wish to keep an eye on the situation, to ensure that it works out as he expects.
We must accept the great likelihood that candidates for the role of PCC will come from the present membership of police authorities and, indeed, other elected representatives. I am unclear, therefore, what clash of interests or responsibilities arises. Although such candidates would have to resign from a police authority, my understanding is that, even if elected as a police and crime commissioner, they would not have to resign as a councillor, although they would if elected as an MP.
The situation seems confused. More clarification would be helpful about why that type of candidate for that role should be singled out. In the House are serving councillors and Members of the devolved Parliament and Assemblies. There might even be an MP who is not only a serving councillor but a member of a police authority. Yet, under the Bill, if that person wished to stand as a police and crime commissioner, only the police authority membership would need to be resigned. I would welcome some clarification on why that role has been singled out.
Nick Herbert: As my hon. Friend notes, the Bill will require a police authority member to resign from the post if wishing to stand as a police and crime commissioner—in the same way as a police officer, a judge or a civil servant must—because we look to the police authorities to continue overseeing policing during the transition to police and crime commissioners. They will need to be fully focused on that task, especially providing local political leadership in driving value for money. That and the transition process are particularly important for police authorities in the run-up to 2012 and the elections, and we would be concerned if police authority members spent much of their time campaigning.
The provision does not prevent any individual from standing; it merely requires people to resign from their role—a role that brings with it an allowance, paid for from public funds. I therefore think the proposition is reasonable. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will agree.
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