Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Police and Justice Bill

3.41 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [National Policing Improvement Agency]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 1:


"( ) the Police Standards Unit"

The noble Baroness said: After the previous excitement, the Committee will be pleased to know that this is a probing amendment.

Clause 1 and Schedule 1 establish the National Policing Improvement Agency, which will replace Centrex and PITO. My amendment would add the Police Standards Unit to the list of bodies to be abolished by Clause 1(2), organisations which are, in practice, to be absorbed by the proposed National Policing Improvement Agency.

I am well aware that as the PSU is not a statutory body it cannot technically be abolished in the fashion my amendment would suggest—hence it is a probing amendment. However, I hope my amendment will provide us with an opportunity to discuss the role of the PSU and whether it should be included within the new agency, and to consider the plethora of other bodies that will continue to direct and give guidance to police forces and authorities despite the creation of the new agency.

The proposed establishment of the new agency has, of course, received broad support from many quarters. This support, however, is not free from caveats. The Minister informed us at Second Reading that the
 
20 Jun 2006 : Column 646
 
agency would help to rationalise the national policing landscape and inject new dynamism into support for operational policing, predominantly by subsuming some of the complex web of agencies that are currently supporting the service. It plans to bring together not only functions currently undertaken by PITO and Centrex but aspects of the work of the Home Office and ACPO—the Association of Chief Police Officers—in an aim to support and drive policing improvement. Sometimes when I look at the language so far used at the various stages of this Bill, both in this House and another place, and see the myriad titles of organisations, I wonder how on earth people keep abreast of them when they read our deliberations later.

There are numerous organisations that assess police performance which are excluded from the agency. As well as the PSU, there is also the Audit Commission, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and local and regional government. As the Police Federation has highlighted:

Members of the Committee will recall that the Home Affairs Committee in another place noted that,

I also recall that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, whom I see in his seat, wondered at Second Reading,

I agree with him on that. I do not discount the valuable work that the PSU has achieved, but we need to ask ourselves whether we need a separate standards unit and an improvement agency at the same time.

The PSU measures and compares police performance, identifying and disseminating good practice across the country. Meanwhile, one of the stated aims of the new agency, in addition to driving police improvement, is to,

That is a clear duplication of objectives and effort.

How are the two bodies supposed to carry out these very similar functions without overlap? If, by chance, they produced work on the same issue, whose recommendations should be seen as paramount? Whose should be preferred? It is not unknown for there to be confusion about who is responsible for certain matters—the very problem that this part of the Bill is trying to address.

If the PSU is not to be subsumed by the agency, then what of the suggestion of the Home Affairs Committee in another place that it would be desirable, even inevitable, that the inspectorate and the standards unit should eventually be merged in the continued rationalising of the tangled web of agencies? No doubt we will return to the inspectorate later in the Bill.
 
20 Jun 2006 : Column 647
 

The debate in another place only highlighted to me that we need further to address the extent to which the agency, the PSU and HMIC—within the new joint inspectorate that the Government plan—will overlap. Indeed, there seems to be some confusion between the former and current director of the PSU about the role and positioning of the organisation. Dr Kevin Bond, the former director, stated that the unit was created to act as a catalyst in the police service and that the proposal to merge the unit and the HMIC made sense. Yet the current director, Paul Evans, has said that the unit works out of the Home Office and that the inspectorate is independent.

I should be grateful if the Minister could outline how these various organisations plan to work together in practice. Will there be formal memorandums of understanding and monthly meetings to co-ordinate the work? Will they be allowed to share work or set up joint ventures? How will there be effort without duplication of effort and ability? I beg to move.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: There is very little to add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said, other than that we support the amendment. The police are overburdened with inspection from a range of bodies. I thought it was the Government's intention to rationalise some of that, but we see that the Police Standards Unit will carry on regardless. Will the new National Policing Improvement Agency be able to take on some of its work? Where will their functions overlap, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked? Why was it not considered alongside the NPIA?

Intervention in forces is being overseen by at least four organisations; the recipe for confusion is overwhelming. ACPO, the APA and the Police Federation all agree that duplication of effort is costly and that timely regulatory impact assessment before the NPIA would have been very helpful, but as yet we have not seen it. This is a very sensible amendment and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Lord Waddington: This may be a probing amendment, but it is none the worse for that. I was certainly glad to see it on the Marshalled List because, during my Second Reading speech, I had a few words to say about the Police Standards Unit. We are entitled to know a little more about what it is up to. I gather that it produced the booklet Hate Crime: Delivering a Quality Service. I would quite like to have a better idea about what that booklet says.

Does the Home Office generally and the Police Standards Unit in particular accept any responsibility for the series of ridiculous investigations following complaints about allegedly homophobic and racist language? Members of my party are not the only ones to be concerned about too much attention being paid to politically correct causes. I direct the Minister to an article in the Guardian on 18 January by Jonathan Freedland. He suggested that some police officers do not seem to recognise the difference between a hate crime—a conventional offence of violence but one in which the violence is motivated by bigotry—and an
 
20 Jun 2006 : Column 648
 
incident in which language has been used which has been viewed by some people as racist or homophobic. Of course, there is all the difference in the world.

Is the Home Office encouraging the police in this area? Does this error arise from bad advice given by the Police Standards Unit in the booklet to which I have referred? If it does not arise as a result of bad advice emanating from the Home Office, will the Government please explain and justify not only one or two cases where the police seem to have wasted their time on completely frivolous investigations, but a whole course of conduct which seems to extend to police forces all over the country?

I remind the Minister that we have every right to be concerned about the questioning of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester after he made perfectly reasonable comments on the Church's teaching regarding homosexual acts. We are entitled to hear how it came about that Anne Robinson was questioned about allegedly anti-Welsh remarks as if she were about to commit some dreadful racist crime and start killing people because she had anti-Welsh motives in her make-up. We are entitled to ask how it came about that a respectable person such as Lynette Burrows was questioned by the police as if she were a common criminal after her comments on gay adoption on BBC Radio Five Live. We are entitled to ask how it came about that Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, was investigated by the police after he had told the "Today" programme that homosexuality was not acceptable and should be viewed as a medical problem. Why was he treated like a common criminal about to use violence against people because he did not like their sexual orientation? It is almost too crazy to believe that it could have happened in this country.

What about the journeying of officers from north Wales to investigate whether Lance Price had witnessed a hate crime committed by the Prime Minister as if the Prime Minister himself, shouting at the TV screen at the time of the Welsh Assembly elections, was a threat to public order? It is almost too crazy to believe that any chief officer of police would have directed officers to come down from Wales to carry out an investigation into the conduct of the Prime Minister. How has it happened? Is this the result of bad advice from the Home Office? If it is not as a result of that, how is it happening? Has the Police Standards Unit anything to account for in its behaviour?

Then there was the gay horse incident at Oxford, when an undergraduate who said to a police officer, "Do you realise your horse is gay?", found himself arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act for making homophobic remarks and spent the night in the cells. We can smile at that and think that it is funny, but any police officer who has learnt anything about the law must have known that that undergraduate had not committed any offence at all. He was not threatening people with violence; all that he was doing was making what they took to be a tasteless remark about homosexuality.
 
20 Jun 2006 : Column 649
 

Lastly there was the case of the couple in Fleetwood who put in a call to the Wyre Borough Council to ask if they could display evangelical Christian literature in council buildings to counteract what they regarded as an abundance of gay rights material. They finished up being investigated by the police.

When you look at all those incidents together and add up the police time wasted, you really are forced to the conclusion that chief officers of police throughout the land seem to have got completely the wrong end of the stick with hate crimes. Why have they got the wrong end of the stick? You have all these units in the Home Office that are supposed to be advising them which is the right end of the stick, yet they get the wrong end of the stick. I suggest that it is about time we looked at what sort of advice is coming out of the Home Office and the Police Standards Unit.

It is clearly an insult to the public that time should be spent on these matters when some forces are saying that they have no time to investigate shoplifting. It really is an insult to the public when one reads of the police in Hull screening out theft, criminal damage, common assault, harassment and non-domestic burglary because they have to meet Home Office targets. The question is, when behaving in this ridiculous fashion, were the police trying to implement what they thought were government policies and priorities? Were they following advice given by the Police Standards Unit in its booklet Hate Crime: Delivering a Quality Service? If so, the sooner that the unit is dissolved the better.

Perhaps in her closing remarks the Minister will say whether I have got the wrong end of the stick or the police have got the wrong end of the stick and what the explanation is for these bizarre investigations and the complete waste of police time involved.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page