Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Harris of Richmond: When I moved Amendment No. 15, I indicated that I would speak to Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 21. Now that those amendments have been spoken to by others, I shall finish my points on each of them.

Amendment No. 18 is very important. Police authority members know their areas best and are therefore best placed to advise the chief constable on the skills and personality needed in the crucial role of a BCU commander in a particular area. Speaking as a former chair of a police authority, I can say that successive chief constables consulted me and, as a good democrat, I consulted my colleagues on the suitability of a particular officer to a BCU post. On occasion, we both got it wrong, but the principle was upheld and we took the responsibility jointly and seriously. I am glad to say that the "getting it wrong" bit did not happen very often.

The proposals in Amendment No. 19 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, are, again, good practice and in the spirit of wider consultation with various local government partners. BCU commanders are seen as mini chief constables in their areas, and it is to them that local authorities turn when devising their community safety strategies.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 21. As previously suggested, we are concerned that accountability at BCU level should be of the highest standard. To achieve that, it is vital that police authorities play a full part in the arrangements surrounding the strategic priorities to be set for the BCUs. In the past, these have been set by the chief constable and the police authority
20 Jun 2006 : Column 682
together, and the amendment lays down the importance of the roles of the police authority and chief constable in ensuring that it is they, not the BCU commander, who allocate resources and determine the BCU's plans and objectives.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is an interesting group of amendments. In a sense, they draw very heavily on the experience of two very distinguished former—current in the case of my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey—members of police bodies.

The amendments all relate to paragraphs 1 and 2 of Schedule 2 to the Bill, which seek to place basic command units on a statutory footing. Before I get to the substance of the amendments, it may help the Committee if I explain the rationale for this provision. The changes being proposed for basic command units are designed solely to enshrine in law the principle of coterminosity with local authorities. So I argue that, at this point, all other conspiracy theories about this provision fall away.

Tackling crime and anti-social behaviour is not the exclusive responsibility of the police. A wide range of partners have a key role to play, but the central partnership is that between the police and local authorities. I think that there is now general agreement that this partnership will work best if the two agencies work within common boundaries. That is already the case with the great majority of basic command units, but it is open to any newly appointed chief constable to redraw the map as he or she thinks fit. These provisions will ensure that there is proper consultation with crime and disorder reduction partnerships and local criminal justice board partners and will establish the presumption that BCU and local authority boundaries must be coterminous. We have absolutely no other motive in bringing forward these provisions. They are not a Trojan horse that will some day lead to BCUs unilaterally declaring themselves independent from their forces. So far as we are concerned, BCUs are an integral part of a force and, as such, must be managed by the chief constable.

It is against that background that I turn to the detail of the amendments. Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 would remove the obligation for each police area to be divided into BCUs. It is essential that there is an effective command structure beneath the force level, and the BCU structure provides precisely that. Given many of the concerns expressed in the context of restructuring about strategic forces being remote from the communities that they serve, I am sure that it is not the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Anelay, or my noble friend Lord Harris that the entire policing of an existing county force, let alone one of the new strategic forces, should be controlled out of the force headquarters rather than through the medium of a number of BCUs.

Similarly, I cannot support Amendment No. 17. This would drive a massive hole through the provision, as it would leave it to the discretion of the chief constable to decide whether to draw the force's BCU boundaries to match those of the local authorities in
20 Jun 2006 : Column 683
the area. I spent a lot of time in local government as a local authority leader. We were for ever dealing with these boundary issues with regard to our local authority area and trying to work as closely as we could with others. I think that the provision to have BCUs aligned in the way that we seek makes good sense in local government management terms and in tackling crime and disorder issues.

I am intrigued by Amendments Nos. 18, 19, 21 and 57, which have all been spoken to. I now understand better than I did before his explanation what my noble friend Lord Harris is intending to achieve. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 relate to the appointment of BCU commanders. One would require chief constables to consult local authorities before their appointment; the other would provide for joint appointments after consultation with local authorities. Amendment No. 21 gets us into the territory of the setting of BCU objectives and resources.

I know that concerns have been expressed about this provision in the Bill by the Association of Police Authorities and others, not because they disagree with the principle of coterminosity but because of concerns about where statutory BCUs may lead. The APA briefing that noble Lords received before Second Reading said as much. It stated:

That is not the direction of travel. In our view, Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 21 are unwelcome developments.

We have purposefully avoided making provision in the Bill for the appointment of BCU commanders. Under the Police Act 1996, responsibility for appointing the chief constable, deputy chief constable and assistant chief constables of a force properly rests with the police authority. Other appointments further down the management chain, including those of BCU commanders, are rightly the operational responsibility of the chief constable. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and my noble friend Lord Harris said about these matters. That may well be acceptable practice and desirable in getting the right calibre of appointment but, in terms of the chain of command and overall responsibility, it is right that operationally the appointments rest with the chief constable.

These amendments begin to encroach on that responsibility. We are all for having a debate about the proper balance between the roles and responsibilities of chief constables and police authorities and, for that matter, the Home Secretary, but we should not disturb that balance lightly, and certainly not without full consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Chief Police Officers' Staff Association. For those reasons, we cannot support the amendments.

I make the same point in relation to Amendment No. 21. It is for the chief constable to determine the allocation of resources between the operational commands in his or her force. There may be a case for
20 Jun 2006 : Column 684
expanding the policing plan, drafted by the chief constable but issued in the name of the police authority, to include information about the policing objectives at the BCU level. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that new Section 6ZB of the Police Act already gives sufficient scope to enable that to be carried out, so good-quality liaison consultation and the passing of information about broader objectives at a lower level can already happen without Amendment No. 21, which takes us rather further.

We would clearly want to consult carefully both ACPO and the APA before taking a definitive and final view on these matters. For the reasons that we have set out, I urge the Benches opposite and my noble friend not to press their amendments. We understand entirely the debate that they are trying to stimulate, but we think that the current arrangements are fit for purpose and will serve us well, notwithstanding other areas of good practice that have been developed and incorporated by police authorities.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: Notwithstanding the Minister's suggestion that we have conspiracy theories—perish the thought—I am not entirely convinced by his argument. As far as I am aware, it is still the case that money to run police forces goes through police authorities. The Minister said that chief constables allocate resources. That is done in conjunction with police authorities.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page