HC Deb 26 July 1960 vol 627 cc1526-32

3.2 a.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The measure of the importance of the subject that I wish to raise at 3 o'clock in the morning can be judged that we have in his place the Secretary of State for Scotland, probably one of the most harassed Members of the Cabinet. This shows a dedication to duty and the sense of importance of the Minister's decision.

It was only just over a week ago that there burst upon Kilmarnock something which has given rise to a measure of publicity that we could have done without. We have even managed to inspire a second leader in The Times today. Normally, we can get all the favourable publicity we want in Kilmarnock through our football team and through the very subject of this debate, Kilmarnock's police. When Kilmarnock is mentioned in police circles, it is immediately noted and famed. Its fame recurs in respect of its proud record for traffic and accidents.

Here is a burgh straddling one of the main roads from Glasgow to the coast, the A.7. For three years, there was not one fatal accident there, despite all the traffic that poured down. Praise has been given to Kilmarnock police in recent years for the burgh's record and service. It comes suddenly as a surprise, therefore, to find the Secretary of State issuing an ultimatum to that police authority stating that if it has not done a certain thing by 15th August, in just over a fortnight's time, the right hon. Gentleman will construe it as being in breach of its statutory obligations, that he will not extend the current three months' term, which ends on 15th August, of the deputy chief constable and that thereby Kilmarnock will have a police force—if, indeed, it has a police force, which I doubt, if the right hon. Gentleman does that—that is not being efficiently administered and run. Finally, the right hon. Gentleman says that he will withhold the police grant.

This is a serious situation. It arises out of an inevitable clash of interests and good intentions on the part of the local authority and on the part of the central authority and it must be resolved, and resolved soon, by the Government in cooperation with local authorities. What has happened in Kilmarnock we have seen approaching and disappearing in other places. It is happening in England and it is happening in Wales—all over the country. Where there is a clash of interest between the local and the central authority, that is a very important business. Bath are charged with responsibility, but let us remember this, that the police authority is charged with all the functions of the administration and well running of the police force, not the Secretary of State for Scotland. In discharging its part in the election of a chief constable it bears that in mind. The Secretary of State for Scotland in Scotland must approve any appointment of a chief constable.

When on 15th May this year the Chief Constable of Kilmarnock resigned because of age, the local authority saw the Secretary of State's Department, agreed on how it should go about the business, went back to the Secretary of State, who gave the suggested lead, and then it went back to the actual election of the chief constable. Unanimously Kilmarnock Town Council, which consists of 13 Labour and 11 Conservative or Independent members, decided on a local man. Immediately we got the reaction of the Secretary of State, drawing attention once again to his statement in 1958, giving as guidance to local authorities that they should look beyond their own borders for a chief constable.

His reason for that was that we needed fresh blood and new thought; we needed to beware the fact that there might be a certain measure of reluctance on the part of a local man promoted to deal with disciplinary matters. That is very real. There is no doubt about that. There is a certain measure of importance about that, but then again there is equally the fact that there was a unanimous recommendation from the council, which knows its responsibilities, a council which has been praised by the Secretary of State himself in the past for its work in other fields, and praised by the Chief Inspector.

Even as the right hon. Gentleman is acting with the best intentions, so, too, is Kilmarnock Town Council. I cannot believe it picked, as The Times says, a man it wished to reward, but the man it thought was the best man for the job.

I want to cut my speech very short. I think this is a very grave situation which is arising. The pity was that the day before that letter was written by the Secretary of State, and before it received it, Kilmarnock Town Council had a meeting and realised the gravity of the position and knew it could not carry on and was, indeed, on the point of asking the Secretary of State for a meeting and also for an extension of the ultimatum date, 15th August, which for many reasons is, to my mind, out of the question. I would think that an extension by a month or two months would enable the Secretary of State to rethink his position and it would equally enable Kilmarnock Town Council to rethink its position before that meeting. The fact is, of course, that Kilmarnock, like this House, goes on holiday at the weekend, so we can well appreciate the impossibility of trying to get the council together in the circumstances. This is the position we want resolved, and from which we need to draw lessons.

I would say about the Secretary of State that he has dealt with this matter, as everyone else has, not on personalities. The man who was Deputy Chief Constable of Kilmarnock is a fine man recognised for his good work and wide experience in the police service. The Chief Inspector has said that he is a man who has done good work. So there is no reflection upon him. It is a question of principle, a question of the outsider and the local man. I would remind the Secretary of State of what he said at Tullyallan when he made that statement, which was: Clearly no hard and fast rule can be drawn. It is because of the knowledge that Glasgow and Lanarkshire and other places are allowed local men that it is felt that somehow or other Kilmarnock does not deserve to be unfairly treated. It co-operated with the Scottish Department in connection with amalgamation, and then it was not for three months but for over a year that a deputy carried on as chief constable. The efficiency of the police did not suffer. It is not suffering now. I do not think that it would suffer if the Secretary of State extended this period of deputy chief constableship and gave ample time for a meeting with himself or his officials in order to have the position resolved. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to do something about this last point.

3 11 a.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John Maclay)

I greatly appreciate the very moderate and 'balanced way in which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has raised this difficult a id important question. I greatly regret that this difference of opinion has arisen between the police authority in Kilmarnock and myself and I should like to make it clear, first, that, as the hon. Member has said, this difference of opinion does not imply any reflection on the Kilmarnock police force or upon the officer whom the Kilmarnock authority wishes to appoint as chief constable. This officer has a long record of excellent service.

The difference is on a difficult matter of principle. Chief constables in Scotland are appointed by local police authorities, but the appointment is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. It is, of course, extremely important to the whole principle of a local police force that there should be the minimum interference with local police authorities from the centre, but this provision that the appointment of chief constables requires the approval in Scotland of the Secretary of State and in England of the Home Secretary is an obviously desirable one and I understand it has always had the approval of all parties in the House of Commons.

Some little time ago I took the opportunity in a speech I was making in public to ask police authorities to consider very carefully whether appointments to the office of chief constable of an officer who has spent all or most of his service in the force concerned is in general desirable. I pointed out that no absolutely hard and fast rule could be drawn but that, in the light of the responsibilities of the post, chief constables should be men with both width of experience and an open and fresh approach and that in the normal course these qualities are more likely to be found in candidates from other forces than in an officer with long service in the local force with the vacancy. This statement subsequently WAS given wide circulation and I have made it clear that, unless for exceptional reasons, I would find it very difficult to approve the appointment to chief constable of an officer the main part of whose career had been spent in that force.

When the question of the appointment of a new chief constable in the Kilmarnock force first arose there were the customary consultations between the police authority and my Department. These were followed by a meeting between the authority and my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary. At this meeting the position which I have just stated was made clear to the authority.

I should explain that the authority was not pressed to exclude from the short leet the name of the individual whom we are discussing. It did not seem reasonable at that stage, until the candidates had been interviewed, to say categorically whether exceptional circumstances might or might not emerge, but the authority was warned that this in itself did not mean that if it did appoint him I would approve his appointment. Subsequently the Town Council considered a short leet and decided on the appointment of the officer in question. Thereafter a deputation from the Town Council came to see me. In the course of a full and frank discussion I gave my reasons for not favouring this appointment.

After the meeting I gave the fullest attention and the most careful consideration to the points put forward. I was, however, unable to find any exceptional reasons for departing from the point of principle in this case, and, in particular, I had regard to the fact that the retiring chief constable and his predecessor had, apart from a period between 1901 and 1906 in the case of the latter, served all their official life in the Kilmarnock force. These two officers between them had been in charge of it for nearly 40 years in all, and this meant that if the next appointment were not made from outside the force, there would have been no new blood at the top for a very long period indeed.

It may seem a rather harsh attitude to take that a man who has given a long service in a local force should not have the opportunity of holding a senior appointment but I am sure that as a matter of principle there are very strong reasons against the practice of appointing chief constables from within a force.

I hope the House will forgive if I state very briefly the principles involved, because this matter is of wider interest. The appointment of a chief constable is of more than purely local significance—above all at a time when similarity of methods and close co-operation between police forces is so essential in the fight against criminals who are in no way respectors of the boundaries between police areas. Many points of importance are involved, including the point of view of the local force itself.

A chief constable, as was pointed out in the leading article this morning which has been referred to, has disciplinary and semi-judicial duties in regard to the men under him which demand a large degree of personal detachment. It is no reflection on any individual to say that this particular attribute is more likely to be present in an officer who has not served alongside the men under his command for a great many years. There is also some risk of local practices growing up which differ in inconvenient, if not undesirable, ways from practices in other parts of the country. There are, of course, excellent refresher courses and training schemes designed to help to avoid this, but the fact remains that some degree of cross-fertilisation of forces alt the top is very desirable.

I thought it right to explain briefly to the House the principles which I have in mind in dealing with this question. I now turn to what the hon. Gentleman said about immediate problems of procedure.

The present position is that the town council has just asked me two things: first, to receive a deputation to submit additional reasons for a local appointment; and, second, to approve an extension of the three-month period during which the deputy chief constable continues to hold that appointment.

On the first point, I propose to reply—I have not had much time to do so yet—that I doubt whether there would be any point in having a further meeting but that if the council feels that there is new information which it is essential to place before me I am, of course, willing to arrange a meeting with officers of my Department who would report to me fully.

Mr. Ross

I take it that the right hon. Gentleman does not rule out, after that meeting, a meeting with the council or with the council and myself on another case.

Mr. Maclay

No. If it proved necessary, arising out of that meeting, I would do that at a time which could be conveniently arranged.

On the second point, the hon. Gentleman has represented strongly in his speech that it would be unreasonable not to give my consent to an extension of the period during which the deputy chief constable can act, having particular regard to the fact that this is the local holiday season. In order that there shall be no question of a matter of principle of this importance not being fully considered by all concerned, I am prepared to give my consent for an extension of one month after 15th August, above all because of the difficulties created by the local holiday period. It must, however, be clearly understood that this concession does not imply that I am in any way resiling from the position on principle that I have taken in this matter.

I hope that, with what I have now said, the hon. Member will feel that in this matter of grave difficulty and importance I am taking the most reasonable action that I can in the circumstances.