HC Deb 12 March 1964 vol 691 cc796-806
Mr. O'Malley

I beg to move, in page 17, line 26, at the end to insert: Provided that in so far as any such requirement relates to matters connected with the policing of the area for which the force is maintained it shall be treated additionally as a requirement made by the police authority in accordance with subsection 2 and subsection 3 of section 12 of this Act. Clause 12 recognises the right of police authorities to obtain information from their chief constables regarding the policing of their areas. Subject to the restrictions in subsection (3), it is theoretically possible for police authorities to ask their chief constables for the same information as may be requested by the Home Secretary under Clause 30. This is likely to happen when information is required about an occurrence within their knowledge. However, when knowledge of the circumstances giving rise to a request has come to the Home Secretary through, for example, an inspector's report, the police authority may be unaware of the problem. Subject to safeguards similar to those in Clause 12(3), it therefore seems likely that the Home Secretary would acknowledge that police authorities should be informed in such cases. The question is what provision, if any, should be made in the Bill.

As far as I can see, there are two choices, and only two. Police authorities can be given a statutory right to receive copies of reports submitted in accordance with Clause 30 subject to the exclusion of information which in the public interest ought not to be disclosed or which is not needed for the discharge of the functions of the police authority. Alternatively, if the Government were to insist that the Bill should stand as drafted, the Home Secretary would, I hope, be willing to give an assurance that police authorities will be supplied with copies of the reports or of appropriate extracts as if the Amendment had been accepted.

Ideally, I think that the outcome should be the same in both cases, but, in practice, I think it preferable that police authorities should be sure and should know from the Bill that they will be kept fully informed. Apart from ensuring that police authorities get the information which they need to exercise their functions satisfactorily, the Amendment would be in keeping with the position of the police authority as one of the partners providing police services. The Home Secretary has repeatedly stressed his intention to maintain this concept of partnership, and it would, therefore, seem appropriate that, subject to the safeguards which I dealt with earlier, information supplied to the one supervisory partner should also be made available as of right, to the other.

I suppose one objection which will be made—if I may do what the Joint Under-Secretary of State did to me earlier and meet his objection before it is put forward—will be that if this Amendment were carried the watch committee or police committee would have to be informed of even the simplest telephone inquiry made by the Home Office of a chief constable. I am not moving this Amendment in that spirit at all. If the Government feel that this Amendment would cause that kind of situation to arise I hope that we shall be told that they will consider sympathetically the purpose behind the Amendment, and express their intention to meet the spirit of the Amendment when the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Woodhouse

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) has asked me to look sympathetically at the purpose behind his Amendment. I try to do that with all Amendments, more particularly in this case because it represents an attempt to do something similar to the intention of the Amendment which was put down in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mrs. Hill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. H. Steward) but which was withdrawn after my undertaking to look at the matter again.

My undertaking was given expressly without commitment. The fact is that, after careful thought, and after studying again the arguments put forward in Committee, and studying also the new Amendment, we have concluded that it would really not be helpful to amend the Bill along these lines. I think it is right, however, that I should try to explain in some detail why we have reached that conclusion.

It appeared in the Committee that there were certain misunderstandings about the operation of the Clause as it was drafted. Some were relatively minor misunderstandings. One was that, I think, of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) in his suggestion that the proper channels and the chain of command, as he called it, should lead directly from the chief constable through the police authority to the Secretary of State; in other words, the police authority should not be bypassed, as our Clause would, apparently, mean. But this is a mistake, as I think the hon. and learned Gentleman did recognise, because it is fundamental that the chief constable has the direction and control of the force himself, but can be called to account either by the Secretary of State or by the police authority separately and not by one acting through the other.

The second misunderstanding which I think the hon. Member for Rotherham alluded to, although he was certainly not under any misunderstanding himself, was that the Secretary of State would call for reports under Clause 30 only in matters of major importance. The fact is that when the Bill becomes law every kind of request by the Secretary of State to the chief constable for information, however informal and however minor, will have to be treated as being made under Clause 30. The hon. Member for Rotherham anticipated my answer on this point. He tried to get me to find a solution to the problem he was putting forward. I can only say that off the cuff I am unable to do so.

There is a more important—a major—point of misunderstanding. It is that the direct link between the Secretary of State and the chief constable involves going behind the back of the police authority on matters within its competence and which it is entitled to know about. This is not so. Nor is there any reason to think that the police authority will ever lack any of the information which it is entitled to have—for two reasons. The first is that it has its own right under Clause 12, subject to certain safeguards, to call for reports. Also, it is exceedingly unlikely, and contrary to all past experience, that a matter in which the Secretary of State might be interested should fail to come to the attention of the police authorities from local people, from a local M.P. or from the Press, because these are the kind of sources that are available to all of us.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. O'Malley

I specifically referred to a situation which might arise, where the Home Secretary was in receipt of information from an inspector's report of which the watch committee or police authority would presumably be ignorant, and it was particularly with regard to this kind of situation that I should have thought that an Amendment of this kind would have been useful.

Mr. Woodhouse

I suppose it can be said that, theoretically, this could happen, but it seems to me that in practice it would be exceedingly unlikely. If it happened, it would suggest that there was a lack of liaison between the chief constable and the police authority, which would in itself be reprehensible and would give rise to much more far-reaching questions than are raised in the Clause.

We accept—I believe this is common ground to all of us—that in the ordinary way the chief constable will bring to the attention of the police authority any important local issue in which it has a legitimate interest. If he does not do so, then, as I say, questions between him and the police authority arise which go far beyond the scope of the Clause. It is in the interests of both that they should work together. We are, after all, legislating for intelligent and adult people. We cannot legislate as if they were irresponsible children. We expect a constant readiness to report and exchange information, which is what happens now.

The Royal Commission drew attention to this fact in its Report. It said in paragraph 162: Already there is much informal consultation between chief constables and police authorities … It should be the duty of both parties to see that consultation is close and continuous. We entirely agree with this. It is surely better to rely on local co-operation for informal consultations, backed if necessary in an extreme case by the police authority's power under Clause 12, than to introduce statutory machinery, which is in any case open to serious objections and these are the positive objections to which I must in conclusion draw the attention of the House.

Mr. O'Malley

Would one be justified in assuming, to refer back to the matter, that if an inspector's report had gone to the Home Secretary, the Home Secretary would obviously be in a position where, if the need arose, he could communicate directly with the police authority rather than with the chief constable?

Mr. Woodhouse

It would certainly be within his power to do so, though I imagine that cases of that kind would be exceedingly rare.

To outline the objections in principle which have made us reluctant to table any corresponding Amendment ourselves, I would first draw attention to the background of Clause 30, which is primarily intended to out on a statutory basis the long-established practice of the Secretary of State—it has been going on for many years—to obtain such reports has he needs from chief constables. It is a practice which has, incidentally, already been given statutory recognition in Scotland under the 1956 Act.

The most important result of this statutory basis will be that Questions can be asked in Parliament seeking information about provincial police forces. But that very important purpose, which is what lies behind Clause 30, has no counterpart in the extension proposed in the Amendment, because never since this non-statutory practice of the Secretary of State's obtaining reports from chief constables began—and that was long ago—has it been suggested that copies of such reports should he made available to a police authority. Therefore, in so far as the Clause is merely giving statutory recognition to an existing practice—and that is its primary purpose and there is no scope in it for any reference to a police authority—such a reference would have to be justified as an innovation, and justified on its own merits. Those merits have not been put in evidence hitherto. They have not arisen from past practice, and it is an innovation which has never hitherto been fell to be needed, or asked for.

The second objection of principle is that it is essential that the Secretary of State should be able to rely on quick, full, and accurate information, and that the chief constable should report to him with complete candour. Any arrangement by which a chief constable's report to the Secretary of State automatically became available to the police authority would be bound to impede the candour with which he would report to the Secretary of State in some cases, and those of course the most serious ones.

If I might anticipate a point which the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make, it is true that the Amendment does not require that an identical report should be submitted to the police authority, but it would place the chief constable in an invidious position it he had constantly to bear in mind whenever making a report to the Secretary of State that he might have to make a report in different terms on the same subject to the police authority.

To sum up the reasoning in principle, there is a fundamental point which runs through the Bill, through all the Clauses which relate to the relationship between chief constables, police authorities and the Secretary of State, the tripartite partnership. It is this. There exists a range of police activities which are the concern of the chief constable and are not the concern of the police authority, but which may become the concern of the Secretary of State, and, through him, of Parliament. That is the underlying principle which makes it necessary for me, sympathetic though I am to the hon. Gentleman's intention, to advise the House against accepting the Amendment which we have been unable to formulate ourselves.

Mr. Paget

I do not find that a satisfactory answer. As I understood the first part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he was saying that in fact and in practice there was a candid relationship between the chief constable and the police authority, and they would in the nature of things be informed. In the second half of his speech he was saying that they would in the nature of things not be informed.

As I said in Committee, it seems to me that the normal way to do this is through the chain of command. The police authority is responsible for policing the district. Therefore, in the ordinary way, it would be for the Home Secretary, who is responsible generally for the policing of England under this Bill, to ask the police authority, who in its turn would ask the chief constable.

If, on the other hand, a Question is asked in Parliament—and that was the case which the hon. Gentleman put forward—and the information was required quickly and urgently, I should have thought that it would be most invidious if a police authority found Questions as to its responsibility being answered in Parliament without it having been informed either of the Question or of the Answer which it was proposed to give. That would be very embarrassing indeed. In the ordinary way, when a Question of this sort is conveyed to the chief constable, I should have thought that as a matter of ordinary civility the police authority ought to be informed, and it ought to be informed also of the Answer.

I do not understand the idea that there can be a level of candour between the Home Secretary and the chief constable but that it cannot exist between the chief constable and his own police authority. Surely there ought to be a level of candour between both, subject only to the reservation contained in Clause 12(3): If it appears to the chief constable that a report would contain information which in the public interest ought not to be disclosed …". That is imported into the Amendment. I should have thought that it was sufficient protection in circumstances in which it might be contrary to the public interest for a particular Answer to be conveyed to as large a body as the police authority. It could happen very occasionally. It is an exceptional circumstance which is provided for by the Amendment.

What the Amendment calls for is an ordinary procedure which is in conformity with ordinary good manners and which I should have thought was essential if there is to be smooth working, confidence and trust between these three authorities—the chief constable, the police authority, and the Home Secretary.

I therefore ask whether the Government cannot reconsider the Amendment, or give the House an undertaking that in another place they will provide that in the ordinary way, subject to the exception allowed for—that is, when it is contrary to the public interest, which would be a very exceptional case—under this new procedure by which Questions can be asked in Parliament about police activities those Questions will be notified to the police authority as well as to the chief constable and that the Answers which it is proposed to give shall be notified to the police authority as well as to the chief constable. I should have thought that this was the ordinary and reasonable way to do it. I ask for some assurance to be given that this will be reconsidered before the Bill goes to another place.

Miss Bacon

I am sure that the Under-Secretary realises that the County Councils Association would very much like the Amendment to be written into the Bill. The Association feels rather disturbed about the position. There is a feeling that the provision in the Amendment would operate, for example, when the Home Office addressed the simplest telephone inquiry to a chief constable. Nobody would wish it to operate in that way. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will say whether between now and the Bill going to another place he will look at this again and have discussions with the Association.

Mr. Woodhouse

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) disagrees with the Government, which he is perfectly entitled to do. I hope that he will acquit me, on explanation, of contradicting myself. He said that in the first half of my speech I said that police authorities would be informed and in the second half I said that they would not be informed. The fact is that they will be informed in the nature of things about matters which are their concern. They will not be informed about matters which are not their concern. As I explained earlier, there is a range of responsibilities which falls to the chief constable and in which the Secretary of State may be legitimately interested, either on his own account or for the purpose of answering Questions in Parliament, but which do not fall within the competence of the police authority.

10.30 p.m.

The Bill defines the police authorities' responsibilities and the Secretary of State's responsibilities. They are different and are not coextensive. This means that the level of candour, which was the expression used by the hon. and learned Member, cannot in the nature of things, in the extreme case, be identical for both, because the Secretary of State will be entitled to call for information for which the police authority will not call.

Mr. Paget

That position is preserved by the Amendment. That is a provision of Clause 12(3).

Mr. Woodhouse

No, it is not. If the hon. and learned Member studies the range of responsibilities set out in later Parts of the Bill as falling to the Home Secretary, he will see that they go far beyond those which fall to the police authority. The range of difference between their areas of responsibility is not completely described by the phrase which the hon. and learned Member has quoted.

The hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) put her finger on the difficulty—it was the same difficulty of which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) was clearly aware—when she referred to telephone inquiries. The fact is that the vast majority of inquiries for information will be of this short and simple kind which can be conducted over the telephone. They will, however, be equally covered by Clause 30 and the Amendment would touch them just as it would touch all the more important inquiries which he wants to cover. I do not see how one can draw any effective distinction between them.

Amendment negatived.