HC Deb 07 June 1976 vol 912 cc1037-41
Mr. Sims

I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 3, line 34, leave out from 'members' to 'Board' in line 35 and insert: 'one of whom shall be nominated by the Police Complaints Board and one of whom by the relevant police authority from amongst its members'. The origin of the Bill can be traced back to the decision to set up a working group into the handling of complaints against the police and its report which was produced in March 1974. It was not able to offer unanimous recommendations, which is one of the reasons why we have had a number of problems, and why this Bill is, inevitably, a compromise.

But this report came out with certain fundamentals upon which it was agreed. There were five cardinal principles of which the fifth particularly concerns us. It stated: The rôle of the police authority in supervising the handling of complaints should not be diminished". The effect of the Bill is to set up a completely new structure for dealing with police complaints and, virtually throughout it, there is no involvement by police authorities, so that their rôle is very definitely diminished.

In the course of the Bill's passage through Committee, my hon. Friends and I sought, when discussing various parts of the Bill, to remove this omission with relatively little success. Since the Bill left Committee, there have been discussions with certain interested parties and some of the suggestions which came forward in Committee have been incorporated by way of amendment. However, this is a further amendment which I hope will go some way to remedying the omission of the part that police authorities could and should play in this particular matter.

In the course of our discussions hon. Members on both sides expressed some concern at the absence of police authority representation on the tribunals which are an essential part of the machinery that we are discussing. While we were discussing this in Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary indicated that he would look at this question with an open mind—admittedly without commitment—and that, having looked at it, he might put down an amendment at Report stage. He has not done so and, therefore, we have taken the step of putting down the amendment which appears on the Order Paper.

9.30 p.m.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the tribunal will consist of the chief of police, one member of the Police Complaints Board and one member of the local police authority. That will ensure a continuing rôle for the police authority and will also improve the quality of the tribunal, its proceedings and its decisions. I suggest also that this would have the merit of adding further independence to the tribunal. As it stands, the members of the complaints board, in the eyes of the public, are bound to be considered, if not the establishment, certainly quasi-civil servants. They will be in a majority on the tribunal.

In Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary argued that there was a need for the community to have confidence in the tribunal. We completely agree. But surely not only the community but those appearing before the tribunal would consider that a tribunal consisting of the chief police officer, one member of the Police Complaints Board and a representative of the local elected police authority would be a more balanced and fairly constituted body in which they could have full confidence. That seems an added reason why the rôle of the police authority in the complaints procedure should be increased rather than diminished, along the lines of the amendment.

Dr. Summerskill

Since Committee, the Government have carefully reconsidered the matters to which the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has referred. As he said, the amendment would provide that a tribunal under Clause 4 would include, besides the chief constable, one board member and one member of the appropriate police authority, instead of two board members. Although we are anxious to maintain the existing responsibilities of police authorities in relation to complaints, we have always made it clear that those responsibilities cannot be extended to include involvement in individual cases, which is what the amendment proposes.

Moreover, if the amendment were carried, only one of the three members of the tribunal could properly be considered to be independent of the police, because I fail to see how a member of a police authority can be regarded as totally independent of the police. Such a dilution of the independent element—

Sir Bernard Braine

The hon. Lady says that she fails to understand how a member of a police authority can be regarded as independent of the police—

Dr. Summerskill

Totally independent.

Sir B. Braine

—but surely she is aware that one of the great strengths of the existing arrangements for controlling the police is that police authorities are already responsible for overseeing the maintenance of discipline in their forces. They have a pride in their forces. They are truly independent in that sense. I wonder whether the hon. Lady would care to reconsider the words that she has just uttered.

Dr. Summerskill

No. The very explanation that the hon. Member has given seems to convey that police authorities are associated with the police, to put it mildly. As he said, it is a part of their job to keep a watch in the police. The whole point that we are discussing now is whether to have someone who is totally independent of the police on the tribunal, as the Bill proposes, or whether to have a member of the police authority on the tribunal. It is our view that we should have someone who is totally independent of the police.

The amendment would be a dilution of the independent element. By the inclusion, besides the chief officer of the police force concerned, of a member of the police authority, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is closely connected with the force, we should detract considerably from the purpose of the new scheme. Since the tribunal's decision will be by a majority, the totally independent member could always be overruled.

An additional factor is that the exceptional circumstances which will justify the holding of a tribunal may involve matters of particular local concern, and under such circumstances there could be objections to the presence of a police authority representative on the tribunal who clearly could not be totally independent of local matters. But I fail to see the relevance of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The Bill includes in the tribunal two board members, and those board members will be totally independent of the police. The amendment proposes a member of the police authority, and, by the hon. Gentleman's own description, a police authority is clearly not totally independent of the police.

Sir Bernard Braine

What we are dealing with here is the word "independent". In the sense that the hon. Lady was using it, she was implying that in some way a member of a police authority is not independent of his own police force. I am saying that a police authority is charged by law to take an overall responsibility for discipline. In that sense, it has a supervisory rôle. I hope that she will clarify this point, because she has given the impression that a member of a police authority would virtually be in the police service's pocket, and that is no so.

Dr. Summerskill

I certainly did not say that, nor did I mean that, but, as the hon. Gentleman keeps reiterating, the police authority is charged by law with certain responsibilities in relation to the police, and that is just what we want to avoid on this tribunal. Under the Bill, we already have the chief constable on the tribunal, and with him we want two board members who are independent and dissociated from the police.

Mr. Sims

Does not the hon. Lady accept that the public—and it is the public view which is important here—may feel that it is more an independent and impartial body if it has one person from the Police Complaints Board—who is, after all, appointed by the Prime Minister, salaried and may well at least be considered part of the establishment—and a local person, a member of the police authority, who is not salaried and is not in the pay of anyone? That person may be an elected representative and therefore would be looked upon as equally independent, if not more independent than members of the board. We are trying to enhance the impression of independence.

Dr. Summerskill

I appreciate that hon. Gentlemen are trying to enhance the impression of independence, but I still think that a member of the board would be more independent of the police. Such a person, even if appointed by the Prime Minister, is totally separate from and is not associated with the police in any way—more so than an albeit elected representative who would nevertheless be a member of the police authority, with all the links and affiliations and associations he would have with the police.

Amendment negatived.

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