HC Deb 21 April 1998 vol 310 cc576-9
2. Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)

What recent discussions he has had concerning the criminal justice system in Scotland. [37614]

6. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

If he will make a statement about current trends with respect to criminal convictions in Scotland. [37618]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar)

In addition to periodic meetings of the criminal justice forum, my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Accurate reading is sometimes a mistake. I and my hon. Friends have frequent contacts with the various agencies and organisations involved in the criminal justice system.

Detailed information about criminal proceedings in Scottish courts, including convictions, was published in March 1998 in a Scottish Office statistical bulletin. A copy is, of course, in the Library.

Ms Cunningham

Is not confidence in the police absolutely essential for an effective criminal justice system? There is clearly a huge issue in Scotland at the moment, in that confidence in the Grampian police force has been much dented. I think that there is cross-party agreement that the current chief constable of Grampian should go. The Secretary of State did not institute procedures yesterday to sack him. If the news from Aberdeen today is unsatisfactory, will he do that today and will he say whether he has plans to introduce more effective public accountability of the police in Scotland?

Mr. Dewar

As the House almost certainly knows, earlier today the Grampian police board passed a unanimous vote of no confidence in its chief constable. I have not yet had it confirmed, but I understand that, despite that, he has not stated an intention to resign. No one can take satisfaction from what is a sad and unfortunate story, but, in the light of the considered and damaging reports from a senior independent officer and the chief inspector of constabulary, I believe that the board's vote was fully justified. I have not heard formally from the board, but, in those circumstances, statutory powers are available to it if it feels that those are necessary.

Like all those who serve the public, the police must earn the public's confidence. The board clearly believes that the Grampian police need a new start and a new start means a new chief constable. It is time to rebuild trust between the police and the people, to harness the skills and energy of the many able and dedicated officers in the Grampian force and to turn to the task of making the necessary reforms. I am ready to help in any way that I can and I have no doubt that I shall be hearing from the police board shortly.

Mr. Swayne

With the greatest of respect, I do not believe that, by any stretch of the imagination, the Secretary of State's statement answered Question 6 on the Order Paper. Will he therefore kindly answer it and, in so doing, say why, when Scottish chief constables asked for £28 million, he gave them only half of that for a standstill budget?

Mr. Dewar

That was a question full of character, but little sense. If the hon. Gentleman looks, he will find that, this year, there was an increase in spending for chief constables. He will also know that recorded crime in Scotland was at the lowest level since 1981. I hope that he will congratulate the police on that fact.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Given the difficulties that delay can cause when, as has been referred to, the Government, the police board and the public totally and deservedly lose confidence in a senior police officer, could we review the procedures, so that a situation such as Grampian can never happen again?

Mr. Dewar

This is a most unusual, exceptional and distressing set of circumstances. It is important that we have balance and that the police's independence is protected. That is done in the Police (Scotland) Act 1967, but, as I have said, in the light of the police board's unanimous decision today, procedures are open to the board to resolve the problem. I do not want to anticipate a request to me, but I am ready to help in any way that I can. My one wish is not to exacerbate the position, but to see confidence restored and a future built on the energy and ability of the many excellent police officers in the Grampian force.

There clearly have been shortcomings, as particularly the chief inspector of constabulary's report and Mr. Power's investigation into the Scott Simpson case underline. We must learn those lessons quickly. It is important that we get a new chief constable in post as soon as possible.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I endorse what the Secretary of State has said about a new start and the need to start immediately on restoring public confidence in Grampian police—and, indeed, on restoring morale within the service—but will he turn his mind to another event that happened earlier today: the decision of the sheriff in the borders to throw out the case against Mr. Jim Sutherland in relation to the regulations on beef on the bone, and his description of a part of the regulations as "defective"? Does that not prove what my colleagues and I said when we tabled the prayer against the regulations earlier this year—that the regulations are inoperable?

Do the Government intend to appeal or does the Secretary of State think that, rather than wasting the time of the criminal justice system, it is better to allow the public to make their own decision on whether to buy beef on the bone, taking into account all the risks?

Mr. Dewar

I saw Sheriff Paterson's judgment only this morning. In any event, it is the Crown Office that will decide whether to appeal on the basis of the arguments. The regulations remain in place and leave to appeal was given. This is an important matter. Clearly, it deserves careful consideration and it will get it, but, above all, health considerations will remain paramount.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Is not the tragic case of Scott Simpson only one of a large number of issues that have dented public confidence in the police service in north-east Scotland? Does the Secretary of State accept that the public are mystified as to why democratic accountability does not seem to be easily enforced in the higher echelons of the police service, although I can tell him from experience that sergeants and constables have been subjected to draconian discipline in that very police force? What procedure does he think needs to be put into place, so that it is possible to sack a chief constable when there is justifiable cause, without going through all the difficulties that both he and the police board have faced over recent weeks and months?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the report of the Accounts Commission, which is to be published tomorrow, suggests that the Grampian force is bottom or near bottom of seven measures of efficiency in the police service? When will the matter be resolved? What measures need to be taken to improve the standards of accountability and will he guarantee that action will now follow?

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Gentleman will have gathered from recent events that I take these matters seriously. I repeat my point, which is important, that a balance must be struck. Sacking a chief constable is an exceptional and serious matter. That is why the 1967 Act builds in procedures that mean that it cannot be done on a whim or in a moment of anger.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the police board consists of elected members, who I believe take their duties seriously. They have had to wrestle with difficult problems in difficult circumstances, and I have some sympathy with them for that. They have come to a decision today and it is now a matter of how and in what way they wish to advance the matter. I repeat that I stand ready to help in any way that I can. I certainly agree that public confidence must be restored. I also accept that the problem is not just the Scott Simpson inquiry, although it reveals a sad catalogue of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, but the general judgment of the leadership in the Grampian force, which has been revealed in the report of the chief inspector of constabulary, which makes some trenchant criticisms of communication, management style and financial and other controls within the force.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

Following what the Secretary of State just said, does he believe that it was in the interest of the criminal justice system that the serious and sensitive circumstances surrounding the Scott Simpson murder should have become the subject of a personal and unseemly spat between the Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office, and the chief constable of Grampian region, culminating in his own extraordinary public intervention yesterday? Would not the interests of this serious and sensitive case and of the criminal justice system have been better served with more dignity, gravitas and responsibility on all sides?

Mr. Dewar

The right hon. Gentleman must make his own judgment. If there was any sort of spat, it was rather one-sided. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the energetic and totally justified way in which he called for an independent report. The results of that inquiry put beyond argument the fact that he was justified in so doing. On my intervention, I came to the conclusion—it was a personal decision, my own judgment and I stand by it—that I had to make my position clear in the circumstances, given the widespread anxiety and the damning nature of the two reports published yesterday.

Forward to