HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc806-13
Mr. Denham

I beg to move amendment No. 130, in page 100, line 13, leave out "40(7)".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 2, in clause 45, page 46, line 16, leave out Clause 45.

Mr. Denham

Is it not amazing that within a matter of seconds of my being invited to be incredibly generous, an opportunity comes along? The hon. Member for Lewes can be well satisfied.

This clause was debated at some length in Committee. We see it as a perfectly reasonable and proportionate mechanism, which requires the affirmative resolution procedure. It gives this and future Governments the flexibility to add limited powers to and to take limited powers out of schedules 4 and 5. Essentially, it enables the Government to give limited powers to community support officers and accredited community safety officers, or in the light of experience to remove those powers from the menu available.

It is worth mentioning that the Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform in the other place saw nothing wrong with the procedure in the clause. A precedent has been set by the Bill, because my understanding is that up until this Bill it had been a matter of course for Governments and Oppositions to respect, pretty much without question, the conclusions of the Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. A precedent has now been set in the other place for not respecting the decisions of that Committee, although I am not sure that that will serve us well in the long run.

None the less, we are moving into the closing stages of our proceedings on the Bill. It is perfectly clear to me that the opposition that this clause has faced is likely to arise again in the House of Lords, where the Government do not have a majority. For that reason we have added our names to the consequential amendment No. 2. What we will lose by doing that is flexibility. Should it in future be shown that existing legislation should apply to community support officers or to accredited community safety officers, that will be much more difficult. Equally, should it appear in the light of experience that a power has been made available to chief constables that should not have been made available, it will be a much more laborious and lengthy process for Parliament to remove it. That is the cost attached to the amendment, but I recognise the parliamentary arithmetic.

I hope that in later discussions there will be support for the measures that we have introduced to enable local authority traffic wardens and others to have additional powers to help with the escort of abnormal loads and to take part in traffic checks. We intended to extend powers in that area, so we have brought that measure forward as soon as possible, because we believe that those powers would rapidly have been seen to be necessary.

Mr. Paice

I respect the Minister for moving the amendment, but I feel sure that he would rather not have done so. He explained his move by saying that he recognised the parliamentary arithmetic. Obviously, I would have preferred it if he had recognised the power of oratory that some of us used in Committee. Whatever the reasons for the Government's decision to add their name to amendment No. 2 tabled by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, we are grateful to them for doing so.

In accepting the situation and speaking to amendment No. 2, the Minister expressed concern about the problem of altering the position should experience in the next few months or few years show that there are too many powers or too few. Without wishing to pre-empt any future debate, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the official Opposition will not oppose the point that he made about traffic powers. I recognise the logic of that: indeed, some of it fits neatly with proposals presented by my noble Friend Lord Attlee in the other place.

On the question whether schedules 4 and 5 will in time prove to be defective—providing either too many or too few powers—I remind the Minister that over the years we have discovered that the Home Office has a propensity for legislation. We know that there is a substantial amount of legislation in the Home Office pipeline. I feel sure that, should the Government at any stage discover that they need to amend the powers given to civilians, to civilian officers employed by the police or to accredited community safety officers, they will find a suitable vehicle within weeks, if not minutes, to which to append the changes that they need or wish to make. I cannot believe that it will be long before they find a suitable mechanism.

It is odd that the Government have come to this point so late in the proceedings. At some stage—I have forgotten when exactly—the Minister said that this was not a Henry VIII clause, which is at odds with what his noble Friend Lord Rooker said in the other place. He stated categorically that it is a Henry VIII clause.

The House of Lords threw the clause out, and the Government reinserted it in Committee, against the advice of my hon. Friends and the Liberal Democrats. Then, at about 6 o'clock last night, the Government tabled an amendment that had the effect of adding Ministers' names to our amendment. We welcome the Government's conversion, and I congratulate the Minister on his wisdom in understanding the argument, notwithstanding the arithmetic of the other place. We shall of course support the Government if they seek to divide the House on the issue.

7 pm

Norman Baker

It is an odd experience to have a Minister add his name to an amendment that carries my name, but I suppose that all of us in the House have to get used to things. I look forward to similar experiences in the future. It is also instructive that when the two main Opposition parties have stuck together and shown determination to remove the proposal, the Government have recognised the arithmetic, as the Minister put it. I am not sure whether that drives the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives closer together; that is a worrying prospect, but it is the logic of tonight's developments.

I recognise the Minister's admission that this measure would continue to be unpopular with the Opposition in this House and in the House of Lords. It is sensible for him to pull the plug now, rather than suffer a further defeat in the Lords on the matter. To give credit to the Minister, we started off by saying that there was agreement on a large proportion of the Bill and disagreement on only three or four key issues, one of which the Minister has now dealt with. He has lanced the boil on that issue. If he wishes to lance the boil on one or two other issues tomorrow, we can all leave early and I can go to the parliamentary beer group dinner to which I referred earlier. I should like the Minister to consider overnight whether there are further concessions that he might make tomorrow.

The Minister complained that we were removing flexibility from the Bill; indeed, that was the purpose of the amendment. The serious point is that there is a balance to be struck between what is the proper subject of primary legislation and what is the proper subject of subsequent regulations. It is our view that matters dealing with CSOs are controversial. The Government are bringing in a new concept, and we do not know how it will work. The Government think it will work well; others have more suspicions about how things will turn out.

It would be wrong to give the Government the power to add powers to CSOs when we do not even know how they will work in practice. It is right that if the Government want to come back—at least for the first time—to add powers, we should be able to have a debate on how CSOs have worked in practice on our streets. That is what the amendment achieves, and I am grateful that the Government have signed up to it. It is useful and allows for a sort of review.

The Minister said in a letter to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and me that another result would be that the Government could not remove powers from CSOs. Equally, that power has now been taken from the Government by the addition of Ministers' signatures to the amendment. That is not a worry for me. I suspect that if a particular power turned out to be hugely controversial or unworkable, chief constables would be reluctant to use it and it would wither on the vine. We are talking about adding powers to CSOs and, under the circumstances, it is right that that matter should be brought back before the House for discussion.

Incidentally, I have no objection to the proposal to help in the guiding of heavy loads and so on. That seems to be eminently sensible. I am grateful that we are reaching agreement on such a major matter. I am happy to welcome the Government's admission and I assume that there will not be a Division on this matter.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I rise to support the removal of clause 45 from the Bill. The clause seeks to give the Secretary of State the power to add to, amend or repeal the powers and duties specified in schedules 4 and 5. Schedule 4 relates to powers exercisable by police civilians, most of which I would be quite happy to see repealed; I would not mind that element of the Bill staying in. However, the idea of enabling the Secretary of State to add to or amend those powers fills me with horror.

I hope to speak in more detail tomorrow on CSOs when part I of the Bill is debated. I have grave reservations about giving the powers of a constable in uniform to anyone other than a fully trained constable. For that reason alone, I support the omission of clause 45.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

It would be a shame to let this moment pass so quickly and not to dwell on the fact that we have persuaded the Government to climb down on this matter, which the Minister did with considerable eloquence and style. I have been trawling through the Committee reports and, unfortunately, there is no "killer quote"; that is unlike the "killer quotes" made by the Prime Minister while speaking on the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994. I pay tribute to the Minister for that.

I also pay tribute to the House of Lords for raising the issue. The Lords had the power in the Division Lobby, but my hon. Friends the Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) had the power of oratory to persuade the Government. It would be tempting to divide the House and watch Labour Members who served on the Committee vote for something against which they all voted two weeks ago. Sadly, I am not sure whether there is a single person in the House who would provide a Teller for the other side in a Division.

The serious point made in Committee and in the House of Lords was that, after all the controversy about the powers that CSOs would have—and about CSOs themselves—it was wrong for the Home Secretary simply to add to those powers, despite the Government making certain concessions, including on the power of detention and arrest. However, it would have been wrong to give the Home Secretary that power.

There is a division of opinion both in the House and in the police force as to whether CSOs will work or not. We should wait and see, and the removal of the clause will at least give us a safeguard. If there is a feeling that the powers of CSOs need to be increased, the Government must come back to the House for a proper debate and not use the unsatisfactory statutory instrument procedure; they must use primary legislation.

The point has been made that the Home Office always has so many Bills going through at any one time that there will not be a problem in finding parliamentary time. It is not as if the Minister comes from one of those obscure Departments that are always desperately looking for a slot in the Queen's Speech. No doubt there will be many slots for the Minister and the Home Secretary.

I welcome the climbdown, and I hope it is a foretaste of things to come tomorrow. We will wait and see.

Mr. Francois

I would like to spend a few moments dwelling on tonight's enjoyable occurrence—the withdrawal of clause 45. It is particularly appropriate to welcome a change of heart by the Government in a week when 13 statutory instruments are being rammed through the House. I am pleased to see that, in a week during which we see such evidence of government by statutory instrument by the Labour party, provisions are being taken out of this Bill that would have allowed the Government to use statutory instruments to widen the powers of community support officers. There is a delightful irony there, if I might put it like that.

Among rank-and-file officers, there was more concern about the new institution of CSOs than about almost any other element in the Bill. To put it at its bluntest, there was concern among regular police officers that they might have to spend a lot of their time protecting the CSOs as they attempted to carry out their duties, thus diverting regular police officers from carrying out other important tasks.

My personal view is that, rather than pushing the CSO agenda, it would have been better to have provisions in the Bill to boost the position of special constables, with whom the regular police are used to working. Special constables are volunteers whose hearts are fully in the job and who do a tremendous service to all members of the public. The numbers of special constables have declined considerably under this Government. There were about 20,000 special constables in 1993; there were some 19,000 in 1997, when Labour took office; now, there are fractionally over 12,000. That is a gigantic drop. Many are leaving because they are demoralised by the way in which their service is being run by a Labour Government. Surely it would have been better to reinforce the special constabulary in a proactive and helpful manner, and to let it work with the police, rather than bringing in an entirely new type of officer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) ably pointed out, we will have to wait and see whether this experiment works. Like many other Opposition Members, I have reservations about it—as, indeed, do many professional police officers. I am delighted that the Government have given way on this aspect of the Bill, at least, but would that they had not come up with this idea in the first place.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

Somewhat ironically, the Conservatives' comments reveal the true nature of their opposition. As two such contributions have shown, they are against community support officers. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) nods, but in my constituency CSOs will be welcomed. In Stanley, our experiment with community safety wardens has proved very popular, and I am sure that CSOs will prove likewise.

The Government have taken a very practical approach to ensure that the Bill is enacted. It is clear that an alliance has been forged between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on this issue, but the public should take note of the fact that this Government are not simply talking about making communities much safer; they are putting in place provisions to achieve that end. The Opposition have nitpicked and gloated, both today and in Committee.

Mr. Hawkins

As the Minister acknowledged, the reality is that agreement was reached on 98 per cent. of the Bill. There were only one or two contentious points—points of substance—one of which the Government conceded, so it is outrageous for the hon. Gentleman to speak of Opposition nitpicking.

Mr. Jones

I would be happy if the Conservatives had made it clear in Committee and on the Floor of the House that they are against CSOs—the hon. Member for Upminster did so a moment ago—but instead they are trying to neuter them. It is clear that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is not convinced that CSOs will be effective, but I am and so are the Government, who want to ensure that communities are made safer. The Opposition should have the courage of their convictions and say that they are against CSOs, rather than trying to neuter them.

Mr. Francois

Rank-and-file police officers are unable to speak in this House, but we are. We are not nitpicking; we are simply articulating the concerns expressed to us by several such officers in our constituencies. They earn their living as police officers, and they are seriously concerned about whether this idea will work. We are representing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This debate is moving outside the strict terms of the amendment that we are discussing. As we have another group of amendments to discuss and a limited amount of time, it would help the House if we could focus exactly on the amendment before us.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I find it strange that Conservatives are now acting as the trade union officials of police authorities. I welcome CSOs and so will my community. This Government should get a lot of credit for their introduction, but the Opposition will claim that credit, or—once they prove popular—they will say that they thought that they would work. We shall also see the usual double standards from the Liberal Democrats. I support the amendment, in the sense that we need to get the Bill passed.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I regret the sentiments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who accuses Conservatives of gloating: this subject is wholly above such pettiness.

Mr. George Osborne


Patrick Mercer

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I also resent the idea that the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) suggest that he is acting as some sort of trade union official. The hon. Member for North Durham, the Minister and others—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not heeding my advice.

7.15 pm
Patrick Mercer

Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall stick rigidly to the subject.

I should like to add my support for the withdrawal of clause 45, and to point out that Nottinghamshire constabulary has broadly welcomed its withdrawal. I should also point out that I spoke to those policemen not as a trade union official, but as their Member of Parliament. Despite what was said in Committee, all of them—

Mr. Kevan Jones

Has the hon. Gentleman asked those of his constituents who are ordinary members of the public whether they are in favour of CSOs and safer communities?

Patrick Mercer

Yes, I have, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to point out my assiduousness in doing so. Naturally, my constituents are concerned about safety, but they are somewhat concerned and confused about the nature of CSOs. The policemen to whom I have spoken welcome the withdrawal of the clause. They view this as an opportunity for CSOs to take to the streets and, if they prove successful, perhaps to grow into the sort of institution—I am thinking of traffic wardens—that we all know and may not like, but which we certainly respect. It is not a question of gloating; they regard this as a common-sense measure, which I like to think Opposition Members have persuaded the Government to adopt.

I am grateful to the Minister for showing enormous common sense in respect of this clause, and I add my support to the amendment.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I support the amendment, but I am disappointed that we have reached this compromise. It is clear that the amendment is necessary simply to ensure that the Bill is enacted. Much of the antisocial behaviour legislation that we pass gives rise to problems with flexibility. We repeatedly have to return to such issues, saying that we need to enact primary legislation. The point of the clause was to give flexibility, so that, if necessary, the Secretary of State could regulate and change community support officers' powers to tackle antisocial behaviour.

If the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and others do not want CSOs in their areas because they believe that they will not work, I am happy to have them in mine. CSOs will provide a further option in the range available in tackling antisocial behaviour. It is important to note that, because the legislation will work in an unprecedented way, CSOs to some extent will not prove as effective as we would like.

Several hon. Members


Vernon Coaker

We will therefore have to return to the matter and make the necessary changes through primary legislation. Our constituents will say, "Why hasn't the House allowed CSOs the flexibility to use their powers on the street in such a way that they can tackle antisocial behaviour?"

Patrick Mercer

The hon. Gentleman may be missing the point somewhat. It is not so much that people oppose CSOs but that—in my experience of my constituents and members of the police force—they are cautious about the proposals. We do not understand them fully, and that is why we welcome the withdrawal of the clause.

Vernon Coaker

The hon. Gentleman will have to defend that position. It is a reasonable position to take, and Conservative Front Benchers also take a reasonable position, although they seek to decry the position that I take. My point is that because the Home Secretary will not have the flexibility that the original provisions provided, the CSOs will be introduced with curtailed powers. With the amendment, if we wish to change that, we will need primary legislation to do so. That is wrong and we will unnecessarily deny CSOs the flexibility that they should have.

Mr. Denham

I am pleased to receive such support for a Government amendment. My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) have made excellent contributions to the debate. It is a matter of sadness that some of the opposition to the provisions has stemmed from opposition to the whole concept of CSOs, rather than the merits of clause 100. The provisions were examined by the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, which did not find them offensive in procedural terms. It was always the case that the flexibility we sought would have been exercised subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, requiring positive votes in both Houses of Parliament.

It is a great shame that the drive to undermine the concept of CSOs, which has been so common among the Opposition, has led to opposition to the provisions. None the less, I want the Bill to make progress so that we see real CSOs out there in communities, including some exercising the full powers that they will have.

Mr. Paice

I wish to reaffirm on the record, so that no one is under any illusion, the fact that the official Opposition do not oppose CSOs. It is true that with a blank sheet of paper we would have made different proposals for providing extra help for the police. However, we have never and will never oppose the use of civilians in assisting the police. The only debate has been about the range of their powers, and that will be the subject of tomorrow's debate. We do not oppose CSOs, nor giving them some powers: we are concerned about the range of their powers, and that is why we have opposed these provisions.

Mr. Denham

In tomorrow's debate, we will see just how many Opposition Members support their Front Benchers in that position. The tone of many contributions has not been in line with those remarks. However, for practical reasons, we have agreed to remove these provisions from the Bill and perhaps we could now move on to the last group of amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

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