HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 cc911-44

'After section 41 of the 1996 Act there shall be inserted—

"41A Improvement Action Plans

(1) This section applies where the Secretary of State, as a consequence of a report under section 54, is satisfied in relation to any police force maintained for any police area—

  1. (a) that the whole or any part of the force is, whether generally or in particular respects, not efficient or not effective; or
  2. (b) that the whole or part of the force will cease to be efficient or effective, whether generally or in particular respects, unless remedial measures are taken.

(2) The Secretary of State shall send a copy of the report prepared under section 54 to the police authority which maintains the force in question, together with his reasons for considering that the conditions of subsection (1) are satisfied.

(3) The police authority on receipt of the report, shall require the chief officer to prepare a plan ('an Improvement Action Plan') for taking remedial measures in relation to anything contained in the report.

(4) An Improvement Action Plan shall not relate to any matters other than those in relation to which functions fall to be discharged by the chief officer of the force in question.

(5) Any plan produced under subsection (3) shall include—

  1. (a) provision for setting targets for addressing the issues raised in the report under section 54;
  2. (b) provision for setting time limits in achieving those targets;
  3. (c) provision for the making of progress reports to the police authority maintaining the force in question; and
  4. (d) provision for the duration of the plan.

(6) The chief officer shall provide a copy of the plan to the police authority within twelve weeks of the issuing of the requirement by the authority under subsection (3).

(7) Within twelve weeks of the end of the duration of the plan the chief officer shall report to the police authority who shall provide a copy of the report to the Secretary of State.

(8) Any report under subsection (7) shall include—

  1. (a) an assessment of the performance of the force, in whole or in part as appropriate, against the targets set in the plan; and
  2. (b) an assessment of the impact of the plan on the efficiency or effectiveness of the force.".'.—[Mr. Letwin.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

5.3 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment No. 6, in clause 5, page 5, line 35, leave out clause 5.

Government amendments Nos. 109 and 110.

Government amendment No. 111, in clause 5, page 6, line 1, leave out chief officer of police of and insert— police authority responsible for maintaining". Amendment (a) to the amendment, in line 1, before "chief', insert "may direct the".

Amendment (b) to the amendment, in line 1, before "police", insert "shall inform the".

Amendment No. 173, in page 6, line 1, leave out from "force" to end of line 5 and insert— 'of the contents of the report and the reasons for the statements made under paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1)'.

Government amendments Nos. 112 and 113.

Government amendment No. 114, page 6, line 8, at end insert— '(3A) If a police authority is directed to submit an action plan, that authority shall direct the chief officer of police of the force in question to prepare a draft of it and to submit it to the police authority for that authority to consider. (3B) The police authority, on considering a draft action plan submitted to it under subsection (3A) may submit the plan to the Secretary of State, with or without modifications. (3C) If the police authority proposes to make modifications to the draft of the action plan submitted under subsection (3A), it must consult with the chief officer of police.'.

Amendment (a) to the amendment, in line 1, leave out from "(3A)" to "that" and insert— 'When a police authority is informed by the Secretary of State under subsection (2)'.

Amendment (b) to the amendment, in line 3, leave out "of it" and insert— 'a plan ("an action plan")'.

Amendment (c) to the amendment, in line 5, leave out subsection (3B).

Amendment No. 174, in page 6, line 9, leave out lines 9 to 16.

Government amendment No. 115.

Government amendment No. 116, in clause 5, page 6, line 17, leave out "chief officer of any" and insert— police authority responsible for maintaining a".

Amendment (a) to the amendment, in line 1, before "chief", insert— 'giving a direction under this section to the'.

Amendment (b) to the amendment, in line 1, before "police", insert "informing the".

Government amendment No. 117, in clause 5, page 6, line 18, leave out "police authority maintaining" and insert— chief officer of police of".

Amendment (a) to the amendment, in line 1, after "maintaining", insert— 'that force that he has given that direction.'.

Amendment (b) to the amendment, in line 2, after second "of', insert— 'that force that he has so informed the authority.'.

Government amendments Nos. 118 to 129.

Amendment No. 8, in schedule 1, page 106, line 1, leave out from beginning to end of line 33 on page 107 and insert—

31 A NCIS Improvement Action Plans

(1) This section applies where the Secretary of State, as a consequence of an inspection report, is satisfied—

  1. (a) that the whole or any part of NCIS is, whether generally or in particular respects, not efficient or not effective; or
  2. (b) that the whole or part of NCIS will cease to be efficient or effective, whether generally or in particular respects, unless remedial measures are taken.
(2) The Secretary of State shall, after consultation with Scottish Ministers, send a copy of the report to the NCIS Service Authority together with his reasons for considering that the conditions of subsection (1) are satisfied.

(3) The Service Authority, on receipt of the report, shall require the Director General of NCIS to prepare a plan ("an Improvement Action Plan") for taking remedial measures in relation to anything contained in the report.

(4) An Improvement Action Plan shall not relate to any matters other than those in relation to which functions fall to be discharged by the Director General of NCIS.

(5) Any plan produced under subsection (3) shall include—

  1. (a) provision for setting targets for addressing the issues raised in the report under section 54;
  2. (b) provision for setting time limits in achieving those targets;
  3. (c) provision for the making of progress reports to the NCIS Service Authority; and
  4. (d) provision for the duration of the plan.

(6) The Director General shall provide a copy of the plan to the Service Authority within twelve weeks of the issuing of the requirement by the Service Authority under subsection (3).

(7) Within twelve weeks of the end of the duration of the plan the Director General shall report to the Service Authority who shall provide a copy of the report to the Secretary of State.

(8) Any report under subsection (6) shall include—

  1. (a) an assessment of the performance of the force, in whole or in part as appropriate, against the targets set in the plan; and
  2. (b) an assessment of the impact of the plan on the efficiency or effectiveness of the force.

(9) In this section 'an inspection report' means a report under section 54 of the Police Act 1996 (c. 16), section 33 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 (c. 77) or section 41 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 (c. 32).".'.

Government amendments Nos. 131 to 149.

Amendment No. 9, page 107, line 35, leave out from beginning to end of line 16 on page 109 and insert— '76A NCS Improvement Action Plans

(1) This section applies where the Secretary of State, as a consequence of a report under section 54 of the Police Act 1996, is satisfied—

  1. (a) that the whole or any part of the National Crime Squad is, whether generally or in particular respects, not efficient or not effective; or
  2. (b) that the whole or part of the National Crime Squad will cease to be efficient or effective, whether generally or in particular respects, unless remedial measures are taken.

(2) The Secretary of State shall send a copy of the report to the NCS Service Authority together with his reasons for considering that the conditions of subsection (1) are satisfied.

(3) The Service Authority shall require the Director General of the National Crime Squad to prepare a plan ("an Improvement Action Plan") for taking remedial measures in relation to anything contained in the report under section 54.

(4) An Improvement Action Plan shall not relate to any matters other than those in relation to which functions fall to be discharged by the Director General of the National Crime Squad.

(5) Any plan produced under subsection (3) shall include—

  1. (a) provision for setting targets for addressing the issues raised in the report under section 54;
  2. (b) provision for setting time limits in achieving those targets;
  3. (c) provision for the making of progress reports to the NCS Service Authority; and
  4. (d) provision for the duration of the plan.

(6) The Director General shall provide a copy of the plan to the Service Authority within twelve weeks of the issuing of the requirement by the Service Authority under subsection (3).

(7) Within twelve weeks of the end of the duration of the plan the Director General shall report to the Service Authority who shall send a copy of the report to the Secretary of State.

(8) Any report under subsection (7) shall include—

  1. (a) an assessment of the performance of the National Crime Squad, in whole or in part as appropriate, against the targets set in the plan; and
  2. (b) an assessment of the impact of the plan on the efficiency or effectiveness of the National Crime Squad.'.

Government amendments Nos. 150 to 168.

Amendment No. 10, in page 109, line 21, leave out "or 31A".

Amendment No. 11, in page 109, line 23, leave out— 'and the Director General of NCIS have each' and insert "has".

Amendment No. 12, in page 109, line 29, leave out— 'and the Director General of NCIS have each' and insert "has".

Government amendments Nos. 169 and 170.

Amendment No. 13, in page 109, leave out lines 36 to 40.

Amendment No. 14, in page 109, line 45, leave out "or 31A".

Amendment No. 15, in page 111, line 11, leave out "or 76A".

Amendment No. 16, in page 111, line 13, leave out from "Authority" to "been" in line 14 and insert "has".

Amendment No. 17, in page 111, line 19, leave out from "Authority" to "been" in line 20 and insert "has".

Government amendment No. 171.

Amendment No. 18, in page 111, leave out lines 26 to 30.

Government amendment No. 172.

Amendment No. 19, in page 111, line 35, leave out "or 76A".

Mr. Letwin

As that formidable list amply confirms, we are in the presence of a Government who have made considerable progress towards a position for which we have long argued in relation to the Home Secretary's efforts—originally in clause 5—to control the operations of police forces and parts of police forces.

We strongly welcome the Government's move; what we must ask now is whether it is sufficient, and I have to say that I do not think it is. I hope that the spirit in which we engage in today's discussion will be reflected in further consideration by the Government once the Bill returns to the House of Lords, whence it emanated. I also hope that we will reach a consensus in a very few days, and that it will achieve what both we and the Liberal Democrats have sought to achieve throughout. Indeed, that is consistent with the Government's explanation of their intentions. That fact alone gives me hope that we will reach a consensus.

I should make it clear at the outset that I do not wish to press new clause 1, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, to a vote, given where we stand today. Rather, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will find the means to allow the House to vote on amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 111, which can stand for the other amendments to the Government amendments.

We are talking about a matter that relates in part to practice and in part to principle. It is important to restate briefly the principle at the heart of the matter and to rehearse the reasons why, from the point of view of practice, the Government have not come quite close enough to establishing the principle in law. The fundamental principle that we are dealing with is the operational independence of chief constables. The Minister and the Home Secretary have repeatedly said that they have no intention of compromising the operational independence of chief constables. It is therefore important that we explain what we mean by such operational independence, and why it is important in the sense in which we mean it.

A chief constable holds an office the importance of which has been reiterated not in the past few years alone, but over decades and centuries. In fact, that office stretches back far beyond the beginnings of the formal police forces with which we now deal. The fundamental principle of the operational independence of a chief constable is that a subject of Her Majesty will always be subject to the attentions of those acting in pursuit of enforcing the law, and never to the attentions of those acting in pursuit of a political decree. That is the single most important principle of the rule of law in this country; indeed, it is common ground on which the Opposition, Ministers and Labour Members do not disagree.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in giving way. Will he address the very important question—he may well be coming to it—of the distinction between operational and non-operational? The concept of an operational requirement has been respected by politicians for many years, but is it respected by senior police officers? The boundary between what is and is not operational is increasingly being pushed back. It is not defined in the Bill or in any of the amendments, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will turn his mind to where that boundary should lie, and whether it should be defined in law.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman is on to something deep and important. It is also very relevant to my discussion, but if I may, I shall make a slight excursion in order to discuss it. I recognise that there is a difference between issues of general strategy relating to a police force, and operational issues relating to, say, the arrest of, or surveillance of, a particular individual. That is an enormously important distinction. Of course, a police force's general strategy is not at the core of our rule of law; it is a practical matter, so to speak. However, the assertion of the right of every subject of Her Majesty not to be interfered with on the basis of a particular politically originated attack by the police is at the centre of our rule of law.

I recognise the distinction that the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw between operational and non-operational issues. However, we can see why Ministers have not attempted to define that difference, which is why, despite having considered the issue, we have not sought to do so either. If we could define a proper distinction, we could address at least part of the problem of principle in a way that might have achieved consensus at an earlier stage.

It is difficult to establish a proper definition because strategy melds into operation in a way that is difficult for legislation to disentangle in advance. Let us take the case of a particular frustration that a particular Home Secretary at some future date might have about the prevalence of a particular kind of crime in a particular place. That would be a reasonable preoccupation for a Home Secretary. Local Members of Parliament and others might be lobbying him to do something about the situation, and that situation might affect large numbers of people, which would require the local police force to have a strategy to address it.

A Home Secretary who felt that he could determine the strategies of that police force might reasonably take steps to ensure that those strategies were, in his view, appropriate. However, there might also be specific ringleaders of the disturbance that the locals were complaining about, and the Home Secretary might feel that as part of defining the strategy, he ought to define the targets of the strategy, because otherwise it might be almost impossible to assert that the strategy should be thus, rather than otherwise.

So we move almost invisibly from the strategic, or non-operational, to the operational. I dare not have confidence that we shall be able so to define it—[Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position, seems to be suggesting that he has achieved that miracle. I, however, dare not imagine that we, sitting in this House this evening, are capable of envisaging all the circumstances that could make that definition so slippery.

I should therefore prefer to place my faith—and I hope that the House will do the same—in an effort to distance politicians from all the actions of police forces, both operational and non-operational. That is a sure way of achieving the goal of principle, which is to distance politicians, always and irrevocably, from operational matters.

Mr. Allen

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but will he forgive me for pursuing the matter a little further? Unless we put into the Bill a definition of at least part of what we all agree is operational and non-operational, the very thing that he fears will happen. Home Secretaries of all political colours will not only set targets, but will ensure that money is allocated to meeting them, so it is almost inevitable that chief constables and local police officers will have to pursue those targets. In that way there is interference, almost by stealth, in the operational objectives of local police forces. If we were now to debate honestly what is operational and what is not, the difference would be clearer not only to us but to officers on the ground and senior officers in local constabularies.

Mr. Letwin

I take the force of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but perhaps we should continue that argument at another time. I certainly take his point about grants; indeed, it leads to the argument that I am about to advance. Because of their grant-making powers, Ministers, alas, almost inevitably have at their disposal the ability to exercise considerable direction over the activities—if I may use that neutral term—of the police forces of England and Wales.

I know that the Minister will say that this is merely a matter of offering a helping hand in co-ordination, or some such stuff, but even today we can see that in pursuit of the particular goal of fulfilling the Prime Minister's commitments about reducing street crime by September, a group of Ministers—a posse, if that is the appropriate collective noun—has been put on to the job of trying to ensure that specific bits of specific police forces live up to the standards that the Prime Minister has set them. That was not achieved by the use of statutory powers. Incidentally, it is an interesting question whether that was ultra vires, and that may be subject to review by the judges. However, it is clear that it was achieved by informal means. Things were said or implied that suggested to the police forces concerned that it would be to their benefit to co-operate, and co-operate they have. That could be extended more widely.

5.15 pm
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham)

The right hon. Gentleman is on the verge of making what I would regard as a very serious allegation—that in some way chief constables in the 10 forces have been intimidated or bullied into taking part in the street crime initiative. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to leave the House with that impression, but it is certainly the impression that he has created in my mind.

Mr. Letwin

I would not say "intimidated" or "bullied", because the Home Secretary and the Minister are much too charming for that. However, the fact is that Ministers have an enormous degree of power over police authorities and forces. Those authorities and forces are not naive. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, they know where the money comes from. Nothing can be done about that and I do not propose that we should suddenly remove the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers from their role in funding police forces. I recognise that that would require long debate and vast reorganisation.

Under current circumstances—and for many years, because present Ministers did not invent the system—Home Secretaries and their Ministers wield vast influence over police forces. That does not have to be a matter of intimidation. Subtle hints about direction from Home Secretaries over many years lead to significant responses by police forces. It is from that starting point that we need to examine the likely practical effect of measures in this Bill.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but is he actually saying that under no circumstances should the Home Secretary or Parliament have any control over a chief constable or a local police authority? If that is the case, how are chief constables or police authorities to be democratically accountable to Parliament?

Mr. Letwin

I fear that the hon. Gentleman and I have different views on the current arrangements. Indeed, I fear that his view differs from that of Ministers and, indeed, the progress of our history. It is not the case that police chief constables or their forces are democratically accountable to Parliament. They are not. Nor are they, and nor have they ever been, accountable to Home Secretaries under the law or any constitutional theory. Police forces are accountable to police authorities, and that is why they are called police authorities. Those police authorities are accountable, to a degree—although not, in my view, to a sufficient degree—to their local communities.

The tripartite structure so carefully established gives the Home Secretary strictly circumscribed statutory roles, which I know he finds frustrating. However, because he is the de facto possessor of the purse strings, he has a wider degree of influence than his statutory role would suggest. The issue that we have been debating for some months is whether we should include in the Bill a statutory platform that will tend to increase what is the already great influence of the centre over the police forces of England and Wales.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Was not it the previous Conservative Government who put in place the current structure of police authorities, which previously had a larger democratic element in the numbers of local councillors who sat on them? Is the Conservative party now proposing directly elected police authorities and chief constables?

Mr. Letwin

It is perfectly true that the Conservative party is reviewing its policies on and attitudes to the local accountability of police forces. As we do so, we are conscious of the need to maintain the operational independence of chief constables from their authorities—that is another important point—because we are desperately keen for the professionals to be able to get on with the job.

We recognise that the degrees of decentralisation and local accountability need review. Although those questions are germane, we are, alas, considering a provision in the Bill that proposes the reverse: the establishment of a platform upon which the centre can do more to influence the police forces of the country. That is what we need to debate.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. As usual, he argues his case carefully and succinctly. He made a point about control and power from the centre, but I did not perceive that he was saying that any threat or undue influence was being imposed. He said, rightly, that it is a question of finance. Does he agree that the crime fighting fund is a good example of the way in which finance seems to control the issue, as police authorities will not be able to tap into it unless they maintain a few extra officers?

Mr. Letwin

I agree that that is a good example. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept, and that the Minister will take the point also, that I am not asserting that everything that the Home Secretary—either the present one or any of his predecessors—has sought to achieve as a result of using that influence is bad. Such an assertion would be false. In fact, I am rather in favour of some of the effects of the crime fighting fund. The problem is that good effects that are brought about by means that may be questionable can have long-term, unanticipated effects. That is my fear.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but he is talking about structures and the relationship between the Home Office and police authorities and chief constables. However, people in my constituency and in many others throughout the country are primarily concerned with the efficiency of the police force that serves them. The most recent available performance indicators show that his police authority is doing remarkably well in comparison with mine. I wish that my constituents were as fortunate as his. Is not the aim of new clause 1 simply to improve the service that I get? Would not it challenge my police authority to provide services that are similar to those provided elsewhere—specifically in his constituency?

Mr. Letwin

I recognise that the motives that the hon. Lady ascribes to the Home Secretary and to the Minister are correct. Throughout this important debate, I have acknowledged that the sole desire of the Home Secretary and the Minister is to exert pressure for what will be, in their view, better and more efficient policing in parts of the country where it is less good than it should be. I accept that, and I have never asserted anything to the contrary.

I understand that Home Secretaries occupy a high office and feel frustrated when they pull levers and little appears to happen quickly at the other end. That frustrates them, not least because gadflies like me accuse them of failing to produce good results, and they do not understand why we should then deprive them of the means to achieve those results.

I understand that logic, but the problem is that that approach does not work in the long run. That is partly because it compromises the principle that politicians should be kept out of the process, which is more precious than anything else.

There are also practical reasons why the approach will not work, which I will address briefly. Our assertion—we may be wrong, but it is based on deep intuitions—is that the professionals will become progressively demoralised, and that policing in England and Wales will get worse as a result. That will happen if efforts, however well intentioned, are made by the central bureaucracy to control—through targets, monitoring and interference from the centre—how those police forces go about their work.

There is a charge sheet to be answered, not of disreputable motive but of effect. When the Home Secretary was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, he had a genuine passion to improve education. He sought to achieve that through subjecting the teaching profession to vastly increased targets, monitoring and interference from the centre. I do not doubt his motive, but the result has been catastrophic. Teachers the length and breadth of England and Wales are leaving the profession because they are worried about the level to which they are forced to become creatures of bureaucracy rather than independent professionals. I know that there is a disagreement, but it is genuine—this is our passionately held view. We believe that the same will happen to our police forces if the same attitude is taken to governing them. There is an issue of principle and of practice here.

Mr. Allen

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin

Before I give way, which I shall for the very last time, I should add that one has to ask how effective the Home Office will be in carrying out this task, even if one were to assume away the issue of principle and the question of whether the professionals will be demoralised.

There are many extremely intelligent and hard-working people in the Home Office. I know that they will do their best, but the record is not good. The Home Office has not proved good at administering matters, and until it improves I do not believe that there are grounds for putting our faith in that body to administer the police forces of England and Wales. Those are the three essentials of our argument.

Mr. Allen

The right hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. I wish to pursue the same point and ensure that he is as rigorous in his argument as he usually is. We all concede that politicians should not interfere in some operational matters. The right hon. Gentleman must surely concede that it is also just and proper for this House, its representatives and Ministers to have a hand in non-operational or strategic policing matters. To ensure that his argument is as coherent as he would like, it is incumbent upon him at some point, whether he is in opposition or even in government, to define the areas that are non-operational and strategic. Will he consider that issue, because Members on both sides of the House must confront it at some point, particularly when chief officers are consistently pressing back the boundary?

Mr. Letwin

I hope to satisfy the hon. Gentleman with this: we will consider that issue further. However, in the context of how far central control has already exceeded its limits, how far we need to rebuild local control and reassert independences already eroded, I accept that we need to think about the distinction between operational and non-operational issues.

I apologise to the House for taking so long, but I have tried to handle objections as they arise. Let me come briefly to why we remain dissatisfied with the admittedly beneficial moves that the Government have already made. We are concerned that the Bill creates a platform that will enable the Home Secretary of the day to establish greater and greater control over the police forces. The danger seems to lie not so much in the narrow interpretation of the wording, but in whether the process that is being established draws Ministers closer to the scene of the action and inevitably means that forces increasingly look to them as soon as the process is triggered.

We have no problem with the principle of the Secretary of State triggering an action plan or a report. We have had some hesitations about that, but we have got over them. In our new clause and, more germanely, in our amendments to the Government amendments, we have accepted that the Home Secretary should be able to trigger an action plan for a force that is failing in the Home Secretary's reasoned opinion. That is common ground between ourselves and Liberal Democrat Members.

5.30 pm

The difficulties arise from the fact that the way in which the Government have constructed the provision, even in their new amendments, will give the initiative throughout to Ministers and will not give the police authority a separate statutory initiative. That is the critical difference between our constructions—whether in new clause 1, or in the amendments to the Government amendments—and those of the Minister. The Minister shakes his head. Perhaps we will be persuaded by his arguments, but the Secretary of State will remain at the centre of the web to a considerable degree given the way in which he has drafted his amendments.

In the Secretary of State's new version, proposed new section 41A of the Police Act 1996 will read: The Secretary of State may direct the police authority responsible for maintaining the force to submit to the Secretary of State a plan for taking remedial measures. What is going on here—the Minister has said this on the radio—is that he is using the concept of direction to make the police authority send something to him. The initiative will lie with the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will continue to be a party with whom the authority—hence, indirectly, the police chief—will negotiate.

Subsection (7) will state: On considering an action plan submitted to him in accordance with a direction under this section the Secretary of State may if he is of the opinion that the remedial measures contained in the action plan…are inadequate, notify the police authority and the chief officer of the force in question of that opinion and of his reasons". Yet again, the Secretary of State will take the initiative. If he does not like what he gets, he will go back for more. I am not saying that any of that is malign. I am saying that the Government amendments will not quite distance Ministers from the preparation of the action plans, which is what we are trying to achieve, in contrast to the Government.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I am following my right hon. Friend's argument. I do not want to be unduly critical of him, but even if he considers new clause 1, does he not realise that, in fact, the initiative lies with the Home Secretary and that on receipt of a copy of the report from the Home Secretary, the police authority shall require the chief officer to carry out remedial work of various kinds? Surely it would be better by far to give the police authority only an ability to direct the chief officer. In other words, the police authority should not be obliged to act on the Home Secretary's instructions.

Mr. Letwin

My right hon. and learned Friend usefully chides me. We have long and hard considered that issue. I have to admit, to my undying shame and before the conscience that my right hon. and learned Friend constitutes, that we have made concessions to the positions that Ministers have taken in pursuit of consensus. I accept that, but I am conscious that this is an important Bill and that ping-pong between the House and another place is to be avoided if at all possible.

We have consciously gone out of our way in drafting the new clause to make moves towards the Government's position, as they have tried to make moves towards ours in their amendments. I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's point that we have perhaps gone further than we would have wished as a result, but my point is that the Government amendment presses that issue further. It is more true in their amendments than in our new clause or than in the clause as amended by our amendments to the Government amendments that the Secretary of State is a player, an actor in the drama.

Our fear is that a Secretary of State, who is already endowed with great powers to influence by virtue of the powers of the purse string, will be able, if he is an actor in the drama, to be the playwright or the producer, too. Rather than merely being an actor, we fear that he will turn himself, by dint of his great financial powers, into—if I may adopt another metaphor—the puppeteer.

That danger takes us straight back to all three questions that we raised: the question of principle; the question of deprofessionalisation; and the question of whether the Home Office will be good at administering. We want to try to make sure that we do not let the Bill become a platform for the Secretary of State to become involved, as the puppeteer, in a vital dimension of policing. When Ministers consider the matter further, as we progress to the next stages of the Bill, I hope that they will go one step further and accept either our amendments to the Government amendments or something very similar.

Mr. Denham

As this is a substantial group of Government amendments, it may help—although I am never quite sure about the conduct of this type of debate—if I set out the Government's position, so that the parameters of the debate are clear. It is probably true that the level of personal respect between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is about as high as one gets between two different Front-Bench teams. This has not been one of the right hon. Gentleman's best afternoons so far, however, and I cannot say that he brought to these issues the clarity to which we have often been used in previous debates.

In summary, the right hon. Gentleman did two things. He spent about 20 minutes—albeit that he spent much of it answering interventions—dealing with a figment of his imagination: the fantasy that everything in the Bill, by implication, represents the Home Secretary's desire to run everything from Whitehall, nationalise the police force and so on. By and large, he avoided dealing with the issue of substance in the narrow circumstances that are covered by the Bill. I will return to that in a moment. Nothing in the issues that we are debating or in the Government amendments provides the platform that the right hon. Gentleman says that he wants to resist. They deal with a narrow set of circumstances, and do not enable a Home Secretary to build on that outside them.

The right hon. Gentleman was concerned about deprofessionalisation. One reason why there is such widespread support in the police service for the great thrust of the police reform White Paper and the Bill is that it will bring about the best and most widespread professionalisation—and further professionalisation—of the police force for many years. Everything in the reform programme—the support for the police service and for the national centre of policing excellence, which is part of Centrex, the agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers about how it will chair the steering committee that oversees its work programme and professionally validates codes of practice, and our commitment to the development of professional skills in investigation, leadership development and training—points to a Government who admire the professionalism of our police service and who want to work with it to extend that professionalism. We need to be judged by what we are doing rather than by the right hon. Gentleman's fears, which I do not accept.

I want to address the specific issue, as the Opposition's position on it is still far from clear. The entire purpose of the intervention power is to cater for the exceptional circumstances in which a force or part of a force fails to provide the quality of service that local communities have the right to expect. It is common ground that the chief officer and the police authority are in the front line of addressing problems of poor performance. We would expect them to take the necessary remedial action. We have made it clear that the measures in clause 5 would be a last resort or long stop if existing mechanisms had failed to deliver the required improvements in service.

I suppose that the one thing that I can be pleased about after this long parliamentary deliberation is that, in the new clause, the Opposition have at last accepted, after months of denying it, that circumstances could exist in which local remedies had failed and further measures needed to be taken.

Mr. Llwyd

Although I do not expect the Minister to name names, will he tell us how many police forces in England and Wales he deems to be under-performing or not doing their work properly?

Mr. Denham

There is no list of under-performing police forces. Despite the travesty of a report in a national newspaper today, we are seeking with the police service to find a much more balanced way of assessing the performance of police forces. They frequently tell us that they are measured over only a narrow part of the wide range of activities and services that they are required to provide to the public. I will not stand here and say that I have a list of failing police forces; I do not.

When local remedies and other available mechanisms have failed, the basic principle is how we create an effective mechanism for intervention.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill's purpose is to try to improve performance across all police authorities in a variety of areas? I have criticised my police authority on aspects of its operation but, in others, it is an exemplar and offers a beacon of excellence for other police authorities to follow.

Mr. Denham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The police service is committed to delivery and, in general, if a force recognises that its performance in a particular area is not as good as that of another force, its first instinct is to find out what the other force is doing and to go off and do it. The whole thrust behind the national centre of policing excellence and, if necessary, the codes of practice, is to have proper structures to enable a force to do that. We also want to construct something that we do not have at the moment, namely a robust system of enabling a police force or basic command unit to compare itself with another. That is lacking in the current performance indicators, and we are working on such a system.

The dilemma that we sought to address in clause 5 was what would happen in circumstances of the deep and persistent failure that I described. The Bill originally proposed a mechanism for the Home Secretary to direct a chief officer to prepare an action plan to address the identified failings. I did not, and do not, share the belief that that fundamentally challenged the tripartite structure, not least because the mechanism could come into play only when it was clear that the two local legs of the structure had failed to tackle the problems. Furthermore, given the safeguards in the original clause, which are repeated in the amendments, I do not think that the proposal was a fundamental threat to operational independence. It certainly does not—this is explicitly ruled out—involve the type of targeting of individuals that the shadow Home Secretary implied in his speech.

None the less, we need to find a way forward and we want to try to accommodate the concerns that have been raised. Provided that the House applies the following test, we can move forward: in the case of failure, will the Home Secretary have the capacity to take effective action and the ability to ensure that effective action is taken? The proposed changes, although quite radical in relation to some of our original proposals, ensure that such action can be taken. That is critical, because we must be fundamentally concerned about those members of the public who, by definition, do not receive the standard of service that they have a right to expect.

The amendments make significant changes. We accept that the trigger for intervention must be a report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. It will sometimes delay action if adverse information has to be confirmed by the HMIC, but it is clearly a reassurance that none of the powers—the right hon. Gentleman did not mention this—can be used unless the seriousness of the situation is confirmed by the independent inspectorate. It is not a case of the Home Secretary taking open-ended powers to intervene in a force because he does not think that things are going well or he has read an adverse report in a newspaper. The independent inspectorate has to confirm the problem, and that is important.

5.45 pm
Mr. Letwin

I accept that that is an important safeguard, but can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee, in the light of the powers that we are discussing, that no informal arrangements would be made under which the Secretary of State could suggest to the police force in question that it would be a good idea to provide an informal action plan in advance of requesting the formal action plan, much as the acceptable behaviour contract is informal and the antisocial behaviour order lies behind it as a threat? Is he maintaining that the Home Office will never try to use such an apparatus to widen the scope of the powers?

Mr. Denham

I do not think that that could be done. Nothing can happen without confirmation of the problem by the inspectorate. If a Home Secretary went to a police force and said that the Department did not like what it was doing, any chief constable who was confident about the service that he was delivering and the competence of his force would know that the inspectorate would back him against the Home Secretary. We argued earlier for flexibility. The defence that has been built in is profound for a chief constable who thinks that he might be bullied, coerced or whatever—not that I think that that would happen. The chief constable knows that the Home Secretary has no power to act unless the inspectorate confirms the nature of a problem. That is important.

Mr. Allen

I hope that my right hon. Friend and hon. Members who served on the Committee will forgive me if I ask a simple question, which I am sure was covered in Committee. The action plan applies to failing police forces. It does not address the problem of forces that are failing not in an operational sense, but in a non-operational sense with regard to the strategic decisions that they take which fly in the face of the Home Secretary's responsibilities; hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that he can rightly say certain things.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I am referring to community policing. That is a strategic, non-operational matter in its generality, yet a police force could decide not to do it. It may not be failing—operationally, it may be an effective force, and the one I have in mind is—but the chief constable of that force can happily cast community policing aside. Am I correct in saying that the Bill does not cover that problem?

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend is not right to say that the issue is not covered in the Bill, although it is not addressed in clause 5. The clause is not intended to be used if there is genuine disagreement on how the chief constable chooses to police Nottingham. We are talking about failure arising from serious problems in the performance of a force.

The Bill allows for the development of evidence-based codes of practice. If they are given legal status, the chief officer would have to have regard to them. He would not have to follow them to the letter, however, and would have the discretion to ignore them if he felt that that was appropriate. The development of those codes of practice, agreed in the House, can take place only if evidence exists to support them. We would not want to codify the idea of having a lot of police beat officers unless there was evidence that a particular way of policing delivered that.

It is important to make it clear that our conception of intervention has always been based on the idea that a failure of outcomes by a force would concern us, and intervention is not, a priori, an attempt to regulate the inputs made by a police officer. In every part of the system in the Bill, the point at which attention will focus on how a police force operates is when there are concerns about what is being achieved for the public in reducing crime, tackling criminality and dealing with the fear of crime.

Mr. Allen

If I understand my right hon. Friend correctly, the matters that we all accept are the Home Secretary's responsibility because they are non-operational and strategic cannot be interfered with when a chief constable chooses to fly in the face of concerns, but the matters that many of us feel are operational may be interfered with, through a local action plan, if the outcomes are not those that we would like.

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend is not following what I am saying. From its very inception, clause 5 has ruled out interference in operational matters concerning particular individuals or operations. It contains a reserve power—the power of last resort—to be used if a force, or part of it, persistently under-performs. We have to separate that in our minds from the question of whether Nottinghamshire, for example, chooses to adopt a particular pattern of community policing. The clause is not designed to enable the Home Secretary to interfere in that, nor does the Home Secretary aspire to make such decisions.

In future, where best practice is clearly set out on the basis of evidence, as would be the case with the ACPO firearms manual, for example, it will have the potential to become a code of practice, with a legal status, to which the chief constable will have to have regard. However, he will have discretion about the extent to which he wants to take it into account. I hope that I have made that point. It is important to understand the narrowness of this issue.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Ministers have always had informal contacts with ACPO, chairs of police authorities and senior police officers. Has any work been done that shows either that such dialogue has failed to deliver the changes in particular authorities that Home Secretaries have looked for—the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) cited one example—or that the intervention of the inspectorate has not, of itself, produced the improvements desired by the Home Secretary and the wider community? [Interruption.]

Mr. Denham

I am not going to follow the suggestion of the right hon. Member for West Dorset and name police forces. There is a recognition that circumstances can arise where, as a last resort, this type of intervention is necessary. I agree that one would expect intervention, the support of professional colleagues and the sharing of best practice to come into play in the vast majority of cases. Clearly, we should all rely on that process to be in the front line in improving performance. Indeed, the biggest drive towards improving performance will come from the sharing of best practice in the police force.

Mr. Llwyd

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I must make progress. I am taking even longer than the right hon. Member for West Dorset did. [Interruption.]He says that it is not possible, but we will see how long I continue. I may take more interventions later.

There is a narrow way into the power, and its use has to be confirmed by the inspectorate. That probably protects the Home Secretary, but it certainly protects the chief constable, and we have been happy to concede that change.

It is our view that the Home Secretary should be able to direct the police authority, which will in turn direct the chief officer to draft an action plan. As the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to recognise, the principle of the Home Secretary having the power to direct the police authority was established by the previous Conservative Government in section 40 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham

I should like to make a little progress before we hear a quote from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman is ready to go with that quote, and ultimately I will not disappoint him as he has taken the trouble to carry it around ever since the Bill was in Committee in case he got the opportunity to use it again.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has pointed out, the Opposition themselves have conceded that the police authority should have the right to direct the chief officer.

I confess to some confusion about the intent of new clause 1. It appears that the Opposition want to say that the Secretary of State should not direct the police authority, but that on receipt of a brown envelope containing an HMIC report from the Secretary of State, the police authority would have to direct the chief officer. I am not sure whether that is deliberate ambiguity or pure sophistry. Simply by cause and effect, the new clause would mean that the Home Secretary was directing the police authority. It would be better to say so, and that is what we have said in the Bill.

If the Opposition amendments are intended to create a situation where the Home Secretary can put the HMIC report in the post but the police authority can decide whether to require the chief officer to take action, that would be unsatisfactory in the narrow circumstances that we are talking about—those in which the police authority and the chief constable have, between them, failed to deal with the local problem of performance in the force. The right hon. Gentleman has got himself and his party into a tangle over the new clause.

Mr. Hogg

I rather share the Minister's criticism of the new clause. None the less, he will keep it in mind that the powers that we discussed yesterday included a power for the Home Secretary to suspend a chief officer or to cause his resignation or retirement. That, taken in conjunction with the power that we are discussing, gives the Home Secretary considerable powers to impose on the police authority an improvement plan or a change in regime.

Mr. Denham

As we discussed yesterday, I do not share that analysis because the power to seek to remove a chief officer has been in legislation since the 1960s, and suspension deals merely with the period before that process. I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman at all, although I recognise the concern as one that was raised by the Chief Police Officers Staff Association and that we need to try to address in discussions about the protocol. The measure does not achieve that fundamental shift in power to the Home Secretary which critics have identified.

Mr. Letwin

I have to say, regrettably, that the Minister's analysis of the logic begins to persuade me that we have gone too far towards his position in using the word "shall" in our amendments. Perhaps "may" would be the better word. We had hoped that we could go as far as "shall" and still preserve the idea that, because the direction from the Secretary of State would be absent, a whole series of sub-directions that could be contained in the direction would also be absent, and that we would at least have an independent police authority that was the sole source of direction.

If the Minister, on the advice that he has been able to receive, takes the view that if the police authority were given a statutory duty to direct, the Secretary of State would in effect have the same power to circumscribe the character of that direction as he would have if he had the power of direction itself, I fear that we may have gone too far. We may have to ask our colleagues in another place to move back from the position that we have established. I hope that the Minister will reflect on whether what he said was meant, or whether he was merely engaging in a playful piece of debate, because if that is the way that he reads the Bill, I will not rest content with the way in which we have tried to amend it.

Mr. Denham

This is an important exchange. It is important to clarify exactly what the Opposition are saying. I fear that if we had formulated our clause as the right hon. Gentleman has formulated his, we would have been attacked by him for attempting to take a power of direction without being clear about it.

It seems to follow logically from the right hon. Gentleman's position that, on receipt of the report, the police authority shall act. That is how we understand what he said. I do not take that to mean that the Secretary of State is dictating the content of the action plan.

I now come on to the nub of the issue. Clearly, it would be nonsense for the Home Secretary to be aware of a major problem in a police force, for that to be confirmed to him by HMIC, for HMIC to say, "I can't think of anything else to do about this force other than for us to intervene", for the Home Secretary to send all that off in an envelope to the police authority, and for the police authority to refuse to do anything about it. That would not be a tenable sequence of events.

6 pm

The issue, then—this is the third area in which we have made a significant change to our original proposal—is the content of the plan. It is clear in our proposals that the plan should be produced by the chief officer, and that it should undergo the normal consultation with the police authority that would be involved in producing, say, an annual plan, which is written by the chief officer in consultation with the police authority. If the authority wants to make changes, those must be discussed with the chief officer. That has been in the legislation for some time in respect of annual plans.

The amendments that we tabled remove any suggestion that the Home Secretary can dictate what is in the plan or rewrite it. They bring this part of the Bill into line with the legislation on the three-year policing plans that we discussed in Committee. The Home Secretary could comment, but could not rewrite the plan. That is extremely important. It means that the Home Secretary can make his position clear, although he could presumably always get his hands on a copy and comment. It would be much better if there were legislative provision for that. The police authority would have to consider the Home Secretary's comments, but there would be no binding instruction for the Home Secretary to specify the form in which the plan must be written.

Given that there is now common ground that, in the event of a problem being confirmed by HMIC, action must be taken, our proposals should be acceptable to the Opposition. Yes, the police authority will require an action plan, but it will have the same involvement with the action plan as it would with an annual plan. The Home Secretary will be able to comment—after all, he initiated the action—but not rewrite the plan.

That will achieve the purpose of making sure that something is done for the public. We hope that hon. Members will accept that that is a reasonable move away from the position in the original draft of the Bill, and that they will support it.

Mr. Letwin

Of course we accept that that was a major move, which we welcomed. May I draw the Minister's attention back to subsection (2) and ask him to clarify how, in his version, he imagines the original direction from the Secretary of State will be couched? As I read subsection (2), in stating that the "Secretary of State may direct" and that in that direction he may direct the force in question in relation to anything that the Secretary of State considers relevant to the matters as to which he is satisfied as mentioned in subsection (1)", the subsection legitimises the Secretary of State giving a specific and detailed set of directions to the police authority about exactly what is to be contained in the action plan.

I accept the Minister's point that the action plan may not conform to that direction, and that he has removed the power that previously existed for the Secretary of State to force a revision, but he surely sees that, endowed with the powers that the Secretary of State otherwise has, a detailed and specific set of provisions about what is to be contained in the action plan is quite a different thing from circumstances in which the Secretary of State merely triggers the preparation of an action plan under the aegis of the authority.

Mr. Denham

The debate is proving useful. We have focused on a set of words that has not previously been the focus of particular attention. In drafting this part of clause 5, and in clause 4, which we discussed Upstairs, we were able to point out that we had significantly constrained the Secretary of State's powers to direct a police authority, compared with the powers given by the Conservative Government.

As we pointed out in Committee, those powers did not even require the Secretary of State to require action relevant to the problem identified by HMIC. HMIC could identify a problem relating to a collapsing drugs strategy, and the Secretary of State would be able to use the powers in the Police Act 1996 to direct the police authority to urge the chief constable to do more about road traffic. We have narrowed the remit of the Secretary of State to make sure that it is relevant to the problems identified by HMIC.

I envisage that the Home Secretary would be in receipt of a report from HMIC. It is always dangerous to speculate on such occasions, but, to help the discussion, let us assume that HMIC has concluded that a particular area is awash with class A drugs, that the chief constable refuses to devote any resources to tackling the problem, that all the interventions have failed to alter the situation, and that an effective response by the police force was therefore required. The report from HMIC would presumably analyse the problem, and probably indicate the areas in which action should be taken to address the problem.

It has been our assumption that that would be the basis of the Secretary of State's direction to the police authority. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be worried that the wording of the clause would allow the Secretary of State to add an eight-page codicil elaborating on the strategy that the police force should adopt. The right hon. Gentleman knows the evolution of the clause. Earlier drafts of this and other clauses contained explicit powers for the Secretary of State to do just such a thing. We have removed those.

We may not be able to resolve the matter sensibly on the Floor of the House tonight, but if we have narrowed that down as the area of concern, there should be a way forward that will enable the problem that has been identified to be conveyed with the power of direction to a police authority, and which enables the Secretary of State to look to the chief officer and the policy authority to respond to the report and the problems that have been identified, and subsequently allows the Secretary of State to comment, but not to rewrite the plan.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

On a matter of clarification regarding HMIC, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Home Office meets members of HMIC to discuss possible audits or reviews that they might undertake?

Mr. Denham

There are now three or four elements to the inspection process carried out by HMIC. First, there are routine inspections of forces. Those seek to cover all forces over a period of time, but there is a professional process undertaken by HMIC based on what could be called risk analysis—a look at indicators to suggest where certain forces may not be performing as well as others. Secondly, there is the programme of basic command unit inspections, which are usually peer-led and carried out by another command unit's chief superintendent seconded to the inspectorate.

Thirdly, there are programmes of thematic inspections—for example, on diversity. Fourthly, there is the potential for the Home Secretary to ask for a specific inquiry into a particular area. It is fair to say that in each of those areas, there is discussion with Ministers, although in practice the basic command unit programme and the normal force programme are left to the professional discretion of HMIC. In the thematic area, there is generally some discussion. For example, discussion is currently taking place about the possible examination of domestic violence prosecutions, which would involve both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate.

I hope that we have had a useful discussion so far. Before I sit down, I shall give way briefly to the right hon. Member for West Dorset.

Mr. Letwin

We have indeed had a useful discussion, which justifies the existence of such debates in the House. We believe that it would be extremely productive to discuss subsection (2). Perhaps we can find a route that will establish consensus by constraining the power of direction to being a power of triggering, not a power of specifying. Of course, we shall have to discuss that outside the present congregation, but I hope that we may be on the verge of a solution.

Mr. Denham

That would be helpful. We had understood subsection (2) simply to ensure that a plan leading to remedial measures would be prepared. Indeed, we removed from earlier drafts and clauses a whole set of provisions about targets, performance measures, time scales and so on, which were very much part of the power to direct what was in the plan. I will now sit down for fear of saying anything that could unravel the good progress that we have made in the past half an hour.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

I have been happily listening to that interesting and useful exchange across the Floor of the House. From a neutral point of view—if one can call Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches neutral—I perceive the distinct possibility that there could be all-party agreement on how we go forward. The Minister responded thoughtfully. It was the second thoughtful statement by a home affairs Minister this afternoon. To be fair to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), he also approached the matter thoughtfully, so plaudits all round. I am not sure whether the Government's change of heart is based on a conversion to the approach advocated by Opposition Members or on a calculation based on mathematics, a word that the Minister used yesterday in relation to the Henry VIII clause. That may be an academic point, but it is important because it underlies the Government's intentions, and those intentions will affect their legislation and their whole approach to the police reform package.

It seems a long time since we started talking in Committee about the tripartite structure. Hon. Members in all three parties agree that that is important and needs to be retained, but there is division between us on how much weight should be placed on each leg of the tripod. Under the proposed system, the tripartite structure will allow one piece—the Home Secretary—to conclude that two other pieces have failed, then to trigger action. I do not dissent from that, but it nevertheless shows that the tripod may not be evenly balanced.

As the right hon. Member for West Dorset said, when the Home Secretary moved from the Department for Education and Skills to his new post, his initial motivation was his identification of a number of problems that needed to be dealt with and his desire to deal with them in way that meant better policing and less crime. He also brought with him a sense of frustration that when matters went wrong he was the one who got it in the neck, but he did not always have the lever to pull—the phrase that he regularly uses—to correct the situation. That is a very human response. However, his subsequent logic has displayed a fundamental error—namely, that if there is a problem the answer is to take more power to the centre. That is not the answer. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) also falls into that trap. There is no proof whatsoever that taking power to the centre will lead to better policing or a better criminal justice system. In fact, devolving power to police authorities, making them more accountable at a local level and involving communities more in the administration of the police and the criminal justice system in their area, might be far more effective in achieving the improvements that we all want.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Just to clarify what I said, I am not a centralist at heart; I believe that people are best directed to run their own affairs. However, I have only to look at statistics for all the police authorities for it to be manifestly apparent that some are much more able to run their affairs than others. I fear that without external intervention that situation will continue, to the detriment of my constituents.

6.15 pm
Norman Baker

I understand the hon. Lady's position exactly, but in this case taking more power to the centre would not lead to a better situation. The fount of all knowledge does not lie in Whitehall with Home Office civil servants, no matter how elegant and elevated they may be, and nobody would suggest that they are necessarily the best-placed people to sort out the problems of Dorset, Sussex or anywhere else, which should be dealt with locally.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

But is not the point that comparative information is held in Whitehall? It is not possible for police authorities in one part of the country to be aware of information that is held by police authorities in other parts of the country. There has to be some input from central Government to clarify comparative information.

Norman Baker

Of course it is important that best practice is shared—nobody disputes that—and that the Home Office has a role in collecting and disseminating information. It is a good idea for it to be able to say, for example, "Have you noticed what is happening in Derbyshire?"

Mr. Kevan Jones

That is not a very good example.

Norman Baker

I am not familiar with Derbyshire, so I shall instead say Sussex, which is my part of the world. There is nothing wrong with the Home Office doing that, but that is not what clause 5 proposes. The hon. Member for Crosby must recognise—

Mr. Jones


Norman Baker

I am still answering the previous point, if I may. The hon. Lady must recognise that police statistics vary. There has not been consistency in the way in which information has been collected and collated, and the statistics may not be entirely reliable. To be fair to the Government, they are dealing with that, but we are not there yet. So it is a false premise to say that the divisions that the hon. Lady mentions are as wide as she says. Moreover, local policing in local areas throws up different problems. The problems of Brixton are very different from those of Sussex, so it is not fair to try to compare like with like. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who is no longer in the Chamber, a chief constable may decide that the priority for his or her area is rather different from that for a chief constable in a different area. It is not for us as politicians to impose from the centre a blanket solution that may be inappropriate for certain parts of the country.

Mr. Jones

I asked the hon. Gentleman this question in Committee, and I shall do so again. Under what circumstances, in the Liberal Democrat wonderland in which he appears to live, would it be appropriate for the Home Secretary to intervene in a local police authority? Is he telling the House that a Home Secretary should never intervene in a police authority that was failing its local public? If so, I do not want to hear any more of his colleagues criticising the Home Secretary when local police authorities are failing.

Norman Baker

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman associates Liberal Democrats with wonderland, since wonder is something wonderful to be enjoyed. At least he recognises that. I have never said that the Home Secretary should not intervene—I would not use that word, but advise, certainly—in respect of police authority matters. Indeed, the Home Secretary can already intervene in a whole range of matters—the Police Act 1996, the Police Act 1964 and other legislation. We are not querying that—we are querying the projected extension of his powers in the Bill. That is the answer that I gave the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in Committee, and I give it again today. I am sorry if he does not like it, but that is the fact of the matter. It is not black and white—there is a middle road to tread, and we are arguing about how far it should go.

Simon Hughes

Further to the comments made by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider whether police authorities are adequately responsive to their communities? Perhaps, rather than expecting the Government to solve every problem across every Department, we should look again at whether police authorities require an alteration to their structure. Already, greater influence is exerted at borough and local command unit level, which may be because people feel that the police authority structure is too remote for local community needs, which differ even within one police force area.

Norman Baker

I agree. I referred to police authorities earlier. We need to make them more accountable; that would lead to better local policing. To introduce a note of discord, a Conservative Government changed the constitution of police authorities to remove local councillors. That was a regressive step.

Local crime and disorder partnerships work well, and they have included the community. That means that local people own the agenda, and the partnerships have been successful. They constitute one of the Government's better initiatives on crime.

Let me consider the substance of the new clause and the amendment before I become too distracted and take up too much time. I have not taken as much time as the other two Front-Bench spokesmen, and I shall not try to match them. I genuinely welcome the Government's attempt to tackle the problem through the amendment; it would be churlish not to do that. Whether it constitutes tactics or a change of heart, they have proposed a solution that is better than the original proposal, and it would be wrong not to say that.

It is especially welcome that the Government have taken account of points that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and I made in Committee about triggering the intervention. That is important. As the Minister knows, I was worried that the police standards unit, which is an offshoot of the Home Office and therefore not independent, could trigger the mechanism. That was wrong, and the Government have limited the power to Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which is widely perceived as independent, responsible and serious. That is welcome and I thank the Minister.

Involving the police authority is also welcome. The train continues to go from London to Newcastle, but it now stops at York on the way. It did not do that previously. That is a welcome change.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset mentioned clause 2. It was not discussed extensively in Committee, but perhaps the value of Report is the opportunity that it grants to reflect on the progress of the measure up to a specific point. There is not much to sort out to make the provision acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will accept those comments as a positive sign.

I was about to say that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North made a speech that was punctuated by remarks from both Front-Bench spokesmen, but that would be unkind because he is not here. He knows that I have tremendous respect for him. He talked about operational measures, which, to some extent, go to the heart of the Bill. It is proper for the Home Secretary or any other Member of Parliament to try to influence the chief constable of a specific area and draw matters of public anxiety to his or her attention.

Any chief constable who has not taken note of exchanges on the Floor of the House on street crime, for example, in a recent Prime Minister's Question Time, is unwise. The public are worried about street crime and it is legitimate to expect the chief constable to respond to the agenda and take account of it operationally. However granting the Home Secretary power to require the chief constable to take action, especially action that the latter believes to be inappropriate for the area, is a different matter. It is a good move to remove that power.

I want others to have the opportunity to contribute and I have therefore kept my remarks brief. The new clause has merit and the issues should be considered further. One or two matters need to be ironed out before we are completely happy, but I welcome the steps that the Minister has taken through the amendments, which go a long way towards tackling our legitimate anxieties.

Mr. Kevan Jones

This afternoon and in Committee, we heard much from Conservative Members about political control of operational policing. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) made the extraordinary statement that it was important to keep politics out of local policing. In Committee, the Opposition tried to suggest that the Bill was all about giving the Home Secretary more direct control over local policing and police authorities. It is not; the Bill's purpose is to improve standards and solve the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) highlighted earlier: the disparity between different police authorities. People are asking about the reasons for the disparities and why people are not acting locally to tackle the matters that worry them.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. He appears to lack confidence in the power of local opinion. Perhaps he has some ideas about ways in which to strengthen it. Throughout our proceedings, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I have emphasised the need for more consultation. Through more effective consultation on all the strategic plans and empowering the local community more, we can strengthen local people's power to get the policing that they believe they need. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for that intervention. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we should discuss reform of local police authorities, but the Bill does not cover that. The Liberal Democrats try to present a utopian vision of local police authorities that are somehow in touch with what happens locally or are representative. I cannot accept that.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) is a genuine person, who comes over as my favourite aunt Mabel because she views the world through rose-tinted spectacles. However, life is a little harsher. People disagree about the way in which areas should be policed.

Let us revert to political control of the police, which has constituted the main opposition to the Bill. We need to remind Conservative Members of their origins. I accept that they are on a long political journey in the wilderness and that they have to devise policies on a range of issues, but the right hon. Member for West Dorset talked about taking politics out of policing.

Like the hon. Member for Lewes, I remind Conservative Members that a Conservative Government interfered directly in police authorities in 1994, when they reduced the number of county councillors who served on them. They also provided that the Home Secretary had a direct influence on appointments to police authorities. We need look no further than 1994 and the Conservative Government for an example of introducing politics into local policing.

Mr. George Osborne

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. He will recall that the Opposition spokesman was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), now the Prime Minister, who said that the Bill represents the most determined and least popular attempt ever made to centralise policing in Britain".—[Official Report,26 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 122.] The powers that the Bill grants the Home Secretary go far beyond those in the 1994 Act. The hon. Gentleman talks about the origins of the Conservative party; what are those of the Labour party?

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for that intervention because the hon. Gentleman gave an example of a Conservative Government changing local operational methods and placing political appointees on police authorities to control the direction of local policing. Those provisions were far stronger than the measure that we are considering. We are discussing not political control, but improving standards. That will be popular with the public, certainly in my constituency.

We must accept the Government amendment and ensure that the Home Secretary rightly has the power to intervene to help local people when police authorities are failing. It is no good Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for West Dorset, criticising the Home Secretary or any Minister when people complain about local policing.

Mr. Hogg

I shall comment briefly on new clause 1. Subject to an amendment, which I shall support and at which my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) hinted, new clause 1 offers a way forward.

I do not believe that it is right to grant the Home Secretary the right to impose an action plan on a police authority. Many years ago, I had an opportunity to perform the functions that the Minister now undertakes. For some 12 months, I was responsible for the police service. In any event, I worked at the Home Office for almost two years, or slightly longer. Much as I hold Home Office officials in my regard, I do not think that they are terribly well placed to determine local policing needs. They have a remoteness and, indeed, a lack of accountability that seems to me to constitute an objection both in practical terms and in principle. On the other hand, I have no objection at all to the Home Secretary responding to advice from the inspectorate and drawing to the attention of the police authority problems that have been highlighted in an inspector's report.

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I would therefore draw on new clause 1 to enable the Home Secretary to send the relevant papers to the police authority and perhaps make suggestions in a form of notice, but allow the authority the ability to determine whether an action plan should be introduced and the contents of such a plan. In other words, the essential decisions should be made by the police authority, albeit that its attention should be directed to the issue by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I accept the logic of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but what would happen if the police authority decided to do nothing and take no action?

Mr. Hogg

That is a perfectly fair point. Indeed, I was about to deal with it, but before I do so, I should like to back-track for a moment and draw attention to the fact that, as I told the Minister, we have given the Home Secretary power to require the resignation, retirement or suspension of the chief police officer. I would be rather surprised if the circumstances that we are contemplating as justifying the triggering report from the Home Secretary would not also justify serious consideration in terms of the desirability of causing the chief police officer to retire or resign. In other words, there will be a second sanction if the police authority simply refuses to act.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked what would happen if the police authority decided to do nothing. I should like now to do something that I do not usually do and take up a point made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I notice that he is making faces; I share his sense of distaste. However, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), with whom I do not generally agree or associate myself, made a point of some substance in saying that the police authority's accountability to the local community should be reinforced. I agree with that view. I think that this House should seriously, but perhaps in slower measure, debate how the police authority can be made more accountable to the local community. It is increasingly my belief that in order to deal with such problems, we should not take more centralised powers, but try to devolve decision-making processes downwards.

I am not being dogmatic—at least, not on this occasion, you will be pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker—but I would have thought that some process of election should seriously be considered. Whether one would confine it to the chairmanship or membership of the police authority is a matter for debate. However, in answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Durham, I point out that, if the police authority did nothing, it would have to account to the local community for that decision. If it felt that its local community would support such a decision, the proper process of accountability and local government would be involved.

Mr. Jones

This would be a horrible moment in anyone's political career: I think that I agree with right hon. and learned Gentleman, about the need for local police authorities to be more accountable. I have argued previously for the introduction of direct elections, but he was a member of a Government who introduced measures to reduce the number of local councillors on the authorities. Did he argue against the policy at that time?

Mr. Hogg

I suspect that I was a Minister at the time and that I did not have any particular responsibility for that decision. The truth is that as a Minister or a party member, one is associated with many decisions that are made collectively and of which one does not wholly approve. I have argued many opinions in my party both now and in the past which have not accorded with the general view. I usually just get along with it. I do not spend my time resigning; I am a practical man. I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, but I am not in the least embarrassed to say so.

I should like to wrap up my remarks, mainly because I want to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and, indeed, that of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). New clause 1 provides the way forward, but the word "shall" should be removed from proposed subsection (3) and replaced by the word "may". I hope that, in due time, we will be in the business of making police authorities more accountable.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I welcome the amendments that relate to directions to chief officers. I make my speech not only as the Member of Parliament for Crosby, but as chairman of the all-party group on abuse investigations.

In the past few years, I have lost count of the number of complaints that I have received about policing in my area. In the past four years, I have received hundreds of complaints about police practices and procedures in relation to abuse cases throughout the UK. As a consequence, I have made it my business to find out about the huge variation of police performance throughout the UK.

I should like to refer to a remark made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who asserted that the Home Office was seeking to create a platform on which it would have greater control over police operations. I cannot accept that phraseology, as I regard the amendments related to chief officers as a development of section 40 of the Police Act 1996, which was, as he will be aware, introduced by the previous Conservative Administration. Indeed, that Act established the relationship between the Secretary of State and the inspection.

It has been suggested that the enhanced relationship that will flow from the provisions will not enable police authorities to resolve performance inefficiencies or ineffectiveness. I wish that I had found substantial evidence in every police authority to show that either the police, the chief constable or the authority had undertaken of their own volition significant process review or analysis, but I am afraid that that is not the case; otherwise, I believe that we would see year-on-year improvements in areas of operational effectiveness. We do not see such improvements, however, as the limited statistics available on police performance clearly indicate.

I accept the view of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is not currently in his seat, that the statistics may not be accurate. Frankly, however, no other information is available to me at this time that I can use to compare and contrast what is happening in police authorities throughout the UK. Furthermore, I do not believe that the measures will undermine police authorities that are striving continuously to improve. The measures are being introduced to facilitate improvements in authorities that give cause for concern.

I regard the amendments as absolutely vital and as an important step towards ensuring that my constituents receive the very best of services, given that the police precept on Merseyside is one of the very highest in the UK.

Mr. Llwyd

I shall address the House very briefly, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

I fully support what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said. I do not have any sense of shame in expressing my agreement with people who speak sense; perhaps I am not tribal enough for this place.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

But you are Welsh.

Mr. Llwyd

Perhaps I am different from the norm; my wife says so occasionally.

Much has been said about the Home Secretary's tenure of the education brief. Yes, there was a shake-up; league tables were introduced, heaven knows how many forms had to be filled in and so on. Last week, there was a huge lobby of Parliament by teachers who feel that they are doing far too much paperwork and far too little teaching. Parts of the Bill are good, but there is a tendency towards centralisation and allowing the centre to become too involved in policing.

I was interested in the Minister's response to a question that I asked, in which he said that there was no list of under-performing forces. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said in an intervention that we need some form of procedure to collect and collate information, but the Home Office can already do that. There is no doubt about it; it not only already does so, but it tries to compare like with like. It is not a perfect science, but the north Wales forces are linked with another eight or nine semi-rural forces. That is what currently happens.

A note of caution has to be sounded. Policing difficulties will vary from one area to another. It goes without saying that the problems of rural areas are quite different from those of populous areas. Strains occur when there is an unusually high incidence of violence or of class A drug use, for example. It is, therefore, difficult to compare like with like. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, we need to bring more pressure to bear to democratise police authorities. That is the way forward.

We heard from the Minister about codes of practice, but they can be ignored by a chief constable, using his or her "discretion". It seems bizarre that any code of practice can be ignored at someone's discretion. If a chief constable decides to employ that discretion and regularly ignore a code or codes of practice, who will decide whether that discretion is well founded and has been properly exercised? This proposal is a bizarre notion.

Although the Bill contains good parts that I fully support, I cannot do other than to say that, under its provisions, as Lord Carlisle of Bucklow said in the other place, we shall be moving by stealth…unnoticeably and slowly towards a national police force".—[Official Report, House of Lords,5 March 2002; Vol. 632, c. 156.] That will be of no use to any of us. Different policing areas of the United Kingdom have different priorities. Those priorities vary widely within Wales and within England, and so it will be. It will not be possible to introduce any real uniformity. No hon. Member in any part of the House can possibly be against driving up standards. Common sense dictates that we need to maintain proper standards, that we need proper scrutiny of the processes, and that we have the highest possible standards, but bringing the dead hand of central Government to bear will do nothing to achieve that.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) referred to the historical perspective. I am not viewing this just from an historical perspective; the system seems to have worked fairly well up until now. Yes, some police forces do better than others, but the solution is more a question of people putting their heads together, of educating—in the proper sense; I do not want to be offensive in any way—and of ensuring best practice. That is the way forward. Allowing too many powers of intervention from the centre will achieve nothing at all. Indeed, it is a worrying tendency.

Mr. George Osborne

I have enjoyed this debate, and I can certainly testify to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) often disagreed with other members of the Government when he was a Minister, and that they often disagreed with him, because I was his special adviser and sometimes had to pick up the pieces. As a new Member in this place, I have enjoyed watching the negotiations taking place across the Dispatch Box. It has been like watching a Fischer-Spassky chess game. I am not sure who has been checkmated at the end of it, but I have enough confidence in my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) to hope that it is not us.

The Government have introduced some significant and welcome concessions on issues that were the subject of lengthy discussions in Committee, particularly those involving the police authorities and, above all, those involving the trigger mechanism for the power of the Home Secretary to intervene and direct chief constables. The concessions significantly improve the relevant clause, and, indeed, the whole Bill, which would otherwise—according to virtually every organisation in the country—have given the Home Secretary sweeping powers to direct the police and undermine the now-famous tripartite relationship that guarantees the independence of the police from the politicians of the day.

To return to the point that I made earlier to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), the fact that the Government introduced the clause in the first place says much about the way in which the Labour party has changed. I have been reading the Second and Third Reading debates of what became the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994—they have been close to my bed as I have gone to sleep each night—and it is remarkable to see how the Government have changed their tack. The Opposition spokesman at the time, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), now the Prime Minister, said on Third Reading: The difference between the two of us is that, while the Home Secretary wants objectives to be set centrally by central Government, the police, the Opposition and virtually everyone else believe that they should be set by local people."—[Official Report, 5 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 272.] He also said, on Second Reading: The people of this country do not want a centralised police service, under a Conservative or any other Government."—[Official Report, 26 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 130.] He was right, at the time. He was a pretty good shadow Home Secretary, as Conservatives remember to our cost. The Labour party seems to have forgotten all that in the intervening years, amid the pressures of government.

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Mr. Kevan Jones

I know that, back in 1994, the hon. Gentleman was just a humble spin doctor, but, if he had been a Member of Parliament, would he have voted to reduce the number of councillors on police authorities and to allow the Home Secretary to have a direct input into the appointment of independent members of those authorities?

Mr. Osborne

I would probably have voted in the way that my Whips had instructed me to do—as, indeed, will the hon. Gentleman tonight. I remember—as I am sure he does, because he was a spin doctor for a trade union; there are different career paths for those in the Labour and Conservative parties—that, at the time, the Labour party was advocating wholly elected police authorities. I do not see a provision for that in the Bill, but times change and we move on.

I still fear that the Bill is a little too interventionist and centralist, but it is in the nature of politics to compromise and make concessions to make progress, so I shall wait to see the outcome of the negotiations. I have been interested to watch the chess game taking place across the Dispatch Box, and I shall await instructions from my pager.

Mr. Letwin

I should begin by repeating the statement that I made in response to the exchange that the Minister and I had a little while back, which was that these proceedings have justified the process that we go through in Parliament of gradually teasing out the issues. It is enormously welcome that the Minister has suggested the possibility of having at least a circumscribed discussion about alterations to his proposed amendments. I hope that, by those means, we can achieve some consensus—if not here tonight, at an early date in another place—that will enable the Bill to move forward.

The other feature of this evening's discussions that has been very interesting was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) a moment ago. There is no doubt that the underlying theory here—so far as both the principle and the practice are concerned—has reversed itself. There was a time when the Labour party believed that there was a real argument for localism—at least in the context of policing, if not of many other issues. There was also a time when the Conservative party believed that there was much to be gained—on this issue, if not on many others—by trying to bring about more effectiveness from the centre.

The present Labour Government have become more and more disenchanted with long-term strategies to create sustainable structural solutions that will bring about sustainable improvement through local pressure and professional independence. They have also become more and more enchanted by the idea of taking action from the centre. At the same time, as the Conservatives look back on the many difficulties that we experienced in achieving results from the centre, on the great advances that we made in the many areas that we liberated to operate more independently of the centre, and on the sustained failure of the Government over five years to achieve improvements in many domains—stretching from education to the Home Office—through increased intervention, we have become increasingly sceptical of the value of centralised intervention and increasingly attentive to the long-term sustainable advantages of localism. That is a most interesting shift in the character of politics. The only difference is, to my mind, that we were once mistaken in this area and generally right, although we are now right in this area, whereas the Government, having been generally wrong but right in this area, have added this area to their list of wrongness.

That is a pity, although it is interesting as a matter of reflection. The good news is that we may be able to reach a consensus on a position very far removed from that at which the Government began, as the Minister rightly and gallantly said. We may be able to achieve enough to prevent the Secretary of State from being what I described as the puppeteer, though one will have to consider the matter in practice. We shall know whether we have done enough to guard against that only when we see how the thing plays out, and we may have to return to the issue.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the fact that both parties have changed their view and to the relative merits of centralism and localism. The truth is that all Governments find that it is difficult to delegate downwards because they get blamed for the mistakes made by the devolved authorities. Should not all Governments be ready to distance themselves from decisions made locally simply by saying that such is the nature of devolved administration? Governments should not seek to control the minutiae of policy where that is properly left to local authorities of one kind or another.

Mr. Letwin

I am persuaded by my right hon. and learned Friend's argument. That is a logic that we, in government, amply demonstrated and implemented in another sphere. There is no doubt that we leapt over how the Department of Trade and Industry could take responsibility for the performance of the whole of British industry, or a substantial part of it, without controlling or owning it by denying the validity of that question through privatisation and the removal of the Department's effort to take responsibility for the performance of any large part of British industry. In doing so, we admitted the long-term sustainable advantages of the marketplace compared with the long-term unsustainable disadvantages of centralised control. That is where we are now in relation to the new clause, in a quite different domain in terms of policing.

I might say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you have been peculiarly forbearing in not stopping me during that excursion, which was a propos the precise details of the new clause, although it is relevant to understand the conceptual framework being discussed in this interesting and useful debate. I hope that you will permit us to press not new clause 1—much as I am attached to it, I recognise that it represents a position that the Minister is unlikely to accept, all the more so in respect of "shall" rather than "may"—but amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 111 to signify that, as it stands, we are not satisfied that the amendments go far enough.

However, we enter the proviso that we are more than willing to discuss with the Minister, in some detail and in the spirit of co-operation, and as he so generously suggested, how we could further amend the amendments to the amendments to reach the point at which there is consensus in another place.

Mr. Denham

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I do not accept his description of the debate's conceptual framework. I do not accept that one political party started on a journey from Newcastle to London while the other started on a journey from London to Newcastle and that they are about to cross somewhere in the vicinity of Grantham.

One of the myths surrounding the Bill is that it is overbearing centralism from a party that used to believe in localism. Once the Bill is out of the way, once we see how the police reform process works in practice and as we develop a more effective performance assessment system—my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) mentioned that—and best professional practice in the police service, we shall see the virtue of the highest quality of local professional leadership supported by police authorities in a national framework that provides a clearer, more coherent approach to national policing priorities and the need for forces to work together. That is what we have set out to achieve, not overbearing centralism. In any case, the debate on the new clause is essentially about a much narrower set of circumstances.

Provided that the Secretary of State is able to direct a police authority to take action, there is room to discuss the wording of the direction, as we suggested earlier. That is helpful. It is important to remember that there is a real advantage in making progress on the Bill. People out there in local communities, local police forces and local authorities want to be able to implement many measures at the earliest possible opportunity, not least those on antisocial behaviour orders and on community support officers, which the Metropolitan police are already recruiting. The debate on such issues and on how we can proceed has been valuable, and we shall discuss those other measures in more detail in a few moments.

Interesting concepts have been introduced to the debate. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) referred to the non-tribal nationalist, which is a new one on me, but we shall work on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby referred to performance assessment in the police service, and she will follow events with interest as we develop the broader and more balanced approach to it that was flagged up in the White Paper and which is being discussed with the police service.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) tried to set out how the Government have changed their position since the Bill was introduced. I must say in return that when the Bill was introduced the Conservative party was denying the existence of any problems that might require the powers of intervention that we have discussed tonight, so there has been movement on both sides.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and others took us into an area of debate that is not, strictly speaking, to do with the new clause, as it involves the nature of police authorities. That debate will continue, but it is the Government's view that this is not the time to change the composition of police authorities. However, let me say on the record once more that we recognise their important role in the tripartite structure. If the changes that we propose provide reassurance that there is no threat to that structure—undoubtedly, the Association of Police Authorities and police authorities themselves will see the matter that way—that is welcome.

We have had a useful debate on an important and controversial part of the Bill. It is good that we continue to make progress even at this late stage, and the powers that the public want to be available should be available in, I hope, the not too distant future. With that, I urge the House to resist the new clause. In turn, I hope that our amendments will be accepted, as we need them so that they can be reconsidered in another place. Otherwise, there will be no change to address. We recognise, however, that we need to examine some of the drafting.

Mr. Letwin

I hope that the Minister accepts that it has never been our intention to have the Bill jettisoned.

We have always sought to achieve a consensus sufficient to allow the legislation, which is, in the main, beneficial, to proceed.

Mr. Denham

I accept that. Although the elected Government enjoy a considerable majority in the House of Commons, they do not enjoy a majority in the House of Lords, which gives the Lords majority real power and a real say. That should not be pushed to the point at which Bills are destroyed, however, so sensible discussion of these matters is very helpful indeed.

Mr. Letwin

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

It being Seven o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER, put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of proceedings to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].

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