HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 cc969-75
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 10, line 23, after "Majesty", insert— 'on an address presented by the House of Commons and proposed by the Secretary of State with the agreement of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in clause 12, page 15, line 29, at end insert— '(d) he is a person accredited under section 41. (e) he is a person accredited under section 43.'.

Mr. Mullin

The amendment was tabled by me and colleagues from all parties on the Select Committee. It is a modest little amendment that gives effect to one of the recommendations in our recent report on the Bill. It requires only the tiniest touch of the tiller in the direction of Parliament and away from the Executive.

Clause 9 currently provides for the chairman of the new Independent Police Complaints Commission to be appointed by Her Majesty, which, in effect, means the Secretary of State or on his recommendation. My amendment would make no difference to the selection process, which would continue to be carried out in line with the procedure set out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, with the sole exception that once a candidate had been chosen, the Home Secretary would have to secure the agreement of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.

We must bear it in mind that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is supposed to be independent—the word is in the title. One of the reasons the Police Complaints Authority has lacked credibility in the past is that in the eyes of many people it was not sufficiently independent of those whose activities it was supposed to scrutinise. With all due respect, it is no good the Minister saying, "We've always done it this way." The very reason we are having to revisit the subject is the widespread recognition—by both police and public—that the body suffered from a credibility problem in its previous incarnation. The purpose of the proposal is to draw a line under the past and to give the Independent Police Complaints Commission some street credibility. My little amendment seeks to enhance that credibility by giving Parliament a say in the final choice of chairman.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that, under legislation passed by the House—the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998—a police ombudsman was set up for Northern Ireland. The Act states: The Ombudsman shall be appointed by Her Majesty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not suggest that the independence of the police ombudsman, having been appointed by Her Majesty, is in any way belittled by that appointment procedure.

Mr. Mullin

No, I am not suggesting that, but there is always room for a little improvement here and there. As I said, I am making a modest suggestion, a tiny touch on the tiller in favour of Parliament and away from the Executive.

There are those who believe that Parliament should take a far closer interest in public appointments made by Ministers. Five years ago, the Treasury Committee went so far as to propose that it should be allowed to conduct confirmation hearings for members of the Monetary Policy Committee. One of those who pressed that view was the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who was then a rising Back Bencher. I take comfort, therefore, from knowing that the idea that Parliament should have a say in some public appointments is not entirely without friends in the higher reaches of Government.

There will be those who say that there are no precedents. There is a precedent of sorts, however, although the parallel is not precise. Section 1 of the National Audit Act 1983 provides for the Comptroller and Auditor General to be appointed by the Queen on an address presented by the House of Commons and proposed by the Prime Minister with the agreement of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. All I am suggesting is that an arrangement along those lines be devised for appointing the chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

8.15 pm

There will be those who see this as the thin end of a wedge. I hope that it is the thin end of at least a small wedge. Clearly, most of the appointments made by the Home Secretary are not suitable for this kind of treatment. When such posts involve executive functions on behalf of the Government, such as the head of the Prison Service or the chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, there is clearly no case for the involvement of Parliament. However, inspectors, regulators or ombudsmen depend for their credibility on being able to demonstrate their independence of Government. It is, therefore, in the interests of everyone, including the Home Secretary, that Parliament should have a role in their appointment. I am sure that, when the Minister reflects on the matter, he will be overwhelmed by my argument.

Mr. Hawkins

I can be brief in referring to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chairman of the Select Committee, and, moving ahead, to amendment No. 3, to which I anticipate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will speak in a moment.

We understand the basis of both amendments. We have added our names to amendment No. 3, although the Liberal Democrat names appear first, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has added his name. Three Opposition parties therefore support amendment No. 3.

We carefully considered the Select Committee's recommendation. We can see that there is merit in having parliamentary involvement in the appointment, and we will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South will be aware that we expressed the same kind of concerns in Committee about parliamentary scrutiny of the IPCC. I am sure that he has considered what was said then. We raised similar concerns about the House having a role in the way in which the IPCC should operate. We therefore see much merit in the Select Committee's suggestion of an advise and consent procedure for the appointment of the IPPC's chairman, which would be a further guarantee of the chairman's independence.

On amendment No. 3, we sought to support what the Liberal Democrats had to say. I do not wish to take up the time of the House, however, so I shall let the Liberal Democrat spokesman speak to it.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. I have no doubt that the Minister will give reasons why the amendment should not be accepted. I am more than happy to be disappointed, but I would be most surprised were the answer affirmative, as I would wish.

As my hon. Friend said, there is a strong case for the chairman of the new Independent Police Complaints Commission to be seen as independent in every respect. The difficulty is not that the wrong person would be appointed as the chairman—the choice of chairman is likely to be a good one; I have no reason to believe otherwise. However, the suspicion would be—not necessarily among Members of Parliament but in the outside world—that the Government would choose a person who can be relied upon not to be too independent. In a sense, he would be perceived as the Government's nominee.

I am sure that such suspicions would have no foundation, but it is important that the chairman is seen as independent in every possible way. One way of doing that is to follow the suggestion in the amendment. The person would be appointed in the normal way, but confirmed by, among others, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

An important factor should not be overlooked. The House of Commons or the Select Committee would not make the appointment. They would not put advertisements in the newspapers and would not be responsible for vetting the candidates and drawing up a shortlist. That power will remain with the Home Office. The only difference would be that the person appointed would go through a slightly different procedure. The amendment refers to agreement with the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. In practice, that would mean that the person appointed would appear before the Select Committee, but it is not a question of its Chairman just saying yea or nay.

What is wrong with someone appointed by the Home Office appearing in front of the Select Committee before the appointment is confirmed? I find it difficult to believe that anyone of quality who wants to do the job and recognises its importance would be deterred by the fact that he would have to appear before the Committee. I accept that there is a theoretical possibility that the appointment would not be confirmed, but that is extremely unlikely.

The amendment is a step forward. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I have no doubt that, if the positions were reversed and he were the Minister and not the shadow spokesperson, he would make exactly the same arguments as, I am afraid, my right hon. Friend the Minister will make.

We have yet to recognise the important role that Parliament could play in appointments to important jobs such as chairing the new complaints commission that will examine allegations against the police. Sometimes such allegations are serious, which is all the more reason that the person appointed to head the commission not only has integrity and authority to carry out the work, but is seen as independent. If that person is simply appointed by the Home Office in the usual way, the danger is that his independence will not be recognised outside the House. That would be most unfortunate.

Norman Baker

On amendment No. 1, I am always happy for the power of Parliament to be extended at the expense of the Executive. I am therefore content to support the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). His amendment is a modest affair and, like him, I cannot imagine how the Government could find a reason to reject it. I await to hear the Minister's response.

Equally, I cannot see how the Minister could possibly reject the very modest amendment in my name, those of my colleagues and of those on the Conservative Front Bench. It relates to the IPCC and the Minister will know that everyone has supported that aspect of the Bill. Everyone recognises that it is an important innovation. There have been problems with the public believing that investigations into the police have not been carried out properly or independently, and the Minister and his colleagues have acted to remedy such problems in a way that we all support. They have recognised the problem and have found the right solution, so it is difficult to understand why they have decided to exclude from the process the very people who are furthest from democratic accountability, namely those who are employed by the private sector. That makes no sense at all.

The Minister is in danger of re-creating the position that applies now. The Bill wishes to get rid of that by introducing an independent element into the process so that people have confidence in those exercising police powers. He is re-creating the problem in a very unfortunate manner.

The answer that the Minister gave in Committee and in response to the previous debate was, "Well, the chief officer of police sets up the complaints procedure or oversees it." He may set it up, but that is about the end of it. The Minister has said that, when there is a complaint against a person from Tesco, that person will be investigated by Tesco—not by anybody else. Is Mr. Tesco going to say to that person, "You've done something terribly wrong. You are a disgrace to the company. Yes, we'll tell the local newspapers that you've brought our name down in the public mind"? Or will Mr. Tesco say, "That was not very wise. We had better hush it up because it is not in our commercial interest to let people know what has happened"? In other words, those policing the complaints system in such circumstances are judge and jury of their employees and have a direct interest in concluding matters in a way that benefits their companies and not necessarily the public interest.

I honestly do not understand why the Minister resists that argument. Of course, the IPCC will not investigate every single complaint; we do not expect it to investigate every single complaint against a police officer. However, it must have the opportunity to call complaints in, examine processes that are not working and consider what needs to be done. It must have that option. If it does not, the message will go to Tesco, Jarvis and other employers that they can do what they like, because there will be nothing to control them or alter what they do when they consider complaints.

I hope that the Government will reconsider the matter either here or in another place. The Minister is simply wrong on this issue.

Mr. George Osborne

I shall briefly respond to the persuasive speech of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I also want to take the opportunity to say how useful members of the Standing Committee found the Select Committee's report. It was an extremely useful guide, and it is a shame that only one member of the Select Committee served on the Standing Committee. Perhaps Parliament should consider that point.

The Executive's powers of patronage and appointment are among their least-scrutinised powers. Those, such as Lord Norton of Louth and the Hansard Society, who have considered reform of this place have drawn attention to way in which the House should scrutinise appointments. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is a good one.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee and I am aware of the precedents that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. As he conceded, the amendment would create a slightly broader precedent. Indeed, it would be the thin end of a very good wedge.

Lady Hermon

Will the hon. Gentleman briefly explain what would happen if there were a disagreement between the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee? Would not the Chairman, in effect, have a veto over an appointment?

Mr. Osborne

That probably would be the case. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has a veto over the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Such a veto would be a good thing, but its use would be unusual. It would be a check of last resort.

I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment and will put himself in the great tradition of Cromwell and Simon de Montfort and expand the powers of the House of Commons. No one is paying any attention at the moment, so all he has to do is nod the amendment through and put himself in the annals of history.

Mr. Denham

I have some sympathy with the amendment, although not quite enough.

Leaving aside the constitutional issue, I share the fundamental aim of securing the reputation of the independence of the IPCC, but the case has not been made that an appointment by Her Majesty through Ministers undermines confidence in the independence of the system. By far the greater part of the credibility of the IPCC will come not from the appointment system for the chairman, but from the transparency of the system. Complainants will have many more rights and there will be fewer opportunities for their complaints to disappear out of the system without being addressed. That is the most important proposal in this part of the Bill.

8.30 pm

The issue is whether Parliament wants to embark on a wholesale change of the nature of accountability for a great many appointments. I accept that that argument is the thin end of the wedge. The appointment of the chairman of the IPCC cannot be dealt with as a one-off. I refer the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee to the conclusions of the Nolan committee in 1995, which no doubt he knows well. It carefully considered whether Select Committees should be given a role and came down firmly against such an alternative concluding: We did not feel that any of our witnesses or correspondents has presented a convincing proposal for providing public accountability other than through the established route of Ministerial accountability to Parliament. The Home Secretary will, of course, have overall accountability to Parliament for all matters relating to the IPCC.

It could be argued that the committee's conclusion was not right or will not last for ever and that a profound change in the relationship between Select Committees and public appointments should take place. I am interested in debating that, but the chairmanship of the IPCC should not be picked out at random and used as the example on which we base that change.

On the complaints system, it is important that the IPCC can concentrate on the vast bulk of its work, which is to deal with complaints against police officers. It is worth remembering that people such as dog wardens, park keepers and environmental health officers have for years been exercising police powers, as described by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I am not aware of anyone arguing that they should be brought within the remit of the Police Complaints Authority or that there have been examples of abuses of those powers that have not been dealt with satisfactorily. The chief constable will have the important responsibility of ensuring that an adequate complaints procedure is in place for anyone who is an accredited organisation. That does not necessarily have to be the internal complaints procedure of the organisation concerned. However, that decision would have to be resolved at local level.

I fear that extending the IPCC's coverage at this stage to a range of new people in accredited organisations who operate low-level disorder and nuisance powers would divert the attention of the IPCC from the business that it has to do for the public to have confidence in the police service. Our measures will ensure that there is adequate public protection and an adequate system for dealing with complaints wherever there is an accredited community safety officer.

Mr. Mullin

I found the Minister's speech unsurprising and not entirely convincing. The Select Committee will take a close interest in the work of the IPCC when it is established and no doubt its chairman will visit us. I hope that Parliament will return from time to time to the general issue of the extent to which it should have a say in some public appointments of regulators. However, I do not intend to press the matter and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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