HC Deb 24 July 2002 vol 389 cc1060-5

Lords amendment: No. 2A to Commons amendment No. 2, after (1)(b), leave out paragraph (2) and insert— (2) If the Secretary of State considers that remedial measures are required in relation to any matter identified by the report, he may direct the police authority responsible for maintaining the force to submit an action plan to him.

(2A) An action plan is a plan setting out the remedial measures which the police authority proposes to take in relation to the matters in respect of which the direction is given.

8.6 pm

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

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2B and 75A to 75D.

Mr. Denham

I hope that I can be brief. These amendments made in another place reflect the constructive exchange that I had with the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on Report on 10 July.

By Report, I think that a consensus had been reached that the Home Secretary of the day should have the power to intervene in a force when all other local avenues for addressing poor performance had failed. We had also reached agreement that in order to ensure that effective remedial measures are taken, the Home Secretary should be able to call upon the police authority to submit an action plan.

The intention behind the Government amendments, agreed on Report, was that while the Home Secretary should be able to direct a police authority to submit an action plan, he should not be able to make a direction as to the remedial measures to be contained in the plan. However, it was evident from the debate that that intention did not come through sufficiently clearly in the revised clause 5.

The amendments made in another place simply seek to put beyond doubt that the content of an action plan is entirely a matter for the police authority, in consultation with the chief officer. The Home Secretary will be able to comment on the plan if he thinks that it does not adequately address the failings identified in the report from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, but he cannot insist that changes be made.

Incidentally, the amendments also correct an infelicity in the drafting of subsection (10) of the new section 41A of the Police Act 1996 inserted by clause 5. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I thank the Minister for the way in which he has handled this legislation all the way through and the constructive way in which he has approached disagreements, which these amendments, as he says, seek to deal with. The House is aware that clause 5 was originally removed in the other place as a result of widespread concern expressed on both sides of the other place, from all levels of the police force and from the Association of Police Authorities. All of us believed in the importance of the tripartite arrangements and of keeping the police separate from Government. As the Minister rightly said, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) made it clear on Report that the Government amendments tabled then, welcome as they were, did not go far enough.

The House will be unsurprised to know that we welcome these amendments, but it must be said that they represent the Government's final retreat from the swingeing powers of intervention that clause 5 in its original form represented. We said from the outset that the Home Secretary should not be able to require action plans purely on his own whim; now, he will not, as such a requirement must be the result of an inspection report. We said that he should not be able to direct chief officers; now, he will not, as we have re-interposed police authorities. We also said that he should not be able to dictate the content of the action plans. Now, these amendments remove the final vestige of those powers, so they are welcome.

However, let no one be in any doubt about the huge effective power that the Home Secretary has, and which he will continue to have as a result of the Bill. The Home Secretary himself seeks to underestimate that power, yet it is obvious on looking at the street crime initiative. We welcome the amendments, but despite them, it will be a brave chief officer who goes against the declared wishes of the Home Secretary. Although I wish the legislation well when it is enacted, I hope that there remain some such courageous chief officers.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

This is an unusual event for me, in that I happily delegated Police Reform Bill responsibilities to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and I pay tribute to him and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) for their work.

As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister suggested, we are left with one issue. As the Minister knows, the reality is that many issues were bounced around in respect of a Bill that was generally acceptable; however, accountability remained a big issue throughout its consideration. To be honest, it took a lot of effort on the part of both Houses to sort out the central issue—the relationship between the Home Secretary of the day, police authorities and the chief officers.

The provisions are the result of efforts on all sides to try to understand that the Bill ought not to change the constitutional position. Chief officers, once appointed, have operational authority, and they are accountable to police authorities, not to the Home Secretary. I pay tribute to my colleagues, and to Conservative and Labour Members, for understanding that point in the end, and for trying to ensure that some agreement was reached. The provisions are the result of that process.

It is good, too, that the same relationship is understood in respect of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad—the two bodies with national policing responsibility. The reality in Britain at the moment is that we have two national squads in England and in Wales, a regional police force for London—the Metropolitan police force—and other territorial forces. There is also an entire range of additional forces, such as the British Transport police. In general, we do not have regional policing, but it is important that all such bodies are accountable, and this is a welcome step down that road.

8.15 pm We are left with areas in which, to our sadness, we still do not have accountability. The Minister knows what they are, and we are still sad to note that the option remains of the police accrediting people who are not police officers to do their support job. That is not truly accountable policing. In effect, such people constitute privatised, private sector support for the police. Instead, they should be accountable to local authorities or to central police authorities. We tried hard to amend the Bill so that both transport and special community support officers—accredited officers—and accredited officers in general, were covered by the complaints system. In other words, if a member of the public was concerned about the activity of somebody who was not a police officer—but who was working for, or accredited by, the police—they could raise them in the same way. We regret that these amendments do not go so far as to include that provision.

That is not to say that progress was not made, of which these amendments are the last symbol. There were significant achievements, such as the removal of the Henry VIII clause. The principle of no detention for community support officers was also dealt with at the end of the negotiations. Also, the giving of directions directly to chief officers gave way to a much more proper relationship between the Home Secretary and the police authorities, leaving the authorities to decide what they should do.

We accept the amendments and we will not divide the House today. As the Minister knows, we did not press other matters in the Lords on which we disagreed with the Government because we accepted the merit of getting this legislation on to the statute book before the summer recess. However, I hope that two messages have come out loud and clear from our deliberations—one for the Government and the other for the police. I hope the Government have got the message that Parliament will resist policing becoming a tool of central Government. We have made that point in both Houses and preserved the proper status quo, and I do not believe that Parliament has the will to change that. The message that I hope the police have got from this legislation is that, in certain respects—particularly now—they must do better. The Bill—this is the last piece of the jigsaw—has given the police the power to employ many additional people, as civilians, to assist them. They now have the power to accredit other civilians as support officers to help them, and to employ community support officers to work for the police. Potentially, the police have another army of people, in addition to specials and to full-time officers.

To the Government's credit, there are now more police officers than at any stage in recent history, and more money has recently been provided for policing. With all that on the table, the public expect two things. They expect a better clear-up rate—on average, the current rate is under 25 per cent., and in places such as London it is only 11 per cent.—and they expect a better response rate. Those messages, which have come out in all the debates on law and order in our communities and across the country, should be heard loud and clear by the police. We respect them and we are grateful for them, but we have now given them significant extra tools to do their job, and at a local level we will look to them to deliver. In that regard, both individual officers and chief officers will be accountable to their police authorities in the weeks ahead. I hope that the Government and those who run police forces and police authorities have got the message that the public expect them both to do their job properly. The public also expect the Home Secretary to let the police get on with the job, and not to interfere in the way in which they do it.

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

I wish to thank everyone who has served during the Bill's passage, which has been a great pleasure. I had one question at the end of Third Reading and I hope that someone will be tolerant enough to answer it. What accountability will there be for the fines imposed by accredited safety officers? Where will the money go? How will the chain of accountability work between various employers in the public and private sectors—including a halfway house or a housing association—and the respective police authority?

Mr. Denham

I apologise to the House for temporarily stepping outside for a moment, but I have been briefed on the issues that were raised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I am sure that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will not mind if I congratulate his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on their constructive role in the Bill's passage.

I do not want to over-rehearse the arguments, as I could do were I to respond to talk of a "final climbdown". I seem to remember that, six months ago, the Conservative party said that there were no circumstances whatever in which this type of interference could be justified. Now we find that the point has been conceded.

We have found a sensible way to address effectively the small number of cases where those responsible locally for ensuring that we have good policing have failed to do so. That is the defence against the argument—which I refute utterly—that asserts that we have been responsible for trying to undermine the tripartite arrangements. We are great believers in that arrangement as a balance between the Home Secretary, police authorities and chief officers. The importance that we attach to the relationship should not blind us to the possibility of circumstances where one or more legs of the arrangements fails. In those circumstances, the public—who, after all, the relationship is there to serve—must be protected.

That part of the Bill has attracted the most attention during its passage. Interestingly, it will be used far less than other parts of the Bill that received less attention and which will have a greater effect in raising standards. If we have to use the power, it can only be because the other things that we have set in place, on which there has been agreement, have failed.

Mr. Paice

I do not wish to take issue with anything that the Minister has said. I want to place on record that I was briefed as to why it was necessary for him to leave the Chamber. I think that it is a tribute to his dedication that he came back in to reply to the debate, which, in my view, was unnecessary. I pay tribute to him for showing such commitment to the House.

Mr. Denham

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose remarks are very much appreciated.

We are bringing discussions on this Bill to a close. There is a real commitment among those who have participated in the debates to support the police in serving communities up and down this country. We have provided a Bill that will support the police as they do their job. I am grateful to everyone who has participated.

Simon Hughes

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), and I am grateful to the Minister. Before the Minister utters the final words on the Bill in this House, will he answer my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), who deserves an answer for her persistence? Her question is a good one that is relevant to the matter being debated. If he cannot answer now, will he promise that she will he answered before he goes on holiday? If so, we will go away even happier than we might otherwise have done.

Mr. Denham

I am in the odd position, as sometimes happens with Ministers, of having in front me an answer for which I cannot locate the question. With that in mind, it is probably better if I write to the hon. Lady, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.