HL Deb 02 March 1989 vol 504 cc1208-14

7.23 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of the Bill is to amend Section 43 of the Police Act 1964 and Section 38 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 so as to overcome certain difficulties which have arisen over the status of police officers seconded to central service. The officers concerned are seconded from their forces in order to enable the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland to provide centrally certain services designed to promote the efficiency of the police.

The services concerned include the Police Staff Colleges, the district police training centres, the forensic science laboratories and the staff officers to the Inspectors of Constabulary. In all, there are just over 600 police officers on central service in England and Wales and in Scotland. They make a very important contribution to the efficiency of the police service, although their numbers are small in relation to the present total of about 138,000 police officers in Great Britain.

Before 1964 there was no statutory provision for common police services. They were provided on an ad hoc basis, with police officers being seconded to perform them while remaining members of their parent forces. This was not a very satisfactory arrangement. It meant that, although the officers on central service were performing duties for which the Secretary of State was ultimately responsible, they were not accountable to him: they were answerable to the chief officer of their parent force. It was therefore decided in 1964 that steps should be taken to place the central service arrangements in England and Wales on a more logical basis. Since they were engaged on duties for which the Secretary of State was ultimately responsible, it was felt that they should be answerable to the Secretary of State.

Section 43 of the Police Act 1964 therefore provides that a member of a police force who is seconded to central service is to be treated in general as if he were not a member of that force during the period of his secondment. There are certain exceptions to this general rule in order to ensure that officers are not placed at a disadvantage by accepting a central service appointment. Section 43 preserves the officer's entitlement to return to his parent force upon completion of his period of central service. His period of central service also counts as police service for pay purposes; and he is eligible for promotion in his own force in his absence.

A period of central service also counts as police service for pensions purposes. Provision for this was originally made in Section 43, though the enabling provision is now contained in the Police Pensions Act 1976. The other side of the coin is that an officer who commits a disciplinary offence while on central service is liable to be dealt with by his own force for that offence on his return from central service.

Subject to these specific exceptions, a police officer on central service ceases to be a member of a police force. This means that he has in effect no police powers; no right to wear a uniform; no protection under Section 51 of the Police Act 1964, which makes it an offence to assault a constable in the execution of his duty; and no right to membership of the Police Federation or the other police staff associations.

This has been causing concern to the police service. There are occasions when seconded police officers need to wear police uniform in public. For example, staff officers to the Inspectors of Constabulary need to do so when accompanying the inspectors on their visits of inspection. Supervisory staff at district training centres need to do so when in charge of probationer constables outside the premises. More generally, there is a need for central service officers to wear uniform when they are representing the police service, particularly at conferences with other uniformed services.

Members of the public would expect an officer in police uniform to exercise police powers if the circumstances demanded it. An officer on central service would therefore be in a very difficult position if he found himself in a situation where prompt action was needed which called for the exercise of police powers. Only two courses would be open to him. Either he could ignore his lack of police powers and take the necessary action; or he could conclude that his lack of police powers prevented him from getting involved. In such a situation most central service officers would act instinctively as police officers. They would take the necessary action. That would clearly be in the public interest. There is therefore a need for them to be able to exercise police powers when the circumstances demand. That is the main purpose of the Bill.

I shall deal with its contents only briefly although I shall of course be happy to answer any specific questions which your Lordships may wish to raise later. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 provides for the insertion of three new subsections after Section 43(3) of the Poice Act 1964. The new subsection (3A) gives police officers, in effect, the right to wear uniform, the right to exercise police powers if the need arises and the right to remain members of the Police Federation (with its related obligation not to take industrial action). It would also give them the protection against assaults which is provided by Section 51 of the 1964 Act.

The new subsection (3B) makes the Secretary of State liable for any torts committed by central service officers in the exercise of their police powers. We expect this liability to arise only very rarely, if at all. But a remedy for torts must be provided. Since central service officers are answerable to he Secretary of State for the performance of their central service duties, it seems appropriate that he should be liable for any torts committed by such officers in the exercise of their police powers.

The new subsection (3C) tidies up a minor problem of interpretation by making it clear that police officers who are seconded in an advisory capacity are to be regarded as being on central service. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 provides for the Bill to have retrospective effect. This unusual provision is needed to safeguard the position of central service officers who may in the past have acted—either from ignorance of the legal position or in what they regarded as the public interest—as though they possessed the powers and privileges of police officers.

Clause 2 deals wth Scotland, where the present position is broadly the same as that in England and Wales. It is clearly desirable that the legislation relating to police officers on central service should remain consistent north and south of the Border. Clause 2 will therefore ensure that the provisions of Section 38 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 remain in line with those of Section 43 of the Police Act 1964.

This then is a small Bill and, I hope, a noncontroversial one. It will affect only the small number of police officers who are seconded to central service. The police powers which it will enable them to exercise during their period of central service will be very rarely used. Their use will be confined to completely unforeseen circumstances, but it is in precisely those unforeseen circumstances that the need for central service officers to exercise police powers arises. When there is a need for urgent action they should be able to take it. They need to know that they possess the necessary powers, and we must ensure that those powers are available to them. I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships.

7.31 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl the Minister for the lucid way in which he explained the purpose of what he described as this small and non-controversial Bill. Let me assure him at once that the Bill ought to be welcomed by the House in our view as a very necessary measure to clarify—the clarification is long overdue—the status of officers who perform central services.

As the Minister has explained, those central services, which are of a temporary nature, cover many very important services, one of which is district police training services. I mention that because there is one point, of which I have given the noble Earl some degree of notice, that I wish to raise on Second Reading. If we are trying to tidy up what is an anomalous and somewhat untidy situation, we might as well try to tidy it up completely. If the Minister can give me an assurance that the matter will have his attention and that of his colleagues at the Home Office, I shall be perfectly satisfied to leave it to see what that degree of satisfaction is before we start thinking of tabling any amendments for Committee stage.

Let me explain what the anomaly and untidiness is. The Bill quite correctly provides that officers of the appropriate ranks—we call them the federated ranks—continue in membership of the Police Federation while they are on central service. That situation does not obtain at present and will obtain if the Bill becomes law. As I have said, a relatively large number of members on central service are instructors at police training establishments. The federation has been asking the Home Office to obtain representation on the management committees of the district police training centres. I should mention that all recruits outside the Metropolitan Police undergo initial training at these centres. Thanks to the revised training arrangements which put the emphasis on training throughout a two-year probationary period, those members now spend longer at the training centres than used to be the case. The trouble is that at present the federation is not able to represent those members effectively while they are at the centre and this will continue unless something is done by the Home Office.

Each centre has two committees, one for the police authorities in the region and the other for chief officers. The authorities committee is concerned mainly with the cost-effective management and administration of the centre and the chief constables committee is concerned with professional and personnel aspects. As your Lordships will appreciate, that is the committee that deals with most of the matters in which the Police Federation has a direct interest. Now that the Bill confirms that instructors at training centres are members of the Police Federation, those instructors will naturally expect effective representation on their behalf on matters that concern their powers of duty and conditions of service.

I hope that the Minister will be able to inform the House that a fresh look is being taken at the application for membership of the appropriate committee to which I have just referred, the management committee, and the committee that deals with matters of personnel and professional aspects, the chief constables committee. As I have said, this measure to tidy up the situation of those who perform central services can be achieved at the same time as we pass the Bill, which I hope we will eventually do.

7.36 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill wholeheartedly. The only question that one asks is why such a Bill was not introduced earlier. Section 43 of the 1964 Act, which is now replaced, seems very confusing if one puts oneself in the position of a police officer. That is an important aspect. Police officers have been placed in a position of embarassment, if not of inconvenience or worse, under the section as it stood in the 1964 Act.

I have the disadvantage of following the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who is a distinguished lawyer. I notice that under the Bill police officers will be responsible to the Secretary of State for what the Minister described as disciplinary offences. I am curious to know why in England disciplinary offences should be described as "torts" while under the Scottish Bill they are described as "wrongful acts". Is there any legal nuance of importance here?

I am also curious to know why Northern Ireland is left out of the legislation. Presumably officers from the Province of Ulster are seconded in the same way as officers from England and Scotland for all the reasons listed by the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. In what position are officers from Northern Ireland now placed? Why are they not included in the Bill? I have no doubt that there is a good reason. I shall be grateful if the Minister will spell it out.

The status of police officers and their feeling about their own status is important in these times. There is no doubt that officers seconded for central duties, whatever they may be, will now be able to wear their uniform without fear of any comeback and, as has already been mentioned, to join the various staff associations, including the Police Federation. There is also a question of confidence that they are protected should they be victims of assaults. In the period running up to the Bill, I trust that there have not been too many cases of assault on police officers. I have heard of none. But for those police officers who had doubts about their protection, the provisions of the Bill will be welcome. I am pleased to see that the Bill will be retrospective and that those police officers who have had doubts about whether in the past they were correct to wear their uniform will have no fear of retrospective action.

We welcome the Bill, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to make a short Second Reading speech.

7.42 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am grateful for the constructive and helpful approach which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, have brought to this Second Reading debate. I said earlier that I should be happy to answer questions. Perhaps it would be helpful if I tried briefly to answer those points now.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked about Police Federation representation on police district training centre management committees. I listened with great interest to what he said but I must point out that the chief constables' and local authoritys' committees for the police district training centres are management committees, not consultative groups. They are concerned with the management of the police district training centres on behalf of the chief officers and police authorities using them. It is important that there are adequate consultative arrangements concerning the students which involve both the Police Federation and other staff associations, but the management committees are not the place for this. Arrangements have been made for local representatives of the Police Federation to receive minutes of both chief constable's and local authority's district training centre management meetings.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, made several points. He asked about torts and wrongful acts. Neither torts nor wrongful acts are necessarily disciplinary offences. They are private wrongs for which a suit for damages may be brought in a civil court. Secondly, he asked about the position in Northern Ireland. This Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland because police officers are not seconded to central service there. In England and Wales, where there are 43 police forces, and in Scotland, where there are eight, it is more efficient to provide certain services on a national basis for the benefit of all forces. In Northern Ireland there is only one police force—the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Accordingly, most of the services provided through central service in England and Wales—for example, district police training centres, forensic science laboratories and the police national computer organisation—are provided on a force basis for the RUC. The one major exception is the Police Staff College, which has no parallel in Northern Ireland. Places on courses at the college are therefore always made available to members of the RUC.

In conclusion, subject to the points which have been raised, I think we are in fairly general agreement on this Bill. Police officers who are seconded to central service do not cease to be police officers. They retain their police training, their police experience and the police tradition of reacting instinctively to any incident which calls for urgent action in the public interest. It is clearly right that they should be able to exercise police powers when the occasion demands. This will be the main effect of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, I wonder whether he would with his usual courtesy allow me to utter a word about what he has said in regard to my query. I understand that two committees deal with each training centre. As I tried to say before, but possibly did not make clear, the one about which I was mainly speaking was the chief constable's committee, which I am told is concerned with professional and personnel aspects, the very matters upon which the Police Federation would wish to say a word if it is properly to look after its members. In view of the remarks that have been made at Second Reading, I wonder whether he and his colleagues will look at this aspect of the matter and reconsider it. That is all I ask for. I should be glad to have his confirmation that he is prepared to do that.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it might be a sensible idea if the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, would let me write to him giving him some detail as to why we are not keen to carry on in the way that he suggests. That might be appropriate at this time. There is of course the Committee stage of the Bill if the noble Lord wants to take this matter further.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Earl. That is an excellent idea. I am sure he will see that I get the letter from him, which I shall eagerly await, before the Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleaspre until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.46 to 8.5 p.m.]