HL Deb 26 May 1993 vol 546 cc283-98

3.4 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to call attention to the Home Secretary's Statement of 23rd March 1993 on the management and structure of the police service, and in particular to the proposal that the Government should appoint the chairman and some other members of police authorities; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Perhaps I may say at the outset how pleased I am that the noble Lord, Lord Trevor, has chosen to make his maiden speech today. It is particularly appropriate that he should do so given the fact that he is a member of the North Wales Police Authority.

When the Home Secretary made his Statement on the future of the police service on 23rd March it was described as the most important for 30 years. I certainly agree with that view. Indeed, I should go a great deal further. I believe that Mr. Clarke's Statement represented a more dramatic change of policy than anything contained in the report of the Willink Royal Commission or the Police Act 1964, which put in statutory form many of the commission's principal recommendations.

I shall deal first with the policy changes which have received a general and I believe well-deserved welcome. First, I welcome the end of the detailed Home Office controls on police manpower. That is clearly right. I remember spending a substantial amount of time attempting to work out which forces deserved an increase of establishment and those which did not. Such was the degree of fine tuning that I recall a discussion as to whether one particular force, led by a particularly able chief officer, should be allowed to have a Detective Superintendent in charge of its fraud squad. It does not seem to me to be at all sensible that the Home Office should become involved in detailed questions of that kind and, therefore, I welcome what Mr. Clarke said. Similarly, I welcome the proposed easing of the controls on capital expenditure.

I now turn to London. On 23rd March Mr. Clarke announced the creation of: a new police authority for the Metropolitan Police in line with the new national pattern, thereby strengthening local accountability in the capital".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/3/93; col. 765.] When the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, repeated that Statement in this House I welcomed what he said.

Then last night we read in the columns of the Evening Standard, under the headline "New U-turn on Yard Shake-up", that the Home Secretary had gone into reverse. No longer was London to have a police authority like the rest of Great Britain; instead, it was to have what was described as an "advisory board". Apparently all its members would be appointed by Ministers. The question for the noble Earl is, I hope, fairly simple: is this true? If it is true, the brave new world announced on 23rd March is in the process of being abandoned. In just eight weeks Mr. Clarke would have capitulated to the pressure of a handful of colleagues in the House of Commons. That would be an extraordinary way in which to make a critical decision affecting the future of policing in London. We look forward to hearing from the noble Earl on that particular matter when he comes to reply.

I now turn to the three issues about which, as I indicated on 23rd March, we have substantial reservations. They are the manner in which decisions on force amalgamations will be determined; the issue of performance indicators; and the character of the proposed new police authorities. I deal first with the issue of amalgamations. I am by no means opposed in principle to force amalgamations. Indeed, it would be foolish of me to say anything of the kind because I was at the Home Office in 1966–67 when my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead carried out one of the biggest programmes of force amalgamations in the history of the police service. At the time of the Willink Royal Commission there were, excluding the Metropolitan Police, 155 police forces in Great Britain. They ranged from a force of 18 officers in the Shetlands to one of more than 3,000 in Lancashire. Now there are 43 forces in England and Wales and a further eight in Scotland.

Since those changes there have been other important developments. Regional crime squads containing officers from different forces, often acting against target criminals, have had their areas as well as their size increased. There has also been the creation of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Any further force amalgamation would take place in a situation very different to that which existed in 1966–67. Nevertheless, some further amalgamations could possibly be justified.

But the issue raised in the Home Secretary's Statement is an altogether different one. It is whether he should be compelled to justify his proposals at an independent inquiry. The procedure recommended by the Willink Royal Commission, and accepted by the then Conservative Government, is as laid down in Schedule 3 to the Police Act 1964. That requires the Home Secretary to publish any amalgamation scheme. If any police authority or council objects, there has to be a local inquiry. The report of the inspector has to be laid before Parliament, together with the draft of the statutory instrument comprising the final scheme, which may of course include modifications made to the original proposal as a result of that local inquiry.

I know of no one who was at that time involved in amalgamations who believed that that system was other than desirable. It requires the Executive to justify its proposals before an independent tribunal; and it gives representatives of the local community the opportunity to challenge it.

But now the Home Secretary proposes to sweep the procedure aside. According to Mr. Clarke—he is reported in Hansard at col. 767 it is "unduly cumbersome". It should be "simplified". Why, my Lords? What is the justification for that? What is the case for that so-called simplification? According to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, when he repeated the Home Secretary's Statement in the House on 23rd March—it is reported at col. 190 of the Official Report—the procedure, can carry on for 18 months before any decision is taken". I have only one thing to say about that. What will be the new procedure? Unless the Home Secretary proposes merely to impose his amalgamations without any period of consultation, there will presumably be a period of some months before the announced change and the imposition of the new arrangements. I assume that Mr. Clarke is not suggesting that there will not be even a period of consultation, or that a police force could simply be wiped out and amalgamated without local authorities and local communities being given the opportunity to make representations to their local Members of Parliament and to the Home Secretary. I assume that he is not suggesting that, for instance, the City of London Police, a force very much under threat in any new amalgamation process, could simply be wiped out by a ministerial decision.

Assuming that there will be a period in which representations will be permitted, we are talking about a difference of only a few months between one system and the other, but there is of course one very substantial difference. It is that the right of local communities to make an appeal to an independent inspector is to be abolished. Under this system the Home Secretary will be allowed to impose his own view without his judgment ever being exposed to independent analysis. I believe that that is wholly wrong. It is yet another example of the Executive running roughshod over the interests of local communities.

I turn now to performance indicators. Mr. Clarke stated that the results will be published so that comparisons can be made between different police forces. We are apparently to have league tables—and this at a time when they have not exactly been a triumphant success when applied to education. One of the key tests—it is not the only one but it is one of the principal tests—will apparently be how much crime an individual force solves. No doubt many people will say that that is a most reasonable test. But is it? Let me quote the view of one distinguished senior officer, Sir Roger Birch, who is the Chief Constable of Sussex. He said: Consider the amount of police time and effort, and therefore money, needed to support the investigation of, say, one major murder or terrorist incident. This will, in cold statistical terms, be merely the equal of a shoplifter caught red handed". How can any serious person suggest that a shoplifting offence can be measured in the new league table in precisely the same way as a murder or a terrorist incident which may occupy the time of scores of police officers and need thousands of hours of investigation?

What about the many issues which cannot be measured in the league table? I refer to the hours of police time spent in sorting out people's domestic disputes, or in dealing with missing persons, lost children or the elderly or infirm, who call on the police for help; or in policing sporting meetings and major events. I refer too to sending police officers on visits to schools or on foot through small rural communities to give reassurance to the public that their concerns are being addressed by the local police force.

None of those vital responsibilities will be measured in determining where a police force appears in the new league table. The more socially responsible a chief officer is, the greater will be the likelihood that his force will appear toward the bottom of the league table. I can understand at least the logic of the schools league table. However doubtful one may be about the system, parents can decide, I suppose, to move from one area to another so that their child can go to a school which appears at the top of the schools league table. But does anyone seriously suggest that on the basis of the police league table, people will move from the Metropolitan Police District, or that of the West Midlands Force—two forces which have an immense series of inner city policing problems—to that of Dyfed Powys, which polices a rural community with a settled population. On the basis of the Home Secretary's league table, Dyfed Powys, which has a high clear-up rate, will be right up to the top of the league whereas the others certainly will not be.

One has to ask the noble Earl this: what on earth is the point of the new system? All that it will achieve is a futile, ill-informed debate based on league tables which have no conceivable relationship to the real world in which police forces operate.

Finally, I come to the Home Secretary's proposed changes in the constitution of police authorities. Ever since the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, which required boroughs to appoint watch committees, the Local Government Act 1888, which allowed for the appointment of standing joint committees made up of county councillors and local justices, and the Police Act 1964, our policing has been based on a tripartite system between chief officers, local police authorities and the Home Secretary.

Of course, there have been periodic disputes between them. But they have been resolved. We now have, I believe, a system of accountability which is the envy of many countries outside our shores. Through his inspectors of constabulary, the Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament for the efficiency of the service and its overall level of resources. The chief officer is accountable to his police authority, containing two-thirds elected members and one-third justices of the peace, and to the courts of law. The police authority has to justify itself to the local community.

I believe that we have avoided the over-centralisation of power that we have seen in some Continental countries in which the police are responsible to an all-powerful Minister of the Interior. I believe that that is one of the reasons why the police service in this country, despite all the hideous problems it has faced in the last few years, continues to have such a high reputation in this country. It is seen not as the servant of central government hut, in the words of one former chief officer of police, as the people's police. That is why I so deplore the changes announced by Mr. Clarke on 23rd March. Instead of all members of our police authorities being either elected members or justices of the peace, the Government propose to appoint a group of Home Office nominees to every police authority in the country. According to Mr. Clarke's briefing of the press, police authorities will have eight elected members out of 16. There will be three JPs and five government nominees. In addition the Government will appoint the chairman of every police authority from among the group.

There is another factor. We, or the local authority associations, have been told Parliament has not been told—that the chairman will be paid. In other words, there will be a paid representative of the Home Secretary presumably sitting in an office in every police headquarters in this country. The justification for the appointment of government nominees, according to Mr. Clarke, is that it would secure: local people with relevant management experience".— [Official Report, Commons, 23/3/93; col. 766.] I say only this about the establishment of the new set of semi-quangos. First, many police authorities already include people with business experience, as was pointed out on 23rd March by my noble friend Lord Ross of Newport, who is unhappily no longer with us. In the case of one local police authority, 35 per cent. of the current members, or of the members prior to the recent county council elections, had business experience; in another authority, 38 per cent. had business experience. So that does not seem a terribly powerful argument.

Secondly, although I recognise, as we all do, that people with business experience can bring great value to a local police authority, it seems a little odd for the Government to imply that the record of the business community is so astonishingly and uniquely good that businessmen will always improve the quality of decision-making of police authorities. The record does not seem to me to justify that view. Two years ago, most people would have rated British Airways as certainly one of the country's most impressive public companies. Now, it is engulfed in what appears to be never-ending litigation over a so-called "dirty tricks" campaign against Virgin Atlantic. In the past few days, still further allegations have been made against British Airways as a result of, allegedly, a similar campaign against Air Europe.

Then there has been the case of Taurus, the Stock Exchange's planned paperless settlement system. That project, planned for 12 years, collapsed after the expenditure of over £200 million. It was a damaging blow to the City of London.

Then there have been the remarkable cases of two of the Government's favourite quangos: the Wessex and the West Midlands Health Authorities. Huge sums of public money have been wasted on computer systems and consultants under the leadership of businessmen who have had close associations with Ministers—just the kind of people, one suspects, they would appoint as chairmen of police authorities. In both cases, major police investigations are continuing and the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons is leading an investigation.

Finally, there is the tragi-comedy of Group 4, a company whose record in the past few weeks has given new meaning to the proclaimed policy of the Government that they are continuing to develop new alternatives to imprisonment.

Of course, there are many admirable businessmen and women in the country, but it is simply silly for politicians to pretend that the record of the private sector is so immaculate that it is to be preferred to the elected representatives of the public. That is just doctrinaire foolishness.

I have found that many of our most intelligent business leaders are deeply sceptical about the suggestion that some of them should accept appointment to the new police authorities. As one chairman of a large and successful public company said to me the other day: "What exactly would be their role? They might live in the area of the police force, but they would not represent the people living in that area in any way at all". It seemed to him that all they would be doing would be representing a politician in London. Inevitably, they will be appointed, not just because of their supposed business experience, but because of their political background. Anyone who read the Financial Times report of 14th January this year on the subject of quangos knows how the appointments are made. The supreme test is not business experience, it is political loyalty.

Do we really want to travel down that road? What has it to do with creating greater accountability for the police service, which Mr. Clarke tells us is one of the central features of his reform? How can he possibly pretend that this is so? What he has announced has been the greatest act of centralisation of power in the history of the British police service. We must recognise that too. The government nominees will, of course, change as and when there is a change of government. Out will go one crowd of chairmen and members of police authorities and in will come another crowd. The reason that is so inevitable is that the nominees will be responding not to the agenda of the local community but to the views of the person who may temporarily be Home Secretary in London.

However, in the meantime, what will be their powers? The new police authorities will, according to Mr. Clarke, be free standing, precepting bodies. That means that they will be enabled to pass on what they regard as an acceptable charge to each of the local authorities in their area. Are the government nominees to be allowed to vote on that question? If they are, the possibilities of conflict between them and the elected members will be immense. For they will be doing that at a time when the Government are charge-capping local authorities. The decision on police authority expenditure could have a significant effect on whether the Government cap the council tax levels of the constituent local authorities. I can think of nothing more likely to damage relations between members of the new police authorities.

There is yet another risk. If serious problems arise, what is more natural than that a successor to Mr. Clarke will decide to reduce still further the number of locally elected members on the authorities and bring them under even greater ministerial control?

What we are debating this afternoon is, I believe, an issue of overwhelming importance to the future of policing in the country. We are not being asked to sanction the creation of a national police force, but we are discussing something even more insidious—a major step towards transferring effective power over local policing from democratically accountable members of local authorities and local justices to representatives of a politician in London. That is being done, not on the basis of the report of a Royal Commission or a departmental inquiry which has listened to all the evidence, but on the basis of the whims of a single man, a Home Secretary in office for a year, who may, of course, be in charge of a different department of state long before the Police Bill, due next Session, is on the statute book.

I know that the responsible leaders of the police service are deeply disturbed by these proposals, as are many leading members of police authorities, many of them loyal members of the noble Earl's party. If Ministers want to have their protestations about becoming a listening government taken seriously, they should draw back. Unless they do so, I fear that we shall have a fierce dispute on this issue for the next year or more. How can this be desirable at a time when every sensible person in this country wants to do everything possible to assist the police in their struggle against the rising level of crime?

3.31 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches on introducing this subject. He knows a great deal about policing. He worked with two Home Secretaries and subsequently (and I believe he still does) with the Police Foundation; and—I tremble to say it because of his words about quangos—I appointed him to the Parole Board. He has raised many issues. I promise not to repeat his words, but I should like to emphasise at the beginning that his powerful words about the loss of local accountability are very important. When I visited European police forces and found the powers of the Minister of the Interior right down to the interstices of the police forces in different parts of the country, I much preferred the system for which I had some responsibility in this country.

I have a slight doubt about the value of this debate. It cannot be long before the White Paper is published. (We are nearly in June.) I grant that after the White Paper has been published there will be more time for discussion, but I wish that there had been more discussion before the White Paper was published. My only hope is, who knows what will happen in the next two or three years. Political predictions sometimes go out of the window, and we may have more time to consider this matter than we think because the police Bill, when it comes, will be a long one. I first entered the other place just after the Willink Report, and I took part in debates on the police Bill which went on and on. It was given a great deal of cover by the other place, and a very valuable piece of legislation it was. The same thing will happen again. So we may have more time than we think to influence the Government after the White Paper is published.

I should like to raise one issue in particular which underlies management and the structure of the police. In this country under all governments the crime rate continues to rise. It has increased five times since 1979. It would be very easy, in the silly politics that we all engage in from time to time, for me to argue that it is all due to the change of Home Secretary in April 1979. But it is not. Whatever government are in power the crime rate will go on rising. There are real problems that the police have to deal with.

Where I live in London, a few months ago an old friend of mine nearby—I cannot say "an old man" any more, but he was an old man—was badly beaten up. A friend of mine was recently held up by two gunmen outside my front-door. His house was broken into just a week or two later. It is not the fault of the police. It is not even a matter of extra policemen on the beat. I learnt that when I was in Northern Ireland. There is something intrinsically wrong. And, of course, even though extra policemen and better policing will not solve the problem, they are a necessary part of the equation.

Perhaps it would be a very good thing if all of us who are in politics stopped making foolish claims about the crime rate. "We are the party of law and order". The general public knows that that is rubbish. If we are to get this right it needs sober analysis, looking back to the past, looking at other countries and looking to the future. I wish that there had been a Royal Commission. All parties tend to shy away from Royal Commissions, largely because often when they report we do nothing about it. But the Royal Commission on miscarriages of justice, to which a number of us gave evidence the other day, gave me a great deal of confidence in the quality of the people who sat round the table. I wish that we had had a Royal Commission on the police. From the Willink Commission, which reviewed the constitutional position of the police—which is still a matter of great concern as change takes place—and the arrangements for control and administration, came a very good police Act that has stood us in good stead.

What should be investigated? What should we begin, particularly in this House, as I have learnt in just about a year, to look at? I should like to put a few ideas forward, and only tangentially cover the points that the noble Lord has looked at.

The first point I come back to is the role of the police committees. They must be local. Once at Question Time in the House I reminded noble Lords about the miners' strike in the last decade. I had no responsibility but I took an interest in West Yorkshire. The fact that the chairman of the police committee knew the area and knew the pit villages and that the assistant chief constable had been a coal-miner in the past meant that they knew what to do in the pit villages—unlike in a nearby area, where young men from the Metropolitan Police came north, went into the pit villages and in my view behaved indefensibly. They did not know the nature of the chairman of the lodge and that he would be an important man. In the old days, though not so much now because times have changed, he would have been an important person in the local Nonconformist chapel—that may even now be the case. The fact that someone knows the local areas is important. I say to the noble Lord who raised the topic under debate that the question of reinforcing police forces elsewhere needs to be looked at. It is not just a matter of having good administration; it is a question of who is in control of them and who will inform them of the nature of the areas into which they have moved. Local accountability is of the greatest importance.

I also know the man I referred to as the chairman of the police authority and the chief constable. As Home Secretary one has a police department which provides information. It may be valuable for local police forces to have their own small police department, with their own research facilities, so that they can provide information for their own force and not be so dependent on the national organisation. But as for having political appointees on police authorities—I do not want to repeat what the noble Lord has said; he said it powerfully enough—it would be fundamentally wrong for that to happen given the nature of policing in this country.

So far as the Metropolitan Police is concerned I had intended to say a word about the Statement in the House in March. Apparently that is all over. Perhaps I should have acted in the 1970s over the question of a police authority for London. But I was not moved to do so. I accept that it is not easy. But under the new arrangement—as forecast in the Evening Standard last night and in some of the other newspapers today—which comes, I understand, as the result of a briefing from the Home Office, if there is to be some sort of a police authority for London, however appointed, what will happen to the Special Branch? One would not put the Special Branch under a local police committee. One would not put the diplomatic protection group under a local police committee, or the national drugs organisation or the anti-terrorist squad. What needs to be considered is that they should be made responsible directly to the Home Secretary, as they are now because of London, and then the Home Secretary could be responsible to the House of Commons for these national responsibilities which are based in London.

With regard to the Special Branch, MI5 now has a far bigger role than before. Its role is in providing information and analysis of information that comes forward, leaving the police with their operational responsibilities. MI5 cannot do that. It may be that there is room for a different role for the inspectorate. I was talking recently to a chief constable in preparation for this debate. He said that when the inspections first started they simply added up to the few policemen in the small borough force lining up at the station and the chief inspector getting out of the train, inspecting them and looking at their medals and buttons. That added up to the inspection of the force by the inspector. It is not like that now.

It may well be that the role of the inspectorate ought to be greatly increased. That would not be very well received by chief constables. But at least it ought to be looked at. It is part of the growth in the powers of the Home Secretary with regard to these matters and it ought to be looked at very carefully because those powers are increasing without legislative change.

For my part—it would not be universally approved even within the police—I would also have a look at the role of the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is not because they are bad people or do the wrong thing but because we are using ACPO as a sort of inspectorate. We are using ACPO to do a job that in other countries the inspectorate does. Maybe that is good, but let us have a look at it. For my money too I would look at the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation. That is not because they are bad or evil; but if it is good enough for this House over the past few weeks to have looked at trade unions and had so many pieces of trade union legislation, why should it not have a look at the bodies that organise the police?

With regard to the size of forces, the noble Lord has already dealt with one aspect in which I was interested. In the days of Labour as well as other governments, there was a great diminishment in the number of police forces—the old borough forces and the small county forces. The other day I visited Gwent, where the police feel that they will be amalgamated into the South Wales police and maybe the Dyfed-Powys police as well. It is a small force and a very good one. The point was put to me by the chief constable, Mr. Over. He contended that forces below about 2,000 in strength, which make up 23 of the present 43 forces, are not only viable but provide the highest quality of service at the lowest cost. He argued that a reduction by some 23 forces would obviously reduce the chief constable posts by the same number. The loss of those posts, together with some supporting staff, might provide a notional saving of about £2 million. Using Audit Commission figures, he argued that it could provide only six additional motorway patrol constables. If there is an argument, it is not a financial argument. The matter needs to be looked at very carefully.

In my days as a service Minister, when around us the service commands were being made bigger as the services became smaller in numbers of men and women, my worries were different. In the olden days a general of lower rank could be given a command so that he could show how good he was. The smaller police forces give the Home Office and Home Secretaries a chance to see how a young man can run a police force before he is put in charge of a bigger force. There are all sorts of advantages to the smaller forces. In any case, there are the regional crime squads and so on.

I rather liked what the Government said about finance, perhaps not in detail, but they are looking at finance because of the devastating statement of the Audit Commission to the effect that the tripartite relationship between chief constables, public authorities and the Home Office had broken down. That was a damning statement to make. Therefore the financing of police forces certainly needs to be examined.

There is one matter that I do not think has been considered. The other day I looked at my papers. In 1978 I was very concerned about a problem with the Chief Constable of Lancashire. The noble Lord will remember it well. When we looked at the procedures laid down in the police Act, they did not appear very easy. Perhaps the noble Lord will remember that I asked the legal advisers whether it would be possible for him to handle the matter because I was also the appellate authority. How could I both look at the matter and be the appellate authority? I was advised that that could not be done because the Minister of State has powers only from the Home Secretary. It could not be done. In any event, I made a statement on 19th April 1978 in the other place (I have not checked as to whether it was made in this House also) saying that the present position on discipline for senior officers was unsatisfactory and that a document was being prepared. That document has never seen the light of day, though I saw it before I left office. It disappeared somewhere.

I was concerned about the disciplinary arrangements for chief constables and senior officers. I was also very worried about the minor but important cases concerning police constables in all parts of the country which came on one's desk to be adjudicated upon. There has to be an appellate authority. I understand that. However, there were so many appeals that I could not believe that that was the right way to deal with the matter. The whole thing had to be looked at. I hope that the disciplinary arrangements, which are still a problem, will be examined.

I hope that the White Paper lives up to expectations. I hope that it gives us a chance to think hard about the problem of the structure of the police. We depend upon the police. I learnt that not only as Home Secretary but also in Northern Ireland. The noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, has greater experience than I in that respect. At that time one of the problems with law and order in Northern Ireland was the weakness of the police. It has greatly strengthened, but perhaps too late.

A good police force, responsible to the community, so that people are not afraid to go to the police station or speak to the constable on the beat, is one of the important glories of this country. I hope that the Government will not throw that away in the search for greater management techniques. Accountability finance-wise, important as that is to central government, needs to be looked at. I hope that we will not throw out the baby with the bath water. The police force in this country stands to the credit of this nation and has done so for many centuries. I hope that it will be able to continue.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Trevor

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to make my somewhat overdue maiden speech during a debate which affects my locality most considerably. I have been a magistrate for 33 years and a member of the North Wales Police Authority for 10 years. That force was formed by the amalgamation of the old Denbighshire, Flintshire and Caernarvonshire constabulary. It is one of the oldest and largest forces in the country. Therefore I fully support the views and opinions contained in the consultative documents prepared by the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

The proposals put forward by the Home Secretary are drastic and many forces and authorities are extremely disturbed by them. They are considerably affecting the morale of those involved. Police authority membership is composed of democratically elected councillors and some magistrates, all of whom know their areas intimately, are experienced in many different spheres and are readily accessible to members of the general public whom they represent. The chairman of the authority is elected by the members for a two-year period of office. The office alternates between councillors and magistrates. The chairmen are accountable to the members. That system has worked most satisfactorily in the past and there is no reason at all why it should not continue to do so.

The Home Secretary proposes to appoint directly a proportion of the members, appoint and pay the chairman and decide on the total number of the membership of the authority. We believe that that will result in persons with a lack of knowledge and experience being appointed. It will reduce the mandate from local communities and transfer power and control from the authorities to central government.

Furthermore, the Home Secretary indicated that he proposes to initiate a programme of amalgamation of police forces. We believe that our force area, with a population of 643,097, with a large holiday seasonal increase and covering 629,349 hectares, and with a road system of 9,593 kilometres, is large enough in view of the terrain and the inherent communications difficulty. It would be detrimental to all concerned if it were to be expanded. I believe that that view is held by many other forces and authorities.

It is fair to say that we welcome the suggested financial freedom, local delegation of budgets and operational independence of the chief constable. But we feel that the rest of the proposals are too far reaching and that a need to make such radical changes has not been established.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, it is my great privilege to offer the congratulations of the House on what was a notable maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Trevor. It is perhaps a shade unusual to wait for 43 years before making a maiden speech. Apart from experience in forestry and fishing problems, the noble Lord has had great experience as a magistrate, as he explained, and as a member of a police authority. He demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is well able to make a notable contribution to our deliberations. Now that he has broken the ice, I hope that it will not be too long before we hear him again.

Turning to the Motion, it is only one of the Home Secretary's three approaches to the reshaping of the police service, but it certainly raises enough problems to justify a debate on its own—whatever the timing might be. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for giving us this opportunity to discuss the Home Secretary's recent Statement.

I first became involved with the police in the 1930s. It strikes me that, although traditionally the police service is looked upon as a local government service, it has always stood a little aside. When I started there were over 180 forces in England and Wales. Since then, by direct legislation or by amalgamations, that total has come down to 43. I would say that when we got rid of non-county borough forces we achieved, numerically, a greater number of amalgamations than even in the days of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

In relation to police areas, that realignment has never quite kept in step with what was going on in local government. Given the attitude of the present administration to local government, they are hardly likely to go out of their way to bring the areas covered by individual forces into line with local government areas. Indeed, the tendency is the other way. When the local government Act of 1992 was going through Parliament, setting up the boundary commission and making provision for police amalgamation, it was made plain that whatever happened to local government there was no intention on the part of central government to go ahead with smaller police forces. To take a current example, I gather that the small print of the suggestion that Derbyshire may be split into two unitary authorities takes it for granted that a single force would remain covering both areas.

As previous speakers have said, the Home Secretary spoke of simplifying the amalgamation procedure. Although he says that he has no specific plans in mind, no one will be surprised to find the total of 43 being further reduced, whether under a new streamlining procedure or the procedure explained by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. To my mind, developments of that kind inevitably mean that the structure of the police service is likely to become even more detached from local government.

Turning to management, it is fair to say that the police authorities of the 1930s—the watch committees and the standing joint committees—were the weakest part of the tripartite system, squeezed as they were, on the one hand, by the Home Office with all the big guns and ammunition and, on the other, by the chief constable who resisted any encroachment on all the more interesting matters on the ground that they were his operational responsibility.

Things have changed since then, but perhaps not that much. It is not to be wondered at that, some time ago, the Audit Commission came to the conclusion that the present responsibilities of the police authorities are somewhat blurred. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Home Secretary should want to sharpen up those responsibilities. The question is whether the solution which he suddenly pronounces to the world is on the right lines.

It is perfectly plain that whatever else might be the case, it is not local government in any ordinary sense of the term. The police authority will be free standing. There will not be a majority of local authority members. As I understand it, there will be a paid chairman, although I have not been a party to the briefing which seems to have given to others a good deal of information that was not made available to Parliament. He will be appointed by the Home Secretary, who is bound to look to the appointing authority. There will be other members appointed by the Home Secretary and special financial arrangements peculiar to the police authority on which I propose to say a few words in a moment.

The Home Secretary rightly stressed the importance of the police responding to the needs of the local community. Perhaps one can be permitted a tinge of doubt whether the composition of the authority will be such as to make the meeting of that expectation its outstanding characteristic. Nor is it entirely clear how the Home Secretary's nominees are to be identified. Being politically innocent, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I naturally accept the Home Secretary's indication that he will not be obsessed by their political complexion. But while I yield to no one in my regard for the sagacity of the Home Office, there are limits even to its knowledge of individuals and I am not sure how they will set about identifying and assessing likely local candidates. It is a much worse problem than the one I had when I was trying to find members of the visiting committees of prisons dotted throughout the country.

The Home Secretary said that although there would be greater local autonomy, national objectives would be set. I can think of some rather platitudinous objectives. However, I confess in my ignorance that I do not really know what the Home Secretary had in mind. Perhaps when the noble Earl replies he will give one or two examples. Surely there will be a host of questions which can hardly be described as national objectives but which can hardly be left entirely to local initiative; such as the scale on which police officers might be armed or the need for career planning for higher appointments.

I must come for a moment to the financial arrangements on which I touched a moment ago. I know that they are not a very enlivening subject for discussion but they are rather important. As I understand it, although I may have got it wrong, something over 90 per cent. of the money will come to the police authority from central government, either by way of specific grant up to a cash limited amount or by way of revenue support grant and non-domestic rates. Then the police authority will be able to precept on its constituent authorities for the small balance. Each police authority would have its very own standard spending assessment, subject to capping, but the Home Secretary could also intervene if he thought that a local budget had been fixed too low. This all seems to be just a little rigid. I do not quite know what would happen if a police authority were suddenly met by an item involving a great deal of unexpected expenditure, as happened, for example, over the bomb at Warrington. But more importantly, I wonder how it is proposed to calculate the amount payable to each authority at the level necessary, as the Home Secretary put it, to secure an effective police service.

When on a previous occasion (reported at col. 934 of the Official Report on 20th November 1991) we were discussing the byzantine complications of standard spending assessments, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, explained that that part of the police expenditure not covered by specific grant was calculated by reference to the authorised establishment approved by the Home Secretary. But now there is not going to be an authorised establishment approved by the Home Secretary. One wonders what the criteria will be. When there is talk of 51 per cent. specific grant or 40 per cent. revenue support grant, the question is: 51 per cent. or 40 per cent. of what?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I wonder a little about the role of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary. Will they be less important, given the greater local autonomy, or will they be more important, as the Home Secretary's principal agents when he comes to hold a police authority accountable for the performance of its force? Will this opportunity be taken to end the bickering about the financing of the common services such as the police college?

Finally, I should like to say a few words about London. It is a little difficult to know what to say when we are still uninformed about what is now in contemplation. All we know is that it is not what was in the Home Secretary's statement, assuming that there is validity in what appeared in the Evening Standard, which had every impression of having some authentic official background. I was anyway, I confess, a little surprised that the momentous change of handing over the Home Secretary's responsibilities as police authority was announced in such a casual way. But, evidently, that is not now to happen. The composition and role of this proposed advisory body is not clear, but the noble Earl will no doubt be taking the opportunity of giving us a further parliamentary statement about what is now proposed.

At any rate, this change of plan should cover one aspect which had been giving me some concern; namely, the future of the receiver's office, the supplies and services side of the Metropolitan Police. This has been integrated with the police set-up in London in a way which has simply not been possible elsewhere. The force has been particularly well-served by those who have held the post of receiver. I hope that there is no risk now of this efficient and unique partnership between police and civilians being abandoned simply in order that London should he brought into line with the provinces.

Speaking of London, it is, after all, a great metropolis and the nation's capital. Somehow I was never quite able to envisage the position in which the Home Secretary would stand on the sidelines if there were a major catastrophe, perhaps involving calling in the military to help, or large-scale violence—a problem with which the present Home Secretary has, happily, not been confronted—or even a hostage-taking, as recently happened in France.

We are discussing a great service with a great tradition crucial to the well-being of the community which it serves. There have been causes for disquiet and no one would dispute that there is a case for change and for improving the capacity of the service to cope with rising crime and other ills of our society. But enough has been said in this debate—and I suspect that a good deal more will be said as time goes on—to demonstrate to Ministers that the package of reforms, when we have the whole package, will be carefully watched to see that what is proposed is likely to achieve the efficient servicepolicing, as it does, by consent—that we all want to see.