Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Blair of Boughton (Crossbench)
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. In common with a small number of noble Lords speaking today, I served as a police officer for a long period-in my case, 35 years, with 10 as a chief officer. I shall have some other interests to declare later on.
I rise to my feet with a heavy heart. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has just said, the main measures in the Bill are seen by both parties in the coalition as manifesto commitments in principle. They have been passed by major majorities in the other place and seem likely, whatever happens in this House, to become law in their essentials. I am concerned with only one part of this Bill-the election of police and crime commissioners and what will flow from that change. This idea is quite simply the most lamentable provision about policing that I have ever encountered. The idea is an unintended changeling-a potential cuckoo in the nest of policing. It will set back 60 years of progress towards the establishment of the operational independence of the police, which is the jewel in the crown of British policing and its most important contribution to the rule of law in this country, with unforeseeable consequences.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary, to the noble Baroness and the policing Minister for recently taking the trouble to see me. However, while they listened, their speeches as reported in the other place and as heard today indicate that they did not agree with the concerns that I expressed. I told them that the Government had the right diagnosis but completely the wrong remedy. Despite the honourable service of those noble Lords here who served on them, it is true that police authorities are little known by the public. However, the cure proposed by this lack of public profile is worse than the disease. To replace police authorities with a single, directly elected person is to introduce a foreign species into an indigenous environment without knowing what the impact will be.
Some 20 years ago, after the Bookbinder case in the early 1990s in Derbyshire, a Conservative Government introduced independent members to police authorities in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, precisely to limit improper political interference in policing. I believe that that independence is crucial, which is why I told the previous Labour Administration while commissioner that I could not support fully elected police authorities. It seems strange to me that a Government 20 years later should completely reverse their position.
The proposal is based largely on the American model of police governance. There are a reputed 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. I recently visited Martha's Vineyard, which is about half the size of the Isle of Wight. There are six police forces on that island, the largest of which in Edgartown has 26 officers. The chief holds office at the pleasure of the town mayor; the people of the town know him, know the officers and love the arrangements-but they also know that these officers serve only their small community and that if anything happens beyond the force's capability, which it quite regularly does, in will step the Massachusetts state police, then the FBI, then the Department of Homeland Security and then one of the many other federal organisations. If, after a suitable inquiry of some sort, the Government had proposed breaking back policing to local towns and communities in this community, that would have been logical, but there is little logic in replicating the arrangements for Edgartown with one person representing the interests of electors in all of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Neither of those points are my main objection, which lies in the relationship between the elected commissioner and the chief constable. Here, I must declare my second interest as the only former police chief in your Lordships' House who knows what it is to serve under a person who is acting like an American mayor. For that reason, I hope that your Lordships will excuse me if I exceed the advisory limit by a minute-that is all it will be.
The Government have laid much emphasis on a proposed protocol concerning the relationship between the chief constable and the elected commissioner, which may or may not be statutory. The Greater London Authority Act currently contains specific statutory provisions for the processes which should be followed in the removal or the suspension of the Commissioner of Scotland Yard. However, the present mayor of London, acting as chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority-he having assumed that office the day before, after a change in legislation-did not choose to use those processes. He merely told me that he would arrange a public vote of no confidence at the next authority meeting, which I would lose. I could have said, in terms, "So what?", as the commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary. However, I could see that that would have put my force at war with its own authority and damage the service of which I was a steward. When I saw her, the then Home Secretary could see that as well. We were also aware by the next day that news media had already been enquiring about my resignation. There was no time for recourse to the processes laid out in the legislation because the stable door had been thrown open and the horse had bolted. A pretty similar situation arose in the subsequent case of Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick.
This Bill contains similar, detailed clauses and schedules on the removal of a chief officer. There may indeed be an additional semi-statutory protocol in future, but neither will help a chief officer in the face of an elected commissioner determined to get rid of him or her or, as sometimes happens in the United States-I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, will acknowledge this-of a proposed mayor who campaigns on getting rid of the current chief constable or bringing in another named individual. Politicians appoint and dismiss for political reasons, as they do everything else. How many times will a chief constable go on arguing with a man or woman who can replace him or her for reasons other than proven incompetence or misconduct? How often will the police chief insist on his or her operational duty to deal with national and regional crime, rather than the local issues on which the commissioner has been elected? How robust will the police chief be in examining allegations concerning a friend of the commissioner? Finally, what bright young man or woman will put their pension at risk of such capricious termination by becoming a chief constable? This, as one American police chief put it to me, will introduce into Britain the weakest link in US policing. No protocol or clauses in legislation will stop this possibility.
I said that I have a heavy heart. I have been approached by Members on different sides of the House to support or suggest amendments to the Bill. With the deepest regret, I do not expect to be doing so. That probable decision is because I believe that this provision is simply wrong in principle. No amendment to the powers of the police and crime panel, to the protocol or to any other provision, however wisely suggested by Members of your Lordships' House, will prevent the significant damage that this measure will do to British policing, probably irrevocably.
In closing, I must declare another interest: the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who was my history teacher at school. Of course, I bow to his knowledge of politics as well as of history. I accept that many elected commissioners will be men and women of integrity, although some may not, yet they will all be politicians. This is what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said in the other place in a debate in November 2008 on a Private Member's Bill seeking to introduce elected police commissioners:
"To politicise the police in the way that has been suggested"-
then there was an interruption. He continued:
"Of course it would politicise the police; people would stand for election on party tickets and for populist policies. Frankly, the Bill is a prescription for anarchy and disaster, and I cannot support it".-[Hansard, Commons, 11/11/08; col. 640.]
Neither can I.