Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Baroness Harris of Richmond (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I will be speaking on Part 1. I begin by declaring my interests. For more than 20 years I was a member of the North Yorkshire Police Authority and was for eight years its chair. I was also a vice-chair of the Association of Police Authorities and am currently a vice-president of the association.
I want to outline a number of areas in the Bill about which I have concern; other noble Lords have indicated them. However, I begin by absolutely agreeing with the Home Secretary when she says that she does not want to run the police. What a refreshing statement that was after years of micromanaging the imposition of targets into almost every aspect of policing by former Home Secretaries. Sadly, though, this is where my praise has to end. The proposals in the Bill are unacceptable in their present form. Making one individual, instead of the present 17 or 19, responsible for oversight of policing makes the argument about politicisation and partiality very real indeed. At best, the proposal is likely to undermine the confidence of minority communities and, at worst, could introduce a real threat of corruption into policing.
Will a police and crime commissioner be able to resist pressure from one community over another, as we have just heard from the noble Baroness, if the ballot box has shown support from one of those communities but not the other? Will the PCC not feel the need to ensure that those who voted get the best service; and might those who did not vote be disregarded? What happens if the PCC is unable to fulfil his or her duties? Almost certainly, the PCC will be male, white and middle-aged. Who will deputise for that person? The Bill states that they should be a member of the PCC's staff, but they are expressly required by the Bill to be non-political. I believe strongly that that role should be undertaken by a member of the police and crime panel, otherwise the PCC could have a wholly unelected person running things in their absence, who may have to make some very political decisions such as what precept to set.
There are serious questions to be asked about how the PCC will ensure diversity in his or her team, or how, indeed, diversity will be assured within the police force-making sure that the police reflect the communities they serve. I question how one person can give confidence to minority communities, and how the vast experience of the 17 or 19 members at present on police authorities can be harnessed. Who might fill the skills gap that they leave behind?
An erroneous argument has been put forward that police authorities have been weak and invisible, yet not one-I repeat, not one-authority has failed the recent inspection of authorities undertaken by HMIC. This compares very favourably with other public sector bodies, of which a minority routinely fail inspections. There has been a massive decrease in crime and a continued rise in public confidence in policing over the past few years, so I simply do not understand what is broken about the current system that needs fixing.
The argument about police authorities being invisible is probably made because they spend their money on policing, not on themselves. Police authorities have been lean and mean in order that front-line policing should not be diminished in any way. Indeed, they do the opposite of what is proposed. Personalising the role of police scrutineer, making it high profile and "visible", will cost a great deal more than at present, as well as set up the possibility of conflict between the chief constable and the PCC over who exactly runs the police.
Talking of costs, calculations have been made about the setting up of this untested and untried scheme. The Police Minister, as we have heard, suggests that it will cost only what present police authorities cost now, plus the costs of elections-£50 million every four years. Independent analysis suggests that the reforms will cost a minimum of £453 million over five years, which is a conservative estimate. That is already £100 million more than the entire cost of running police authorities over the same period. Incidentally, that represents the equivalent cost of 600 police officers. I question whether that is good value for money in an age of austerity.
There is provision in the Bill for payment to panel members, but where will that money come from? If central government is paying for the PCC and his or her office, it must also pay for the panel's office-the members and their staff-otherwise this whole exercise is deeply flawed and completely unfair, and proper scrutiny cannot take place. I hope there is no suggestion that these panels will be paid for out of hard pressed local government funds. That would be ironic indeed, and would take away local representation with one hand, and make it pay more for less involvement with another. The present structure of police authorities, with some variation of membership and perhaps size, would be far preferable to these proposals.
We will debate many other issues during the passage of the Bill, including the timing of the reforms. Hosting the Olympic Games will be the most challenging project that the police in this country have ever faced. The front-loading of the proposed cuts to police funding will have begun to bite. Reforms to police pay and conditions of service will have started to be implemented. One can imagine the effect of that on an already demoralised and unhappy police service. The stability and resilience of forces will be at their lowest. Whatever one's view of the desirability of police reform, this is absolutely the wrong time to do it.
This is a real mess, done without proper thought or consideration of the wider policing landscape. Dramatic constitutional reforms are being proposed without support from the public. A recent poll indicated that only 15 per cent of people want them. We should produce a consolidated Bill covering all national policing issues rather than taking this piecemeal approach. The current Bill predicates some of what might be in a future policing Bill. At a very risky time for policing in this country, we should test these proposals before bringing them in across the country. Only then will we know if these extraordinary, costly and radical reforms are genuinely wanted by the people of England and Wales.