Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a former president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales. The history of the police in this country throughout their relatively short life has been one of those rollercoaster rides of success and acclaim, with periods of crisis and threats of reform. I once wrote a brief history of the association and I was struck by the cyclical recurrence of the crises, with morale and pay dropping off and politicians setting up committees and inquiries to remedy the problems-from Desborough at the beginning of the century, through the Oaksey committee and the Willink commission to the much lauded Lord Edmund-Davies inquiry, set up by the then Home Secretary, the late Lord Merlyn-Rees in 1978, followed by the controversial Sheehy inquiry in the early 1990s, which I am delighted to say the noble Lord, Lord Howard, stamped on after the disastrous stewardship of the now Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.
The police service has been examined exhaustively throughout these years, and from my experience I can say that morale at the present time is at an all-time low. The police are different from other workers and play an important part in our democracy. What singles them out from other employees? First, there is the importance of the job itself. No civilised society can function without the enforcement of the law and the maintenance of order in a way that is acceptable to the populace. Secondly, there is the statutory prohibition of industrial action as a bargaining chip. It is extremely important, therefore, that Governments treat their police officers honourably and do not lose sight of the point. This is probably the culminant to which the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred.
This is an important Bill that contains many important provisions. In the short time available, I intend to deal with one particular aspect that, as other noble Lords have mentioned, has caused great concern. I come to the debate with 35 years' service in the police service but also 12 years in your Lordships' House, and no proposed change to policing has caused me more concern than this particular Bill.
By popular acclaim, the United Kingdom sets the gold standard for policing in that we police by popular consent, and much to the surprise of foreign visitors the police are largely unarmed. I have lived through many reforming Home Secretaries from all parties, but for all the changes that have been advocated, and in some cases achieved, none previously tried to get the police involved in politics. The strength of the British policing model is the operational impartiality and independence of the police, and this was achieved after many scandals. Some noble Lords will remember the old rotten watch committee system of the 1950s that led to the undue influence of petty politicians on operational matters, and in some cases directly to police corruption.
The trick is to have an operationally impartial and independent police service that is also truly accountable. I believe that this was achieved with the development of the modern tripartite system of governance, with the chief constable working with the police committee and the Home Office. He is accountable locally to the public he polices through the guidance of elected members of the police authorities and to some extent through elected MPs, who can question the Home Secretary. The same Home Secretary, of course, exercises governance on national issues such as organised crime and terrorism. The chief constable of a force is also accountable to the local community through a plethora of consultation mechanisms in his police area, and of course ultimately he is accountable to the law through the courts.
Many years ago, as a superintendent, I spent some months with the FBI. I got to know a number of police chiefs and county sheriffs in the United States. It became obvious to me quite soon that the appointed town police chief was totally beholden to the elected town politician, who had the power to hire and fire. If the politician wanted the police to target a particular problem, which might be to his electoral advantage, he would not hesitate to interfere. In my experience, it was a foolhardy police chief who challenged his political master. If your job depends on it, you will by nature be reluctant to risk saying, "This is my operational decision, not yours". Noble Lords live in the real world, and that is common sense.
With the sheriff, who is directly elected, it is in a sense worse. He is generally elected on a local ticket that deals with real problems in his area. That is fine as far as it goes, but it reduces his interest in regional problems and even more so in the national scene. The worrying thing is that he could be elected almost on a single issue, and sometimes is. All his deputies are appointed by him, and my experience was of them leaving for the weekend to canvass for the sheriff when he was due for re-election. They had to; their jobs depended on it. I found that bringing raw politics into this arena can lead to corruption.
In Britain, the constable's oath of office emphasises a duty to impartiality and accountability to the law. We should be careful not to undermine his ability to honour his oath by creating a greater duty to support an elected politician's chosen priorities. The existing police authorities provide balance and moderation coupled with community checks and balances. It is invaluable for the chief officer to have access to such a range of community views in the whole of his geographical area, provided by a mix of people who are both appointed and elected. The big worry with the present Bill is that all this power and influence is placed on one elected police and crime commissioner. In many cases, the constituency of a PCC will be greater than that of any elected Member of the House of Commons. Some will have populations of over 1 million, cover over 20 parliamentary constituencies and five local authorities. In my judgment of local accountability, a single individual cannot possibly hope to have the same level of representation as a police authority. This creates a less inclusive form of police governance.
High-level police corruption in the United States is very great compared with Britain. In my view, that is influenced by the politicisation of the police. This is an error in the Bill. It has not been justified by any evidence from Ministers, and it puts the police service at great risk of being dragged into politics. There is still time to change, and the coalition Government should be big enough to recognise this by not enacting provisions that they will live to regret.