Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Baroness Meacher (Crossbench)
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, to this House and shall try to find the appropriate words to congratulate her on her incredibly moving speech. We have heard some very fine speeches today. My speech will be extremely quickly forgotten, but I will never forget that speech-it was amazing. Not only has the noble Baroness made a very important contribution today, but I have absolutely no doubt that she will be a very important contributor to the work of this House, representing very effectively the issues of victims and of the social problems in our communities. I cannot say more than to welcome her and thank her for joining us.
I feel like sitting down right now, but I will limit my comments to Part I of the Bill, with a very brief reference to Clauses 152 and 153 on the drugs issue. I want to support concerns already raised about the replacement of police authorities with new elected police and crime commissioners. For me this is by far the most worrying proposal in the Bill. Indeed, I might be quite happy with one or two other parts of the Bill, but like so many other noble Lords I cannot accept this one.
There are many noble Lords more qualified than I to speak in this debate, as so brilliantly illustrated by the fine speech from the noble Lord, Lord Blair, supported so eloquently by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee, Lady Harris and Lady Hilton, and many others. However, I feel bound to make a brief contribution, having spent eight years with the Police Complaints Authority, working very closely with chief constables and other chief officers across the country. I developed a considerable respect-to my surprise, as I was not expecting to respect these people-for the professionalism, impartiality and deep understanding of humanity of those officers. It seemed to me throughout that period that senior officers paid due respect to their police authorities while holding on very clearly to their strict political impartiality.
I agree with Liberty's point that,
"policing by consent, and engagement between the police and the community must not be confused with direct community involvement in operational decision-making".
For me, this is the massive mistake of the Bill.
With so much else to be concerned about in the country today, is there any justification at all for changing the governance arrangements for the police service? It is worth asking what the serious weaknesses are of the present system of police authorities that have led to the development of these ideas. We have had different views about HMIC inspections from the Minister and from other noble Baronesses, but the long and short of it is that no evidence has been presented today that the police authorities have any weaknesses that could not be remediated. If these weaknesses even exist, do they justify the risks involved in introducing overtly political control over chief police officers? Do they justify the inevitable costs involved in the move to PCCs? The evidence suggests not. I understand that the Government's main motivation for the introduction of PCCs is that UK policing has become too far removed from the needs of local communities. I would accept that, but this problem could be tackled very effectively through an overdue reduction in the number of targets, circulars and guidance from the centre to police services and perhaps also some strengthening of the police authorities. Such changes would reduce costs instead of increasing them, avoid unnecessary upheaval, and reduce rather than increase political interference. It would certainly reduce central political interference, and we would all welcome that. Crime, as we know, and as others have said, continues to fall, and the chances of becoming a victim of crime are lower than at any time since 1981. If the system is working, why change it-or, as they say, if the system ain't broke, why fix it?
The next question is whether the proposals are sensible. Again, the evidence, comments already made in your Lordships' House and common sense suggest not. This matter has been very adequately covered by others, and I shall not repeat their comments. As to the extra costs, the Minister suggests that this matter will be cost-neutral. I have to say that I disagree. Clearly, other noble Lords have made it very clear that there will be costs involved, and the general view seems to be that the PCCs will cost an additional £100 million a year, or about the cost of 600 police officers. I do not have in my head the numbers of police officers to be cut, but I for one would prefer to see a reduction in cuts in front-line policing rather than wasting precious resources on this new governance system.
The Association of Police Authorities points to the pertinent quote from Robert Peel:
"Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law".
Other speakers have addressed that issue very fully. I simply want to support their remarks.
To introduce a different perspective on the issue, it is perhaps worth noting that the health department has a very different approach to governance from this one. The Minister may find it helpful to consider the approach of her health colleagues. In essence, Health Ministers are seeking to enhance the role of councils of governors with their foundation trusts. These councils are the health equivalent of police authorities, including both elected and nominated individuals representing all sections of the community. Governors are volunteers and the governance system carries a minimal cost. There is no plan in the Health and Social Care Bill to replace these 40 to 50 individuals with a single commissioner.
I want to refer very briefly to the plans for temporary banning orders for legal highs. I welcome the Minister's reference to listening to the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. This is a very pleasant change from the recent past, if I may put it that way. I was glad to hear the Minister's assurance that there will be no possession offence under the temporary controls. Is the Minister aware that the UK Drug Policy Commission will publish in two weeks or so an interesting report recommending a system of regulatory controls over legal highs? I would welcome an opportunity to have a discussion with the Minister about that report and possibly a constructive way forward.
In conclusion, I hope that the Government will reflect on the profound concerns about the PCC proposals and will also consider alternative approaches to the drug issue.