Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Viscount Simon (Labour)
My Lords, it is necessary for me to declare that I am an honorary member of the Police Federation of England and Wales roads policing central committee, but your Lordships will be delighted to learn that I will not mention anything about roads policing today.
We have heard the Government say that they are a listening Government, but what concerns me with regard to this Bill is that although they may well listen, will they act on concerns raised when they listen-or am just being too cynical? I do not know. The noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, who is not in his place, has stated his experiences of this earlier.
Page 57 of the Conservative manifesto stated that the Bill needed to,
"replace the existing, invisible and unaccountable police authorities".
Yet, in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, when the other place was considering your Lordships' amendments to the Bill, the Home Secretary, who is now in your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, said that,
"the members of each police authority should continue to choose their chairman and that, in order to stress the independence of the new members, the Home Secretary alone should not select the independent members; but nor should they be selected by the councillor and magistrate members of the authority alone".-[Hansard, Commons, 26/4/1994; col. 112.]
Thereby, that Bill set out procedures to reflect a balance between the influence of the Home Secretary and the influence of the other members of the police authorities.
Where does that leave us with this Bill, and why the change? How will the police commissioners provide a stronger alternative to that which is currently in place? The single commissioner will have no significantly greater powers in statute beyond the powers to make grants. When a police and crime commissioner, or PCC, seeks to change personnel, that person will lose the power, now exercised carefully by police authorities, to appoint and have oversight of the conduct of ACPO ranks below the rank of chief constable.
The appointments of Sue Sim in Northumbria and Sara Thornton in Thames Valley are welcome examples in tackling the historically indefensible record of the police in maintaining the truth that "the public are the police and the police are the public". Since the present system of accountability was established, great strides have been made to develop diversity. It is madness to backtrack on this now and to hive off appointments of those very senior officers charged with delivering public services away from the public. With the proposed changes chief constables will become stronger in that they will have the right to act in their own right rather than with the functions delegated by those in the police authority who are accountable to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, mentioned the number of police forces. As an aside, I am sure he is aware that a number of police forces are now beneficially working closely together although they still have their own chief constables and officers.
The current system allows between 17 and 23 diverse individuals to examine the crime as a whole-from counterterrorism to car crime. And, with this in mind, it is possible for individuals to specialise in particular areas of policing, which a single PCC could never do. However, if a PCC wishes to monitor a particular area of concern, new staff will need to be employed at additional expense, whereas, currently, colleagues within the authority could assist. Even if replacing 17 skilled people with one individual is considered as a solution to a weak system, how will that single person strengthen accountability? And how can one person become expert in what are increasingly complex challenges for all society? I hope that noble Lords will exercise extreme caution when considering this proposed revolution to the British model of policing.
Perhaps I may briefly say a few words about the operational independence of the police under the proposed changes, and the interesting debates that lawyers might have as a result. In the exercise of their powers the police are answerable to the law and to the law alone-so said Lord Denning in R v Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, ex parte Blackburn, in 1968. Since then life has changed. However, what has not changed is the fact that police officers are free from political influence. All of that might change. In some circumstances lawyers might be asked to advise a commissioner and a chief constable respectively about a certain matter, which could well result in both being advised differently. As a result, both lawyers would welcome the Bill as it stands, because the financial rewards for them are there for the picking.