Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench)
I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is not in his place. Had he been there I could have assured him that in 1965, when I was operating on the border between Borneo and Kalimantan, I was equipped with a map that had the words "Here be dragons" on it. Before making my main contribution to this debate, I give notice of two issues that I shall raise in Committee. One has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lady Meacher, namely Clause 153, the question of the advisory council and the amendments proposed to it. In introducing the debate the Minister assured us that the Government were willing to listen to expert advice, yet the Bill proposes that the expert advice that is available to that committee should be dispensed with. It is not only an error but a pity that an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is being included in a Bill with several other clauses rather than being treated as an issue in itself. Secondly, on behalf of the British Transport Police Authority, I shall table some amendments that will strengthen the Bill by increasing co-operation between the authority and other police forces, particularly in counterterrorism and in the run-up to the Olympics.
I must admit that I was surprised, when I looked at the title of the Bill, to see that it was called the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. I could find very little in it that was about police reform. Instead, it was about police responsibility reform, which is not the same thing at all. I was brought up to believe that there is little point in making substantive change to something unless you are absolutely convinced that what you will put in its place is noticeably better, particularly when that process is involved in delivering an operational outcome. The operational outcome is, of course, the policing of this country.
I looked for guidance in the impact assessment that was published on
"What is the problem under consideration?".
I see that the problem is:
"The Government believes policing governance under Police Authorities has become distorted and over-centralised in recent years, leading to a system heavy with bureaucracy, and removed from the public view".
The second question is:
"Why is government intervention necessary?".
The answer is:
"Government intervention is necessary to achieve wholesale change, and to formally provide the public with a participatory role".
That comes from a document signed by the Minister for the Police. I admit that I found those answers slightly thin. You do not have whole Bills merely to achieve wholesale change; you are looking for what this change is all about. What is it doing for us? I looked at the next box, which said:
"What are the policy objectives and the intended effects?".
The answer was:
"To transform the policing landscape in England and Wales by reducing bureaucracy, increasing democratic accountability and getting the public involved in how their streets are policed".
However, the public are already involved in how their streets are policed through the 17 members of the police authorities, nine of whom are elected and eight appointed. That has been so since the 1960s, so what are we talking about?
Then I come to the last box, which asks:
"What policy options have been considered?".
Two have been considered. One is "Do Nothing" and the other is:
"Replace the existing governance framework of Police Authorities".
However, there is a third option, is there not? Surely, if the complaint is that the existing system has become distorted, instead of wholesale change we could look at amending distortion. In particular, as my noble friend Lord Condon has pointed out, we are now in a very difficult situation, not just economically but over the whole question of how the policing structure of this country is constructed and operated. I am extremely concerned that we should be launching ourselves into something as fundamental as is proposed here. It is not that I instinctively object completely to it all, but I ask myself whether it is worth a candle to do this instead of having an option 3. That would be to look at what is currently said to be wrong and see whether there is another way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing away and starting with something completely new and untried, particularly as that new and untried thing includes this extra dimension of increased political oversight of something that, traditionally, has been operationally independent.
Having looked at all that, I then remembered that when I studied for the staff college exam in 1962 one of the set books was the report of the Royal Commission on the Police, published in 1962, which went into the whole question of policing. I remembered it particularly because of a memorandum written by the father of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that dissented from the line put forward, which essentially promoted maintaining the status quo of local police forces. However, Goodhart said, "No, it is time to go national". His reason for saying that it was time to go national was based on a very simple statement that criminals recognise no local boundaries and that many of them travel about the country executing their plans on a big scale. In fighting crime of this kind the police are handicapped unless they can enjoy the advantages of central command, without which no army could hope to win a battle, and small forces are greatly handicapped by their lack of modern technical facilities. I say, "Hear, hear to that". However, that was the situation in 1962. We now have increased electronic complexity added to the whole web of what the police have to deal with. Instead of focusing, as the Bill seems to do, on pointing everything down to the local end and on the local accountability of local policing, which of course is important, surely it makes sense when we are looking at policing in general to have national oversight and what the Minister described as the strategic direction that might come from the Secretary of State.
I have thought about this matter for years, and my conclusions have been reinforced by my personal experience on the streets of Northern Ireland and my experience commanding the United Kingdom field army that was responsible for the defence of this country and for counteracting the effects of natural disasters. I have often thought that it was time to recognise the tensions that are inherent in policing. The tensions are there because essentially policing is a compromise between the national and the local. Neither element is superior; both have to be accommodated. The difficult job that faces our chief constables is the balancing act that they have to perform not only in satisfying the demands with which they are confronted at the national level but in honouring and recognising the local element that is in all their work as they live and work among people on the streets, and it is their well-being that sends out the real message about how successful policing is in their eyes. This tension, caused by compromise, must never be forgotten.
I wonder how an unelected, inexperienced, untrained police commissioner is going to become responsible for producing what are called police and crime plans. Where will they get the education, staffing, experience and background to carry out this very difficult balancing act that chief constables currently have to perform? Surely the role of councils, commissars, commissioners, or whatever anyone calls them, is to support the chief constable and to help and enable him or her to carry out their responsibilities in the part of the country to which they are appointed, however large or small. As I said, I hope that this will be done on a larger scale.
Noble Lords might think that I am talking as a soldier. Fortunately, as a soldier one was not subject to party political interference. We did our job and it did not matter which Government were in charge. I would like to think that the same applies to policing and that party politics should never enter the policing arena. I hope that out of this opportunity that the Government have created to examine what we mean by policing, instead of focusing too much on the reform of responsibility, which has so many red herrings that it will draw people off on all sorts of trails, we get back to the fundamental questions: is our policing system fit for purpose for the 21st century, and have we got the structures and the people in place?
While we are on the subject of people, I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, mentioned leadership, the training of leaders and the identification of them. That is hugely important. One of the reasons why we should consider a national and a local police force separately and recruit people both locally to carry out local community activities and at a national level is because of the complexity of the things that the police have to deal with. You need to recruit, train and manage the career plans of people who will become the experts in these extra activities, which place so many demands on our police.
Therefore, I hope very much that the Bill will turn into a discussion on the reform of the police and not just the reform of the responsibility. To aid us in that I ask the Minister to ensure that the missing paper from the Minister of Prisons is provided before we start Committee so that at least we have firm details of what the Government are proposing.