Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Boateng (Labour)
I very much welcome that almost damascene conversion. I would be the last person to oppose the conversion that the noble Lord has evidenced in his remarks today in support of the Bill. However, I should counsel against the sort of zealotry that often comes with conversions of that nature-the zealotry that cannot find any place in its heart for piloting or the modest proposals for safeguards that have come from noble Lords not only on this side of the House but on his own side. I hope that the Minister, in her response and during Committee, does not exhibit quite the same degree of zealotry that has been exhibited in the noble Lord's speech, because this will be an occasion when the House will need to come together to improve the Bill and try to find common ground where we can find it, while accepting the principle of directly elected political oversight of the police.
I return to stressing the word "oversight" because the bottom line for all of us-certainly for me, as someone who has sought to exercise in the best way that I could the role and responsibilities of Police Minister-is that we must safeguard at all costs the operational independence of the police. That is the bottom line. That is absolutely vital if we are to maintain the best traditions of British policing and to uphold the rule of law.
As we do so, we need, of course, to understand that political oversight brings with it some real advantages, because we would not have seen the reforms that there have been in policing in this country over the past 20-odd years if politicians on all sides of the House and of all political parties had not been pushing and working for the sort of reforms that have made our policing now so much better than it was 20 years ago. I pay tribute to the police, and to a number of noble Lords who sit in this House who have exercised responsibility as operational chief officers of police, for the way in which they have taken the police forward in the course of some very difficult times and in the face of some difficult and hard cases that have exposed real failures on the part of the police. It would be a tragedy if we were to go backwards as an inadvertent result of the proposals in the Bill.
I want to make two remarks on matters to which we will need to return in Committee, and I pay tribute to the two maiden speeches that we have heard this afternoon-those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Newlove. They have touched on two areas in which policing has been found to have failed: diversity and ethnic minorities, and victims and their families. The two speeches were exemplars, in their different ways, of what maiden speeches should be, and were a timely reminder of the need to ensure, as we debate the Bill, that in the exercise of the functions of police commissioner and the composition of the panels we must make sure that victims and ethnic minorities have their concerns taken into account. I certainly hope that we will return to that issue in Committee.
The other issue that we will have to explore with real care is operational independence. It is a matter of concern that we have not, to date, seen the protocols. We will want to see them, examine them carefully and see what the interplay will be between the panels, the police commissioner and the chief constable. As to getting that balance right in the budget, policing policies and priorities, we need to make sure that all three constituent parts of that arrangement are properly equipped, able and resourced to carry out their responsibilities. I do not accept the assurances that we have heard from those on the government Benches that the whole exercise is cost-neutral. If it is cost-neutral, it will be unable to deliver what the Government hope for, because you must resource properly the panels and the police commissioner. If you do not do that, this will be a sham exercise or an exercise that is designed purely to pander in some way to the notion that we have a form of direct accountability, when in fact we do not.
What matters above all else is the principle that Sir Robert Peel sought to enshrine in his version of policing-to recognise always that:
"The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it".
Those words are worth repeating. Those of us in this Chamber who have been politicians know that for us the test is always visible action. That is, frankly, the great danger of some of what is proposed, unless you properly resource the role of panel and commissioner alike, because all our officers-those noble Lords who have had operational responsibility for the police-will tell us that the real test of efficiency is the test that Robert Peel set out. We need to ensure, as we take this matter forward, that it is the Peelian concept that is supported and upheld rather than any other.