Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Second Reading
Lord Rosser (Labour)
My Lords, we have had a lengthy and interesting debate. We have also had the pleasure of hearing three informative, knowledgeable, and at times moving, maiden speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Newlove, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, which have rightly drawn much praise. I both hope and expect that they will all be regular contributors to debates in your Lordships' House.
There are some parts of the Bill which we can support in general terms. These are: the alterations to existing powers for licensing authorities and other responsible bodies with regard to alcohol licensing; the new regulations governing protest in Parliament Square; the new powers for the regulation of drugs; and the provision for the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant is issued for universal jurisdiction offences. We will, though, want to probe further into the detail of the Government's proposals on these provisions in Committee, particularly in the light of some of the comments made in this debate.
Most of those who have spoken on the issue have either been directly opposed to the principal provision of the Bill-namely, the elected police and crime commissioners-or have expressed strong and powerful reservations about the proposal and its potential implications. One of the concerns is: what exactly will the police and crime commissioners do if they are not, as claimed, going to become involved in operational matters? The Bill sets out the basic duties of the post, which hardly add up to a well paid, full-time job, unless, of course, the appointment, suspension and dismissal of the chief constable is to become a regular event, or police and crime plans and objectives are to be changed every five minutes in order to create a job.
We currently have police authorities which meet at regular intervals but not exactly every day. We have an individual who is the chair of the police authority but it is not normally a full-time position. If the police and crime commissioner is not going to be involved in operational matters, will the Minister set out exactly what duties and responsibilities the commissioner will be taking over from the chief constable, what duties and responsibilities he or she will be taking over from the chair of the police authority and the members of the police authority, and what duties and responsibilities will be entirely new and are not undertaken by anyone at all at the present time? Is the reality that much of the work of the police and crime commissioners will simply be duplicating work which the chief constable and his senior team already do, and will in effect create a further management layer with the need for further papers, reports and attendance at meetings by senior police officers who should be spending as much of their available time as possible leading the fight against crime? Is it the undeclared intention that the role of the police and crime commissioner will be extended at some later stage to other areas of the criminal justice system such as, for example, the probation and prison services, or even the local courts service?
What exactly will be the position in London? The Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime, which sounds a bit like a quango, will have the same powers as a police and crime commissioner, so will the mayor be the commissioner or will the commissioner in reality be a mayoral appointee, in which case what has happened to the Government's much vaunted concept of the need for directly elected commissioners?
To whom will the police and crime commissioners be accountable during their period of office? It does not look as though there will be the equivalent of a Parliament, an Assembly or a local council with the power to accept or reject key proposals or changes that the commissioner wishes to take, or to hold the commissioner to account. Where is the check on inappropriate or overenthusiastic use of power by a single individual? It will certainly not be with the toothless police and crime panels-the PCPs that will be the police commissioner's poodle-which, even in their own limited area of power, will need 75 per cent of all their members, not even just those present, to send back the commissioner's proposed precept. Current police authorities are executive committees, but police and crime panels will be scrutiny bodies without executive powers. It appears, in reality, that the only person whose approval the commissioner needs to seek is himself or herself.
Those who may consider that elected national politicians have already politicised the police will be in for a shock when they realise the degree of party politicisation that single elected police commissioners will bring. If the intention is that the operational independence and impartiality of the police will not be put at risk, what is the Government's definition of operational independence? The Government have said that they will produce a memorandum or protocol that will set out the terms of agreement on the relationship between the new elected police and crime commissioners and chief constables to ensure that operational independence is protected. Typically, the Government have failed to produce the document in time for today's Second Reading. That is presumably because the Government, despite claiming that operational independence will be protected, do not yet know what the words they have uttered mean in reality. That is a not dissimilar situation to their lengthy silence when we asked them to define what they meant by the front-line policing that they asserted would be protected from cuts.
Does operational independence include decisions on how many police officers are required to be on duty for particular demonstrations, marches and protests? Does operational independence include the police tactics to be deployed on such occasions? Does operational independence include, within the parameters of an overall budget, the number of officers and civilian staff to be employed on the variety of different activities that a police force undertakes? Will a police and crime commissioner be able to dismiss or remove a chief constable when the issue or issues that have caused difficulty would appear to any reasonable person to relate to a chief constable's unwillingness to carry out instructions from a commissioner on an operational issue?
Will not the reality be that we will find ourselves with police and crime commissioners who have won an election, but have yet to find a role? In trying to create a full-time job for themselves-incidentally, how many staff is it anticipated they will have, and at what cost?-they will seek to usurp the responsibilities of those senior police officers who currently manage and run our police forces and, in so doing, create a lot of frustration and conflict, as well as unnecessary and unjustified duplication and additional bureaucracy. The reality, as has been said on many occasions today, is that a commissioner who has the power to dismiss will always have the whip hand over a chief constable on issues regarding what is or is not deemed to be an operational matter.
For what purpose is all this being done? The level of crime reduced steadily by more than 40 per cent over a number of years under the previous Government, and confidence in the police is at a high level. That is not bad for police authorities that suffer the allegedly overwhelming defect of not having a chair or members who are widely known to the public. What exactly is it that is so deficient about the present structure that demands the introduction of police and crime commissioners and the potential politicisation of policing and dealing with crime, which should be independent and impartial? Are the imposition and additional costs of directly elected police and crime commissioners the Government's thank you to police officers and police civilian staff throughout the country for their success in reducing and tackling crime, for facing cuts in numbers and for facing pay and conditions being managed down?
The argument is that policing and crime have a significant impact on people's lives. The current arrangements of police authorities provide a level of accountability that includes a majority of locally elected council representatives, which should not simply be swept aside. People want managerial competence, an efficient and effective service, and an ability to have a say over what happens in their immediate locality-an ability that has been enhanced by community partnership working, and by the introduction of neighbourhood police community support teams, which spend time keeping in direct contact with those who live and work in their neighbourhood to make sure that they are aware of their principal concerns on crime and policing issues.
People do not want the politicisation and fragmentation of the police service because not all policing matters affect only one area or county. Counterterrorism and kidnap activity do not respect police authority boundaries, or at times even national boundaries, any more than do drug trafficking, human trafficking, e-crime and cybercrime. Co-operation between forces is vital, and the Association of Chief Police Officers does much good work in this area.
What will be the attitude of an elected police and crime commissioner who believes that his or her prospects of popularity and re-election will depend on allocating resources and on trying to deliver on promises made, however unlikely, during an election campaign, rather than on directing their resources at major national or international crimes that may not have an obvious immediate impact in their own area? We do not want more than 40 separate police service silos, but that is what we risk getting, and the Government certainly have not explained how the strategic policing objectives will ensure that this cannot happen.
The creation of police and crime commissioners will enable the Government, having made significant cuts in police budgets, to seek-in vain, I suspect-to wash their hands of any responsibility for the incidence of crime and how it should be addressed, on the basis that that is the responsibility of the elected police and crime commissioner. The approach will be similar to that adopted towards local government, where they reduce the amount of money received by local authorities and then seek to blame them when the inevitable happens and important services are cut or reduced.
We have seen the Government decide, following almost universal criticism of their proposals for the National Health Service, to take time to reflect on their position before proceeding further. A similar period of reflection on the proposals for police and crime commissioners would not come amiss. They will not make policing work easier. They will cost money that could be better spent on more police officers fighting crime. The election of police and crime commissioners will potentially politicise the work and activity of each and every police force, threatening the perception of the police as being impartial and independent in dealing with and fighting crime.
The work of policing will be further politicised if elected police and crime commissioners, elected local authority members or elected mayors have public spats with each other over where responsibility and accountability lie for levels of crime or the incidence of particular types of crime. Reducing and fighting crime requires a crucial partnership approach between the police and local authorities. Having different arms of that partnership under different political leadership, with different priorities and objectives, will jeopardise and not enhance successful partnership working, and with it the continuation of the reduction in the incidence of crime.
My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath referred to the absence of a Green Paper, pre-legislative scrutiny, an impact assessment on the proposals for commissioners from HMIC, proposals for referenda on the introduction of PCCs and any provision for pilot schemes. The Government should think again. The continuation of effective, impartial and non-politicised policing is more important than delivering, without due regard or consideration of its consequences and implications, what appears to have become a pet project of at least one half of the present Government.