Committee (1st Day)
Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
3:39 pm

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond

Baroness Harris of Richmond (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, before moving the amendment, I will take the opportunity to welcome my noble friend the Minister to her new post. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we are looking forward to having a constructive and amicable working relationship with her.

Amendment 1 would remove the elected police and crime commissioner-the PCC-for each police area. Amendment 10 in the group refers to the PCC being a "corporation sole". This would be replaced by the corporate body envisaged in Amendment 31. Amendment 11 and 12, also in the group, relate to the PCC being directly elected and would become obsolete if the PCC is appointed by the police and crime panel, the PCP, as envisaged in my proposed new clause put forward by Amendment 31, which would create a police commission. I hope it will be helpful if I indicate that I believe that all the amendments are consequential.

First, I declare an interest as a former police authority chair and a former vice-chair of the Association of Police Authorities. I am currently vice-president of that association. In the past, I have also been a member of the regional crime squad in my area and of the Service Authority for the National Crime Squad, and I have served on a number of policing bodies such as the PNB and the PAB.

The amendments ask a number of important questions. First, they provide a chance before we move on to the detail of the Bill to pause and ask ourselves whether we really understand what we are changing and why; and, above all, whether we fully appreciate what the consequences of that change will or could be. I am not against change, but if it is to be positive it needs at the very least to do more good than harm, and preferably it needs to demonstrate that what it creates is better than what came before. I am very concerned that the evidence base for making this change is incredibly thin, and that the consequences of implementing it have not been thoroughly researched or properly thought through.

The Bill changes a very precious thing. The British police service is the envy of the world. We should all pay tribute to the dedicated and professional officers and staff who contribute daily to making it so. However, part of the success story concerns how it is structured and how it is governed. Since the first British police force was set up by Peel, it has been faithful to the principles that the police are the people and the people are the police; that the police are absolutely impartial and serve only the law; and that the police service is not and never has been an organ of the state. Neither does it serve political or partial interests. It has always comprised local forces governed by local people and free from political interference.

These principles are reflected in the doctrine of operational responsibility for chief officers, and in the way in which police governance has evolved into a tripartite structure comprising chief officers, police authorities and the Home Secretary. In theory, each balances and keeps in check the powers of the others. The Home Secretary sets the national framework within which policing operates. Police authorities are responsible for local governance, set local direction and have substantial local democratic, independent and judicial elements. Then there are chief officers who are responsible for local delivery and operational direction. This is a very delicate balance, which has evolved over time, but it has broadly stayed true to the basic principles of localism and impartiality. It may not have always been perfect, but where problems have arisen, they have been corrected, most recently by the creation of police authorities in their current form in 1995. This reform introduced independent members to police authorities to overcome concerns about local political interference in policing in some areas.

More recently, there has been criticism that the powers of the centre have been too much strengthened at the expense of local influence and, particularly, local governance. If that has been so, one might suggest that the most obvious solution is the reduction of the power of the centre, not the wholesale reform of the local governance structure. My main point here is that this is a very delicate and carefully crafted balance, and we had better be very sure that in changing it we are not so badly unbalancing the structures that we capsize the whole ship.

Where is the evidence base that these proposals will work? They are certainly not in America. For those of us who have heard the very eloquent speeches of Jessica de Grazia, the former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, this looks very like a model with American credentials. In a speech to cross-party Peers last week, she said:

"the fundamental question to be asked about this bill is will it improve British policing? Will it make it make the police more sensitive to the law enforcement needs of diverse localities? Will it improve on the ability of the police to maintain public order? To conduct impartial and robust investigations? Will it lead to reductions in crime? The only evidence base the government has presented is the success of Bill Bratton, an American chief constable, in implementing innovations that reduced crime dramatically in the 1990s. However, crime has been dropping steadily in the UK and some of its Chief Constables are the equivalent of Bill Bratton.

Proponents of the Bill believe it will deliver democratic accountability and localism. There are many routes to democratic accountability and localism. Police Authorities, as currently constituted, are a form of democratic accountability. Neighbourhood policing is a tactic that creates localism".

Secondly, as a former councillor, I have nothing against democracy and elections, but I think we should ask whether direct elections are the best way to ensure that the police service is more accountable to its communities or whether this approach could, in fact, have perverse results. The system is set up so that the electorate holds to account the person who holds the police to account. It is possible that this will not be well understood and will raise unrealistic expectations among the public, who might think that they can hold the police chief to account directly. The police could also become accountable only to the people who vote, so that the people who do not-often the vulnerable, minorities and the disadvantaged-have no say at all in policing. What effect will this have on confidence in policing?

We can contrast this with the current system in which we have 17 or more police authority members whose main job is to engage with local people to ensure that their views are reflected in the way they are policed. An elected PCC may conclude that it is not worth the bother if there are no votes in it.

My biggest concern is about putting so much power in the hands of one person in the form of the police and crime commissioner. There are so many questions here. Do we really understand all the legal implications of making both the PCC and the chief officer a corporation sole? I am not a lawyer, so I do not, but I hope that some of my more learned noble colleagues can answer this. Do we understand all the practical implications of putting one elected politician in charge of this new structure? Can one person in the form of a PCC really do such a big job for such a large area and truly represent, and be answerable to, all its communities in a meaningful way? Can a PCC really do this better than the 17-plus police authority members whom they will replace? Is this really the very best we can do? Is it in the best interests of policing for the whole country? If there is an unequivocal yes to these questions, I ask again: where is the evidence? Certainly, none was forthcoming at Second Reading. If there is doubt about the answer, should we not pause to reconsider what we are about to do? A host of future amendments will address these matters in greater detail.

Thirdly, I would observe that the Government's Green Paper on policing led us to believe that the tripartite was being rebalanced to redress perceived weaknesses, in particular the overcentralisation of powers in favour of local governance. Yet the Bill contains a number of new regulation or order-making powers for the Secretary of State and gives fewer powers to PCCs than police authorities have at the moment. This seems a faintly absurd situation, no doubt resulting from the perceived need to limit the powers of an individual PCC and to provide many checks and balances against them. However, if the Government were concerned that police authorities were too weak, how are PCCs, with fewer powers and subject to greater central regulation, going to do any better?

Fourthly, another consequence of this drive to limit the dangers of too much power residing with one person is the proposal to set up a police and crime panel to scrutinise the PCC and a new role for the IPCC to investigate serious complaints against the PCC. This all seems to add new layers of bureaucracy and regulation, so I query why we are swapping a largely self-regulating body, in the form of a police authority, for an individual who needs to be regulated by several other bodies to curb the way in which he or she might use powers inappropriately.

My Amendment 31 would address all these points by bringing the PCC and the PCP into a single corporate body that would have joint responsibility for governing policing, with the one providing a check and a balance for the other.

For all the reasons listed above, I would like reassurance and the views of other noble Lords about whether we really appreciate what we are doing in this Bill and whether we have properly considered all the consequences. I dare say, given my long association with the Association of Police Authorities, that the Minister is tempted to remind the Committee that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, as her colleagues observed in the other place. I stress that I am not against all change. I am certainly totally in favour of giving people, all people, more say in how they are policed. However, I remain genuinely concerned that this Bill will not do that and will instead give rise to great risks for policing. Yes, the electorate can throw out PCCs after four years, but that is a very long time in policing as well as in politics. Irreparable damage might by then have been done to the precious and world-recognised jewel that is British policing. I beg to move.

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