Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill — Report (3rd Day) (Continued)
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, parallel to our discussions on this Bill, the Localism Bill is in Committee. In that, there has been discussion both on a code of conduct and on the need for a standards committee. There has been discussion around whether the code of conduct should be voluntary or statutory-there is a strong view, I think, in your Lordships' House that it should be the latter. On standards committees, which are likely to be abolished under the Bill, I also detected in your Lordships' House strong support for each local council having such a committee.
Irrespective of that, there are two major issues of principle here. The first is the role of audit, which, it is important to bear in mind, is not the same as scrutiny and which has statutory force in local government. The second is that audit should be independently led. The powers currently given to the panels are insufficient to deliver those two principles.
Audit is not just about finance; it is also about a whole range of matters including procurement policy, contracting, managing very large budgets, procedures being followed, human resources policies and equal opportunities. An amendment is being made here which I hope the Government might find helpful. It proposes that audit be fundamental part of the checks and balances we need in relation to a police and crime commissioner. Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause is right in stating that every police and crime panel should deal with complaints and conduct matters, monitor the discharge of the police and crime commissioner's functions and monitor the accounts and audit matters of the relevant police commission, police and crime commissioner and chief constable as the case may be.
The question is whether that task should be undertaken simply by the panel or whether a slightly different structure is needed. I think that a different structure is needed, because audit is an important issue when public money is being looked after. There should be two sub-committees-I refer here to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause-one of which looks specifically at audit and the other at conduct and complaints.
The proposal in Amendment 117 relates to the nature of the independence of the sub-committee. To have someone who is independent and appointed according to Nolan principles chair that sub-committee is important. To have then at least three other independent people, balanced by up to three panel members, means that the public would gain confidence in that structure because they would see that there were more independent members than members of the panel.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that no governance structure lies underneath an elected police and crime commissioner. In other words, there is a perception in the Bill if you simply have direct election of a commissioner there is legitimacy in that. Well, of course there is, but one has to have checks and balances-which the coalition agreement has identified and said have to be strict. Having a clear audit function which is publicly accountable is a matter of fundamental importance; otherwise, those checks and balances cannot be properly delivered.