New Clause 2
Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
Vernon Coaker (Gedling, Labour)
Good afternoon, Mr Chope. I welcome you back to the Chair and members of the Committee back to our last sitting. Unfortunately, judging by the Home Office programme, it seems that we will have more Bills, but I do not know whether we will all be members of the Committees that consider them.
Interestingly, I remember that when the Government were in opposition they said that it was ridiculous for the House to consider so many Home Office Bills in one year. I know that this is their first year in government and they are flushed with enthusiasm and excitement, but I remember being lectured at great length about being unable to scrutinise and plan such Bills properly—but that was in a different era.
The new clause is extremely important. Our debate on the Bill has been interesting—we have agreed with much of it in principle, but have sometimes disagreed, or required clarification, on its detail. That has not been the case with the provision for a single individual to be responsible for a police force, and the establishment of the police and crime commissioners. We will return, on Report, to the matter of one person being responsible for a huge geographical area, about which various concerns have been expressed by a range of stakeholders. It would be interesting if the Minister published all the responses that the Home Office received to that consultation, rather than only a summary. Publishing such a summary is usually a good way of hiding the fact that there has not been much support for a measure.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling, Labour)
Perhaps the Minister will demonstrate that I am wrong by publishing all the responses.
The flaw at the heart of the Bill is that there is no proper check and balance on the work of the police and crime commissioner. I hear that concern everywhere I go. The Minister, people who surround the Prime Minister, and one or two others do not agree, but that does not alter the fact that the vast majority of people recognise that failure and its huge bearing on operational independence. Such concern is shared by the hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Cambridge, judging by the number of amendments that they tabled to strengthen the power of the police and crime panel over the commissioner. The police and crime panel is a toothless watchdog. We have no draft of the memorandum of understanding between the commissioner and the constable on operational independence, which makes the concern even more acute.
People talk about operational dependence. I remind the Committee that the Metropolitan police have stated:
“Accountability is essential to securing an efficient and effective police service, as is the operational independence of Chief Officers.”
The Minister will say that he agrees, but those concerns are real. It has also stated:
“New governance structures must have operational independence as their overriding principle… Chief Officers must have the ‘space’ to do the job they were employed to do”.
Under the new clause, the Minister could say that he understands those fears and concerns, and knows what people are saying, but that they have no need to worry. He could say, “Don’t worry about it. I know there’s a problem, but the Bill sets up the new model in such a way that it won’t cause the problem people think”.
The Minister regards the Association of Police Authority Chief Executives as a dinosaur and its members as people who will not vote for their own demise at Christmas, people who are out of touch and standing in the way of the progressive nature of the new Government determined to bring democratic accountability to policing that has never existed before. I know all about the idealistic out-of-touch vision of where policing should go. Let us consider APACE, a body that the Minister listens to and agrees has greater validity than the Association of Police Authorities, although the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is a great fan of APA and often quotes it in support of his amendments. APACE says that
“There will be issues which the commissioner will consider legitimate in their governance but which chief constables will argue are a matter of operational independence. Examples include a promise to increase visibility of police officers in neighbourhoods or the use of sensitive counter-terrorism powers. Strong governance, together with the minimisation of potential conflict and confusion, will only be ensured by high quality and carefully crafted legislation.”
“commissioner should not be allowed to impinge on that operational side of policing. That is the sort of area that needs to be clarified as the Bill goes through Parliament, to ensure that there is an understanding and that we do not have bickering.”
“The proposed system could therefore incentivize PCCs to seek conflict with Chief Officers”,
alluding to our earlier point about PCCs elected on a particular mandate to pursue a particular style of policing and to encourage chief constables to change how areas are policed.
What are we proposing? The new clause is meant in the spirit of helpful co-operation to the Minister. I shall put it on the record again that it is absolutely essential that the draft or even a draft of a draft of the code of practice defines the responsibilities of the police and crime commissioner, vis-à-vis the chief constable under the new model of governance, and that the Minister has confirmed that he is taking that forward.
Discussions are going on at the Home Office and, presumably, with ACPO and others to develop the draft. I accept that it is not an easy process, none the less it is an essential process. How much easier it would be for the House of Commons to debate whether the Minister has found a way of resolving the tension between the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable if we had the draft in front of us and understood some of the principles that he expects to operate under the new model. Will he give us some idea of the things that will be included in the draft and tell us about some initial thinking?
Will the Minister not just say that he expects the draft as soon as possible, but say when we can expect the draft of the draft? Notwithstanding our difference on the issue, I honestly believe that each member of the Committee is now interested in seeing a copy of the draft. When it comes to the Bill being debated on Report and beyond, people will want more information and certainly a copy of the draft of the code of practice. I understand the problems, but the chief constable of the West Midlands police authority said that it would help the Committee’s deliberations and the understanding of those outside Parliament if the code of practice were available.
The code of practice is of such importance, as is people’s concern about the politicisation of policing. They are worried across the board that the model will lead to politicisation. Under the new clause, when the Minister has moved beyond the draft code of practice identifying the operational independence of chief constables when dealing with police and crime commissioners, it should be laid before Parliament, so that hon. Members and Members of the House of Lords have the opportunity to discuss the draft, with its approval being subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That would give some reassurance to those who have articulated concerns about politicisation.
I do not want to be too long, so I will finish with this thought. Surely, if every police authority, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authority Chief Executives, local authorities and individual Members of Parliament— virtually everyone—are united in their concerns and worries about the new model, the Minister should try to deal with that by adopting the new clause. The alternative is that the code of practice is agreed somewhere, but what scrutiny will Parliament or any Member have over it? Parliament should scrutinise it, because it is of such importance and is such a fundamental part of the new model that the Minister wants.
If the Minister rejects the new clause, it is incumbent on him to explain how the draft code of practice will be arrived at, who will agree it and what process will be followed to bring it about. I say again that I have respectfully and politely asked the Minister to accelerate the production of the draft, so that we can consider it. I cannot say how strongly I feel. I am opposed to the principle of the Bill, but I feel extremely strongly that the draft should be made available to us, certainly before Report, because Parliament is entitled to have it when considering something so fundamental. I respectfully ask the Minister again to tell us when we can expect the draft to be put before us, so that we can see exactly what the new code of practice will encompass.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling, Labour)
I thank the Minister for his reply. I will not return to the PCP. He knows my views on the PCP, and every time I say that it is a toothless watchdog, he gets up and explains why it is not. I did note that he said that it was a valid to comment to make, if someone thinks that the PCP should have more power, which is exactly my point—I think it should have more power, so it is obviously a valid point. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the protocol should not define operational independence. That is a generally accepted point. I also accept his point on not having an artificial timetable.
Before I return to the new clause, I understand that it will take a while to negotiate and come up with something that is not just a draft, but a proposal for discussion and adoption. However, in discussions in Committee, on Report, and when the Bill goes to the other place, we need to see what it will look like. I am not asking for a document to be put before Parliament for agreement; I am asking for a document that will give us some idea of what it will look like and some of the things that it will contain. That would be helpful for the Minister, rather than his talking about this nebulous idea of a protocol, without our being sure of what it is. I know that that will be difficult, and that it will take time to put together and that there will be disagreement and debate. If such a proposal can be drafted, however, it would be helpful.
The Minister recognises the force of what is being said in the new clause, which goes to the heart of the Bill—he will know that from his meetings and discussions with lots of different people. Notwithstanding the model that he is setting up, if he does not get it right, there will be problems. He has agreed that Parliament should be involved in a process—he did not commit himself to what that is—of discussions on the protocol when it is finally put together. I look forward to that, because I think it is important.
I will press the new clause to a vote, because seeing the division of opinion in the Committee on the new clause is an important way of ensuring that we, as a responsible Opposition, keep pressure on the Government to ensure that some of the commitments made by the Minister in what was a reasonably helpful response in many respects are met.