Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 8:00 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, Amendment No. 12 has been debated before in Committee. Clause 12 addresses the important but detailed issues of police accounting and audit arrangements. We are extremely grateful for the assistance that the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has provided to us in discussing the detail of those important arrangements.

Amendment No. 12 requires the board, as the noble Baroness very fairly said, rather than the Chief Constable, to keep proper accounts and records but enables the board to delegate its functions if it chooses to do so. That would continue the present position, whereby the policing board's chief executive is the accounting officer for the police grant as well as the authority's own grant which Patten said should be changed in his 43rd recommendation.

The Government introduced the change recommended by Patten to require the Chief Constable to sign off the accounts in respect of the money he receives from the board. The Government support Patten's recommendation because it contributes to clarifying the role of the Chief Constable as the manager of the police service and the board as regulator.

Clause 12 still requires the Chief Constable to submit his accounts to the board (not the Secretary of State) and Clause 12(2) makes it clear that the function is being exercised by the Chief Constable on behalf of the board. The board is not circumvented; its financial accountability role is not diminished; and it can still scrutinise the police accounts to a level it considers appropriate to discharge its duties. I assure the noble Baroness that there will be a code of financial management as robust as the present one. I assure her also that the Government intend the board to have a strong internal audit role. Indeed, the best value provisions of the Bill will enhance the board's ability to assess whether police expenditure is being made effectively, efficiently and economically.

The board does not need to do the actual detailed record-keeping to exercise its role of financial accountability in respect of the police. The Chief Constable, under Clause 10, will have to submit estimates of police expenditure to the board for its approval. The money, under Clause 9, goes to the board to distribute to the Chief Constable and it will exercise detailed financial controls in doing so as the Police Authority for Northern Ireland does at present. That is not an arrangement which leaves the board without power. On the contrary it gives it control, which is one of the critical issues.

I would also quote the Chief Constable's useful comments in response to Patten's Recommendation 43 which were as follows:

"No objection, although this recommendation seems to be on the basis that the Commission regards such an arrangement as improving visible accountability. Under current arrangements the Chief Constable already formally signs off final police accounts. These are then consolidated with the Police Authority accounts and signed off by the Chief Executive, as the sub-accounting officer. As the police budget will continue to be delivered through the Police Board and this is the body to whom the Chief Constable is primarily financially accountable, no change is anticipated in the process whereby end of year accounts are submitted through the Board. It is accepted that the proposed arrangements introduce a formal process, through which the Chief Constable might be called before the Public Accounts Committee, although he undoubtedly could be so called under present arrangements".

Noble Lords will see from that response that the Chief Constable does not believe that his financial accountability to the board is diminished by this change.

In a moment, I shall deal with the Chief Constable contracting out, or who contracts, which is a question that I must answer in the course of my remarks.

That change, albeit a small one, is part of the new beginning recommended by Patten. We must move forward and not simply stick to current arrangements because that is the way that things have always been done.

As to who will enter into contracts with the Chief Constable, the board will sign contracts for the police as the Police Authority for Northern Ireland does at present.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for raising those issues and, as I said before, for the genuine assistance which she has given, which we have found very helpful. I hope that she will read the detailed response that I have given in relation to this amendment and that, in the mean time, she will withdraw it.