My Lords, police and crime commissioners have brought local accountability to how chief constables and their forces perform, and work hard to ensure that their local communities have a stronger voice in policing. As the Home Affairs Select Committee recognised in its March 2016 report, PCCs are here to stay and their introduction has worked well.
Is my noble friend the Minister aware of what has prompted this Question, namely the Wiltshire Police investigation into Sir Edward Heath and the way in which it was conducted by the then chief constable, Mr Mike Veale? The police and crime commissioner has the power, and some would say the duty, to commission an independent inquiry but, for reasons I do not understand, he has set his face against doing so. Does this not make a mockery of the policy that chief constables are accountable—and should be seen to be accountable—to their commissioner? There really is a need for an independent inquiry.
I certainly understand why my noble friend has brought this Question forward today, and I understand the frustration felt by him and other noble Lords on this matter. A few noble Lords came to see me about this issue and I wrote to them outlining the position on it. I also wrote to the PCC of Wiltshire and I will outline the position again today. Under Section 79 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, the Secretary of State has issued a policing protocol which PCCs and chief constables must have regard to when exercising their functions. This protocol provides scope for a PCC to commission an independent review into a force’s investigation to assist that PCC in their statutory duty of holding the chief constable to account. I could not have made the Government’s position on this clearer, and thank my noble friend for his Question.
My Lords, I refer the Minister back to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, on
“the Chief Inspector of Constabulary is the person to whom a Government should look for an inquiry to begin into whether this has been done properly”.—[
Was that followed up by the Minister? She has now come up with an alternative of a protocol, which I understand can probably be ignored by police commissioners if they choose to do so. Finally, is not the reality that this Government have stood by, watched and witnessed the total destruction and trashing internationally of the reputation of a former Prime Minister? That is quite outrageous.
I recall the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Blair. If I recall, I answered at the time that the route for such an inquiry would be through the PCC. The position is no different now. The police are operationally independent of the Government and that is the route.
My Lords, may I make it absolutely clear that the Government can take further action? The whole legal system is based on the Government intervening at a higher level when something is transparently wrong. Give or take the fact there are protocols, I am quite sure that the Government could commission a judge-led inquiry into this appalling report on Sir Edward Heath. I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours; it is a disgrace and pathetic that the Government have not acted long ago.
My Lords, I repeat the assertion that I made earlier: the police are operationally independent of government. On this matter it would be for the PCC, perhaps in conjunction with the chief constable, to commission an inquiry.
I know that the PCC has been in correspondence with other noble Lords. I am reluctant to talk about individual correspondence at the Dispatch Box. I am sure the noble Lord will understand why that is, but I think he will also understand why this Question has come up again today.
My Lords, I would like to broaden this out. Can the Minister explain how party-politically aligned police and crime commissioners can effectively hold chief constables to account? We have a situation at the moment with Labour and independent police and crime commissioners blaming central government real-terms cuts to police budgets for reductions in policing services, while Conservative police and crime commissioners toe the Conservative Party line, claiming that budgets are being maintained. Who is really to blame for drastic cuts in police numbers? Is it inefficient chief constables or is it the Government?
My Lords, there certainly are PCCs who stand under party-political banners. There are also independent PCCs. I do not think that there are any Lib Dem PCCs, although the Lib Dems are very good at political campaigning. It is for PCCs to hold their chief constables to account. It is also for police and crime panels to scrutinise PCCs, and they do.
We will hear from the noble Lord on the Conservative Benches. If he is quick, we will have time and will go over to the Greens.
My Lords, those of us who had concerns about the appointment of these commissioners are doubly concerned now because of the behaviour of the Wiltshire commissioner—and that of the Cleveland commissioner, who has sanctioned the appointment of the police chief who acted so deplorably and so manifestly unfairly. Can we not have a review of the whole system?
My Lords, people can always bring out individual reasons why such a move is not the best, but HASC in 2014 and 2016 praised the advent of the police and crime commissioner for visible accountability and leadership on the appointment of chief constables. That is for the individual forces to do through an open and transparent appointment process.