Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 12th January 2022.
Moved by Lord Bach
104FA: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—“Police and crime commissioners: limit on age of disqualification for conviction In section 66(3)(c) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, after the first “offence” insert “committed after the age of 21”.”
My Lords, Amendment 104FA stands in my name of those of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. It is hard to think of two more respected, valued and experienced Members of the House, and I know that other noble Lords would be happy to have supported this amendment. I am very grateful to them. I thank the Minister for suggesting a meeting, which we had online yesterday; I am very grateful to him for it. I enjoyed our discussion, and it was particularly good that part of that discussion was with a senior civil servant who is advising him and who, many, many moons ago, advised me when I sat in his place.
In Committee, my amendment was slightly differently drafted, but the point remains a simple matter of principle. It is not of world-shattering interest, but it is still a matter of principle that all people of good will, including the Government, should support. The Bill in the House tonight is a legitimate and timely moment to put right a minor wrong. We should not waste that opportunity. Section 66 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 makes it clear that if a person has at any stage in their life a conviction for any offence which, if they were over 18 at the time, could carry a sentence of imprisonment —whether or not it did carry one is irrelevant—that person will remain ineligible for the rest of their lives to stand as a police and crime commissioner: not just until the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act applies, or for five, 10, 15 or 20 years, but for their whole life.
In Committee, three case histories were given which I hope helped the Committee to feel that the present position is a nonsense. Two of those cases were given by me and one by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, to whom I was grateful. They showed how ridiculous, absurd and unique Section 66 is. There will be other cases that the House will not have heard of. Let me briefly repeat one of those examples. It concerns a boy aged 16 in 1972, and an old scooter. He and his friends visited a hospital. His mate handed him an old scooter helmet, which was apparently completely useless. He foolishly placed it in his family garage. He was charged with handling and fined £5. Since then, it goes without saying that he has never been in trouble. He has had a highly successful career in journalism. He has been head of a regional media outfit and worked for the NSPCC as a communications officer. In addition, he has been a TA soldier for many years and, indeed, was the company sergeant-major. He is a county councillor in his local area and is in his fourth term. He is also an ex-member of the local police authority that existed until the creation of police and crime commissioners. Now that there are PCCs, he is on the police and crime panel, which has authority to hold to account the local police and crime commissioner. One can imagine his surprise when, 40 years on, in 2012, the year of the first police and crime commissioner elections, he was told that he could not stand because of an offence he committed and a conviction he got when he was 16, in 1972. I suggest to the House that that is absurd.
I suppose it could be understood if anyone who had been convicted of such an offence at any stage in their life was considered ineligible to apply for the following jobs: Member of Parliament, councillor, lawyer, judge, Home Secretary, Prime Minister, archbishop—if the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, whom I warned that might mention in passing, will forgive me—or, even more extraordinarily, police officer. If people were prevented from doing those jobs throughout their lives merely because they had a conviction when they were 15 or 16, it would have at least some logic and sense to it, but that is not the position. Each of those important and responsible jobs is open to someone like the example I have given, who may have offended when they were a youngster but have since lived sensible, law-abiding lives. The position is quite rightly much more flexible for those others, so why on earth is it so strict for those who want to be a police and crime commissioner? There is no automatic bar for anybody else, so why should there be for this post? Is there something in the position of police and crime commissioner that is so remarkable —so close to heaven, perhaps I could say—that people must pass this incredible test and, if they fail it when they are 16, they fail it for life? The rigidity is absurd.
Let me make this clearer. No one is suggesting that an adult who has committed offences should be allowed to stand. The current issue around a particular police and crime commissioner alleged—I emphasise that—to have committed other offences as an adult, every one of them a few years ago, is wholly irrelevant to the case I am trying to make. What is relevant to this argument is this utter unfairness in preventing, for all time, someone who as a young person committed an offence from standing as or becoming a police and crime commissioner. This may be a very minor discrimination in the great scheme of things but it is still discrimination. As such, we should be prepared—I would argue in the traditions of this House—to remove such discrimination.
I will finish by returning to my example of the 16 year-old with a scooter helmet. If the relevant police officer in 1972 had decided not to charge him with this offence—a first and minor offence—but to caution him instead, 40 years later he would have been absolutely entitled and eligible to stand and perhaps be elected as a police and crime commissioner. Should an outstanding individual who has served his community for years with distinction and who holds the local police and crime commissioner to account as a member of the police and crime panel have his freedom to stand or not decided by a decision taken 40 years earlier, no doubt on the hoof, as to whether there should be a £5 fine or a caution? Perhaps nothing demonstrates more clearly the irrational and weird state of affairs that exists in this area. It is time for the Government to move on this issue. I beg to move.
My Lords, I respectfully agree with everything the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said. I will add just one point. The problem is not simply the unfairness to the individuals concerned, although that is bad enough, but the damage to the public interest that otherwise eligible and fine candidates are prevented from serving. It is a basic principle of our constitutional law that Parliament can do anything it likes, but there are limits, and we ought to get rid of this manifest absurdity.
My Lords, I too support this amendment; I did at Second Reading. Indeed, I have added my name to the amendment but too late for it to appear on the fifth Marshalled List. The case for it could hardly be simpler or more compelling. Frankly, the illustration of the scooter helmet from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, ought of itself to be enough to carry this. I am against absolutism and total purity and inflexibility routinely, but flexibility and discretion are almost invariably required to be welcomed and valued, and they are here. It is nothing short of bizarre, absurd and conspicuously unfair to single out this one public office as one from which people are uniquely disqualified in the circumstances already sufficiently indicated. I need not waste another word. My only regret is that the amendment is not being put to the vote.
My Lords, I have worked with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for many years in this House —sadly, on opposite sides of it—but I have never heard him make a stronger argument for anything. The only reason why I cannot say that I will support him is because I have not written a little note to my noble friend the Chief Whip.
My Lords, I cannot say that I know many teenagers who, growing up, aspire to be police crime and commissioners. However, I was convinced by the arguments made in Committee and I wanted to just make a couple of additional small points. For me it is not just about unfairness; there is a principle here. If you work with teenagers and one of them has made a mistake and has been fined or has broken the law in some way, you say to them, “Now we want you to rehabilitate and become a fine upstanding citizen”, and, “The world is your oyster and you can do anything.” I cannot imagine anything that is more proof of being fine and upstanding than growing up and then saying, “I want to be a police and crime commissioner.” I do not even know whether I agree with the idea of police and crime commissioners, but that is not my point.
The other thing, on a kind of principle, is that increasingly I would like public servants and people taking on roles such as police and crime commissioners to have some real-life experience—and that might involve youthful indiscretions.
I completely support the amendment. There are principles here that could easily be upheld by the Government simply accepting it; it makes perfect sense. I think even the public would cheer.
My Lords, since I have been gratuitously referred to, I ought to say some words. Archbishop Robert Runcie said, “A saint is a person whose life has never been fully examined.” All our lives have never been fully examined, but I confirm that I never committed any crime at the age of 15 or 16, and have not done even now. Even if I committed one, I am already excluded from becoming an archbishop again because I am now 72. Age would discriminate against me and push me out.
What I do not get is why being a police commissioner is the only calling where there is discrimination if something was done at the age of 16. I would have thought that, 40 years on, the person has done their time. Yes, there is a record but it does not have to be the only thing over which you exclude them, because they have come on in age. In wanting to remove this for police commissioners, we are not sending out a message that it does not matter whether you commit a crime at the age of 16. We are saying: why is there this hindrance to this profession? Because one day I may become a saint and my life will never be fully examined, I want to vote for this amendment. I hope that the Minister will just accept it and it will be put into statute without more debates, because this just does not make sense. But I speak like a fool.
My Lords, as we said in Committee, we are in principle supportive of this amendment. However, we would want in an ideal world a balancing amendment to ensure the possibility of recall and by-election should a police and crime commissioner be found guilty of misconduct, along the lines of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, about the discrimination of early offences. Currently, because police and crime commissioners are democratically elected, they can be replaced only by means of another election, and as things stand there is no mechanism to force such a by-election. It is hoped that a disgraced PCC would resign but this should not be at the sole discussion of the PCC concerned. Therefore, we are reluctant to support the amendment without another along the lines of the one described earlier. My noble friend Lord Paddick says that he thinks it is unfortunate that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, did not take the hint that he gave him in Committee.
My Lords, I will be brief. I recall that the Minister said in Committee on this amendment
“I fear that my ice thins a little here”.
One can only say that I think it has got even warmer since then. The Government said in Committee:
“Having said all that, I have heard everything that has been said around the Chamber this evening, across party, and I will make sure that those arguments are reflected back to the Home Office.”
What happened when those arguments were then reflected back to the Home Office, to whom in the Home Office were they reflected back to, and what was the response?
The rules on previous convictions, which the Government said in Committee were necessary to ensure
“the highest levels of integrity on the part of the person holding office and to protect the public’s trust in policing” do not seem to have been very effective or relevant in North Yorkshire on two occasions already where two different PCCs have already departed the scene in interesting circumstances.
I conclude, in indicating our support for this amendment and thanking noble Lords for all the arguments and points made, that in Committee the Government referred to part 2 of the review of police and crime commissioners. They said that it is “currently under way” and that
“this review will also assess the benefits and demerits of a trigger mechanism for the recall of PCCs; it is being debated.”—[
Will this part of the review of PCCs also now look at the issue of the current bar, in its present form, on a potential candidate being able to stand for the position of police and crime commissioner, which is the issue we are debating tonight? If the Government cannot even say that this will now be included in part 2 of the review, what is the reason for that stance?
I very much hope, like my noble friend Lord Bach, that the Government will accept this amendment, or at the very least agree to reflect on it further prior to Third Reading so that it can be brought back again if the Government’s reflections are not very satisfactory.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for giving us a further opportunity to discuss the disqualification criteria for those wishing to be elected as police and crime commissioners and for joining the meeting yesterday when we discussed this issue online. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate and, to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I do fear my ice is rather thinner.
However, this latest amendment would allow anyone convicted of an imprisonable offence before the age of 21 to stand as a police and crime commissioner. I commend the noble Lord for seeking some middle ground to address this issue, but the amendment would still dilute the current high standard of integrity we expect of PCCs—namely, preventing anyone convicted of an imprisonable offence to stand for or hold the office of PCC.
As I said on this matter in Committee, the rules governing who can stand as a PCC are the strictest of all elected roles in England and Wales. We believe that this is necessary to ensure the highest levels of integrity of the person holding office and thus protect the public’s trust in policing. Any dilution of that high standard, as proposed by the noble Lord, could still undermine public confidence in a PCC.
Under the noble Lord’s amendment, it would be open to a person convicted of and imprisoned for a very serious violent offence at the age of 20, for example, to stand for election as a police and crime commissioner. That is inappropriate, given the nature of the role the PCC plays in holding the chief constable and the force to account. I suggest that were a PCC to hold office with a previous conviction for an imprisonable offence, both the PCC and the chief constable may find it untenable to maintain a professional and respectful relationship.
The current standard was set with cross-party agreement and the support of senior police officers. If the current standard is lowered, the Government maintain that it would be a very serious risk to public confidence and the integrity of the PCC model at a time when we should be doing all we can to protect and increase public confidence in the police.
I recognise that there are contrary views on how strict the eligibility rules for PCC candidates should be in relation to previous convictions. At the very least these require further debate and, as noble Lords will be aware, we are conducting a review of PCCs, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. We have already published the findings of part 1 of the review and we aim to publish the conclusions of part 2 in the coming weeks. In answer to his specific questions, that is where I got to with my deliberations with the Home Office.
In answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, I think part 2—I will come back to her if I am wrong on this—involves looking at powers of recall. Some of the review’s recommendations will require legislation, which we will bring forward when parliamentary time allows. That would afford the noble Lord a further opportunity to raise this issue.
To conclude, the Government remain firmly of the view that the current disqualification criteria should remain and any dilution risks undermining public confidence in policing. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him this question? Why is it that public confidence requires, in his view, this absolute rule, when I can serve as a Supreme Court Justice even if I was convicted of an imprisonable offence at the age of 17 or 18?
With regard to public confidence, I go back to what I said earlier: this was originally designed with cross-party support and with the assistance and advice of police chiefs.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I have a response to my question? Bearing in mind that in Committee the Government were prepared to tell us that part 2 of the review will
“also assess the benefits and demerits of a trigger mechanism for the recall of PCCs; it is being debated,”—[
I am sorry I forgot to answer the noble Lord’s specific question. The problem is that I do not have the terms of reference to hand so I cannot give him the assurance he seeks, but I will write to him.
The noble Lord told the House that we agreed on a cross-party basis that these arrangements were appropriate. Was that by means of a vote or did we just acquiesce to it?
I am afraid I do not know. It predates me, sorry.
Is it the Government’s view that, by retaining the ban—as it is at the moment—for PCCs, there would be a case for extending it so that, if it should emerge that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, committed an imprisonable offence before the age of 21, he should be barred from becoming a Supreme Court judge? Does one thing not follow the other?
The noble Lord will forgive me for not venturing an opinion on that.
I forgive the Minister anything. I was in his position many years ago when I had to defend the completely indefensible. All Governments do it; it is not an attack on this Government. Somehow there is a collective—I am going to use the word “idiocy”, which is perhaps too high, but collective mistakes are made. Individual Ministers know very well that something such as this should be got through easily and the matter of principle—the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is right—can be put right and we can move on. But somehow, “The Government say no”.
I do not think any of the reasons so articulately put by the Minister really hold water at all to be honest, particularly the argument on the public being really offended by something such as this and losing what confidence they have—which I hope is high but may not always be—in police and crime commissioners. I do not honestly think the public would care a jot and, if they did, they would be surprised by how the law stood. I have to say that I do not find placing reliance on part 2 of the inquiry, and particularly on when legislation might come to this House again on this matter, very convincing.
We have a lot of important business to do tonight—I understand that. I am reluctant to withdraw, given the strength of feeling—and I want to thank everybody who has spoken in this debate; very distinguished Members of this House have spoken, and I am really very grateful to them. However, in the circumstances, while inviting the Minister to take this issue back to the Home Office again and to show other Ministers and officials what was said tonight in Hansard, I hope that it may move the Government to do the right thing on this before very long. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 104FA withdrawn.
Amendment 104FB not moved.