Clause 78 - Authority for intimate searches

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 8th March 2001.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

In this stand part debate we return to our earlier argument that the Government are wrong to downgrade the rank at which decisions are made from superintendent to inspector. I repeat that I am not decrying the important work of inspectors, many of whom are longstanding friends, including those with whom I worked when I was prosecuting at the Bar and those I have met in my constituency.

A further point that I did not raise in the earlier debate is that the Minister must not only justify the Government's motivation--perhaps it is cost saving, which has been forced on the Home Secretary by the Treasury--but explain why such a huge leap down from superintendent is being made. If the Minister was suggesting a change from superintendent to chief inspector--[Interruption.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. As I have indicated in the past, there are splendid green Benches outside the Room for those who wish to conduct private conversations.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Government's proposed reduction in the required rank, from superintendent all the way down to inspector, is plainly wrong. We might have taken a different view if they had proposed a change from superintendent to chief inspector. In my experience, chief inspectors are senior managers. That is certainly true of those who have responsibility for my constituency. Mentioning that gives me the opportunity to pay tribute personally to Chief Inspector Mick Day, who is one of the most helpful senior officers with whom it has ever been my pleasure to deal. I have the good fortune to know him. He was born and brought up in my constituency, so he knows the area very well—not just because of his police career, but from life.

If the Government had announced a change from superintendent to chief inspector, we might have taken a different view, because people of the calibre of Chief Inspector Mick Day would have been involved. Such police officers are regarded, by me and by many Conservative Members, as senior managers. It is not right to downgrade the required rank. I will be urging my right hon. and hon. Friends to support me in voting to remove clause 78. We think that it is wrong, for the reasons that I have set out, and I will therefore be urging members of the Committee to vote against it.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will be brief. The clause contains an important transition of authority, and clearly does not yet have the confidence of the police. In such delicate areas, when discussing authority for intimate searches, we should not proceed without the assurance that the police are happy about the measure. The public may also be concerned about the matter. They would expect authority to be given by somebody of a rank that they regard as senior. I understand the Minister's arguments, but there has not been sufficient time for agreement to be reached on the clause.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I do not want to speak at length, so I will simply make three points about what has been said. First, I do accept the use of the word ``downgrade'' by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). I do not think that he meant it in any derogatory way, but it is not right to describe what we are proposing as downgrading. We are proposing that in the flexible restructuring of the police force that is currently taking place, such responsibilities are appropriate for inspectors. It is not a matter of downgrading.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman did not suggest in his remarks that the measure is motivated by considerations of cost, but he has done so previously. He is wrong about that—the measure is concerned with the restructuring of the force, in the way that I have described.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister was busy chatting to his ministerial colleague. I did make that point again, but he did not hear it.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I should apologise. Unfortunately, there is a part of me that tends to switch off when the hon. Gentleman is going through the same speech again and again for each clause. I apologise to him and to the Committee if I missed that particular point.

As I said during yesterday's sitting, inspectors are in the unique position of both having the experience and knowledge required to conduct such operations and being available on the ground, with direct knowledge of the situation. That makes them very capable.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Since this is a specific task that the Bill seeks to delegate to police officers of the rank of inspector, would it be reasonable to assume that, in any future assessment of competence, the individual performance of those officers could be assessed against that specific task?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. One of the important sets of proposals in the Bill, which we will consider later today, is that concerned with strengthening the approach to police training, which we hope to do through legislation and with the resources that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been able to allocate to the task in the comprehensive spending review. Our aim is to improve the quality of training precisely to deal with the kind of points that my hon. Friend is raising.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The intervention from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and the Minister's response give me an opportunity to ask a question. On the police, Conservative Members have long been concerned that the Government have concentrated too much on process, at the expense of performance. Does the Minister accept that no sensible organisation could possibly cope with the number of performance targets that this Government have imposed? I know that they recently reduced it from 58 performance targets, which we had savagely criticised in the House, to, I believe, 42. No sensible business organisation has more than three or four performance targets.

The issue that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green raised with the Minister is another instance of concentrating on process. Let the police do the job of policing.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 11:00 am, 8th March 2001

Ironically, the position that the hon. Gentleman takes would have exactly the opposite effect. We want the police, at inspector level, to be able to do these jobs. He is saying that we should not allow that. I do not wish to enter into a general debate on the target-setting process throughout the range of police performance, unless you would especially like me to do so, Mr. Gale.

I can tell the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the Police Federation has doubts about all the changes concerning flexibility, the effectiveness of the developing use of new technologies and so on. That theme recurs, in different places, throughout the Bill. That is not the same as saying that the police service as a whole is against them; it is not. In general, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and the Police Superintendents Association are in favour of the proposed changes. Neither is it the same as saying that we do not take account of the view of the Police Federation. We are ready to discuss such questions with the federation, and do so. In fact, we should like to enhance the level of discussion. However, I am not prepared to say that simply because a position is put forward by the Police Federation, we should not proceed with any reform. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that that is the case. We want to consider the entire situation and to take the overall view of the police service. I hope that the Committee will agree that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.

Division number 35 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 78 - Authority for intimate searches

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 78 ordered to stand part of the Bill.