Clause 114

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:30 pm on 27 November 2007.

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Inspection of police authorities

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I beg to move amendment No. 340, in clause 114, page 78, line 6, at end add—

‘(2AA) In carrying out an inspection of a police authority under subsection (2A), the inspectors of constabulary may request one or more other police authorities (or their representatives) to assess any aspect of performance and to make a report.”’.

I ought to declare my “previous” at the beginning: I was formerly chair of a police authority and a member of the Audit Commission, so I have seen the process from both ends.

There is a general view among police authorities that they have no problem with the sort of joint inspection procedure that the Government have mind. Indeed, they see advantages in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary joining forces with the Audit Commission to look at how a police authority discharges its duties.

The reasons for that are fairly clear: a police authority does not fall into the normal category of local authorities that are the subject of Audit Commission work. It is a form of local authority, but it is a very specialist one that deals with areas that are beyond the normal range of matters considered by the Audit Commission because of its policing element. We have an inspectorate—Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—that is specifically charged with looking at policing issues, but nevertheless has little understanding of the issues relating to local authorities. So, putting the two together would produce an inspection regime that would cover all aspects of a police authority’s role.

This has been a long-term objective of the Government. They intended to create the joint procedure in the context of the Police and Justice Act 2006, but the proposal was dropped when there was a substantial change in that Bill on criminal justice inspections and, save for section 29 of that Bill, the matter was put on the back burner, albeit, I believe, with the intention of bringing it back at the first opportunity. This Bill is that opportunity.

I am going to argue against not the principle of the proposal, but the detail in the Bill, because the drafting is somewhat obscure. It relies on people putting together several different enactments in order to see exactly what is proposed. Indeed, if one were to read the Bill without looking at other enactments, one would assume that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was taking over the role of the Audit Commission and excluding it from the inspection role.

I do not believe that that is what the Government intend. My understanding is that they are relying on section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 to give the Audit Commission the power to inspect police authorities, and on section 29 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 to enable Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to act jointly with a public authority—in this instance, the Audit Commission. That forms the structure around which the joint inspections will take place. It would have been better to have expressed that  explicitly in the Bill, rather than people having to hunt around three different enactments to find out what the situation is.

My amendment deals with something that is, to the Association of Police Authorities, a specific omission: peer review. I hope that the Minister will accept that I constructed the amendment myself to provide an opportunity to discuss the matter. The amendment might not be perfect, so I will accept any drafting amendments that he wishes to make, if he accepts the principle.

The peer review element is important. The Association of Police Authorities thought that it had secured the agreement of the Home Office that peer review would form part of the inspection process. It was extremely pleased about that because it had pressed for it for a long time. It felt that if there was to be a robust investigation process putting together HMIC and the Audit Commission, while at the same time giving other police authorities that face the same problems a role in assessing the performance of a police authority, that would give the best guarantee of a successful outcome.

The association is very disappointed that the Bill does not reflect what it thought had been agreed with the Home Office. It might still be the Government’s intention that a peer review should take place, but the statutory basis on which it would be constructed is not clear. It would be better if that were made explicit in the clause, which is why I have tabled the amendment.

I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment or, if he accepts the principle of it, come back with a proposal with an alternative wording. If he feels that that is not necessary because the objective can be secured by other means, it would still be helpful if he were to make it clear to the Committee that it is the Government’s view that peer review should form an essential part of the inspection process. If he were to do that, I would not press my amendment to a Division.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 8:45, 27 November 2007

I apologise to the Committee, but this important amendment would have an impact on police authorities across the country and I need to read my response into the record. When I have done so, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel reassured. Given that my comments will be read by many people, I hope that the Committee will bear with me, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour.

Police authorities play a critical role in securing continuous improvement in the police service, and we need to ensure that they are performing their functions effectively. A systematic process for the assessment of police authority performance would enable judgments and comparisons to be made about performance, help to drive further performance improvement, and make it possible to target support to poorly performing authorities. It is our intention, therefore, to make it possible for inspections to be carried out jointly by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission across the full range of police authority functions.

While the inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission between them will bring to bear wide professional expertise and knowledge of policing and the inspection of police authorities, we agree that police authorities provide valuable experience that should be available as part of any inspection process. We see peer  review by authorities forming an integral part of the programme of inspections carried out by the inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission. However, it is right that legislation specifies at this stage only the bodies that will have responsibility for inspecting authorities and the extent of the inspection process.

Giving an element of the inspection process legislative force, as is suggested by the amendment, would confer unnecessary prominence, reduce flexibility and limit the ability to take account of different circumstances in different police authorities. I would argue that that sort of detail is best set out in the joint inspection framework and methodology that will be developed to inform the work. A protocol will be drawn up by all those involved and will provide a clear basis on which to manage a programme of inspection activities. It will set out the respective roles and responsibilities of all the bodies involved and ensure that all appropriate skills and knowledge are available.

The protocol will be developed with the Association of Police Authorities to ensure that its knowledge and understanding of the work of authorities is reflected. The role of peer review will be spelled out. The inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission are ready to explore how best to bring that into the inspection process.

I might further add that the Home Affairs Committee report on police funding welcomed the development of an inspection framework by the inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission, and supported its speedy implementation. I hope that with my reference to the importance of peer review, the hon. Gentleman will feel sufficiently reassured.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That was an extremely helpful recital of the Government’s position. It is also possible to take perverse pleasure in the fact that Ministers and shadow Ministers can sometimes aggravate Whips who do not provide sufficient time for proper consideration by increasing the length of our consideration of such matters. That is quite apart from the intrinsic importance of the announcement that the Minister just made, but, in both respects, the Minister’s response has been helpful, so I thank him for it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 114 ordered to stand part of the Bill.