New Clause 4

– in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 3rd February 2009.

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Responsibilities of police authorities

‘(1) Each police authority will have the ability to determine its own local precept agreement with the relevant local council or councils as appropriate to its individual requirements.

(2) Each police authority will have the ability to determine its own fiscal priorities in accordance with its individual requirements.

(3) The Secretary of State may not give unsolicited directions to police authorities on local precepts, minimum budgets or fiscal priorities.

(4) Each police authority has a duty to consult with the Secretary of State, and to take account of national policing authorities.

(5) The Police Act 1996 is amended as follows.

(6) In section 6(2) (general functions of police authorities), leave out paragraph (a).

(7) In section 6(2)(c) leave out “whether in compliance with a direction under section 38 or otherwise”.

(8) In section 6 subsection (3) is omitted.

(9) For section 37A (setting of strategic priorities for police authorities) substitute—

“Policing objectives

Each individual police authority must determine objectives for the policing of their own local area.”

(10) For section 38 (setting of performance targets) substitute—

“Where an objective has been determined under section 37, the relevant police authority shall establish levels of performance (performance targets to be aimed at in seeking to achieve the objective).”

(11) Section 39 (Codes of Practice) is repealed.

(12) Section 41 (Directions as to a minimum budget) is repealed.

(13) Section 44 (Reports from Chief constables) is repealed.

(14) The Local Government Act 1999 is amended as follows.

(15) In section 31(9) (major precepting authorities: further recognition), after “1992”, insert “, but excluding police authorities and the Metropolitan Police Authority”.’.

At the time we broke, we were in a middle of the debate, and Julie Kirkbride had the floor.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con) rose—

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She raised a small point in her comments before we broke that niggled me at lunchtime. She referred to some Welsh forces’ obsession with dealing with speed. I know what point she was trying to make, but does she agree that when investigations show that speed was clearly a contributory factor in the deaths of 700 people in 2007, resources must be directed to ensure that we save lives by restricting something that can be restricted?

Photo of Julie Kirkbride Julie Kirkbride Conservative, Bromsgrove

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I am glad that he has got it off his chest, if it was troubling him during lunch. I have a great deal of sympathy with his point. My own family has experience of a fatal road traffic accident, so I know only too well how heartbreaking they can be. I am glad to put it on record that resources certainly need to be applied to traffic and speeding enforcement.

My point, to reprise quickly what I was saying, is that there is a democratic deficit in police representation of all the views in the community. My concern involves exactly such cases as when a chief constable has a bee in his or her bonnet about a particular issue. Accountability from the public’s point of view as to whether that is the correct priority is somewhat unclear. It must go through the police authority, which may be happy with how precious, scarce resources are being spent. Despite the speech made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield, who called for communities to be allowed to raise as much of  their own resources as they see fit, resources will always be limited, because the public have only a certain appetite for paying taxes and have other priorities. Policing must live within its means and decide on its priorities. The question is, how do the public make those priorities their priorities, and what accountability is there in respect of the police having to ensure that that happens?

As all parties have agreed that there is a problem of democracy and representation, it is disappointing that the Government have come up with a damp squib after they had suggested that they would do something more exciting. To be fair to the Government, I agree that it is a difficult and complicated area of public services to reform and that we need to proceed with caution. Democracy is highly desirable, but it could have some malign consequences if reform does not proceed as we would like it to.

One of the questions brought out in this morning’s debate was, “If we were to democratise police accountability, how would we organise that?”. The first problem is the police force area. In some places it is very distinct and clear-cut: it is a county force, there is already a county council, everyone sees a community of interest and it becomes much clearer to administer. In my constituency, it crosses county boundaries. It is not obvious that people in Bromsgrove have a community of interest with other parts of the West Mercia force area. It is therefore more difficult to find one person who can speak for everybody and in whom everybody has confidence.

Similarly, that one person who might seem to represent a police force area could, in foreseeable circumstances, be encouraged to inflame incidents to attract votes come the all-important election. That leads to the question of when the elections should be. Should they be tied to other local authority elections? What turnout would we expect, hope or desire to achieve? Were they to be stand-alone elections, turnout would be a worry to anyone interested in democracy, because there is often a disappointing turnout at local authority elections and occasionally even at general elections. If the public had not bought into the idea of electing their police representatives, would they have a proper mandate? How would one try to increase the turnout?

Those are difficult issues. I was interested in the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. I am sure that he will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with all of them, but I did think that there was something in the idea of an elected representative representing a smaller area, where there is a more obvious community of interest. Having more than one elected representative in control of a police area reduces the prospects of what the hon. Member for Stourbridge talked about—a single BNP candidate, who has been elected and therefore is sacrosanct, taking charge of one of our primary police forces. That would be an area of interest if we were to proceed down the democratic road. It is disappointing that the Government did not have more ideas. As I said, I sympathise with the reasons why. We might all have to wait for a general election to hear more elucidation from all sides of what we might do with police forces.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I speak as a representative of a constituency that is ranked next to bottom in a national rating of forces, so it will come as no surprise to the Minister that constituents  in Bedfordshire feel very strongly about this issue. We do not like the fact that our police force came next to bottom, in terms of all its rankings, in the UK. The one thing that disappointed me more was that when the chief constable was held to account for the reasons why we had come next to bottom, there was nothing but total support from the police authority for both the chief constable and the force. There was no questioning of why we were in that position, just closed ranks and total support of the chief constable.

In clause 1, we have missed a golden opportunity to allow people, and particularly my constituents in Bedfordshire, to pass judgment on the person whom they see running their police force and delivering policing in their area. When people go to the ballot box, they know exactly which MP they are voting for. If the incumbent MP is a bad MP, people will go to the ballot box and vote them out. Exactly the same would happen if we had an elected chief constable as opposed to an authority.

I do not think that the residents of any of our constituencies would flock to vote for a police authority. I do see them flocking to vote for the person who, along with their MP and councillors, be it a unitary authority, county council, district council or whatever, will make a difference to how efforts to tackle crime are delivered on their streets. Surely if we had one person, a directly elected chief constable, which the Green Paper hinted at but which the Bill fails to provide, policing budgets would also be far more assiduously examined by the person responsible for delivering the services that the budget was to pay for. I am not sure that an authority would have the same attention to detail as there would be under an elected chief constable.

Will an authority be accountable in the same way? There will be no members of the public on it, so it will be a quango. They will all be elected by the senior appointments panel. Will the authority be accountable to the people and, if so, in what way? I ask that because I do not see anyone who wants to make an issue of policing on their streets using this route to do that. They will do it in exactly the same way as residents do it at the moment. They will come to their MP or go to their councillor. They will not think of going to their authority because it will not be giving regard to their views. The regard will be given to the elected person—the MP or the councillors. I fail to see how this clause takes note of anyone who lives in 16 Russell street in Bedfordshire. I cannot see how it takes account of that person being concerned about the fact that knife crime on their street has gone up over the past 12 months.

How will people’s views be taken account of in this clause? Will people have the opportunity to go and stand in front of the people who should have regard to their views? Will the general public have a chance? Will all my residents in Russell street be able to go and stand in front of this authority and say, “Take regard of our views because we want more visible policing on our streets. We do not want you bringing speed cameras to the end of our street when there are knife crimes taking place there.” Is that what the clause will do? I fail to see how it will. We have missed a golden opportunity here and I fail to see why the Government have not grasped it.

When I saw the Green Paper, I could envisage the voting booths. I could see a voting ballot with the councillors, with the MP and the directly elected chief  constable. Everyone knows who my chief constable is and one of the reasons for that is that our police force performs so badly. People have no regard to his views at the moment and I cannot see how this clause will change that. At the moment, our chief constable is protected by the police authority and the general public can only go to councillors or the MP. Where does the clause change that? Where does it change the route by which the general public can go to change this particular disregard? Where does that apply?

One of the reasons that we have been given is that if any other method, or mechanism, were in place, it could politicise the police. The police are politicised; every one of us was lobbied about 42-day detention. Every one of was lobbied over various other issues by our local police. The police have their own representatives who lobby us, politicise the issues and come to speak to us. We want democracy, not politicisation. We want our police to be accountable. They are politicised anyway, so if the Minister’s response is that we do not want to politicise the police force, what does he think about the fact that the police came here to lobby us on 42 days? Is that not politicisation? My police came to lobby me over the fact that they were one of the worst police forces in the country and about what is happening in their police force. Are they not politicising the issue by involving me in it? They are already politicised; we want to make them less politicised, more independent, less accountable to us and more accountable to the individual that people may get the chance to vote for to represent their particular views in their area.

I am sad that this clause is going to stand. I hope that the views of the people will be known through the media and all Members of the House when the Bill comes to its final stages. It is a golden opportunity missed and I fail to understand why the Minister has done that.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

I was not going to speak in the debate, but I was sparked into doing so by the last contribution. I mentioned to the Committee earlier on that I chaired a police authority for four years before coming to the House. People should be cautious about running down the road of directly electing the chief of police.

I pray in aid just two simple points. When I chaired my police authority, the chief constable was a chap called Tony Leonard. He was an extremely good chief constable and is now retired. When he came to our area, one of the things he did was to discover that there was a practice going on in our force area—it was going on in lots of other force areas as well—which was to pretend that they were solving crimes that they were not. They were getting police officers to go around jails to persuade already convicted people to cough up to crimes that they almost certainly had not committed, in order to make the figures look better. Our chief constable thought that that was wrong and that we should record the crimes that people report and then the ones that are solved.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:15 pm, 3rd February 2009

I am intrigued by that. What happened when the prisoners did—to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase—“cough up”?  Were they then taken to court, and, if they were, what incentive was there for them to cough up? If they were not taken to court, on what legal basis were they not taken to court, having admitted to committing a crime?

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

They were certainly not taken to court—quite the reverse. I think they were encouraged to believe that their life in prison might be better if they did cough up. More to the point, the crimes were written off as solved crimes; victims were told they had been solved, and they were no longer on the books as unresolved. This is a common practice across the country; it is not just happening in my area.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain under what legal basis such people were not taken to court if they coughed up?

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

All those things are a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. It is not at all unusual for someone to be prosecuted for one crime, and lots of others to be taken into consideration. It does not necessarily change the sentence.

Irrespective of the mechanisms, the point is that it was a dishonest practice employed so that police forces could put out better figures on crime than was the reality. Do not tell me that once bosses are been elected, they are not going to start to bend in the wind under those pressures when elections are close, because they will.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, if there were a directly elected police commissioner, residents would have the ability to choose the kind of policing that they wanted on their streets? Policing would be delivered in a much more diverse and locally required way. There would not be any need to go around getting prisoners to cough up for things they had not done, because such statistics would not be the basis of people’s votes when directly electing the chief commissioner. They would be voting on the basis of how safe their streets were, and how safe they felt, not on statistics.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

Much as I like the hon. Lady, I think that is an extremely naïve view. It also implies that crime and disorder in a neighbourhood are all just about the police, which they most certainly are not. The way to get good crime reduction in an area is through partnerships, in which the police are only one partner. I agree in this regard: it is about what local people do in their neighbourhoods in conjunction with the people who actually deal with crime. The idea that only police deal with crime is nonsense. To blame the police for crime is like blaming an umbrella for the rain. They are only one of the partners in this.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I like the hon. Gentleman him very much, too. I grew up on a very rough council estate in Liverpool and I assure him that, at the end of almost every street in my estate, there was a blue and white police car. We did not dare to misbehave: if we did, we quite often got a belt in the bizzie. But they were ever-present and the high-level, visible policing on our streets acted as a deterrent that meant that we as kids  owned the streets we played in, not the criminals. If we had somebody accountable, residents would have that power to reclaim the streets for themselves and their children, because they would be able to demand high-level, visible policing. It would make a huge difference.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

The hon. Lady should, if she can access the records, look at the number of calls to the police for service in the days when she was a young girl, compared with the situation now, when she is a mature lady. I think she will see that there has been a significant change, and it is those sorts of demands on police which have led to changes in the way they do their jobs. I do not disagree with her about accountability, but am simply saying that if the top man is elected personally, the grubby electoral process will have its effect. We will see the sorts of practices that brave chief constables like Tony Leonard kicked out of the system. When Humberside’s figures came out, they were right down at the bottom, because they stopped counting all the crimes they previously wrote off. He was castigated for that, but he was the one who was doing it honestly. Do we really want to return to a time when all the incentives were perverse?

I once had the great honour of going out in America with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and meeting lots of police officers there. They have elected chiefs of police there. When we spoke to police officers at a lower rank than commissioner, I can say that they all, to a person, said, “Why do we have to be involved in a system in which if we want to go higher than lieutenant”—I think it is lieutenant in America—“we have to become politicians? That is wrong; we are professionals who do a professional job, and it is not for us to enter the world of politics. That is for politicians. We should do our job professionally and under the accountability of politicians, but not as politicians.”

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman is clear that the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition is not for the election of a sworn officer or of a chief constable—[Interruption.] If he can contain himself, in his sedentary position, I will explain. Some Back Benchers and Opposition Members have said that that should be the case, following the pure American model, but that is not official Conservative party policy. Our view is that there should be a lay commissioner who is not a sworn officer. We are not in the business of electing sworn officers. I wanted to make that clear, and I would be grateful if he acknowledged that he is clear on that.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

I was responding to the hon. Lady’s comments, not those of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, although I think that some of those issues are still relevant.

I hope that the Committee will bear it in mind that it is easy to get sucked down the route of greater accountability and more elected posts, but that the police provide an important service to all our communities and what they do deserves all our support. We need to find ways of making them accountable without having the perverse incentives that end up giving us dishonest figures. Such figures might make us feel better, but the reality on the streets would be much worse.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bayley? It is the first time that you have chaired the Committee’s formal proceedings, and I am sure that we all look forward to serving under you.

The debate has been interesting and I must say to all who have taken part, including Opposition Members and my hon. Friends, that it has been good and brought several relevant issues to the fore. There is no one on this Committee, in this Parliament or outside, who is not reflecting on what we need to do to improve the accountability of police officers and on how to ensure that the public have an effective and informed voice in trying to influence how the police operate. The police are also reflecting on that. If one goes to different police forces, one will see that they are trying all sorts of different ways of involving the public, through face-to-face meetings, more leaflets, the internet, neighbourhood policing and mobile police stations. They have longer opening hours at police offices, make greater use of civilians and go into schools. All those things are going on as the police strive to give to policing the public face that people want, and try to ensure that people feel that there is a proper response when they contact the police.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds challenged me on an issue on which there is real disagreement, but he knows that there are difficulties with all the various models. One reason why he knows that is because his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bromsgrove has said that she sees why the Government are acting with caution, and that she is worried about some issues in respect of her Front Bench. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire showed a much more robust and dynamic desire and passion for directly elected commissioners. That is why the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds had to intervene to clarify that that is not official Conservative policy, which is for a lay commissioner, albeit elected, and for the abolition of police authorities. Conservative policy is not for an elected police chief who would have operational control, whereas the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire appeared to be going down that route.

Mrs. Dorriesindicated assent.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

The hon. Lady is nodding, so that is clearly what she wants. I have problems with the idea of an elected lay commissioner, so I think that the idea of having an elected police chief would be fraught with difficulty in this country, as do her Front-Bench colleagues. That is why her colleague was quick to intervene.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

To be clear, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising a Bank-Bench Member, from any part of the House, for expressing interesting views. Labour Back-Bench Members, too, might legitimately back the New Local Government Network and Local Government Association proposition. It has not been mentioned today, but is a valid take on enhanced accountability: it would match basic command unit areas with second-tier local district and borough councils and allow elected councillors to hire and fire BCU commanders. That is another model of which I urge him to take account. It is yet another contribution to a very wide-ranging and variegated debate.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

The hon. Gentleman is right to put that on the record. A variety of views are held across Parliament and within parties. However, is that not a good reason for the Government to take stock and consider the way forward, rather than rush headlong towards the direct election of crime and policing representatives, which we originally proposed? Given the difference of views and the fact that no consensus exists across the political spectrum, is not the mature and responsible course not to continue to charge towards a road crash, but to consider ways of improving accountability and to take stock and reflect more calmly and rationally on how to take the debate forward? We withdrew the proposals in the Bill so that we can do that.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

Following on from that point and to some extent a discussion this morning, will my hon. Friend describe, so that I can tell my constituents, what it would be like to have a BNP chief constable, lay commissioner, or whatever? We should bear in mind that Nick Griffin said on “Newsnight” recently:

“You can’t possibly separate the hard drugs trade from the question of Islam and particularly Pakistani immigration”.

Will my hon. Friend describe the effect of such thoughts and background on policing policy in the west midlands? It would be horrendous.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

My hon. Friend is right to point out the danger of such a person becoming either a lay commissioner or a more directly involved commissioner responsible for an entire police force. Nobody wants a BNP candidate elected to office. I do not want to negate the serious point being made, but we are talking about providing the opportunity for BNP candidates to be elected to such positions. We can all recognise the danger of that. As law makers and legislators, we have a responsibility to decide whether to take that into account when developing laws. One can only begin to imagine the consequences, not only for the various communities in the west midlands, where my hon. Friend’s constituency is situated, but for London and all the other areas of the country. It would be catastrophic.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

For the record, my Front-Bench colleagues were well aware of my views. However, I support their position on lay commissioners. Nobody wants to see a BNP commissioner or even a councillor, but, in effect, the Minister is saying that we cannot trust the people to vote.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

That is where we start to get into difficulty. The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point about trusting the electorate, but we have to be extremely careful when we are talking about the police. Let me show how careful we have to be.

Conservative Front Benchers are concerned about the problem, so they have come up with proposals to overcome it. Suppose an extremist is elected, or somebody who wants to ban road humps—every one of us could think not only of extreme politicians but particular issues. Members can imagine what would happen if debate on such an issue happened to coincide with the election of a police chief. I do not know what the question is in Bedfordshire—perhaps it is to ban farm  animals walking down the road. In Durham, it could be to ban lap dancing, and so on. At a particular time, someone could get elected on that single issue. The more extreme case involves the BNP. That is a real issue, and those who want a single elected person must decide what to do about.

The Tory Front-Bench proposal—the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds may say more about it—is reasonable, but it demonstrates that there is a problem. Their position is that the election would be rerun if a BNP candidate, or someone who says no to lap dancing in Durham, or anybody who is not regarded as acceptable were elected. I take the point about democracy, but there are consequences that have to be thought through.

This is a serious debate, and I am not trying to score points. The Government have taken a hit, but it was the right thing to do. We have withdrawn from direct elections for crime and policing representatives because we need to proceed with caution. Others who continue to propose direct elections in whatever form are wrestling with the same problems. If they were in Government, I believe that they would step back and reflect on how to deal with those problems.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:30 pm, 3rd February 2009

I do not wish to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but on a point of clarification, my predecessor in this post, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), indicated that we would consult on a power of recall, of the sort that is found in California, as a possible check and balance. There would not be an automatic recall if a left-wing or right-wing extremist were elected. The power of recall would operate as it does in the United States, particularly in California: if a certain percentage of those who voted at the previous election petitioned for a rerun of the election—a recall election—that would happen. Certain triggers are required before a rerun could happen. I hope that that is of assistance to the Committee when considering the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

Of course that is of assistance to the Committee, but it also demonstrates the point that I am trying to make. Others who are thinking about models for taking the proposal forward are concerned about some of the dangers that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove raised. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asks, “Don’t you trust the electorate?” but people from every political party and in every area of the country are concerned about the matter and are trying to find a balance—to square the circle. If there are direct elections and somebody is elected who is unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination—I prefaced my remarks by saying that nobody wants a BNP candidate to be elected—what would we actually do about it?

To be fair to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, he recognises the problem and is trying to find a way to deal with it. Because we are in government, we do not think it acceptable, when we are putting a Bill through Parliament, to say that we are wrestling with the issues to see whether we can produce a reasonable set of proposals. We were concerned that virtually every authority, council and police force in this country opposed what we said we would do. In government, one has to make a  choice. The hon. Member for Chesterfield rightly said that we have to show leadership. I agree with that, but sometimes we have to show leadership by saying that perhaps we ought to think again.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes the police have to police to protect minority interests? That could pose a real difficulty if somebody has to answer in an election that is just around the corner. I am thinking of the policing of some of the early fascist marches in Birmingham and around the black country. Someone who had to stand for popular election later might not have taken the position that the police did then. They were absolutely right to take that position and have now got public opinion with them.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

We could go on and on about this and replay the record again and again, it is such an important issue. Mr. Bayley, I know that this morning, Sir Nicholas felt that we had not made much progress, but the quality and importance of the debate is such that it deserves the Committee spending a considerable amount of time on it. Nobody has abused that.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Does the Minister agree that although in spatio-temporal terms we may have not made as much progress as Sir Nicholas wished, in terms of the quality of the arguments and the way in which they have been teased out, we have?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

I normally understand what the hon. Gentleman means, but I am not sure that I do on this occasion. I normally understand his questions, even if I am not totally sure of the answer. However, I think I understand him and I agree with him on that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North makes my point exactly. Sometimes what sounds good and in the short term makes someone popular is actually the wrong thing to do. As politicians, we almost accept that, but what about a police officer or an elected commissioner who stands for election at a particular time? We can all cite issues that incite populist rage—for example, setting up a paedophile hostel or housing for drug addicts and ex-offenders. The police say, “Actually this is a good thing to do,” but someone might say, “No, it’s a terrible thing to do,” and get elected. It is a difficult issue.

As my hon. Friend said, sometimes the police have to stand up for minority opinion and minorities. That is why in this country for years—police officers will say this—police officers have been agents of the Crown. That is why police officers will say it is so important to them that the allegiance they swear and the oath they take are to the Crown. In effect, the police are saying that it is for them to police according to the law, without fear or favour. As my hon. Friend said, that means protecting and policing difficult situations in a way that is sometimes hugely unpopular. We should consider changing that balance only with great care, because if we get it wrong, we could have all sorts of problems.

I am reminded of the question of accountability. I am sure that we have all seen young girls or boys play football: they chase the ball and when it goes over one side, everyone chases it and there is nobody on the rest  of the pitch; all of sudden, somebody boots it over the other side and everyone runs over the other side. If we are not careful, we are in danger of creating a situation in which everyone just chases the ball. That does not make good football and it would not necessarily make good policing. We have to consider that. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds rightly challenges me, asking, “Why did you drop that proposal?” Whether or not he agrees with why we dropped it, that is why we did. That is why we changed it.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in what we do. We dropped the matter—although perhaps dropped is not the right word. We have put the question to one side so that we can reflect on direct elections and see whether we can move forward in a way that takes account of the various problems that have been raised. We must proceed with caution, but we cannot do that and take account of the various problems that people have raised in the Committee and beyond if clause 1 of the Bill is about direct elections. It would be irresponsibility of the highest order.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister has given a perfectly fair reply to one of my questions: why, between the Green Paper and publication of the Bill, were the Green Paper measures dropped? For the benefit of the Committee, will he explain again what exactly the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside is working on? What is his remit? Will his work be published anywhere in a way that this Committee can look at? I am not being argumentative or seeking to make a political point. I just want to know what he has been asked to do by the Home Secretary.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

The Home Secretary has asked my right hon. Friend to conduct a review in relation to the Labour party. I think that I have mentioned this to the hon. Gentleman before. A review is being conducted of whether we can come up with a model that meets all concerns and that can be included in our manifesto for the next general election. To do that, my right hon. Friend will talk to various people.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

Before the next general election. Clearly, there will need to be something for the manifesto.

I have read and reread the complicated new clauses tabled by hon. Member for Chesterfield. They would put in place different systems in different parts of the country: police authorities in Cumbria, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire would be brought entirely under the auspices of the county councils, but the other 35 authorities would have a different system. That seems strange. Furthermore, the proposal to have no statutory requirement for independent members is a mistake, because they bring an awful lot to police authorities. I am surprised by that aspect of his proposals. He has devised an incredibly complicated system that most people would find difficult to understand.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

On the latter point, as we have discussed at some length, single transferable vote elections elect much more representative bodies of people, as has been shown in all the countries of the world where they are used. Most of the independent  appointees currently in place would therefore not be needed. However, there would be scope in the new clause to appoint people such as magistrates. On the Minister’s point about the proposals being complicated, the Government’s proposals in the Green Paper, which have now been dropped, would have imposed another layer of complication on top of the existing complicated layers of local government in this country. Unless we start from scratch and rewrite the whole local government system in England and Wales, we will have no option but to lay down a complicated system over an already complicated system, as the Government themselves proposed to do.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

We dropped the proposals in part because they were complicated. We wanted to try to come up with something simpler. If we want people to participate, we must make the system one that they can understand.

I have spent some time replying to questions about why we removed our proposals in the Bill for direct elections. We have talked about the need to proceed with caution and some of the difficulties that we are all having in trying to devise an acceptable model that will enable us to move forward. None the less, clause 1 will help to make a difference. Much emphasis has rightly been placed on subsection (1), which strengthens the requirements in the Police Act 1996. As I have said, police authorities will have to “have regard” to the views of the public, rather than merely obtain those views.

Subsection (2), which sits alongside that provision, will require Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to inspect police authorities, and that will be done much more vigorously from April. We will require the inspectorate to look specifically at police authorities to see how well they have done on subsection (1). I say to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that if what she says about the police authority in Bedfordshire is correct, and I have no reason to believe that it is or is not, under the terms of the clause, it will be appropriate for people to request that the inspectorate look at what has happened. That will be one way forward.

I could go on at great length about other things, but I have tried to answer the kernel of the debate. Hon. Members will have to decide themselves about direct elections and how we can take that forward. Serious problems would emerge from directly electing people to policing positions, whether as an elected commissioner, a lay commissioner or along the lines that we proposed and that the Liberal Democrats now propose. Surely, while we work to resolve the problems of extremists or single-issue people being elected and all the other questions that we are concerned about, it is much more sensible to step back, to reflect and to try to build a consensus than to just drive forward, ignoring all the warnings that we have been given and all the views that have been put to us by everybody, except some people in every party.

At the Association of Police Authorities conference, which the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, the hon. Member for Chesterfield and I attended, someone put it to me that the only people who agree with each other on direct elections are a few people at the front of every major political party—that a few people at the  top of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties were the only people who agreed with direct elections. All the other local government members of every party, all the police forces and all the bodies that represent local government in all its guises oppose it. I have said this before, but I shall repeat it because it is crucial: sometimes leadership is about saying, “Let’s stop and reflect.” Leadership is not only about saying, “Everybody disagrees with me, so the only way I can show that I’m a leader is by charging them and taking them on.” Sometimes it is about reflecting on what they tell us, and with that, I beg to move 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 2 Nimrod Review — Statement — New Clause 4

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.