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Police Accountability

Volume 21: debated on Monday 5 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Boscawen.]

11.4 pm

I wish to raise the issue of police accountability, which at present is clouded in a good deal of political controversy. In the short time that is available to me, I hope to clarify some aspects of the matter and take them out of the area of political controversy.

The way in which we are policed and the effectiveness of the police force are matters of serious concern to all who are interested in the good of our society. The mere fact that the Labour Party has adopted a policy about police accountability should not make it the subject of political controversy. I hope that the Minister will judge the arguments on their merits rather than try to score points in a political debate. This is, after all, a serious matter.

The Royal Commission on the police in 1959 said that it thought that chief constables needed to be more accountable to their police authorities, and it made recommendations about the way in which that should be done. The Police Act 1964 was designed to implement those recommendations, albeit with some changes. In his Second Reading speech, the then Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brooke, said:
"The Bill does not give the police authority power to issue instructions to the chief constable, but it has not got that power now. Its general responsibility is to secure the maintenance of an efficient force, and it will have every right to discuss with: its chief constable how the men and equipment with which it has provided him can be most effectively used in conducting police operations. I have no doubt that every chief constable who is up to his job welcomes discussion of this kind".—[Official Report, 26 November 1963; Vol. 685, c. 87.]
That shows that it was intended that the powers in the 1964 Act should be used with the intention of bringing a chief constable more under the control of the police authority not by giving the police authority decisive power to make decisions, but by ensuring that the chief constable would not make decisions without consultation and be influenced by the pressure that was brought to bear on him in the course of those discussions.

Therefore, it is not in any way wrong, either morally or politically, for people now to call for the greater exercise of the power of the police authority. There are 43 police authorities in England and Wales outside the metropolis, and in the metropolis the police authority is the Home Secretary. Outside the metropolis, those police authorities are committees of the local county council. They are not subject to the decision of the county council, even though they report to it. They are composed of one- third of magistrates and two-thirds of locally elected councillors. They are constantly told by chief officers throughout the country that they are not in any way entitled to consider the policing policy of the chief constables; they are simply to provide the finance and resources for chief officers to carry out their policies.

That is where I take issue with chief officers and to some extent with the Home Office, which tends to support their attitude. In my view, that is not what the Police Act either said or intended. It is clear from the Home Secretary's speech at the time that he did not intend that either. Section 4 of the Act says that the police authority shall
"secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police force for the area".
It is quite impossible to see how it can do that unless it has some discussion about the policing policy of the area.

For instance, is it right that the police should be used on the beat or simply in a reactive position in panda cars? How can the police authority decide whether it has an efficient police force unless it can determine that central issue of policing policy, which is an area of serious contention between different chief officers. How can the authority decide whether it is operating an adequate and efficient police force if it does not determine whether officers should be investigating burglaries and criminal damage or should be policing traffic or football crowds? Choices have to be made in the allocation of resources. The police authority can only determine whether it has an efficient and adequate police force in its area if it is involved in policy decisions.

Section 5 of the Act states that the police force
"shall be under the direction and control of the chief constable."
It is on those words that most chief constables lay their claim to be solely responsible for policing policy in their areas. The interesting provision is section 12, which was the result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Section 12(2) states:
"The chief constable of a police force shall, whenever so required by the police authority, submit to that authority a report in writing on such matters as may be specified in the requirement, being matters connected with the policing of the area for which the force is maintained."
There is no indication that the chief constable has any discretion in the matter at all. Indeed, the next subsection makes it clear that, if he does not like the request and thinks that it is not needed for the discharge of the functions of the police authority, he may request authority to refer the requirement to the Secretary of State. In other words, if the chief constable does not like it, he cannot refuse, but he can refer the matter to the Secretary of State. Only once since 1964 has any chief constable done that. The then Home Secretary turned down his request and backed the police authority.

Therefore, the position in Manchester at a recent meeting of the police authority is a little surprising. The chairman of the police authority asked the chief constable certain questions about a policing operation at Laurence Scott. He was told by the chief constable that he had no right to ask the questions. Under section 12, in my view the chief constable was without the law. In those circumstances, he was acting illegally, not the chairman of the police authority. Nevertheless, in order to restore amity, the chairman of the police authority withdrew the questions. The chief constable then had the cheek to go out and tell the press that he was perfectly right in the attitude that he had taken, and that it was the chairman of the police authority who did not have the legal power to ask the questions. I believe that that is a breach of section 12.

The handling of complaints from the public has now become a central feature of the argument about the police. In section 50, the police authority is responsible for ensuring that the police complaints system is adequately policed. Nevertheless, most police authorities fail to do anything more than look at the book occasionally to ensure that the complaints are recorded, but they have no machinery by which complaints can be properly monitored. That has recently been started by the Merseyside authority, and it was considered to be something of a revolution. Nevertheless, that is part of the powers of the Police Act. I maintain that the powers, although they are not as extensive as I would wish, allow a police authority to exercise a proper degree of control of policing policy in its area as long as the chief constable recognises that he is subject to those powers.

The Minister of State should make that perfectly plain and tell chief officers that they are not isolated dictators who can determine the policing policy in their areas without let or hindrance from police authorities. They are required by the Act to be accountable, in a general sense, to their local communities.

However, that is not enough. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who represents the Police Federation in the House, said in a recent debate that about 21 chief constables are responsible for the fate of police-community relations in our inner cities. He is right, and that is far too great a responsibility to put on the shoulders of such a small number of men. It is only right that the community should have a far greater say in what goes on in police-community relations in the inner cities. The right people for that are locally elected councillors.

I expect the next Labour Government to ensure that police authorities have an absolute say in the control of policing policy. That is not to say that the authorities will deal with day-to-day minutiae, any more than education committees deal with the day-to-day minutiae in our schools. It is for the director of education to apply the general policy. However, police authorities would be responsible for overall policy.

The authorities would not have a say in who should or should not be prosecuted. I should prefer to put that in the hands of a public prosecutor, but if it is to stay with the police, there is no reason why such decisions should be in the hands of a police authority.

However, in the way that we are policed, how the police react to us and how we react to the police, there should be a focus of control—determined by the public and not by an independent official, however prestigious—so that if the people do not like the way things are going they can get rid of the decision makers and put in someone else. That is the answer on the GLC and its contemporary leadership. If people do not like Ken Livingstone they can get rid of him at the next election. If people do not like Sir Kenneth Newman they cannot get rid of him by an election. Surely that is what democracy is all about.

London poses a special problem, because there is no police authority in the capital at the moment. It is only right that London should have such an authority. The question is: What sort of authority? Should we have a GLC police authority for the whole metropolis? I suspect that the Metropolitan Police is far too big for its own good or for our good and that we ought to carve up the force into four forces, which would be accountable to the boroughs that they policed. Perhaps we need four police authorities of a similar nature and size to the police authorities outside London. Perhaps the Home Secretary should retain the residual powers over the Special Branch and the policing of the Palace of Westminster; that is a matter for discussion.

However, it makes no sense that those who pay for the policing of London have no say in how London is policed. It is a considerable injustice and that is not the view only of councillors Boateng and Livingstone. In 1978, Lord Marshall, a distinguished scion of the Tory Benches in another place said in a report on the GLC that the council ought to have a police committee. Anyone who considers the justice of the matter will agree that that is the proper thing to do. It is wrong to say that the Home Secretary is adequate as a police authority, because the Home Office has less control over Scotland Yard than police authorities have over their police forces at the moment.

The Home Office has a great many other responsibilities. It simply does not have the time to worry about what Scotland Yard is doing, unless there is a crisis, and then it can and does come in. For that reason, London should have a police authority, and it should have the powers that I have mentioned.

I stress again that, even if the Minister does not go that far with me, he should make it clear to those chief officers who are getting just a bit too big for their boots that they have to be accountable to their police authorities in the way described by Henry Brooke in the passage that I read at the beginning of my speech.

11.20 pm

I welcome the opportunity, offered to us by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), to consider, once again, the proper position of police authorities and the whole question of police accountability.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and preceding Home Secretaries, have repeatedly said that the police are, and must remain, accountable to the public whom they serve. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues want local responsibility for policing placed—with the exception, as I understand it, of the Metropolitan Police to some limited extent—solely in the hands of elected representatives.

At the same time, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have expressed their overall approval of the recommendations of Lord Scarman's report. It is proper to point out that that report stated that on the whole the statutory machinery under the Police Act 1964 works well. Lord Scarman recommended that consultation at local level should extend beyond elected representatives. I shall come to the detail of what the hon. Gentleman said, and to what I wish to say about the consultation, in a few moments.

The Police Act 1964 gave effect, as the hon. Gentleman has reminded us, to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the police. The Royal Commission identified two salient features of the structure of policing that were needed, as it thought, for each community. The first of those salient features was that chief officers of police should have complete discretion in directing and deploying their forces. The Royal Commission accepted that must be so if the criminal law was to be enforced impartially.

The second feature was that the structure of forces was based on the local community. The Royal Commission noted that the local body responsible for administering the service—the police authority—could give advice and guidance to a chief constable on local problems, without detracting from his operational independence. The Royal Commission considered that the lack of control that this relationship implied could be offset by increasing a chief constable's accountability for his actions. It was that delicate balance of interests that the Royal Commission sought to preserve in making its recommendations. Its conclusions were generally accepted by the Government of the day and were enshrined by Parliament in the Police Act 1964.

That Act recognises the three elements that need to combine to provide effective policing arrangements—professional expertise, the interest of the local community and the national interest. Those are reflected in the responsibilities and powers given by the Act to the chief constable, to the police authority and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. There have been many changes in our society since 1964, but those essential elements remain.

The Royal Commission acknowleged the need for chief constables to be operationally independent. Police authorities may not instruct them to institute proceedings in a particular case, or direct them in the deployment of their forces. Neither may my right hon. Friend, except that in the interests of public safety or order, he can direct a chief constable to provide assistance to another area. Normally, such arrangements are made satisfactorily between chief officers, but this power in section 14(2) of the Police Act, reflects my right hon. Friend's overall responsibility for maintaining the Queen's peace.

Independence from political control is one of the key elements in our policing arrangements. I believe that, there can be no room for political interference from central or local government. The operational dependence of chief officers is essential for the confidence of Parliament and the people in the police discharging their duty impartially. Subject to the point about accountability, that is the answer to the question: "Why should the electorate of London be able to dismiss Mr. Ken Livingstone but not Sir Kenneth Newman?" The answer is to be found in the desirability, insisted upon by Parliaments for more than a century, that the police administer the law impartially.

The Royal Commission accepted that the criminal law had to be enforced impartially. In the theory of democracy, we talk about the people having control, but we must recognise that those whom the people elect to have control may be removed after three or five years at the next general or local election. A chief constable has to ensure that a police force enforces the law impartially. If he were to be dependent for the tenure of his ofice upon continuing to retain the favour of the elected council of a local authority, the greater would be the risk that the law would not be enforced impartially, but rather with an eye to keeping in favour with the local authority.

Why does that danger exist for the police, but not to the Army, Navy and Air force in relation to which the possible power of the Executive is even greater?

The Army, Navy and Air Force are responsible to Parliament and to relevant Ministers and do not enforce the law. The police enforce the law and long may that distinction remain in this country.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to remind chief constables of their duty to consult. There is no need to remind them of that because my right hon. Friend has spoken on the subject and was quoted in Lord Scarman's report at paragraph 5.64 from the lecture that he gave in Edinburgh in 1980 when he said:
"it has become increasingly desirable that Police Authorities should see themselves not just as providers of resources but as a means whereby the Chief Constable can give account of his policing policy to the democratically elected representatives of the community and, in turn, they can express to him the views of the community on these policies."
Lord Scarman continued:
"It is necessary also that Chief Officers of Police should accept and, indeed, encourage Police Authorities in their adoption of this role. A police force, the Chief Officer of which does not discuss, or allow his senior officers to discuss, matters of policing policy openly and responsibly with the community, is certain in the long run to find his efficiency undermined by loss of community support."
My right hon. Friend has already made clear the importance he attaches to the need for consultation, and I need say nothing to amplify my right hon. Friend's remarks.

Independence from political control is a key element in our policing arrangements. There can be no room for political interference from either central or local government. The chief constable has a statutory duty to give an account of his policies to the police authority. Ultimately, my right hon. Friend is accountable to the House for the conduct of chief constables and the police service nationally. My right hon. Friend is not, of course, responsible for statements made by individual chief officers. The police are there to serve and work with all groups in the community. If they are to achieve this, my right hon. Friend believes it is important that chief officers must be seen to be impartial. They have an onerous task. There is general agreement in the House that much attention and effort needs to be put into the training of the police to cope with the compexity of their job today. The Government are doing that. However, the hon. Gentleman's view is that police authorities should be recognised in the end as knowing better and be able to tell a professional police officer how he is to do his job. That point was dealt with in the second part of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

That idea is contrary to our philosophy of policing in Britain. No politician or pressure group should be able to direct the police. That could lead to disaster. The police need advice, support and assistance from the police authorities and community at large in carrying out what is often a difficult task. It is to his police authority that a chief constable should look first for advice on whether the policies of the force are in tune with the needs and wishes of local people. Members of the police authority should have a deeper understanding than most of the problems that face the police and the limitations on what they can do because part of their statutory responsibility to maintain an efficient force is to sustain the morale of the police. The police are, of course, their constituents, too, and they serve their constituents.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the position in London, naturally enough. The House knows that the constitutional position under which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is police authority for the Metropolis is long standing, going back to the inception of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Successive Governments of all complexions and the Royal Commission on the police in 1962 have consistently taken the view that the exceptional arrangement in London is justified by the nature of the problems of policing the capital city and seat of government and also by the fact that the force provides a number of services on a national basis. Lord Scarman recently recognised that there were good reasons for the "national accountability", as he put it, of the Metropolitan Police, adding that he did not believe that Parliament would wish to see the ultimate responsibility for policing the nation's capital transferred from a senior Cabinet Minister, accountable to Parliament, and put in the hands of a local body, however important. That is also the Government's view and my right hon. Friend has repeatedly made it clear that the Government have no intention of going down that road.

The fundamental point is that there should be no political interference in the enforcement of the law. Thus, the Home Secretary, like other police authorities, may not give directions to the commissioner either about the way he deploys his resources for specific operations, or about the institution of criminal proceedings. Yet the powers which some appear to be seeking over the day-to-day activities and operations of the force in London would have precisely the opposite effect.

The suggestion of an authority consisting of the Home Secretary and local authority representatives would lead to considerable confusion and would be unworkable in practise. The Metropolitan Police district covers some 40 local authorities, apart from the GLC, and it is difficult to imagine that a body of the size that would be needed truly to represent all those authorities would ever reach a conclusion. That would be dangerous.

The full support of every law-abiding member of the community is essential to effective policing. That is why my right hon. Friend welcomed Lord Scarman's recommendation that there should be local consultation arrangements. In his view, such arrangements would in no way detract from the role of the police authority. On the contrary, improved arrangements—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Twelve o'clock.