The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: †Mr George Howarth, Mr David Nuttall
† Berry, Jake (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con)
† Berry, James (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con)
† Bradley, Karen (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)
Cleverly, James (Braintree) (Con)
† Davies, Mims (Eastleigh) (Con)
† Dromey, Jack (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
† Elphicke, Charlie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Harris, Carolyn (Swansea East) (Lab)
† Jones, Gerald (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)
† Penning, Mike (Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims)
† Saville Roberts, Liz (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Whittaker, Craig (Calder Valley) (Con)
Ben Williams, Marek Kubala, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis OBE, President, the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales
Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas, President-elect, the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales
Ben Priestley, Head of Police and Justice (lead official for members in the police service in England and Wales), Unison
Steve White, Chair, Police Federation of England and Wales
Metin Enver, Strategic Adviser, Police Federation of England and Wales
Matt Wrack, General Secretary, Fire Brigades Union
Paul Hancock, President, Chief Fire Officers Association
Councillor John Edwards, Chair, West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority and Vice-Chair, Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities
Councillor Dave Hanratty, Chair, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and member, AMFRA
Chief Fire Officer Phil Loach, West Midlands Fire Service
Chief Fire Officer Dave Etheridge OBE, Vice-President, Chief Fire Officers Association
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 15 March 2016
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Policing and Crime Bill
Before we begin, I have a few preliminary points. First, will people switch any electronic devices to silent? Tea and coffee are not allowed in sittings. Today, we will first consider the programme motion, and then the motions to allow us to deliberate in private about our questions before the oral evidence sessions and to allow the reporting of written evidence for publication. To save time, I hope that we can take those matters formally.
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 15 March) meet—
(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 15 March;
(b) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 22 March;
(c) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 24 March;
(d) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 12 April;
(e) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 14 April;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence on Tuesday 15 March in accordance with the following Table:
Until no later than 10.45 am
The Police Superintendents’ Association of
England and Wales; The Police Federation of
England and Wales; UNISON
Until no later than 11.25 am
The Fire Brigades Union; The Chief Fire
Officers’ Association; The Association of
Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities
Until no later than 2.45 pm
Barnardo’s; The Children’s Society; The NSPCC
Until no later than 3.15 pm
The Association of Police and Crime
Until no later than 4.00 pm
The National Police Chiefs’ Council; The
Metropolitan Police Service
Until no later than 4.30 pm
The Royal College of Psychiatrists; Sally Burke,
‘Get Maisie Home’ Campaign
Until no later than 5.00 pm
The Independent Police Complaints
Commission; The College of Policing
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 6; Schedule 1; Clauses 7 and 8; Schedule 2; Clauses 9 to 11; Schedule 3; Clauses 12 and 13; Schedule 4; Clauses 14 to 21; Schedule 5; Clauses 22 and 23; Schedule 6; Clauses 24 to 28; Schedules 7 and 8; Clauses 29 to 33; Schedule 9; Clause 34; Schedule 10; Clauses 35 to 39; Schedule 11; Clauses 40 to 102; Schedule 12; Clauses 103 to 107; new Clauses; new Schedules; Clauses 108 to 112; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 14 April. —(Mike Penning.)
On the basis of the programme order, the deadline for amendments to be considered at the first line-by-line sitting of the Committee on 22 March is at the rise of the House on Thursday 17 March.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Mike Penning.)
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Mike Penning.)
Copies of the written evidence the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room.
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas, Steve White, Metin Enver and Ben Priestley gave evidence.
Good morning and welcome. We will now hear oral evidence from the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, the Police Federation of England and Wales, and Unison. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order. The Committee has agreed that we have until 10.45 am for this session. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record, starting with Ben Priestley?
Ben Priestley: Thank you. My name is Ben Priestley. I am Unison’s national officer with policy and negotiating responsibility for our members in the police and probation services in England and Wales.
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I am Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis. I am president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: Good morning. I am Gavin Thomas, the president-elect of the Police Superintendents Association.
Steve White: I am Steve White, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales and a serving officer for Avon and Somerset police.
Metin Enver: Good morning. I am Metin Enver, the strategic adviser at the Police Federation of England and Wales.
I think we have established who we all are.
Q Good morning. I would like to ask questions on four parts of the Bill, starting with part 3 on the police workforce. In your view, what issues are raised by what is proposed in the Bill, including potentially to arm directly employed and volunteer police community support officers with CS or PAVA spray?
Steve White: We have some concerns in relation to mission creep to a degree and the current accountability in relation to community support officers, and certainly in relation to volunteers. The proposal raises a question of accountability and how that would work. There is absolutely no doubt that many volunteers who work with the police service up and down the country do excellent work. There also needs to be recognition that we have a fully regulated special constabulary, with all the powers and accountability that that responsibility comes with.
We have police community support officers with varying degrees of powers, depending on their deployments and chief constables. It is very important to recognise, for example, that the use of CS is at a lower point of the force continuum than Taser. Are we suggesting that perhaps Taser would also be given to PCSOs, because it is a lower use of force? I do not think that is being suggested, but putting PCSOs in positions where they would have to deploy CS was never envisaged as their primary role as community support officers. When it comes to the use of force, and the current accountability and powers that fully attested police officers have, there is a huge degree of accountability, training and experience that goes with the deployment of that kind of device.
It would be interesting to hear Unison’s point of view on what the PCSOs think of the proposal. I know that Unison has been doing some work around that, but I do not think the picture is particularly clear. We definitely have some reservations about that.
Ben Priestley: As Steve has mentioned, Unison has some concerns about this proposal. The major concern is that the Bill’s proposal around the arming of police community support officers with gas was not part of the Government’s consultation that preceded the Bill. That is surprising for such a major step in quite a different direction. Given that there has not been any public consultation or consultation with stakeholders, our view is that this particular element of the Bill—the proposals around CS gas and PAVA gas—should be removed from the Bill. We would argue strongly for that, because in the public interest there is clearly a need for consultation in respect of volunteers being issued with CS or PAVA spray.
That keys into a much bigger debate around the Government’s proposals to create in the Bill two new specific, designated, volunteer roles: community support volunteers and policing support volunteers. I am sure we will get on to that in the debate here, but Unison’s view is certainly that it is not appropriate, for a range of reasons, for volunteers to be granted through designation a whole range of policing powers that could extend, it seems from the way the Bill is currently drafted, to virtually every power currently available to a police officer, with the exception of the five or six reserved powers that the Bill sets out. That would be a real step change in the use of volunteers. Unison agrees that volunteers can be used proportionately within policing, but this is, as Steve has mentioned, a mission creep too far and we are certainly opposed to the vision for volunteers to be granted those powers.
We have limited time available. I intend to move on and, if there is time left at the end, to deal with any additional questions then. Before moving on to a different line of questioning, is there anything that any of the witnesses wants to add to what has already been said that is in any way different? Otherwise, I will move straight on to the next questioners.
Q I want to focus on police complaints, if I may. I assume that everyone on the panel thinks it absolutely correct that police officers are held to account for their actions, regardless of whether they have chosen to leave the force. I am sure you are aware of the proposal in the Bill to close the loophole that removes people from that disciplinary procedure if they have retired or left the force. Do you think it appropriate that former officers should be held to account for allegations arising from their conduct in the force after they have left the force? If so, do you think a 12-month time limit is long enough for that to take place?
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I totally agree. It is absolutely right that officers are held to account for wrongdoing. We are as keen as anyone that bad officers are removed from the ranks of the police and, if appropriate, placed on a barred list.
We have to bear in mind proportionality. We are talking about employment issues around misconduct, not criminal events. If there is a criminal allegation, we can continue it right up to an officer’s death. An officer can be arrested and dealt with for any criminal allegations relating to when they were serving as a police officer. There are not many professions—or any that I am aware of—in which, beyond retirement or resignation, people can continue to be subject to disciplinary conduct.
On some occasions, that might be helpful for officers. When there are allegations against officers who have retired, they may want to come back and take the opportunity to defend themselves and to correct any situation they feel has been put across negatively. We must be careful not to hold people to account forever for something that took place in their employment.
We must think about the purpose of doing this. It is so that if there is serious misconduct, we can put someone on a barred list. We agree with the barred list and think it is a good idea. There are some issues about the five-year limit, which we may come back to, but in principle we think it right that people are held to account while they are in the job. There is a limit and 12 months is appropriate. If it is not 12 months, where do you draw the line? Do you take that limit up to two years, three years or four years? I think 12 months is an appropriate length of time in which to hold people to account for employment issues, as opposed to criminal issues.
Steve White: A couple of issues from us. We have some reservations in relation to keeping people to account after they have left the service. As a serving officer, there are significant restrictions on an individual’s private life—that is something that you sign up to when you become a police officer—but to continue to have restrictions after you have either decided to leave the service or moved on for whatever reason, I think, requires some careful thought.
I echo what Irene said in terms of this being about employment issues, as opposed to criminal matters. That is an important point to remember. We welcome the ability of people to be voluntarily put on the struck-off list—that makes perfect sense. What we need to be careful about is dealing with misconduct and complaints with serving officers, which generally takes far too long anyway—it goes on for years and, to a certain extent, that is because it is allowed to go on for years. It is not good for the public, for the police service or for the individuals who are subject to the complaints either. I do wonder if the 12-month period just means that if there is anything in the system prior to an officer leaving, it gives the professional standards department or the Independent Police Complaints Commission a little bit of breathing space and extra time, which I would say is not necessary.
These things need to be cleared up as quickly as possible. I am not talking about officers not being held to account at all; I am talking about an incentive to make sure that it happens in the shortest possible time for the benefit of the complainant, the service and the individual.
Very briefly, because we have only four minutes left.
Q Mr White, one of the most important things about this change is upholding public confidence in the police force’s ability to deal with complaints. To be absolutely clear in terms of the question I asked, do you believe that 12 months is proportionate or would you like to see that reduced?
Steve White: Absolutely. I would like to see that, when police officers leave the service, everything is dealt with: they leave the service and they are able to move on with their lives. To continue with a degree of restriction because there is a 12-month period where they have got to wait and see if something comes out of the woodwork is unhelpful and I think it would be counterproductive, because you are just going to give the ability to the service or any kind of investigatory authority not to have to worry too much about it until day 364 and, all of a sudden, something appears—it happens all the time: you get to the time limit and something suddenly appears.
I absolutely agree with you that there has got to be public confidence in the service—of course there has. Sixty-nine per cent. of the public say that the police do a good or very good job, so it has to be kept in proportion. The vast majority of officers do a very difficult job under very difficult circumstances. The police service in England and Wales is not riddled with corrupt police officers.
In my anxiety to make progress, I think I knocked an hour off the amount of time we have got available. For the record, we have until 10.45 am.
Q Do you believe that under a single employer arrangement the discrepancy between a firefighter’s right to strike and the ban on police officers taking strike action might be a source of friction? Secondly, there is a duty of collaboration in the first part of the Bill. Do you know of a situation where any of your colleagues have refused to collaborate under the current system?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I will try to be as brief as I can—I will bear in mind the hint on the timescales. In terms of the first question, there are significant cultural differences between the fire service and the police service. You only have to see the learning on collaboration between forces, let alone with other emergency services—Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has commented on it several times. We must not underestimate the power of cultural differences in this. There are dynamics of a heavily unionised service coming to join up with a service that is not unionised, particularly under the single employment model.
In answer to your second question, I am not necessarily sure about the language around refusing to collaborate. I have already articulated one reason for it and there are many other reasons as well, such as, for instance: single funding; annual funding, which does not give any longevity in terms of planning; and misaligned geography in terms of coterminosity. Two forces exist that are not coterminous to the Fire Brigades Union: Avon and Somerset constabulary and Devon and Cornwall police. You have a fire service that crosses over those two force areas. That does present some challenges itself.
You do not agree with it, then.
Steve White: The police service and, indeed, my members—the 124,000 people who I represent—recognise and value the expertise that the fire service brings, and we work incredibly well together at the scenes of many, many incidents and operations; of that there is absolutely no doubt. Provided that that separation of professional responsibility remains, I do not necessarily think that there is an issue. We have sympathy with some of the issues in relation to the fire service. I am sure that they have similar concerns for issues that we have. I am sure we would continue to work very closely together, so I do not necessarily see it as a massive issue. Of course, when we had the police service escorting green goddesses—I experienced this through disputes years ago—it was because of strike action, but even so, I think the fire service recognised the limits and capabilities of the police service. We just have to be pragmatic, deal with it and be professional in dealing with it.
In relation to collaboration, let us be brutally frank: collaboration between police forces and other agencies is not working as efficiently as it should. It is absolutely true that that is the case. Sometimes it is cultural. Sometimes it is managerial. Sometimes it is about egos. Sometimes it is political. There needs to be a locus to ensure that collaboration within the police service and across other agencies happens as effectively and efficiently as possible. Indeed, there have been many instances where my members have been working within collaborative organisations and have seen the frustrations—why are there three different annual leave policies for three forces that are collaborating on specialist operations? They have to go to three different resource units to take time off. Our members can see that it is not working as well as it should.
I am not saying that people have refused to collaborate; I am just saying that from a cultural perspective, there is still quite a lot that needs to happen. There is an opportunity for a central locus to say, “No. You need to collaborate under this framework and get on with it.”
Ben Priestley: The issue of industrial action is maybe not as important as some might initially think. Forty per cent. of the police workforce can join a trade union. It is a reasonably unionised workforce. Over half the workforce is in a trade union, and there has not been a history or a tradition of industrial action. That, I think, is testimony to the good quality of employment relations and the negotiating machinery that we have. Whichever service we are thinking about, it is the quality of the industrial relations that determines whether there are industrial disputes or not. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and very often industrial disputes are an indication of a failure of the system, rather than any in-built problem with the fact that certain workers have a right to strike.
In relation to the broader concept within the Bill of a single employer, once we begin to unpack that, there is an awful lot in it that will have to be dealt with and that will involve police services, and potentially fire and rescue services, in a huge amount of work—for what end? It brings together four or five different negotiating bodies under one or maybe two or more employers. The Bill is unclear whether the police and crime commissioner will be the single employer, whether he or she can delegate to the chief constable and whether the chief constable can then delegate to another individual within his or her force. That part of the Bill hopefully can be examined properly in Committee, and we certainly would like to put evidence up at that stage to help the MPs on the Committee to understand some of the complexities around the single employer model.
In relation to the duty to collaborate, I think the Government supported the establishment of the emergency services collaboration working group, which reported last year. I am sure the Committee will want to have a look at its report, which said that in about 90% or 95% of cases, collaboration was already happening. It is difficult for us to say exactly what the quality of that collaboration was, but most of the respondents to that survey said they were entirely happy with the level of collaboration. The group showed and said in its report that the jury was out on whether collaboration was actually going to save money. The Government make some fairly steep claims in relation to what collaboration will or will not do in respect of saving money and efficiencies. There is no actual evidence at this stage that collaboration will save money. The Committee might want to gain further insight into that as part of its deliberations.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I will add an observation and a couple of quick points. In my mind, ultimately the question is whether this is good for the public and whether it delivers a service to the public. There are definitely opportunities within this for efficiencies, in terms of coterminosity around estate, procurement and fleet requirements and HR functions, for instance. There are definitely opportunities for efficiencies there. There are already examples of that taking place in parts of the country, in force areas, with fire services.
I refer you to the HMIC report of July 2014 on meeting austerity. To reinforce my point about some of the challenges of this, that report referred particularly to the difficulties around collaboration. In preparation for this Committee hearing, I read Ken Knight’s review. That almost mirrored the language used, with there being exactly the same challenges within the fire service. We are overlaying another area of complexity on top of the challenges that Steve has just articulated, in terms of how we are trying to collaborate among ourselves. Ultimately, the terms “patchy” and “fragmented” are used in both reports. That demonstrates some significant challenges in terms of how we would actually make this happen.
Q Have any benefits of collaboration actually been seen? I heard quite a negative picture, but were there any benefits that the panel could see?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: There have been benefits but, again, I refer back to my previous comment. To give you a slightly historic answer on this, going back to that report, HMIC recognised that collaboration in policing was patchy and fragmented, and in the way that we were approaching it at the moment it would not meet the demands of austerity. That is partly because there is a vacuum in terms of who makes that decision.
Q So you cannot point to one single benefit, just patchiness?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: There is patchiness across the country, but in terms of macro-efficiency and cost effectiveness, I would have difficulty. I could probably highlight individual examples where there has been good practice. However, one issue that HMIC also highlighted is that the service has not been good at picking up those good practices in one part of the country and then transposing them very quickly to another part of the country. Sharing that learning has not been quick enough. That is an internal issue for the service—
Q Historically, would you have expected good practice to move as quickly as that?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: There is a cultural issue within the service of not picking up learning quickly enough and then investing in that learning in another part of the country. I think that actually we still have a way to go with that.
Steve White: There have been some benefits from collaboration, but it depends on what you are saying that the outcome of a collaboration is. Over the past four years, with resources having been taken out of the police service, a lot of our ability to continue to provide a service has come from collaboration. An example is our federation conference last year. We asked the Home Secretary to visit and so there was a big security issue, and bomb dogs were needed. There are no bomb dogs in Dorset, but we had a dog which came all the way from Cornwall. That is a long distance to travel, but it meant that although there was not a dog on duty in Dorset, because of that collaboration they were able to deal with that issue. There are some question marks over that in terms of whether it might have been easier to have had a dog locally but, anyway, that is what happened.
One example of collaboration which has always worked quite effectively and has been in place for quite some time is the central motorway police group within the West Midlands. That is a collaboration between a number of forces that has always been very effective, and has been in place for a number of years. To a degree, that is a model of something where collaboration can be effective and can improve efficiency and the service to the public. It depends on whether you are talking about collaboration as a way of improving the service to the public, or just keeping the wheel on.
Q I have a question specifically on the points of collaboration mentioned by Chief Superintendent Thomas, who said that the sharing of good practice had been patchy and slow across the country. Do you think that increasing collaboration will increase or reduce the speed at which good practice is shared across the country?
Before anyone answers that, I shall bring Lyn Brown in on a similar point and we can take the two questions together.
Q I have heard of decent collaboration between fire services and between fire services and police services. The one thing they all had in common is that they wanted to do it and they found ways to do it, locally, that had benefited them. I think that asking people to collaborate willingly is a better methodology than trying to force a structure upon a police service. Do you agree?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I agree with that point. My only other observation goes back to what I said earlier; ultimately, this is for the public good. The public can have a different experience in different areas, as in the example you just gave: you can have two chief executives, of the police service and the fire service, coming together in an effective relationship and making collaboration work, yet just down the road, across the county boundary, that has not happened. Is that the type of service we want, in terms of it being that diverse, across England and Wales?
Q You said that the sharing of good practice was patchy across the country; do you think that further collaboration will increase or reduce the speed at which good practice is shared across the country?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I think it will increase it.
So that will be a good thing?
Chief Superintendent Thomas: To give an example, I quoted the HMIC report; as a result of that we were collectively involved in a piece of work about how to take it forward. That produced a report called “Reshaping policing for the public” and as a result of that there is now a board within policing trying to look at how we transform the service in terms of wider collaboration, looking at workforce specialist capabilities, the digitalising of the service, local policing and the business enablers that create collaboration effectively. So a lot of work is being done to share practice and ideas.
This is quite an important issue in the Bill and I want to make sure that anybody who wants to pursue a point, particularly on collaboration, has the opportunity to do so. Will anyone who wants to do that signify now to me?
Q On collaboration, the police and the fire service are two distinct services. Although both require a high level of public trust, I suggest that the fire and rescue service is more of a humanitarian service. What are your thoughts on merging those two services? Do you think that would blur the distinction between the two?
Steve White: There has to be a clear distinction, in relation to the professionalism and the role, between the two organisations, if only for the benefit of the public; we need to make sure that they understand what service they can expect from the two services. I think that they do anyway. As for collaboration and making efficiency savings, I used to work in a police station, St George in Bristol, which was an old Victorian building. The front was a police station and the back was the old fire station. To an extent, this is not a new idea; it is what we did years ago. Provided there is that distinction, in terms of the professionalising of both services, of course, we will continue to work closely together; we already do, as I said.
Does it make sense to have one workshop working on fire engines and police cars? Of course it does, because that is clearly something that could be managed. However, do we think it is a good idea to have the fire service knocking on people’s doors and doing welfare checks? It is all very well until you have to do something else where you require a power. Most things in policing are not just straightforward. You cannot just say, “Go and knock on the door and make sure someone is okay,” because the police have had a call about a concern for welfare. When there really is a concern, you need the resources that the police service has to deal with the issue. If someone answers the door and says, “No, I’m fine”, are we going to say, “Can we check your smoke alarms as well, since we’re here?”? I just think it is a dilution of the professionalism of the two services and we need to be careful about that mission creep, accepting that there are areas where we can come back. We have had joint emergency service control rooms in various parts of the country in the past, with varying degrees of success, to be fair.
Of course, when you compare the demand on the fire service with the demand on the police service, it really is significantly different. I think there are opportunities there but there need to be distinct arms of the fire service and the police service.
Ben Priestley: In response to that question, I want to raise a development that has taken place in Durham police, which in a sense contextualises what the Government are aiming to do in the Bill around emergency services collaboration. Durham police now employs—with some local government funding, I think—two or three police community support officers who are also first responders and, by virtue of their job descriptions, retained firefighters. What degree of split those individuals have in respect of those three roles is difficult to determine at this early stage.
However, reading the Bill, I am confused by the provision entitled
“Prohibition on employment of police in fire-fighting”.
I am confused about whether that means that once the Bill is enacted those PCSOs in Durham will have to stop their retained firefighting duties. Because it says very clearly,
“No member of a police force may be employed by a fire and rescue authority or a relevant chief constable for the purpose of—
(a) extinguishing fires”.
I think you can personify the issue with those roles that Durham has invested in—presumably on the basis that it is an innovative, collaborative project—and the provision in the Bill that appears to prevent that, for the good reason that Steve has just pointed out, which is that there needs to be clear demarcation between the roles of firefighters and those working in policing. The Bill seems to present an impediment to that. I pose that as a question that might be explored at Committee stage.
Q I want to pick up on the point about the distinct roles. Nobody is suggesting that policemen should be fighting fires and firemen should be arresting criminals. I want to focus on the PCC responsibility for fire. Do you not agree that that will address some of the barriers that we have seen in some cases, where there has not been as much collaboration and integration between the two? The Bill still recognises the flexibility for that local case to be made, with different models within that. Finally—this is three questions in one—this also provides some direct accountability to the public from fire authorities to the PCCs.
Before you answer that, there are two further questions on this area. I will take those and then, once we have responses, we can move on to another theme.
Q I have a very specific question, given that this part of the Bill applies only to England, and policing in Wales is not a devolved matter. Are there any implications for Wales and are there any cross-border implications of this proposal for collaboration?
Q It pains me a little to hear words such as “there is no evidence” of collaboration work. I think it was mentioned “as we are approaching it at present”. We have seen examples from fire and ambulance services around the country, where they use first responders incredibly well, and it increases the level of service at little extra cost. Is this not about a culture and an ethos? In fact, is it not empire building and something that you guys need to sort out, rather than our having to legislate for?
There is quite a lot to go at there. Who wants to start? Chief Superintendent Thomas.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I’ll have a go. In terms of efficiencies and accountability, I agree. Within the Bill at the moment there is a gap, which I think has been left open for consideration, around inspection and standards. At the moment, HMIC is the inspectorate body for the service. In terms of taking this forward, in my judgment it makes sense that if it comes under the arrangement of the PCC, both fire and police should come under the same inspectorate, to have the same standards and ultimately to have that transparency—that voice—for the public, which is what HMIC is, in terms of ensuring that the standards are maintained by both services. In my judgment, I urge the Committee to think about where that would place HMIC under that arrangement.
We have said already that there are efficiencies, and these are being demonstrated in areas of good practice across the country—in joint procurement, estate and so on. Ultimately, this is public money that we are trying to spend, so if we can get the best effect for the money we are spending to deliver services to the public, in my judgment that is good.
On your question about Wales and cross-border implications, there could potentially be some issues there. We have forces that border Welsh forces. My home force, Gloucestershire, neighbours Wales, but I cannot give you any specific examples that I can see of where there would be tensions. In terms of being professional, we would work through that on an everyday basis.
On first responders and culture, I agree with you. I said earlier that when you are talking about a big change, culture is always a key element, particularly in bringing two organisational cultures together to make things more effective. I think we are more open to new ideas. There was your example of first responders. There are examples outside this country where that has been done. Ireland has done some work on using that, and I think that was quoted in the consultation. We are open to that, but the point I was trying to make earlier is that the significant cultural issues within the two organisations should not be underestimated, and it would take some time to work through those if the arrangement came under a single PCC organisation.
Steve White: In relation to your first question, on accountability, in my 27 years of policing experience I have never seen working closely with the fire service as a particularly problematic issue. I have seen many issues with the police service trying very hard to collaborate with other agencies, such as social services and health. You could probably say that on a day-to-day basis we actually do more of that, and that is probably something that needs to be resolved on a day-to-day basis, as opposed to the accountability of the fire service and the police service. What about the way that we collaborate with social services? On a Friday at five o’clock, social services offices close their doors and then, all of a sudden, reports of missing people and children come in, and the police service has to deal with it. That is a much more important area of work, because we work very closely with the fire service. In terms of accountability, yes, of course there needs to be accountability around that.
I question whether a lot of PCCs actually have the physical ability to take on not just the work that they are doing in the police service, but the work with the fire service. I cannot answer that question, but much more thought and work needs to be done on other areas of collaboration that ought to work much more effectively. That is probably more important. To be fair, there is not an issue with the fire service—that is really what I am saying; we work really well together. There are the examples that I have mentioned about sharing some back-office functions, resources and workshops, and those will, of course, provide efficiencies. I am fairly relaxed about the other issue of first responders. We use the resources that we have and if we can have access to those resources and use them in a different way, I think that makes perfect sense.
On Welsh devolution, the position of the Police Federation of England and Wales is that the devolution of policing in Wales is a political decision, but that has to be taken in the round with the political context in Wales and what happens with further devolved powers for other areas there. I suggest that there needs to be some consistency, though, because again, the public can get awfully confused otherwise. There also needs to be a recognition that sometimes we require not just the police service, but the fire service, to deal with things outside their areas through some form of mutual aid, so it is important that we have consistency. Whoever is in charge of the fire service in Wales, or the fire service in England, we need to make sure that we have that consistency of standard and interoperability.
Ben Priestley: The Home Affairs Committee reviewed the progress that police and crime commissioners have made. When it published its report—albeit that was two years ago—the Committee said that it was too early to determine whether the introduction of police and crime commissioners had been a success. It said that even by 2016—this year—it would probably be too difficult to assess that and that it would need a further term. The Government are therefore pushing ahead on the PCC project very quickly. As Steve indicated, the question is whether the Bill is trying to fix a problem that does not actually exist. Given that collaboration is taking place and the current democratic structures appear to be working reasonably well, do police and crime commissioners have the capacity to take on this new role?
There is a bigger question about which roles the Government have decided to give to PCCs and which they have not. Two years ago the Government took the decision to break up the probation service in England and Wales and privatise most of it. That comes back to Steve’s point about which of the services the police service would partner with most naturally. Arguably, in terms of agency, the probation service is closer to the police service than the fire and rescue service is. Yet the Government made a clear decision to keep police and crime commissioners totally out of the procurement for the new contracts to provide probation services locally. They would not be given powers to commission services for the care and rehabilitation of offenders in communities, notwithstanding the close partnership between police and probation. We need to ask why the Government are doing this for the fire and rescue service when they did not do it for the probation service.
On democratic accountability, the Bill’s proposals about the future role of police and crime panels are not sketched out well. If the Government get their way on merging police and fire, there is no proposal in the Bill to rename the crime and policing panels. One would expect “fire” to at least appear in the title, if one were encouraging the public to understand what the new scrutiny body is doing. Perhaps we should even change the name of the police and crime commissioner; there is no mention of fire in his or her title.
However, I think that there is another issue about democracy that is more fundamental. It appears from the Bill that the Government, through the offices of the Secretary of State, will eventually be able to mandate merger in circumstances where a police and crime commissioner wants it, but where the fire and rescue authority does not. At the end of the day, the Government can mandate that. That is not good for democratic accountability, and it is certainly something that we, as a trade union, would want to challenge.
I have sat and listened for a considerable time to the answers to the questions. I know four of you very well, although I do not know Mr Priestley at all. We have talked outside this room and I have seen huge amounts of collaboration taking place. What amazes me is that, when my colleague asked a moment ago, “Give me an example of where collaboration has worked”, there was almost complete silence from the federation and the Police Superintendents Association, although your members are out there doing it. There is a brand new fire station in Winchester that is also a police station, with an armed response unit in the yard. If the witnesses were outside this room and not on the panel, I am sure they would agree—because they have said so to me before—that it is very difficult when there are areas that refuse to collaborate. The purpose of the Bill is to bring that forward. When you were giving evidence a few moments ago, why did you not say that there is a huge amount of collaboration but it is not across the force? What really worried me is that, when asked about the effect on Wales, Mr Thomas said that yes, there would be an effect, but he had no idea what it would be. That is an unbelievable thing to say. When you said that there would be an effect on Wales, but could not tell us what it would be, what did you mean? Perhaps you could elaborate on the areas where collaboration is taking place very well and those where it is not, which the panel and you and I know to exist.
There is a bit of a challenge there. We need to get responses, but I am anxious that we move on. There are many areas of the Bill that we have not yet covered.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I will go back to what I said earlier. My overriding concern goes back to the comments on respecting previous collaboration arrangements and the experience of the citizen being different in different parts of the country, even in a neighbouring county—it goes back to the heart of the issue. The term “consistency” is used a lot in inspectorate reports at the moment. How do we get consistency? I am absolutely in favour of localism and local favour in delivering our services, but some of those services are absolutely critical to the safety of our fellow citizens, so getting a level of consistency across the country is a goal that we must achieve.
Going back to the point about Wales, the macro example is going to provide inconsistency because the Bill does not address that element with Wales and not England, so it does provide an element of inconsistency on that point. However, as Steve has just said, it is for the Welsh Assembly to make that decision.
Steve White: May I come back to the point on collaboration? I made the point that PFEW’s position is that collaboration could still work a lot better. I gave some examples where it is working effectively, but that is not to say that everything is working perfectly. You are right, Minister, that we have had conversations outside these rooms about some of the frustrations that our members bring to us where collaboration does not work as well as it should. In one of my previous answers I said there are a number of reasons for that: some of it is ego; some of it is political pressure; some of it is just trying to get people to work together. In the current structure of 43 forces, with 43 chiefs and 43 PCCs, it is sometimes very challenging to get them to agree on what they are going to let go in terms of control and how it is going to work.
The culture of the service is beginning to change. Yes, there are examples of good collaboration out there, but I still think that there are many more opportunities where collaboration could be even more effective, up to the point of reducing the number of forces we have in England and Wales, to make that collaboration and the efficiencies and learning that can be gained from it. Why do we still have a service that does things, in the vast of majority of instances, 43 different ways? It makes no sense.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: May I make a quick observation on that? Steve has just made a good point. Under the current arrangements, as I said earlier, the decision is made within the police and crime commissioner arrangements. The power to make a national decision around consistency is not there at the moment—it is a vacuum.
I will take two quick questions, one from Carolyn Harris and one from Mims Davies, then we will move on.
Okay. Can you respond to that and I will then bring in Jack Dromey who has several points to make. Then we can take it from there.
Steve White: In my experience, we already work incredibly effectively, certainly in my own force of Avon and Somerset. The recent floods in Somerset are a prime example of where excellent work is done through collaboration. Whether or not it needs to be mandated through legislation is a matter for yourselves, I suppose. The police service is a can-do organisation; we make things work.
Q Thank you for your sharp-end experience answers on parts 1 and 3 of the Bill. You have been very helpful. May I ask you to turn to part 2 of the Bill on police complaints, discipline and investigation? Is the IPCC fit for purpose?
Chief Superintendent Curtis: There is absolutely no doubt that the police service needs an independent, effective organisation that can act on behalf of the public to ensure that police complaints are dealt with effectively. We and our members have had some concerns over many years around the quality of investigations from the IPCC and the timeliness of investigations. Those concerns have not been allayed in recent years. We have many meetings with senior members of the IPCC where these issues are raised, and we are still not satisfied that the IPCC is delivering a good service to members of the police service and, more importantly, to the public.
Steve White: In short, the answer is no. In terms of the faith that the service and our members have in the IPCC, there are significant concerns. There is a recognition, from a Police Federation of England and Wales perspective, that there is no room in the service for people who are corrupt and for officers who do not adhere to the standards of conduct; we have no interest in keeping those people within the service. However, we also have a significant interest in ensuring that there is an independent authority or commission with the appropriate powers to effectively investigate in a timely and professional manner the complaints made on a daily basis against our members, the vast majority of which are shown to be erroneous and unfounded.
I am reluctant to use the word “crisis”, but I cannot think of an alternative—I think there is a crisis of confidence in the IPCC within the police service. While we welcome some of the changes that the Bill proposes on that, there is still a fundamental issue around having a truly independent system of investigating complaints against the police service. I do not blame the public for sometimes being confused when they hear that neighbouring forces, or indeed forces themselves, are investigating the complaints being made to them.
The PFEW position has always been that a system similar to that of Northern Ireland, with an independent ombudsman, would be much more effective. There would be greater confidence in the service in that kind of system. Recent incidents have caused deep concerns among our members in terms of their ability to have faith in the IPCC to do such an important job and to do it effectively.
Ben Priestley: From Unison’s point of view, we agree with many of the points that colleagues have made. The timeliness issue is particularly brought home when our representatives represent members in IPCC proceedings. It is very difficult when those proceedings last longer than many would think they would.
The other problem within the police service—I acknowledge that the Government have been trying to address this—is that there is no single misconduct procedure for police staff across the forces in England and Wales. Anybody looking in at the police service from the outside would regard that as slightly strange. It is certainly something that the IPCC has been lobbying hard for. I think we are at one with the Government. We have had contact with Home Office officials who wish to put through, as part of the Home Secretary’s integrity programme, a single misconduct procedure for police staff, which would align in many respects with the one that relates to police officer colleagues. That is part of the bigger picture.
Chief Superintendent Curtis: Following on from Steve’s comment about a confidence issue, there is a huge issue around proportionality and the way in which officers are dealt with for conduct issues. In my six years as a national officer for this association, the blame culture in policing has got progressively worse, and it is having a huge impact on morale and the confidence of officers to do their job. I am talking about the fact that when things go wrong, the initial assessment of what went wrong should be defining whether someone has been very bad or naughty in their job, or whether they have been human and made a mistake. That boundary has gone now, and everything seems to be pushing towards more serious misconduct. If we look at the ratio of attrition and the outcomes for gross misconduct investigations, very few of them actually result in dismissal, which is the main sanction for gross misconduct hearings.
The IPCC has a key role to play in tackling the whole issue of the blame culture in the police service. If we look at how the aviation industry has changed the way it looks at mistakes made within aviation, it is all about learning from mistakes that are made and prevention for the future. I noticed that there was an announcement last week, in relation to the NHS, that doctors and nurses are going to be provided with immunity for admitting mistakes. We now have a situation in policing where people will not hold their hands up for very minor mistakes on the basis that they feel people will come down on them like a ton of bricks. We must get back that sense of proportionality in how we deal with conduct issues in policing. The IPCC has a key role to play in that, as do police forces, but the IPCC in particular.
Q May I use the Chair’s prerogative? There is an interesting dichotomy between, on one hand, someone who makes a misjudgment or human error and, on the other hand, someone who wilfully commits an act of misconduct. It is difficult to make a judgment about what was in their mind at the time when they took the action. How would you determine where that boundary is, or is it a matter of doing so case by case?
Chief Superintendent Curtis: That would come out in the investigation. Sometimes it is really clear. When dealing with corruption cases and so on, it is sometimes really clear that bad people are involved. That is where we should be focusing our efforts. Resources should go into taking bad and corrupt officers out of the service. We all want that to happen.
However, when people have made some sort of genuine error—we are all guilty of that and most of us have got away with it throughout our service when we have made mistakes—surely it is more important, particularly when a member of the public is concerned, that someone can hold their hand up, apologise and explain what happened and why they did it. We can learn from that, particularly when there are systemic issues for why the mistake happened. The service can learn from that and prevent it happening in future. We do not have that learning culture in the service because of the way the IPCC and, to be fair, forces conduct themselves. The initial assessment should make that much more clear.
If you look at the whole ethos behind the conduct regulations that were introduced in 2008, it was about making a much better distinction in the severity assessment phase. However, the severity assessment can be reviewed throughout the process, so as soon as it becomes clear from an investigation that the individual made a genuine mistake, the severity assessment should be reduced and the investigation should take a different tack.
Q May I address this to the Police Federation? Mr White, you have already adopted on a non-statutory basis changes to your core purpose—your sort of mission statement. Can you tell us what benefits your organisation has seen?
Steve White: I think, first and foremost, that the public interest element, which I think is probably what you are talking about in terms of the way the federation operates, has always been there because the organisation has been about the welfare of our officers and the efficiency of the police service. Both those strands are in the public interest. If you have a happy, healthy and efficient police service, you will provide a better service to the public. That is effectively what it means. The point I am making is that we have always done that. We are now making it completely overt that that is what we feel the Police Federation contributes to policing in this country. I think it is right and proper to make that absolutely clear.
Q I just want to come back to the point that my namesake, Mr Berry, made with respect to the barred list and officers who have left the service. The purpose of police misconduct proceedings is to promote public confidence and protect members of the public and colleagues in the force. If a serious but non-criminal allegation came to light about an officer some years after they had left, do you think the College of Policing or senior officers should have the ability to put that officer on some form of barred list or somehow flag up the fact that the allegation has arisen, so that they cannot re-enter, even if they are not going through a full-blown disciplinary procedure?
Steve White: The barred list is a new thing and, as I said earlier, we welcome officers’ ability to put themselves on it voluntarily, if you like, to deal with an issue once and for all. I guess this boils down to my argument about how long you let it happen and what the ultimate sanction will be. We are talking about non-criminal matters, so the ultimate sanction would be for someone to lose their job. If they have been out of the service for three or four years and there was a finding against the individual that was so serious they would lose their job, they are not in the employ anyway, so I am not quite sure what the benefit would be.
Q I entirely agree with you and I made this point in the Chamber, but I am asking about someone being put on some form of barred list so that they cannot get back into the service. That is what the benefit would be to the public interest and public safety.
Steve White: How would that process work? We would have an allegation, but we would not have the power to investigate or even interview the individual, so we would just have to put them on a barred list. Is that justifiable? I get what you are saying, but I am not quite sure how it could work in practice.
Q But you would support a voluntary type of system, such as the one that the General Medical Council has?
Steve White: Yes. Indeed, even if it does not go so far as a barred list, if such an individual did try to rejoin the service, one would hope that there would be something in place to indicate that there might have been a question mark somewhere. I don’t know, but I am not quite sure how it would work.
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I support Steve’s point about the opportunity for people to put themselves on to the list voluntarily. That would be a really useful inclusion. We need to look at proportionality here, and we need to think about how many cases in which these things come to light we are talking about. They are very few and far between, but there is an impact on individuals where it is a more minor case. How do you determine whether or not something is more serious? Should officers have this hanging over them? Remember that this is an employment issue, and we are not talking about a criminal issue. Should this be hanging over them for the rest of their life? I feel that that would be really unfair. We are trying to create something here to deal with a minority, but it could potentially impact on the majority. I think that that is disproportionate and unfair.
I would like to make a point regarding the five-year limit, or the publication for five years of the barred list. I wonder whether there could be some more flexibility around that. The point I raise is that there could be an officer with 26 years’ exemplary service who, due to circumstances that arise, ends up with a drink-driving conviction. They get dismissed from the service for gross misconduct and go on the barred list, and rightly so. Should that person be prevented from using the skills and experience that they gained over that 26 years, not as a police officer but in the wider policing family and supporting a policing role, because of a drink-driving conviction? I wonder whether it is a proportionate response to say that for five years that person can work in a whole range of organisations but, according to the Bill, not as a consultant for a private sector organisation that is working with the police force. There are a lot of limits on what that individual could do.
I wonder whether a solution to that might be for the independent chairs of panels, where we have them—that is a proposal that we as an association put forward—to make a recommendation in individual cases, in the light of the full facts of the circumstances, about the length of time someone should stay on a barred list. That would be instead of going for an absolute term of five years for everybody, no matter what the extent of the misconduct issue. There could be some flexibility around that, because it seems such a waste to the public of somebody’s skills and experience, and of those 26 years of exemplary service.
Q May I ask a question of clarification? Is it the length of time for which an individual remains on the barred list or the length of time for which that list is published to which you object?
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I would say it is about being on the barred list.
That is a very interesting thought. Thanks very much.
Q May I just ask one final question in relation to police complaints? You said in your evidence just now that you accept the importance of a strong, independent investigator to hold the police to the highest standards. However, Steve, you spoke about something of a crisis of confidence in the existing arrangements, and you then spoke about the specific issue of the blame culture and proportionality. Do you think that those issues are adequately addressed in the Bill?
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I am not sure how the blame culture could be addressed through a Bill, although I would be interested to see how the NHS proposals are taken forward. I would ask that the Home Office look at those from a policing perspective to see whether that is something that could be considered for policing. That would help to address the blame culture issue in policing. I am not sure that giving the current IPCC further powers actually addresses the underlying issues of investigative skill levels and time limits, which are our association’s two major concerns.
Q Can I ask a question on a different part of the Bill: part 4 on bail? In the debate on Second Reading, there was a strong view across the House, with the example of the Gambaccini case, about the legitimacy of some of the proposals in the Bill relating to people waiting for long periods of time for a decision to be made. My first question is, do you accept what is being proposed in the Bill?
Secondly, there is an issue not addressed in the Bill, which has come to be known as the Dhar clause, about what legitimate restrictions there might be to prevent people from absconding, particularly those who are accused of terrorism.
Steve White: On the pre-charge bail issue, we have a lot of empathy for people in that situation. However, in the increasingly complex world of policing and the kind of investigations that need to take place, particularly with significant and serious allegations, there needs to be a recognition that we must ensure that we get the investigation right.
We need to be able to investigate the offence appropriately, to find and access the evidence, and for the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies that need to be involved to be cognisant of timescales. Sometimes it is not the police’s decision or wish that the bail gets extended. Sometimes it is circumstances beyond our control, whether it be with the CPS or other agencies.
There needs to be a recognition that an arbitrary limit of however many days could result in people not answering to justice, because we are physically unable to make the case in that time period. Of course, there is also a significant resource issue, certainly for day-to-day district operations, regarding the physical capability of individual officers with relatively low-level cases being able to do the work they need to do in a timely manner, so that decisions can be made about charge.
This is not about the high-profile Paul Gambaccini cases; this is about the day-to-day cases, where someone has been arrested and the CPS says, “No, you need to bail them, because you now need to go out and get X, Y and Z.” For the officer, with all the other roles and responsibilities that they have got, to do that in a quick and timely manner is difficult. We have empathy; people should not be on bail for any longer than they have to be. I think the service can get better at it, but it is dangerous to have an arbitrary limit that could result in people not answering to justice.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I will answer your second question first. I think it is legitimate to look at whether, in the Dhar case, certain conditions could be placed on individuals. It is right and proper to look at that.
I have a number of wider points I want to make around the proposals on this. I acknowledge the fact that in the consultation, 65% of respondents felt there was a need to look at how we change bail. The service has been undergoing a pilot, which is being peer reviewed as we speak. Certainly, from what we have seen, the use of bail in terms of managing it, has had quite an effect on the length of time for people on bail already.
This goes to the heart of transparency and accountability. Where I have a slight concern is, where the presumption is that we will not use bail, we will still be releasing people under two types of status. If you have been in custody and are released, there is no further action. We have done an investigation while you have been in custody and the matter is closed, and you move on. Or, you are released from custody, not on bail, but still subject to investigation. That is a whole new status that I am not clear on. It falls between any sort of legal identity in our current systems.
The service is going to have to look at putting some process around that, because not only are there people on bail, there are other people in this process as well: the victims, the witnesses and the public. Policing will have to put in some sort of process to manage this. The original rationale for this proposal was that you will still have people who are subject to investigation waiting for notification from the police as to, when that investigation is concluded, whether they are going to be proceeded against in court or not. Bail provided a framework of timescales for that. Absolutely, we want swifter investigations and swifter justice.
There is another, more personal point for the association, because the proposals are that a superintendent or above would be the rank that will extend bail beyond 28 days. Since 2010, the superintendent rank has had the largest decrease in numbers, by more than 26%, so there is going to be an extra demand on that. I looked slightly with tongue in cheek when I saw the options presented in the Bill. The first option was looking at extending bail through the courts and the Crown courts; the rationale for that being, I understand, that there was a capacity issue. I have not seen a lot of detail about what the capacity issue is for my colleagues undertaking this role within the service. I shall leave that for the Committee to consider.
We have four minutes left.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I shall stop there if the Committee have no further questions.
Does any member of the Committee have a completely new question, or want to pursue something? Let us take three very quick questions.
We have three minutes left. I suggest that we take up Lyn Brown’s suggestion on firearms. It is so big a subject that we could not possibly cover it in the time available. If we could get some written evidence on that, it would be really helpful. Let us have some quick responses now on the other points.
Chief Superintendent Thomas: I shall address the question about rank. I am not wedded to the rank or the label; it is more the role and the responsibility that goes with it. As you are aware, there is a lot of work being undertaken in the service at the moment to come back with solid proposals around what that might look like.
Metin Enver: On the rank structure, we currently have a police consultative forum, which is one of those areas where this is discussed. There are so many changes afoot at the moment and our position is very similar to that of the chief superintendent.
Chief Superintendent Curtis: I covered the PCC issue earlier. The most important things are that the public have a point of contact to make a complaint to; that, where possible, that is dealt with as quickly as possible; where there is an apology to be made, that apology is made; and where an investigation needs to take place, it takes place efficiently, effectively and proportionately. We are not precious about who is the best person to do that. It is really a matter for you, but it is about making sure that, whatever is proposed, the public have that point of contact. The only question mark around that is that, if it is different in every force area, you end up with the public not quite knowing who to contact to make a complaint—is it the PCC or is it the force? I am sure that that can be resolved through process. Those are the most important issues for us: it is about the outcome we are looking for.
Metin Enver: Very quickly, on the PCC issue; at the moment, clearly, the chief constable is an apolitical figure. The service would need some reassurance that decisions are being made in an independent manner and that there is not political interference in those decisions.
As there are no further questions, may I thank the witnesses for the clear and comprehensive way that they have answered a whole range of questions? We now need to move to the next panel. Thank you very much.
Examination of Witnesses
Matt Wrack, Paul Hancock, Councillor John Edwards, Councillor Dave Hanratty, Chief Fire Officer Phil Loach and Chief Fire Officer Dave Etheridge gave evidence.
Q We will now hear evidence from the Fire Brigades Union, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities and the West Midlands fire service. We have until 11.25 am to conduct this session. For the purposes of the record, may I begin by asking the witnesses to introduce themselves?
Matt Wrack: I am Matt Wrack. I am the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: Good morning. I am David Etheridge. I am the chief fire officer for Oxfordshire County Council fire and rescue service and also the vice-president of the Chief Fire Officers Association.
Councillor Hanratty: Good morning. I am Councillor Dave Hanratty. I am the chair of Merseyside fire and rescue authority.
Chief Fire Officer Loach: I am Phil Loach. I am the chief fire officer of West Midlands fire service, attending as the representative of the AMFRA chief fire officers.
Councillor Edwards: I am John Edwards, chair of the West Midlands fire and rescue authority and also chair of AMFRA.
First, I should thank people for taking the time and trouble to appear before the Committee today. We very much appreciate the wisdom that we hope you will be able to bring to our proceedings.
Q May I ask you what effect you think transferring governance to police and crime commissioners would have on the fire service? Do you fear that PCCs will seek to raise funds via the privatisation of fire services, should governance be transferred? Do you know of any colleagues refusing to collaborate under the current system, which would need a swingeing power to place them under PCCs at the behest of the Home Secretary?
Matt Wrack: We have made our views clear: we do not support the shift in governance of fire to PCCs. There are a whole number of risks in that. We think there is no appetite within the fire and rescue service for it, and there is no public appetite for it. As was touched on in the earlier session, it begins seriously to blur the lines between the role of the fire and rescue service and the role of the police service, and the people who perform those roles. We have grave concerns about that.
On privatisation, the first concern is that this is seen widely among those within the fire and rescue service as a takeover. The police service is clearly far larger in terms of personnel, resources and so on. Fire is a much smaller public service. Nevertheless, fire has a unique reputation among our communities. Among firefighters, this will be seen as a takeover. We are concerned, in terms of the funding squeeze, that the area of the two services that would come under the greatest pressure as a result of such takeovers is fire.
On collaboration, I want to make a number of quick points that arose from the previous session. First, I think there is some confusion about different types of collaboration. Operational collaboration among fire services is built into the very fabric of the fire and rescue service. It happens every single day. For example, on the question about Wales, there will be border areas where Welsh fire stations attend daily predetermined attendances in English fire and rescue service areas. That happens on a much greater scale with major incidents and so on.
There is a huge amount of experience of collaboration over many years between fire and various agencies. We are concerned that one thing that is not being addressed in the discussion here is greater collaboration with local government. Fire is currently a local government service. We are concerned that there are very few councillors here. We do now have two councillors here, but they are from metropolitan authorities. There are no councillors here to give the views of non-metropolitan fire services. A great deal of collaboration is going on in other areas, such as the fire service and the ambulance service, and the fire service and social services, but, again, there is nobody here from ambulance trusts to give evidence to the Bill Committee.
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: From a Chief Fire Officers Association angle, the most important thing is that we fully welcome the move of fire into the Home Office. We think that that is the right thing to do for national resilience and national security, and we think that it will enhance the way in which the conversations can take place, at a very strategic level, about managing the risk to the UK. It is a very positive move.
On the governance issue regarding PCCs, CFOA’s position has been very clear: where there is a local need and a local business case, and where that will make a positive impact on efficiency, effectiveness and, most importantly, public safety, we feel it is entirely appropriate for there to be a conversation around the governance model that oversees the fire service. However, the most important thing is where that local case is made.
A patchwork of different governance structures sits over the whole UK, but it is a patchwork quilt that knits together well and operates effectively. The fire service is held in very high public esteem and we need to ensure that we can maintain that. To support what Matt from the Fire Brigades Union said, when it comes to operational delivery, we have a seamless approach of that blue light emergency delivery right across the UK. I absolutely believe that the emergency services in the UK are the best in the world.
Q Does either Councillor Edwards or Councillor Hanratty want to say anything about the governance issue from the point of view of elected members?
Councillor Edwards: Certainly, we have no problem with collaboration. We collaborate all the time and we have been doing so for many years. The most recent example across the country is the national fire control collaborations that we have done after the national failure of the regional controls some time ago. There are many examples. As Matt said, every day the fire service collaborates with the police, the ambulance service and other services at emergency incidents. We have no problem at all with that and we are looking for better ways to collaborate all the time. The problem with a forced takeover of the governance of fire and rescue authorities is that it puts some of that collaboration in jeopardy. If we are going to be engaged in a prolonged discussion with a local PCC about a merger or a takeover—possibly a hostile takeover—it will detract from the collaborative efforts in which we are currently engaged. It will be a distraction.
An absolute concern of mine in the face of a hostile bid for the fire and rescue service is the impact on the neutrality of the fire service. We are not a law and order service. We have access to communities and individual residences where people welcome the fire service and will share a lot of information with us. We work with lots of disadvantaged young people and people who are sometimes on the edge of the criminal justice system and we bring them back into the mainstream. We would start to lose some of our impact in the event of a loss of our neutrality.
My other concern about a takeover is that, in the metropolitan area—I speak on behalf of the six mets—we are all engaged, in one way or another, in some form of devolution pathway. We are going to be in a situation next year, if we are not careful, where one part of government is telling the elected mayor that he should be looking at us and the other part is telling the PCC they should be looking at us. Our favoured route is with the combined authorities and the elected mayor—that is where we naturally fit as part of local government. We have done lots of work with our local councils in delivering a very wide health and wellbeing and prevention agenda. We have a lot in common with the police; we have a lot more in common with our local authorities and the health services. That is the track we are engaged on.
Councillor Hanratty: We have to be very careful what we wish for here. The PCCs were an experiment. We are still in the very early stages of the transition and how the PCC will work and operate. I think the police service has a lot to contend with in today’s society. When you look at the implications of the Bill on the police force, I think they just need to get on with the job. The fire and police services are unique. The fire service is very unique—we are the envy of the world. Why would you want to disrupt, disturb or disband that? We get through more thresholds than any other organisation in the public sector. The work is not just about saving lives; it is about changing lives. We have proved that time and time again. We are a very efficient and effective service and we need to get on with the job.
Regarding collaboration: we have been doing it on a daily basis for a number of years. I know the fire Minister is due to visit Merseyside and we will prove to him exactly the types of collaboration we are undertaking at the moment. It is not just with the police or the ambulance service; it is with the health service, local authorities and any other partner that will engage with us. We are at the forefront of looking at public services and how we can assist in reducing the overall burden on the health agenda. We can impact on that. We are doing a fantastic job. Why would you want to change it?
Q Could you say a word about coterminosity and the devolution settlement in your region—our region?
Councillor Hanratty: At the moment, the boundaries of police and fire are similar. The issue we have at the moment is that the ongoing discussion about Liverpool city region includes Halton, which is part of Cheshire. The issue among local authorities is whether Halton should come into the Liverpool city region. That is not for us to get involved with. We have said we will go along with the Liverpool city region bid. If it comes to the discussion in the next term and our ask for the city region, the fire service would happily engage with those discussions, as we do at the moment.
Q Mr Wrack, this question is to you. In your response to the spending review, you said that the Government’s modelling of the fire service was dangerous and ludicrous. You described the PCC proposals in the Bill as “parochial” and “maverick-driven”. You said they would put the public at risk. Today, again, you are saying that the proposals are dangerous. I have two questions. First, would you agree that using this kind of language is simply scaremongering and brave firefighters will keep the public safe, regardless of what model they work under?
Secondly, would you agree that these comments are driven by your view of PCCs—you made clear in the document that they are a failed model? In fact, many PCCs are doing a very good job and we will hear from some in this Committee.
Matt Wrack: In terms of the PCC model, we do not apologise: we are critical of that model. We think there is a good tradition of local government in the UK; it is a very good model, and fire sits within it. As I have said, we are slightly alarmed that no one from the elected member side is giving evidence in terms of their experience—outside the mets—of delivering a local authority fire and rescue service in the current situation.
But putting that to one side, the PCCs are in. We are now debating the question whether there should be the power for PCCs to put in a bid to take over the fire and rescue service. We are very concerned about that for a number of reasons, which we have put in our response to the consultation. That is on grounds of professionalism. I think some of my colleagues on the panel have highlighted that. The fire service is a unique brand that has pioneered collaborative working in many areas of public services, has pioneered preventive work and has pioneered community engagement. Anything that puts that at risk should be closely scrutinised, and we think there are risks in terms of the model that is proposed—the PCC takeover—of doing exactly that.
We have not got on to it, but there is also the question of the single employer model. Clearly, as a trade union, we have concerns about our members’ terms and conditions, as we are, rightly, entitled to do. There is a whole host of questions in relation to that area that have not been answered in terms of where we are with the Bill currently.
I want to be careful about this. It is a perfectly legitimate line of questioning, but I am anxious that this session should not become about just one issue or one organisation, because there is a lot of expertise to be had, for the benefit of the Committee and therefore the Bill. It is a legitimate line of questioning, but I do not want it to dominate the proceedings. Do you want to come back on that, James?
Q The reason why I asked the question was that they are very serious allegations. No one wants the dangerous situation that Mr Wrack described in his written documents so, Mr Etheridge, could I ask whether you agree with the FBU’s analysis as it was put in the written documents to which I have referred?
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: Partly.
We will now hear from Jack Dromey.
Q There are two issues. I will come back to what James said in a moment, but the first and a dominant issue is this. You have said in your evidence that you already co-operate; and that you are in favour of greater co-operation and integration, not just with police but with a range of statutory providers including local government. By the way, on that, presumably you are not opposed, therefore, to strengthening a duty to co-operate. Can we, then, come to this question? Is it the case, from what is being said by the fire service, that you are not proposing that there should be circumstances in which there could be a “hostile takeover”, to use the words of John Edwards, by a PCC of a fire service?
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: That is a very good question. The whole issue of collaboration is, for me, very much based around common sense: what is the right thing to do for the local citizen? We can look at all the emergency services. We can look at fire combinations and collaborative working. If the challenge of the leadership is to try to zip up those organisations from the citizen to the state, it takes on a very different feel around that service delivery.
A huge amount of collaboration is going on across the UK. Lots of it goes on in a very silent way where fire is involved with things such as cadet schemes and Prince’s Trust schemes. We are involved with things such as Fire Fit campaigns in schools. We now have fire services up and down the UK that collaborate with local authorities on road safety—they oversee the road safety team. A huge amount of work goes on. So we do not necessarily need a duty to collaborate to collaborate. However, what is very important, and one thing that we therefore welcome from this duty to collaborate, is that it will, we think, have great potential to speed up the process around collaboration.
If that is supported by some effective benchmarking to understand what is going on in the service—a couple of those issues were touched on by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office in relation to the effectiveness of fire and rescue—I think there is an opportunity to smarten up the way we work with that collaboration, but I really would emphasise that when we start to talk about collaboration it seems as if we are coming from a new place, where we have never touched this before. Over one third of fire and rescue services in the UK now co-respond with ambulance services. The outcome of that for the citizens of the UK is fantastic. There are people walking around now in this country who would not be if the fire and rescue service had not got involved with that.
That takes leadership, an enormous amount of courage and a big leap of faith, from unions and the leadership of the service, and from clinical governance around ambulance services. It is a huge step, but it is one of those things where we will have a conversation in 10 years’ time saying, “I can’t believe we didn’t do that 15 years ago.” There is an enormous amount of work going on.
Chief Fire Officer Loach: I would just like to add, and bring a little bit to the discussion, that this should not be seen as just opportunistic ways to involve ourselves with other agencies. This all comes from the heart of integrated risk management planning. We look at who we should be collaborating with to reduce vulnerability from fire or fire service-related emergency incidents. We then seek to see if we can add value to other public services at the same time. So I think any actions taken going forward that would jeopardise our ability to do that should be carefully considered.
Matt Wrack: I think Mr Dromey’s final point about the possibility of a hostile takeover is one area where there is particular concern within the fire and rescue service—that, if the business case is not found to be convincing within the fire and rescue service, or other areas of local government, for example, that are currently responsible, the idea that effectively that could be forced through by the Secretary of State causes considerable concern among a number of partners in the fire and rescue service.
In the words, therefore, of Dave Etheridge, a conversation—yes; greater collaboration—yes; but you are not supporting the notion of the potential hostile takeover? Is that the view of the fire service?
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: Are you asking me that question? Absolutely—very clearly, if there is a local need, if there is a business case, predominantly that must be around public safety. Clearly there are some police and crime commissioners who are very ambitious. There are some police and crime commissioners who come from very different angles on things. Our role as the professional leaders of the service, therefore, is to ensure that we are the guardians of the service; but we are also here to ensure that the future is very positive around the service. Therefore we are a big advocate of making sure that, if there is a business case, that is based around public safety. We have spoken already about the demarcation lines between services, and I think the Bill is clear around ensuring that a firefighter remains a firefighter.
I think that is clear.
Q I wanted to ask a question to Councillor John Edwards. Do you not agree that, for the public, it is quite helpful to have one accountable person? With the police and crime commissioners, it has really improved things for the public, having one person that they can go to with issues. I heard many of the same things when the police and crime commissioners were being mooted, from the police authorities, that I now hear from members of fire authorities. Do you not think it would be helpful for the public to have one person to go to? Also, dealing with operational issues will remain with the professional lead in the fire service. The issue is about the fire authority, not the fire officers.
Councillor Edwards: I think there is absolute sense in what you say. In my experience as a chair of a fire authority we have the best of both worlds. We have a person—the chair of the authority—to whom most of the public relate. We are the best-known member of the fire authority, for obvious reasons.
Q Do you think most members of the public know who is on the fire authority?
Councillor Edwards: I think they do. I think certainly the correspondence that I get—directly, and the contact through social media—makes it really clear that there is a wide understanding of what the fire authority is and who chairs it; but we also have enough members on the fire authority to do the governance and accountability. We have a scrutiny committee, for instance, that holds the service and me to account. It is more difficult to do that with one person.
I am not arguing for no change. We are in a devolved area. We are embracing change. We are embracing our combined authority but embracing the potential move to an elected mayor in 2017. I am not against change, but I also think that a service like the fire and rescue service needs an accountable body of some sort to hold it to account and to provide the governance. I have seen no evidence that the police and crime commissioner could do that any more effectively than the fire and rescue authority does.
This seems to be a theme that the Committee is anxious to discuss. I want to pursue it, but I am also aware that we only have 15 minutes left. I propose that anyone who wants to say anything about this particular theme—the accountability and visibility of the police and crime commissioner—pursues it now, and we will then hopefully move on to other things.
Before you answer that, I will try to take all the different questions.
Q I just wonder how a fire authority with individuals who are appointed to it—they are not elected by members of the public—can possibly be as democratically accountable to the public as a police and crime commissioner whose name is on the ballot paper when it comes to the election.
Q I think we perhaps have forgotten in this room that, in many cases, the general public—the people who we serve—voted against there being mayors and one person who might have this kind of control. The issue around PCCs is that there are going to be elections in May without the public, who voted against the mayoral system, knowing that mayors are going to be responsible for PCCs. Do you think that that might equate to a democratic deficit?
Q I have two questions, if I may. First, it was mentioned earlier that there was nobody here representing the ambulance service. However, I know that Phil Loach, as well as leading the West Midlands fire service, also sits as a governor for the West Midlands ambulance service. It was said earlier that a third of collaboration happens between fire and ambulance services; does that mean two thirds does not? I wonder if he could give us a view on that. Secondly, I want to go back to Matt Wrack’s earlier comment that a PCC takeover would be dangerous. Do you all agree?
I am going to bring Jake Berry in and then try to get some quick responses, before we move on.
I think they will.
I know there is quite a lot in there, but it is all pretty much around the same theme. Shall I start with Councillor Edwards?
Councillor Edwards: On the appointed versus elected argument made by Amanda Milling, members of fire authorities are elected in their own local areas. I chair West Midlands fire and rescue authority. I am a member in Sandwell and was then nominated to the fire authority by Sandwell Council. We have an arrangement: there is a provision in the Act that established the fire and rescue authorities for a section 41 member—that is me. I report back to Sandwell Council on matters concerning the fire and rescue authority, and members of the public can come to Sandwell Council and ask me questions directly about what I do in that role. There is a very good record there on accountability.
The current governance arrangements have worked since 1986, when the fire authorities were put in place. I do not think anybody has had a problem with accountability in the fire and rescue service. I think everybody well understands the fire authority concept—it has been there a long time—and they know how that works. It contains scrutiny arrangements that hold the fire and rescue service to account. I do not think it is flawed.
Q I think that was a specific response, but it did not actually answer my question, which was: how are the current governance arrangements better—not how long have they worked—than what is proposed in the Bill?
Councillor Edwards: I am actually not arguing for the current arrangements. All the mets are caught up in a devolution agenda. There will be change, within that agenda, in how the fire authorities work. We need to explore what that will look like with elected mayors and the combined authority, but there will be a change in governance anyway. In some ways, what I am saying is that we are going to change at some point in the very near future. Do we need an additional change in the meantime by moving to a PCC? Two changes in possibly four years might be a little bit wasteful. It is like digging a road up twice. Why would we do it? The change we want is through the combined authority and the elected mayors.
Q We are heading for the buffers in terms of time, so I will ask each of the respondents to be as brief as they possibly can. The Committee needs to understand that they will answer the questions in their own way, and it is for them to determine how they answer; there is not time for us to come back and cross-examine them. Mr Phil Loach, is there anything that you would like to add?
Chief Fire Officer Loach: The question that was originally asked is whether scrutiny arrangements would be better, or whether they are better. I cannot answer that question. I do not know, because the PCCs may be something in the future. All I can say is that the scrutiny arrangements at the moment are effective, which should be seen by our successful track record in reducing incidents and engaging on a wider agenda.
On the specific question about ambulances, it is a rapidly developing picture. Indeed, the health agenda has come up as probably the single most important agenda on which the fire service should be engaging, not only to complement the reduction in its own incidents, but to contribute to a wider vulnerability agenda. Although it may be one third, half or up to two thirds, it is a rapidly developing picture. The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives recently updated its position to support things such as co-responding and wider engagement, and we should seek to keep open the widest channels of collaboration to allow us to engage not only through the ambulance service, but through social care in local authorities as well.
Councillor Hanratty: As I said earlier, I think we have to be careful about what we wish for. At the present moment, the dialogue that we have with the PCCs is very good, very constructive and very forward thinking. Our doors are open for discussions with any of the public services. That has been proven, and again I defer back to the Minister.
When you have a major incident, as we had with the floods up in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Merseyside fire and rescue service is there to assist. When we had the two major incidents in Cheshire and the one in Didcot, Merseyside fire and rescue service was there to assist. We are a highly professional organisation—a first-class emergency service.
The problem we have now is that all our staff are looking over their shoulder and thinking about whether their job is going to be in jeopardy. Morale is low because of that. We need to get on with the job. Our actions speak for themselves.
The accountability is a lot better than it used to be. I could ask the same question of the PCCs. How many people voted for the PCC? There is a question for you. Are they known within the local community? That is another question for you. Do they need to have a higher profile? Yes, of course they do. Do the chairs of fire authorities, or the fire authorities as organisations, need to have a better profile? They probably do, but our communication, organisation and collaboration work is absolutely first class. I invite any of you to come along to Merseyside, and to the other metropolitan authorities, to see the fantastic work that we do.
Chief Fire Officer Etheridge: I have a couple of points. First, a point was made earlier about the members of fire authorities not being directly elected, but being appointed. For the benefit of the Committee, there are 14 county council fire and rescue services in the UK, so those councils have a fire and rescue service within them. I am in one within Oxfordshire, so the members that oversee Oxfordshire fire and rescue service are directly elected. I have a scrutiny panel, really, of 62 elected members. Believe me, I am scrutinised and my performance is scrutinised. Of course, the service produces a performance report and we are required to put our annual statement of assurances in to central Government.
The key thing for me here—this is certainly the view of the Chief Fire Officers Association—is that some of the elements that came out of the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and our current work with the Home Office on the reform agenda on openness and transparency need to be supported by an effective set of benchmarks. When they are established, it will be lot easier for services to be held to account and for individual chief fire officers to be held to account, regardless of the governance model over the top of them. We are certainly keen to make sure that the fire and rescue service covering the UK is open and that its performance can be challenged.
Matt Wrack: I have three quick points. First, on the current model versus what is proposed, we have disagreements with a whole range of politicians on many occasions, but we have political balance in the current system, both at a local level and nationally in terms of fire service employers. That allows a lot of collaborative work.
I want to pick up on one other point that people have made about some of the groundbreaking work that has been done on co-responding. That has been pioneered through joint work between the Fire Brigades Union and the national employers, without any involvement by central Government at all. That is being done currently. It is groundbreaking and it is possibly the biggest change in the fire service in our lifetime. That is being done under the current arrangements.
On the argument that police and crime commissioners would be more accountable, the proposal is that someone would stand for PCC election without responsibility for fires, so people would be voting for someone to be a PCC without responsibility for fires, but they may subsequently take over that responsibility and, by the way, they may do so whether the local community agrees or does not agree with it. Again, it is not just the views of those in the fire and rescue service but the views of local communities that should be taken into account in any such discussion.
The next question may have to be the last for this set of witnesses.
Q My question is about any concerns that your members and staff may have about the perceived lack of independence from the police. I am assuming there are concerns. If there are, could you highlight the key ones?
Matt Wrack: That view has been expressed very clearly by the union, but it is a very big concern for firefighters at a local level who, every single day, do pioneering work that has been developed probably over the past 15 years, as was touched on earlier. Youth engagement and fire safety inspections are now much wider. There are some fantastic trials, for example in Greater Manchester, where the fire service is working closely with social services and health. That means getting access into people’s homes—I think Steve White from the Police Federation touched on this earlier—and failing to recognise the very distinct roles puts that at risk. The idea that a single employer with a single chief executive does not blur those lines misses some serious points.
Chief Fire Officer Loach: There is an operational uncertainty in terms of neutrality and impartiality. We deal with vulnerable people and we need to make sure that that remains unfettered. From a governance or strategic management perception, we need to understand and be assured that budgets would remain separate and that the fire service would be funded according to its integrated risk management plan, not necessarily on the grounds of affordability against policing.
Councillor Hanratty: This is about the trust for individuals who are going into a person’s home. Last year, the fire service nationally carried out around 670,000 home fire safety checks. In Merseyside, it carried out about 50,000. If there is any suggestion that we are reliant on the police, we may not get through those thresholds. We know that the risk elements for people are changing. They are living longer, there is more independent living and there are more mental health issues. If we do not get across those thresholds, those people will be more vulnerable and will become a higher risk, and they will be more prone to be caught up in a fire and a fire death. We need to prevent that as best we can.
I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted to the Committee to ask questions. I thank the witnesses for their forbearance, the wisdom they have imparted to us and their evidence.
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.