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Volume 720: debated on Monday 26 July 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement about a consultation paper I am publishing today. Called Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting Police and the People, it sets out the most radical reforms to policing in at least 50 years. For this Government, police reform is a priority, not just because we inherited the worst public finances of any major economy, but because for far too long the police have become disconnected from the communities they serve. They have been bogged down by bureaucracy, and they have answered to distant politicians instead of the people. Crime remains too high, too many families and communities suffer from anti-social behaviour, and barely half the public are confident that important local issues are dealt with. Meanwhile, the challenges we face have changed. Terrorism and the growth in serious organised crime and cybercrime all require new approaches that cross not just police force boundaries but international borders.

First, we will transfer power back to the people. We will introduce directly elected police and crime commissioners by 2012. The commissioners will set the police budget, determine police force priorities, and have the power to hire, and when necessary fire, their chief constable. To help the public hold their local police force to account, we will publish local crime data and mandate beat meetings so that people can challenge the performance of their neighbourhood policing teams.

Secondly, we will return professional responsibility to police officers. Front-line staff will no longer be form writers but crime fighters, freed up from bureaucracy and central guidance and trusted to get on with their jobs. We have scrapped the policing pledge. We have got rid of the confidence target. We will restore police discretion over charging decisions for particular offences. We will limit the reporting requirements for stop and search, and we will scrap the stop form in its entirety.

Thirdly, we will shift the focus of government. As the Home Affairs Select Committee noted during the last Parliament, the last Government tried to micromanage local policing but failed to support forces effectively on national issues. We will build on the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency to create a more powerful National Crime Agency, which will tackle organised crime and protect our borders. We will phase out the National Policing Improvement Agency and scrap Labour’s plans for a statutory police senior appointments panel. We will discuss with the Association of Chief Police Officers the way forward in its role as a professional leadership body.

Fourthly, we will make the police more efficient at force, regional and national levels so that front-line local policing can be sustained. To this end, we are already consulting separately on police procurement regulations to get better value for taxpayers’ money.

Fifthly, we will unleash the power of community pride and civic responsibility so that people can come together to cut crime. We will look for a cost-effective way to establish 101 as a single police non-emergency number so that it is easier to report crime and anti-social behaviour, and we will do more to encourage active citizens to become special constables, community crime fighters and members of neighbourhood watch groups.

There is nothing inevitable about crime. That is why we are determined to press ahead with these reforms. They demonstrate our determination to undo the damage of the Labour years, to put the people back in charge, and to rid our communities of crime, anti-social behaviour and disorder. I commend this Statement to the House.”

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary in another place and for her letter notifying me of the review and inviting views.

Passing over the pejorative paragraph, repeated by the Government ad nauseam, about public finances, I am struck by the rhetorical style of the Statement, with phrases such as,

“power back to the people”.

I know that the Minister bears no resemblance to Wolfie Smith, but the Home Secretary’s call sounds to me more like that of the Tooting Popular Front than of responsible government. I refer particularly to the proposal to legislate to remove police authorities in favour of elected police commissioners with wide powers. This is done in the name of accountability. It is backed up by the police being required to publish local crime figures and data, and the mandating of meetings so that people can meet, and challenge the performance of, their neighbourhood policing teams. Is that revolutionary action? Well, not quite.

The Minister tells us that the Government have scrapped the policing pledge. I am sure that that was said in the other place with a flourish. Let us examine what has been scrapped. Let us look at policing pledge number 9, which states:

“We will arrange regular public meetings to agree your priorities at least once a month, giving you a chance to meet your local team with other members of your community. These will include opportunities such as surgeries, street briefings and mobile police station visits which will be arranged to meet local needs and requirements. We will provide monthly updates on progress and on local crime and policing issues. This will include the provision of crime maps, information on specific crimes and what happened to those brought to justice, details of what action we and our partners are taking to make your neighbourhood safer and information on how your force is performing”.

The pledge now contains an update on progress and meetings with local representatives. Therefore, what the Statement promises is already in place in the policing pledge, which the Home Secretary has chosen to scrap.

I turn to elected police commissioners, which the Statement says is about accountability to the public. Let us see how it impacts on the public. What is the current level of accountability? I commend to all Members of your Lordships' House an excellent debate last Thursday on policing and crime rates proposed by my noble friend Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate. He made clear all the areas of accountability that the police already have. Consultation on local policing, as set out in the policing pledge, is now apparently to be reinstated.

The issue is therefore one of scrapping the police authorities, which are currently made up of elected council members from all the major parties, independent councillors and independent appointed members. Their role is to be invested in a police commissioner, who, unless he or she has a wide-reaching consultative body of some kind, will inevitably narrow the consideration of public accountability that now exists in law enforcement and local government.

A number of people have voiced to me their fears of political interference and the potential for cronyism and corruption among elected police commissioners. Why should that be? In an elected police authority, which comprises members of different political parties, people will express different views about policing. They will be tackling the same issues. There is no evidence that that has led to anything other than consensus policing, which has assisted chief constables in meeting their operational requirements while enforcing the accountability that we want. No one in the police service, in police authorities or in local authorities has any great confidence in this proposal.

If the overwhelming response to the consultation on elected police commissioners is negative, as it was when a similar question was asked in a survey in 2004, will the Minister abandon the proposal? The Local Government Association says that elected police commissioners will cost £50 million. What is the Minister’s estimate of the cost? Will not the abolition of the police authorities remove a reservoir of knowledge and experience that no single individual can replace?

If I were to stand for police commissioner for Cumbria, in whatever competition there was—and I buy completely the idea that there should be no interference in the policing part of the role of the chief constable—I would get elected by making promises. That is how people get elected. Those promises might include a rebalance between rural and urban policing in Cumbria. The chief constable is very clear that with the reduced resources he is likely to have, the way to do it is the way he is doing it, so I have a problem at re-election of presenting how I delivered my promises. That at least has major potential for political interference. If I do not interfere, how do I deliver the promises on which I have been elected against whatever party or non-party opposition that has stood in the same competition?

On the SOCA proposal, the coalition agreement talks of refocusing SOCA, not eliminating it. Is this a coalition U-turn? A press briefing over the weekend talked of creating a British FBI. Is this the Government’s intention? This has been denied in the past and there have been very clear views from senior police that that is not what is required. A good friend of mine with the metropolitan police in Washington DC said to me in the late 1980s that FBI stood for “famous but incompetent”. When I questioned that, he said that he was referring not to the ability of FBI agents but to everything from what you might call turf wars to the unwillingness of certain parts of local law enforcement and the agency to accept the authority of the other. There are major problems attached to this, and I would be very interested to hear more on that subject.

We also hear that there is to be an enhanced border police force. Is this to replace the UKBA? Is this going to impact on numbers? It is very odd because in the debate last Thursday, and indeed in every previous attempt by this side in both this House and the other place, we have tried to persuade Ministers to admit simply that with the kind of cuts that they are contemplating, there will be fewer police on the beat and fewer resources available to maintain the present successful battle against crime. When I say “successful”, I agree with the noble Baroness that it can always be improved, but it is not a damaged record. It is the best record for 30 years, the level of confidence among the public is the best in 30 years, and there is the least lack of confidence in the ability to deal with social issues and anti-social behaviour. It is therefore a rhetorical, Wolfie Smith-type Statement, and it would be better if we dealt with it in a much more serious manner.

We are making major moves ahead of the review that we are told will take place in October, so I ask yet again: is that going to reduce the number of front-line police officers or not?

My Lords, 68 per cent of the public in recent surveys support the idea of having elected commissioners, and I hear what the noble Lord says about the way in which the police authorities have performed. I do not think that the Government are suggesting that the police authorities have done a sustainedly bad job, but they are invisible to the local population. One of the main objects of this exercise is to reconnect the police force of the locality with the people of the locality, and we believe that the way to do that is to have an official who has to account to the people. We are trying to get away from the police accounting bureaucratically upwards instead of being the servants of their local populations. With all the measures that we are trying to put in place, including the beat meetings and the crime and policing panels, it is not true to say that there will be no checks and balances in the system. The police commissioner will himself be answerable to these panels. They have the right to challenge his decisions. They cannot override them, but they can certainly conduct dialogue in the name of the local people, so you will have local discussion. There is probably a philosophical difference between my party and the other side of the House on the need to reconnect authority over the police to the local community.

The noble Baroness makes a great play of the lack of connection. We have had elected and appointed members on police authorities for a number of years. Does she have information on a failure of people coming forward to be independent members of police authorities? I happen to know that in Cumbria there were 100 applicants last time for what I think were two or three posts. Is there evidence to sustain the argument that there is a disconnect, other than in surveys?

Only 8 per cent of wards have a councillor on their local police authority. It seems to me that there is a much more slender connection between local accountability and the people than is suggested by that kind of assertion. Police commissioners are much more directly responsible and accountable to the locals than a police authority, which has relatively few councillors among its number, with an election behind them.

The noble Lord made a number of other points. The general proposition that we are putting forward here is that accountability is not to and for government but towards local communities. As the Home Affairs Committee said in its report during the last Parliament, the previous Government succeeded in micromanaging too much local policing while neglecting some of the national issues.

On the national side, the noble Lord asked a number of questions about the nature of the National Crime Agency. The agency will be a much more powerful body than we have at the moment. It will be at the centre and will take issues of national importance. It will perform in two areas. One is serious organised crime. It will build on what SOCA has done and achieved and will retain SOCA’s facilities, including its intelligence-gathering capability.

At the same time, the agency will also have control over the border police force and will direct a chief constable directed at that. The border police force will sit alongside the UKBA, which will not be incorporated into it. We have decided that for a number of reasons, including the need for economy. Also, with the Olympics in sight, it is not sensible to have vast structural change at this juncture. It therefore seems more sensible to us to have, overarching the agency, a strategy to which the agency will work. The agency will then be responsible for the part of the strategy over which it has control: serious organised crime and border policing. The UKBA will, however, be tied into that overarching strategy as well. We will therefore have a single strategy for border control, part of which will lie with the National Crime Agency—that is to say, SOCA and the functions that it performs, plus the functions that will be created for the border police command. The UKBA will work alongside the border command within the framework of that overriding and overarching strategy. The object of that exercise is to create more coherent control of the borders without resorting to excessive expense in an era in which that is not going to be possible.

I am sure that the noble Lord asked me some other questions, which I would be happy to answer; I am looking at my notes.

The noble Lord asked if it was going to be a British FBI. No, it is not going to be a British FBI. We want to try to ensure that the National Crime Agency has broader powers, but it will not have a FBI-style role. All the powers it exercises will in the end also link back to the constabularies. Part of the role of the National Crime Agency will also be to link into the constabularies when it comes to, say, level 2 crime. So it will not be divorced from the role of the 43 police forces round the country, but it will give a strategic override to that function.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister two questions. First, can she say something about the role of local authorities? They have crime and disorder responsibilities and will need to be linked into the new arrangements. Secondly, I ask for an assurance that giving the new National Crime Agency some border responsibilities does not portray a mindset that immigration and crime are necessarily and inevitably linked.

We intend to consult on the role of local authorities and how they will link into the police and crime commissioners. I take the point about the new agency. The fact that the UKBA will retain its own separate role alongside the border police agency indicates that we recognise that there are border control functions that are unrelated to and do not concern themselves with crime.

My Lords, I should first remind the House that I served for more than 30 years in police forces in this country—in one of the smallest and, indeed, in the two biggest forces. I also currently hold three non-executive chairmanships of companies that have some sort of interface with the police service, although I hasten to add not directly related to the issues that have been mentioned today.

I welcome this Statement. I should say immediately and it will not be any surprise to those listening that I respect and greatly admire the police service, both for its history and for what it does today. However, there is no doubt in my mind that there has been a need for a top-to-bottom, root-and-branch overhaul of the functions of the police service for at least the last two decades and probably longer. These proposals address only some of those issues, but it is I believe a good start and I look for more to come in the future.

First, one needs to recognise that the police have slipped quite badly in terms of public confidence, and a good deal of the blame for that must come from the issue of bureaucracy in general, in the broadest sense. About 10 days ago Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in conjunction with the Audit Commission, published a damning report on the back-office function of the police. It has grown to enormous proportions. It has been indicated that that, coupled with the growth of specialist groups, must change. Therefore, the moves in the Statement today to support a retreat from micromanagement and to cut central targets have to be applauded.

So far as the central crime agency—

My Lords, I remind you that the rules on Statements apply. People should make short interventions in order to leave time for others to come in.

As for the National Crime Agency, I support what is being said there. I have supported border policing, working in conjunction with UKBA, for some time.

The nub of the whole problem for onlookers is with elected commissioners, and I seek two reassurances from the Minister. In principle, I give qualified support to that proposal, which amounts to a revamp or modernisation of current police authority structures, which have stood the test of time for the past 50 years. Times have changed and this may be the time to look again at the role of police authorities, but the devil is in the detail. I ask the Minister to comment on the issue of hire and fire. Hiring will need very careful handling at a time when the whole question of police leadership is under the microscope and the need is even greater to ensure that there is selection of the right person for the right job and that careers are managed not only for the benefit of the individual but to the advantage of the community. On the issue of firing I seek a very firm reassurance from the Minister. If there is the power to fire, reserve powers must be given to the Home Secretary to endorse that, or the chief officer will be at the mercy of single-issue politics and extremist groups. Comment has been made about operational independence not being damaged, and I accept that, but I seek reassurance, particularly on the issue of hire and fire. Overall, I welcome the Statement and look forward to the debates that will follow.

On the question of hire and fire, the noble Lord is right to say that those powers are contained in the proposed remit of the police and crime commissioner, who is himself potentially subject to recall. It is not the case that any police commissioner would be able to exercise his powers unreasonably or arbitrarily without himself thereby being called to account. The whole point of having him—I mean, these individuals; I hope that there will be some women, too—accountable to the local electorate is precisely so that unreasonable behaviour can be checked. I see no reason why an elected official in such a position should behave unreasonably any more than any other elected official.

I take note of what the noble Lord says about reserve powers, and will take that back to the Home Secretary.

I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which I understand is to be abolished under these proposals. Could I ask about this brave new world of the police and crime commissioners? In parenthesis, calling somebody a crime commissioner implies that they commission crime, which seems a slightly strange thing for the Government to want to do. Given that the commissioners will apply to the forces that provide neighbourhood policing, which is essentially visible to local communities and for which there are already substantial arrangements for local dialogue with local communities, why are other areas of policing not to have the benefit—if benefit it be—of having their own police and crime commissioners? Why, for instance, is there no police and crime commissioner for the British Transport Police or the Civil Nuclear Constabulary or the Ministry of Defence Police—or, for that matter, the City of London Police? The Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence police are extremely heavily armed and the work they do raises important issues of public accountability. The City of London has its own slightly different means of democratic control from anywhere else. Why is there not that clarity? Could the Minister also tell the House about the accountability arrangements for the new national agency, given, again, that this will have very important but not essentially visible responsibilities for policing? These are precisely the areas in which strong, robust and transparent accountability mechanisms are necessary.

The noble Lord raised the question of other functions not covered by the police and crime commissioners and he is quite right to do so. The proposals make a distinction between those issues where we believe that local accountability is of the essence, in the area of neighbourhood and constabulary activity. Where we think that the functions have a much more national character—and certainly the police commissioners themselves must contribute to efficient national policing by collaboration—such as in counterterrorism, or in the powers that are going to be grouped under the National Crime Agency, different arrangements are needed. We will certainly have to put in place, subject to further consultation, the nature of the accountability arrangements that will be required. There will certainly be accountability arrangements but they have not yet been spelled out. Our purpose today is to make it clear that lying at the core of this is the need for accountability of local and neighbourhood policing.

On the British Transport Police, there is indeed a series of other protective policing powers and activities which are not covered by today’s proposal. We are looking at the rationality of present structures in that area with a view to seeing whether we cannot make them more efficient. Again, we will have to deal, in that instance also, with the question of accountability.

My Lords, as someone who has served both as a councillor and an elected Member of Parliament for 37 years, I always felt that it was the chief constable who was accountable to local people and to his police region. If the local people were displeased about his or her performance, they were not long in making that known. Can the Minister check her facts on the make-up of police authorities? It has been my understanding that there is a large proportion of elected councillors on those boards.

The noble Lord says that chief constables are accountable. Yes, but it has to be said that police authorities as they stand at the moment had the money and the strategy and the problem that we have at the moment is that they are insufficiently accountable. I do not think it follows that because we are putting in place police and crime commissioners, the chief constable is therefore relieved of accountability. That is most certainly not the case. His accountability will be for the efficiency of his operations and he will retain his operational independence.

As for my facts on the elective elements within police authorities, it is certainly the case that each authority has 50 per cent of councillors, but it is still a small number nationally, and at ward level it is only 8 per cent.

Perhaps the Minister can clarify the expression in the Statement that the new commissioner will “set” the budget. Do the Government really mean set the budget, or do they mean manage the budget within its existing parameters? For example, do they intend to retain the precepting arrangements whereby it is the local authority which levies it? If they do, how can this flexibility be exercised within the context of a council tax freeze, which would impact on police spending as well as local government spending?

My understanding is that the police commissioner will set the priorities for the budget and, indeed, I think that he does have a hand in the setting of the precept. I will have to write to the noble Baroness about other detail, because I would not want to mislead her.

Will the noble Baroness answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Brett about the cost of elections for police commissioners?

Clearly, elections cost money, but it is difficult to know before we have had one what they are likely to cost, although we will certainly make an estimate. The money will have to come out of the finance that is available to the Home Office for policing, but we believe that this is good value if the public are to have better control. Given the totality of the package that we are putting forward, with our determination to increase value for money, to drive down duplication and to improve procurement, for example, which at the moment is lamentably fragmented, duplicative and therefore costly, we believe that, in the end, this will not be a more costly way of running the police service than the current one.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the previous Prime Minister’s senior adviser on international security and the chairman of the committee set up by David Cameron to look at border policing. I have two points. First, this is a consultation paper, so other people’s views will be looked at and considered. I should like to see the evidence, if I may—no doubt the House would, too—showing how the police authorities have been a failure. The bottom line is that, having been a policeman for 46 years and inspector of constabulary for two years, during which time I was at the appointment of 12 chief constables, I have seen no evidence that police authorities are a failure—quite the opposite. When I was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, I thought that the police authority was a very effective, although sometimes hurtful, reminder of what one’s duties were. I should like the consultation to take account of why it is thought that the police authorities in this country, linked in with local authorities, have been a failure.

Secondly, it will come as no surprise to the House to hear that I am totally in favour of where we are going with border policing and the amalgamation of some agencies that are seen to be separate in terms of where they are. The committee, which is made up of 14 people, has met for nine months to a year, during which time there has been an absolute need to firm up the borders of this country in every aspect. Yes, we are hard up for money and have to work in the financial situation in which we are, but does the Minister agree that we must work towards having a proper border policing agency as soon as we can and that that agency must be beefed up by a more effective Serious Organised Crime Agency?

The noble Lord makes two points, the first about police authorities and the second about the border policing arrangements. As I said at the outset, I do not think that the Government are claiming that police authorities have been a failure in the sense that they have not been able to exercise functions properly. The point that the Government are making is that the authorities are not visible and, in that sense, properly accountable to local people. Only 7 per cent of people know what the authorities do or have ever heard of them. Some authorities, although not all, perhaps do not rate as more than adequate. We are saying that we can do better. The whole drift of the Government’s policies is to return authority to local people and to make those who have considerable control over the condition of their daily lives more directly accountable to them. One of the ways of doing that is to give both power and authority to somebody whose job is, in the end, owed to the people who put him in that position. There is legitimate room for difference in this area and we will certainly want to consult on the functions of the police authorities and the contributions that they have made over time to see whether some of those aspects can be properly incorporated in the role of the police commissioners. However, we are determined to put police commissioners in place.

The other point that the noble Lord raised was about border policing. He asked whether what I had outlined was the last word. I do not think it is but it is certainly what we think it is sensible to do now. If we manage to get an effective strategy in place—one that unites the functions of the border policing command, which brings together several agencies which are separate at the moment—and, in turn, ensure that that strategy also incorporates the role of the UKBA, which will, however, retain its own functions, we will move a good way down the road of creating a single strategy for border policing. This is the first important thing to do. I am sure that, in the process of doing that, we will find that there are further improvements that we can make.

Turning to SOCA, or the functions performed by SOCA at the moment, I do not know what this part of the agency will eventually be called but those functions will also be closely tied into what we need to do at the border. It is very clear that we must be able to police serious organised crime at level 2. There must be good connections between the constabularies and that part of policing at the national level which is responsible for organised crime. However, we must also be able to operate at the border because of its international dimensions. We need a tight strategy which brings all these elements together.