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Police and Crime Panels (Modification of Functions) Regulations 2012

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Police and Crime Panels (Modification of Functions) Regulations 2012.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I will come to the regulations in a moment. First, I will set the context and talk about police and crime panels more generally. The introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners is the most significant policing reform in a generation. It was set out in the coalition agreement and is now enshrined in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. Forty-one directly elected police and crime commissioners will take office across England and Wales on 22 November this year, having been elected by the public the week before. The first commissioner is, of course, already up and running in London: in January 2012, the Mayor of London took over responsibility for oversight of the Metropolitan Police.

The Act lays out the framework for the strict checks and balances that will be fundamental to the reform. A key element of this is the introduction of police and crime panels, comprising local councillors and independent members. Panels will be established in every force area and will undertake an important scrutiny function, providing both support and challenge to police and crime commissioners as they perform their duties. It is vital that there are no barriers to panels being established. Every force area must have a panel, with arrangements in place to ensure that police and crime commissioners are appropriately scrutinised once they are elected in November.

I turn to the secondary legislation that is intended to provide this safeguard, which is the subject matter of today’s debate: that is, the regulations before us. They provide that, where a local authority defaults on its duty to nominate and appoint one or more councillors to the police and crime panel, the authority will no longer be required to agree the arrangements that govern the establishment and operation of the panel. As we have constantly emphasised, local leaders, not politicians or bureaucrats in Whitehall, will know what works best for them. Local negotiations are critical and the Act requires that all local authorities across the force area should work together to establish and maintain their panel, including agreeing panel arrangements and membership.

We understand that local government is rising to this challenge and we anticipate that panels will be established in all areas across England and Wales. However, in the event that a local authority chooses not to engage or is deliberately obstructive, it is important that it is not able to frustrate the efforts of the remaining local authorities in that force area to establish the police and crime panel. To this end, the regulations provide that where a local authority defaults on its statutory duty to nominate and appoint one or more councillors to the police and crime panel, that authority will no longer be required to agree the panel arrangements. This will allow the remaining local authorities to establish a police and crime panel and, crucially, will ensure that panels are in place in time for the arrival of the police and crime commissioners in November.

The regulations have been developed by the Home Office in consultation with key stakeholders representing those who will be affected by the proposals set out in the regulations. The regulations provide clarity and necessary safeguards while minimising bureaucratic burdens and central prescription relating to the panels. They will help ensure that police and crime panels are established later this month and that they are in full flow by November, in time to provide vital support and scrutiny to the new police and crime commissioners when they take office.

In conclusion, as I said earlier, Parliament has spoken on the police and crime commissioner model. The Government’s focus is now on making the model a reality and maintaining progress in local areas. The regulations before us are an important part of the legislative jigsaw that will make this happen. I commend them to the Committee.

My Lords, the purpose of the regulations is to stop a defaulting local authority from preventing the making of panel arrangements. This is understandable and should be supported. However, there are two issues of detail that I would appreciate the Minister’s clarification of in order to avoid doubt.

First, the Secretary of State has the power to nominate and appoint the appropriate number of members in the event of a failure by a relevant local authority to exercise its power to nominate or to appoint. It would be essential for the Secretary of State, in exercising this duty, to have due regard to the opinions of the other local authorities and to maintain due political and/or geographical balance in making such appointments. I say that because during the passage of the Bill there was significant discussion about the importance of geographical balance and political balance and, where there are two-tier authorities, of lower-tier councils having representation on the panels.

Secondly, will the Minister clarify the meaning of the words in paragraph 2:

“In the case of a multi-authority police area, all the relevant local authorities, with the exception of a defaulting local authority … must agree to the making or modification of the panel arrangements”?

I seek clarification of the words “must agree”. Do they mean that the relevant local authorities are compelled to agree by the decision of the Secretary of State—that is, they must agree to what the Secretary of State wants—or do they mean that only with the agreement of those authorities can the panel arrangements proceed? I took the Minister to mean that it was the latter, but I seek confirmation of my interpretation. If it is the former, I seek the Minister’s reassurance that due regard will be had by the Secretary of State to full consultation with the remaining local authorities and balance being secured in any nominations or appointments that the Secretary of State deems it necessary to make.

My Lords, the Minister has explained the reasons for the order. I will be interested to hear the response to the two points that have been raised. On the second one, where reference is made to the wording,

“In the case of a multi-authority police area, all the relevant local authorities … must agree to the making or modification of the panel arrangements”,

it cannot be a requirement that they must agree or presumably the order would not be necessary, because the defaulting authority would not be able to block it. That would be my interpretation, at least, but of course it is what the Minister says about the Government’s interpretation of the wording that counts.

I have a couple of further points. Will the Minister confirm that the Local Government Association does not see any difficulties in implementing the order as it stands? I take it that this is, let us just say, to clarify certain wordings in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act.

The Minister made reference to police and crime panels. We have doubts, which we expressed during the passage of the Bill, about the extent to which they will be any meaningful check on the exercise of his or her power by the police and crime commissioner. Do the Government intend to monitor the development of the effectiveness of these panels when they are operational? Will it be their intention to brief Parliament on the findings of any monitoring exercise that they carry out if it is their intention to do so?

My Lords, a number of questions have been put to me. First, I shall deal with those asked by my noble friend Lord Shipley. I can assure him that, yes, the Secretary of State will take note of views from other local authorities and will want to take account of political and geographical differences. That is the point behind what we are trying to set up in these authorities. The noble Lord will know as well as I do how police areas vary very much from authority to authority.

My part of the world, Cumbria, has a county council and six regional councils. Thames Valley Police has something rather complicated with, I think, 18 authorities, which are all single tier. I cannot remember whether I am right on that. However, it is very different from the traditional county district. In areas such as the noble Lord’s in the north-east, there are other set-ups. Obviously, we will want to take account of political and geographical differences. My noble friend’s second question was about what was meant by the words “must agree”. As regards the second part, obviously it is only with the agreement of all the local authorities, as he said.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked whether the LGA had any concerns. I can assure him that, as always, it has been closely involved in the development of the policy and regulations, and is working with us very much on the transition programme. As regards any monitoring of the effectiveness of the panels, I do not believe that that is a role for central government. I believe that local authorities will be key to ensuring the success of panels. If those panels turn out to be toothless, or whatever, it will be for local authorities to challenge that. I think that the noble Lord and others will be the first to raise their concerns should that be the case.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can clarify his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about political balance. Is he talking about the political balance of the entire police force area or of the defaulting authority? As I understand the construction of the police and crime panels, there is one representative from each authority and the purpose of this order is to deal with a situation in which one local authority has failed to put forward a suitable nomination. Is the intention under those circumstances that the Secretary of State will appoint someone to achieve some form of political balance across the whole area or simply to reflect whatever is regarded as the political majority within that particular local authority area? They are very different things.

My Lords, we are trying to achieve some sort of balance across the whole area of panels covering a police force. I can think of some areas where every local authority is Labour or every local authority is Conservative. That does not mean that one would want every member of the panel to be Labour or Conservative—to take those two extremes—as obviously a vast number of voters would not be represented. We hope that there will be negotiations between local authorities, even if—dare I say?—some Tory authorities want to push forward a Labour candidate for the panel to make sure that overall, throughout the entire area, there is a proper balance that represents the views of the electors of that area. That might be despite the authorities being red in one case or blue in another. Does the noble Lord follow what I am getting at? We are trying to achieve genuine cross-party representation with a balance that represents the constabulary in a proper manner.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification. I am not sure it completely helps me. In a two-tier area, with which he is familiar, you will have a county council that will be elected on a specific date. You will then have district councils either elected in thirds or possibly on specific dates but not the same date as the county council. Are we talking about a political balance that relates to the county or to the districts? They will not necessarily be the same thing—they might be by chance, but not necessarily.

The Local Government Association spent many happy years devising a system that is supposed to balance elections held at different times and the different status of counties, districts, unitary authorities and so on. That sort of formula might be the approach that is taken. But I had understood that this legislation did not necessarily prescribe for political balance but simply for area balance.

I do not want to be overprescriptive on these matters, particularly as every authority varies quite dramatically. I will use my own county, Cumbria, as an example because I happen to know it well. Cumbria County Council coincides with the police authority and so it is quite an easy one to do. There is a county council that has elections every four years. There are six district councils, one or possibly two of which have an election every four years while the other four have elections in the three years when there are not county elections. So everyone is electing at different times in different ways. All we are trying to do is ensure that local authorities act together to try to produce something that is reasonably practical. Possibly the model that the noble Lord is suggesting is not a bad one. He was taking it from the Local Government Association. We are not demanding anything absolutely precise; we are just trying to make sure that, as far as is reasonably practical, all views can be taken into account.

Can I just explain further my concern about political balance? There are existing committees, joint boards and so on that cross council boundaries and there are clear rules that apply to political balance in those cases. I hope that in the regulation it will be made absolutely clear that one-party control of panels would not be acceptable, even if all the councils in a given geographical area belong to one party.

That is what we are saying in the regulations. As far is practical, we want to make sure that there is this cross-party control. This does not happen in Cumbria, but even if all six councils happened to be Labour-controlled, we would not envisage that all the members of the panel should be Labour. We should get the appropriate balance that broadly reflects how people voted. The same will be true in the north-east and here, there and everywhere. It is balance—a word that I have been using a great deal since I came to the Home Office—that we are seeking, and balance is not just in the regulations but in the Act itself, set down there in letters of stone.

Motion agreed.