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Police and Crime Panels

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to change the (1) structure, (2) purpose, and (3) powers, of Police and Crime Panels.

My Lords, I begin by thanking other speakers in this short debate. I also thank the House of Lords Library for its useful and well-written background paper and for its extra help to me with the regulations since 2011.

I should remind the Committee that I was the elected police and crime commissioner for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland between 2016 and 2021, the only Member of your Lordships’ House so far to serve in that capacity. Whether I am gamekeeper turned poacher or vice versa I shall leave to noble Lords to decide.

No one can have been present in the Chamber during the past few months who does not understand that there is genuine concern about the accountability of police and crime commissioners in general. Of course, they face the ultimate accountability, which is to go before the electorate every four years—actually, five between 2016 and 2021 because of Covid and three between 2021 and 2024. However, given the continuous lack of public knowledge—or is it interest?—about police and crime commissioners, in spite of increasing turnouts in each of the three elections so far, is that sufficient accountability?

The Government have turned down the notion of recall, although it exists of course for Members of Parliament. I can see why. Small turnouts at elections do not bode well for interest in any recall petition.

The other means of scrutiny, and a very important one, is police and crime panels, which were set up by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 and exist in all police force areas except the Met. Their structure, purpose and powers are set out in some detail in Sections 28 to 30 of the Act, and particularly in Schedule 6. There have also been statutory instruments since. His Majesty’s Government have recently reviewed the role of police and crime panels and say that any necessary legislation will have to await parliamentary time.

In general, the Home Office review has given police and crime panels a clean bill of health. This debate gives the Minister an opportunity to set out what happens next and perhaps when. Speaking from my own experience in Leicestershire, there were 15 members of the panel, which is a typical number: a chair, effectively chosen by the county council, and 12 members from the other local authorities—two from unitary authorities, four from Leicester City Council, one from Rutland County Council, and one each from the remaining six districts. Very importantly, there were two independent members, making 15 members in all. Of those with political affiliations, eight and then seven were Conservatives, four were Labour, and one then two were Liberal Democrats. I cannot say hand on heart that I looked forward with pleasure to panel meetings—that would be rather spoiling the purpose of the exercise—and I suspect that every police and crime commissioner feels now as I used to. I have to say, however, that I was treated at all times with critical respect by the chair, who was of a different political persuasion from me, and the panel. In my view, they fulfilled their statutory functions under Section 28(2) of the Act—namely,

“supporting the effective exercise of the functions of the police and crime commissioner for that police area”.

My officials and I were tested and questioned on many issues. Although I was always relieved at the end, I really could not complain.

With some reluctance, I have to say that in my personal opinion the system has not worked so well with my successor, certainly until recently. There may be many reasons for this, but one that I believe has been influential is that the new chair of the panel, a very senior and distinguished councillor in her own right, seems on occasions to have gone too far in protecting my successor from the legitimate questions and comments of the panel. Of course, I realise that this is a difficult area of judgment. It is as important not to let the police and crime commissioner be unfairly treated as it is to allow him or her to be challenged. In my view the balance has been wrong, sometimes markedly so.

I am happy to say that very recently the chair has acted, in my view, correctly and with considerable strength in insisting that the latest interim chief executive—there were six in 19 months, there is now a seventh, and there will perhaps soon be an eighth—be brought before the panel, as the Act insists that it should be, a request that the police and crime commissioner declined. She was right to do so, and I commend her on it. She will no doubt insist that both the new interim chief executive and the interim chief financial officer, who has been in place for 15 months, are brought before the panel urgently.

What changes do the Government intend to make to the structure, purpose and powers of police and crime panels? Before I finish what I have to say, I will suggest three areas in which reform is perhaps called for.

First, it would be a sensible move to ensure that the chair of the panel, a very significant and powerful role, should never be from the same political party as the police and crime commissioner. If one party dominates the panel because of control of local authorities in the area, one of the independent members should have that role. I dare say that this proposal may well be unpopular with members of all political parties, including my own, but I believe it a practical and proper step to ensure the balance that is so vital. The Minister answered my Oral Question on this matter on 31 October last year by saying that he would happily take it back as part of the ongoing assessment. It is now four months later and I ask him for His Majesty’s Government’s response.

Secondly, and this fits in with the Government’s own view, there needs to be more emphasis on the importance of the role of the independent members, involving training, their role on the panel and their selection. Panels should not be political bunfights—it is too important for that—and powerful independents can help to prevent that.

Thirdly and finally is the vexed issue of complaints/allegations concerning police and crime commissioners. Under Section 30 of the Act, a panel can suspend—must suspend, really—a police and crime commissioner if they face a serious criminal charge with a maximum of more than two years’ imprisonment. But under Schedule 7, other complaints should allow panels

“to engage in informal resolution of such complaints.”

An important statutory instrument of 2012, the next year, deals in some detail with complaints. For me, and I think for a lot of panels too, the overall effect is too vague and unsatisfactory given that the Home Office certainly will not get involved in any dispute of this kind.

What if—this is entirely hypothetical—there are many complaints about a police and crime commissioner that do not allege criminal activity but are important and widespread? What is the panel’s role? Should its process be increased beyond informal resolution? If so, to what extent? Do the present regulations and the Act work in practice? After all, that is what matters. Have the Government considered this issue in enough detail? I ask the Minister to ask what their conclusions are. It seems to me that this is an important, living issue that could touch on any police and crime panel and on which they would welcome an answer.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has done us a great service in bringing this subject forward for debate and introducing the debate so thoroughly, drawing on his own, if I may say so, impressive experience as a police and crime commissioner.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the place occupied by police and crime panels in the new system—a system that is still controversial and not much loved 11 years on—whose success depends on the performance of elected police and crime commissioners, all of whom are now party politicians. Are we satisfied that we are sufficiently well served by having party politicians rather than distinguished independent figures at the helm of the new system? The advantages are not exactly overwhelming, as the long-running crises in Leicester and Cleveland—along with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, I have drawn your Lordships’ attention to them many times—plainly show.

It falls to the police and crime panels to try to deal with these crisis-ridden party politicians on behalf of their communities between elections, in which, sadly, too few people take part. In order to exercise their crucial role, the panels have been given in statute the power to require commissioners to provide information and answer questions. Alas, not all commissioners understand that the information that they provide and the answers to questions that they give need to be accurate, intelligible and free from any form of censorship so that the panels can fulfil their duties and serve their communities fully.

The Leicester and Cleveland commissioners seem incapable of coming up to the standards that are required. I have no idea whether those two individuals are typical of police and crime commissioners as a whole. It does not really matter. Every single commissioner should provide their panel with full, clear and truthful information as the legal obligations to which they are subject require. To do otherwise is to obstruct the panel in the performance of its duties—an offence that surely ought to merit removal from office.

The Cleveland police and crime panel is being obstructed through the denial of full, frank and clear information. Its members have rightly been seeking an explanation from its commissioners as to why Mike Veale, one of the most notorious discredited ex-police chiefs in the country, has not yet been brought to answer the charges against him at the gross misconduct hearing that the Cleveland commissioner announced in August 2021. In November last year, the commissioner was asked by members of the panel about the cause of the extraordinary delay. He replied:

“I cannot share that with you. If I told you and that is then in the public domain, that then compromises something else, which potentially compromises something else.”

Earlier this month, the panel tried again. It found the commissioner in an indignant mood, following comments made in your Lordships’ House. He said:

“Someone in the Lords also said I should just hurry up and I have asked him for some clarity on how he believes I should be hurrying up, given the legal complexity. I can’t say any more.”

It was, I think, my noble friend the Minister who urged him to move a little faster after a delay of some 18 months. No doubt the Minister will tell us when he comes to reply how he has assisted the commissioner in his quest for clarity, but how ridiculous and insulting it is for the commissioner to tell the Cleveland panel that legal complexity justifies endless delay.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct set out the case against the notorious Veale in a report following a two-year inquiry. The report, which has never been published, went to the Cleveland commissioner two years ago, so four years have passed without this case of gross misconduct being brought to even the start of the legal process that is required. What exactly is legally complex about the contents of the IOPC report? The panel is entitled to an answer; it is being withheld. Without an answer, the panel would be forgiven for thinking that there is no complexity and that it is being given fake information by a commissioner who wants to shield and suppress the evidence against Veale.

Someone called a legally qualified chair will preside over the misconduct hearing if it ever takes place. That worries the Cleveland panel, which this month expressed fears that the hearing may run out of time, allowing Veale, a man dogged by scandal since his vendetta against Sir Edward Heath a few years ago, to escape justice. Has a chair even been appointed in Cleveland? No one knows. If there is a chair, their name is being kept a closely guarded secret.

When asked in the House earlier this month why the chair in this case, if there is one, was allowed to remain anonymous, the Minister said he did not know. Yesterday, in a Written Answer, he told me:

“There are no provisions in legislation which entitle legally qualified chairs of police misconduct hearings to remain anonymous.”

Yet neither the Cleveland Police and Crime Panel nor anyone else has been told the identity of the chair in this case. Perhaps at the end of this debate the Minister will tell us why the Home Office is content to see the law flouted in Cleveland by the very person charged with upholding it. Or is the reality that there is no chair—no chair has been appointed and there is no name to reveal?

The Home Office might usefully reflect on the conclusions of a recent report produced by the think tank Policy Exchange on the role of these chairs. It found that:

“Having been introduced with the aim of increasing the public’s confidence in the police misconduct process, the experiment is having the opposite effect.”

It certainly is in Cleveland. The Home Office has reacted to events in Cleveland with weary indifference. It does not seem to care. It takes no action. It maintains that it has no powers whatever, even to make representations, let alone intervene. That is the most tragic aspect of this sorry saga. Is the Home Office really so utterly powerless? It is a point on which independent legal judgment could be usefully brought to bear, but if it needs powers, it should seek them swiftly—urgently—through regulations.

My Lords, the small number of Members taking part in this debate probably shows the general lack of interest in this quite vital role of scrutiny of our police service. That is very sad.

I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for initiating this debate. He was an excellent police and crime commissioner for his area, and I commend him. Would that I could say the same about lots of other PCCs, which is, sadly, what I predicted when the Bill that created them went through. To help the scrutiny of those PCCs, we need much better governance from their panels.

I am most grateful for the help given to me in preparing for this debate by the Library’s excellent briefing and by former academics from Portsmouth University, notably Barry Loveday, the prolific writer on so many policing matters, and Dr Roy Bailey, who has written specifically on PCPs and who very generously sent me his doctoral thesis on this subject to guide me.

Let me share some of those findings with your Lordships. First, there was a general and almost unanimous call for urgent reform of the current governance model. Some 92% overall of clerks, PCCs and panel members agreed that some change was necessary. Why? Because they felt there was little role clarity; they have insufficient powers and inadequate resourcing. To illustrate that, let me tell you what happened in North Yorkshire—and here I refer to my interests in the register on policing matters. Our first PCC was accused of serious bullying. The panel looked into this and concluded that there was indeed good evidence to show that this was the case. Unfortunately, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, they could not do anything about it. The general public got to hear of it, of course, and in effect made their feelings known, so the PCC decided that she really ought to resign. The second PCC—another Conservative placeman without any experience of policing—had to resign because of appalling remarks he made in public about how women should behave, in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s dreadful murder. We are now on to our third PCC. She does her best, but thinks she has direction and control of the chief constable—a mistake made all too often, I fear.

I go back to the evidence gathered in the thesis. There was a clear feeling that there was a big turnover of members, especially councillors; they needed additional powers, training and better management as well as political influence. What are the Government doing to address that? Panels are unable to select their councillor members. I recall this well in the old police authority model, when it seemed that group leaders would send us the councillors who caused them too much trouble. It appears that panels have the same problem. Independent members, on the other hand, are generally much more engaged and probably have better skill sets, having been chosen through a rigorous selection process. They are also, mainly, politically neutral.

When I chaired my police authority, over 20 years ago now, I brought in specialist trainers to help us to understand what our responsibilities were. They were invaluable—on the few occasions we were able to use them, mainly because we had the Police Federation breathing down our neck, telling us this was its money that we were using. Will the Government undertake to help panels to get the training that they need to fulfil their important role?

So it is today that policing panels need the ability to understand their role and proactive scrutiny programme. This is almost impossible for them with their present funding arrangements. Panels tend to meet only four times a year. How can they undertake scrutiny of the PCC in the months when there is no meeting? What is the PCC doing? Monitoring and assessment should be ongoing for all panel members. I take what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said very much to heart: it is not a very comfortable place to be when you are being scrutinised, as I was when I was chair of my police authority. Nevertheless, it is vital that it is done. Does the Minister agree?

As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to, in many areas there is little or no political opposition on the panels, which is entirely wrong. It is like policing oneself and there should be a concerted effort to engage membership from opposition parties. Again, the Government must address this area. Are there any plans to do so?

PCCs and PCPs should collaborate better. At the moment they are set up to be in conflict but, as we have heard, a good PCC should enable a well-briefed and knowledgeable panel to scrutinise their work and to work together for the benefit of their community.

In conclusion, I reiterate the belief that there must be radical reform of the current governance model—a model, incidentally, that the Liberal Democrats insisted be included in what became the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. Indeed, I may even have done that personally; I did everything I possibly could to scupper that Bill. Had we not insisted on this inclusion there would have been absolutely no scrutiny of PCCs at all, and we all know what problems have arisen from their introduction. At the moment, there are six forces under special measures as it is.

There is a risk of panel members becoming disillusioned because of their perceived impotence and low status. They have no power. It is high time that we gave them some.

I thank my noble friend Lord Bach for bringing this important topic of debate here today. The tripartite structure of police accountability, whereby the governance of policing was until 2012 a responsibility shared between the Home Secretary, chief constable and the relevant police authority, was disassembled by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, following widespread criticism. The deficiencies of the tripartite structure were inflamed by the strong and persistent criticisms directed at police authorities, widely considered the weakest link.

It was noted at the time that one major reason why police and crime commissioners were established was to create greater engagement with the public, and stronger accountability and transparency within our local policing systems. So the Home Secretary has retreated from day-to-day policing matters, leaving responsibility for police governance and accountability between the PCC, PCP and chief constable. Every PCC, PCP and chief constable in each police area in Wales and England is required to have an effective, constructive working relationship.

In carrying out their functions, PCCs are required to have regard for the views of local people within their policing area. They are also required to issue a police and crime plan and keep it under review. In forming this plan, the PCC is also required to take account of a number of issues, including consultation with the chief constable, while taking regard of any report or recommendation from the PCP. The PCC holds the chief constable to account not only for the exercise of their functions but for eight specified criteria.

Updated guidance was produced for police, fire and crime panels in January this year. Within its focus was a commitment to strengthen the accountability of police and crime commissioners and expand their role, together with the need for better guidance and training for panels, which policing stakeholders have regularly highlighted as an important area to address and a weakness within the structure.

One always hopes that training will help by enabling panels to perform their role more effectively, but also by providing constructive support and that very important challenge to PCCs: acting as the critical friend where needed. Panels have a pivotal role in the current model of police accountability, as they are solely responsible for supporting, scrutinising, providing and maintaining a regular check and balance.

The critical friend role is increasingly important, and the statutory role of panel members—to scrutinise decisions and actions taken by the PCC, review the plan and annual report, resolve non-criminal complaints about the conduct of the commissioner, and make recommendations to the commissioner as needed—is extremely important. I recognise that very many panel members across the UK take their roles seriously, as indeed did my former colleagues at Newport City Council who served diligently as panel members for the Gwent PCP, working with the Gwent commissioner, Jeff Cuthbert, and the excellent chief constable, Pam Kelly. However, there are significant concerns that the critical friend aspect and the holding to account need to be strengthened.

Given the key role of PCPs, a number of reports and reviews have questioned their effectiveness. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in 2014 noted that there was no national standard as to how PCPs work and warned that some members struggled to understand their powers and role. Indeed, in my reading for today’s debate, some were highlighted as powerless and compared to a “crocodile with rubber teeth”.

PCPs are nothing more than a symbolic function if they do not properly discharge their scrutiny role. If commissioners are not benefiting from scrutiny by PCPs, there may be limited accountability between elections, as current governance arrangements make PCPs exclusively responsible for scrutinising and providing checks and balances. That may cause unintended consequences, such as in the exercise of accountability, with the governance of policing reactive to the one-to-one accountability relationship between commissioners and chief constables. That one-to-one is problematic, possibly unpredictable and, in the absence of panels being effective and credible, potentially unproductive.

I turn to another issue already mentioned by noble Lords: the low turnout in police and crime commissioner elections. It is a concern and demonstrates that the remit is not being totally fulfilled by commitment from and with the wider public. In 2012, turnout was 15.1%; it went up in 2016 to 27.4%; and in 2021 it was 33.9%. It is going in the right direction but is woefully short of democratic engagement. What are the Government doing to ensure that the system of police and crime commissioners and the panels which hold them to account have the democratic endorsement of the public?

My noble friend Lord Bach has asked some searching and probing questions today, but I will add to them a little. Will the Minister address the ongoing concern about party politics getting in the way of scrutiny? Can he answer on how many panel chairs are of the same political party as the commissioners whom they must hold to account? The Government brought in guidance last spring to create better accountability for the panels. Can the Government say yet whether this has had any impact on their functioning, or whether the Government plan to report back on its implementation?

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I particularly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bach, on securing this important debate. I know that this topic has long been of interest to him, and a wide range of views have been expressed on a variety of issues related to the roles and responsibilities of police and crime panels this afternoon.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for reminding us that this was a coalition policy and that panels were a Lib Dem idea because it gives me a rare opportunity to congratulate the Lib Dems on a good idea.

I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that it is vital that policing remains transparent and accountable to the public. Since their introduction in 2012, police and crime commissioners have brought real local accountability to how chief constables and their forces perform, ensuring that the public have a stronger voice in policing. In stark contrast to the invisible and unaccountable police authorities that preceded them, PCCs operate in the full gaze of the media and must justify their record via the ballot box, as the noble Lord knows.

I will digress briefly to look into the old police authority model because, to quote some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I believe that they were short of democratic accountability too. Police authorities consisted of 17 members, nine of whom were elected members drawn from the local authority or authorities for the force area, and reflected the political make-up of those authorities. The remaining eight members were called independent members and were appointed from the local community for fixed terms of four years by the police authority itself. They were drawn from a long list of applications submitted by the elected members and magistrates to the Home Office and that committee then appointed the independent members from a shortlist returned by the Home Office. At least three of the members were magistrates and there was no difference in power and responsibility between the different types of members. The chair was appointed by the authorities themselves. I am afraid that that is also very short of democratic engagement, it certainly lacks accountability and there is not much transparency.

Over their term of office, the decisions and actions of a PCC are subject to a holistic system of checks and balances. The most visible mechanism for scrutiny is the police area’s police and crime panel. PCCs are also subject to investigation by the Independent Office of Police Conduct in cases of serious misconduct, the oversight of their monitoring officer in preventing unlawful action or expenditure, and statutory requirements on transparency imposed by the specified information order. Panels are a vital part of that police governance model. They ensure that PCCs are scrutinised effectively and remain accountable for their decisions to those who elected them.

I will begin by explaining, for clarity, the existing structure, purpose and powers of police and crime panels, which for ease I will refer to simply as “panels”.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about the chair and political neutrality. They can be independent; they are not always, but they are expected to act with neutrality. Unfortunately, I do not have the statistics about political affiliations requested by the noble Baroness, so will write.

In each force area outside of London, panels have a wide-ranging remit to scrutinise the actions and decisions of their PCC, providing support and challenge, and acting, again to quote the noble Baroness, as a critical friend.

Panels have specific powers of veto over chief constable appointments and precept setting. They also have oversight of the PCC’s key documents, decisions and reports, requiring the PCC to provide information and answer any questions which the panel considers necessary. Additionally, panels have specific powers to review the PCC’s proposed appointment of senior staff—a subject to which I will return. They also play a direct role in handling complaints made about the conduct of a PCC, including responsibility for resolving complaints of a non-criminal nature.

A key function of panels is also to provide transparency, enabling the public to effectively hold PCCs to account. Panels must make information available to the public by publishing all reports and recommendations made to the relevant PCC. In most cases, panels are required to conduct their meetings where members of the public can attend or watch via webcast. Each panel is also required to maintain rules of procedure, which will usually make provisions about how questions or statements can be submitted by members of the public. I note with interest the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, on the panel hearings that he faced, which I think vindicate their effectiveness.

On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, noble Lords will, I hope, be aware of the Government’s two-part review to strengthen the accountability and expand the role of PCCs, and to help PCCs to deliver effective police forces that can cut crime and protect their communities. Both parts of the review looked specifically at sharpening the transparency and accountability of PCCs, as well as ensuring that they have the necessary tools and levers to be strong local leaders in the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour. As part of this, the review examined whether police and crime panels have the right skills, tools, and powers to scrutinise PCCs and provide constructive support and challenge.

The review concluded that panels have the appropriate powers at their disposal, agreed by Parliament, to scrutinise PCCs effectively and shine a light on progress against local police and crime plans. However, the consistency and quality of scrutiny can vary, and the review made several recommendations to improve the scrutiny of PCCs, primarily by supporting panels to perform their role more effectively and improving panels’ understanding of their powers and responsibilities.

In line with those recommendations, and in consultation with both the Local Government Association and the Welsh Local Government Association, we have already taken steps to improve and strengthen the scrutiny of PCCs by: issuing new guidance and best practice guides in May 2022 to sharpen panels’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities; hosting a series of webinars with panel chairs, members and supporting officers to deliver foundational learning on scrutiny best practice, which we have published on the Home Office’s YouTube platform; and issuing additional guidance to aid the recruitment and retention of independent panel members, who provide valuable additional skills, diversity and expertise for PCC scrutiny. That was issued in January.

Furthermore, in line with one of the recommendations brought forward through part 2 of the review, we have begun a fundamental assessment of the panel support model to further improve the professionalism, quality and consistency of support provided to panels by local authorities. This work will seek to address what we heard during the review’s call for evidence, which pointed towards variation in the level of full-time, dedicated resource given to panels by host local authorities.

The delivery of all these measures will help to ensure that PCCs put the law-abiding majority who voted for them at the centre of their decision-making. Noble Lords will see that we are already taking a number of steps to improve the scrutiny of panels. For that reason, the Government currently have no plans to change the structure, purpose and powers of panels.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about the powers of police and crime panels to scrutinise senior appointments made by the PCC. Other noble Lords alluded to that. He will know that PCCs are required by legislation to notify the panel when proposing appointments to senior positions in their office, including those of chief executive, chief finance officer, and deputy PCC. The legislation provides that the same appointment procedures and scrutiny processes also apply to the roles of acting chief executive or acting chief finance officer.

To execute scrutiny duties, the panel must then hold a confirmation hearing and produce a report and recommendation on whether it supports the proposed senior appointment. The panel must do so within three weeks of receiving notification from the PCC of the proposed appointment. The confirmation hearing must be held in public and the proposed candidate must be requested to attend.

In the case of Leicestershire, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred, we are advised from discussions between officials and supporting officers from the Leicestershire panel that the PCC intends to notify the panel that a new interim chief executive of the OPCC has been installed, and that this interim appointment will undergo the appropriate scrutiny process and confirmation hearing at the next panel meeting, which is due to take place on 6 March. That is therefore in accordance with the legislation, and I hope that satisfies the noble Lord. I say on the record that the Government expect, in the strongest possible terms, that PCCs appointing to senior positions in their offices follow the process clearly set out in legislation.

My noble friend Lord Lexden referenced Mike Veale and that hearing. The law is not being flouted. Arrangements concerning the establishment of a misconduct hearing are a matter for PCCs. My noble friend is quite right that I asked for speed in answer to a previous question, but I meant it in very much a generic sense. It is in everybody’s interest that these misconduct hearings are concluded as quickly as possible. I should have said that the Cleveland PCC has no power over the legally qualified chair, who must commence a hearing within 100 days of an officer being provided a notice referring them to proceedings, but may extend this period where they consider that it is in the interests of justice to do so. Decisions made within a hearing are done so independently of PCCs as well as government. There is no indifference on the part of the Home Office.

Could my noble friend comment as to whether a chair has actually been appointed in Cleveland? If an appointment has been made then, as the Written Answer sent to me yesterday clearly states, the name must be made public. The only way in which the Cleveland police and crime commissioner can be within the law is if a chair has not actually been appointed. If no chair has been appointed then the situation is even worse.

My Lords, I shall come on to the answer to that question in a second. As I say, the Government take the accountability of the police very seriously and will continue to do so. There is no indifference on the Home Office’s part in this situation.

In recent months, I have been asked on a number of occasions about the lack of apparent progress in this particular misconduct hearing. I have variously been accused, largely by members of my own party, of incompetence and impotence, among other things. However, the legally qualified chair has the right to extend the 100-day period if it is in the interests of justice to do so. If I were to comment further on this specific case and its delay—I could but I will not—that would, I believe, be genuinely incompetent because it could well prove prejudicial to the interests of justice. I am sure that no noble Lords want to see justice prejudiced, so I am afraid that my answer to any future questions or continuing questions in this debate will remain the same.

I happen to have a copy of the Written Answer that I sent to my noble friend Lord Lexden yesterday. Let me read it out for the record:

“Arrangements concerning the establishment of misconduct hearings are a matter for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), and the management of the hearing itself is the responsibility of the independent Legally Qualified Chair (LQC) in charge of it. Decisions made concerning a hearing are done so independently of PCCs as well as Government and the Home Secretary has no powers to make directions in relation to those hearings. Given the independence of PCCs and LQCs, it would be inappropriate for the Government to seek to influence those decisions.”

Anonymity is not a legal requirement. However, as I have just explained, the Home Secretary has no power to intervene in these circumstances. The legally qualified chair in Cleveland has taken decisions for very good reasons; I will leave it there as there is nothing more I can say.

I will move on to the PCC review recommendation to undertake an assessment of the panel’s support model, which obviously formed the basis of a number of good points that were made, in particular by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach. Following a commitment arising from part 2 of the PCC review, we have begun a fundamental assessment of the panel support model to further improve the professionalism, quality and consistency of support provided to panels. I must stress that this work is tightly focused on the role of democratic support officers, who sit within a host local authority and provide policy, professional and administrative support to ensure that panels effectively discharge their statutory functions to scrutinise PCCs.

To progress this work, we are undertaking some analysis of a regional model for panel support, along with consideration of improvements to the current model and exploring other potential ways to achieve our aims. A range of options will be designed and assessed before further advice is sought from Ministers to agree any next steps.

The recommendations on PCC complaints were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and my noble friend Lord Lexden. I must say that I find it disappointing that my noble friend has not investigated the quality of other PCCs more generally; had he done so, he would have found that they are consistently excellent across the country.

Although our announcement of the PCC review recommendations did not make specific recommendations on the PCC complaints system, we are still committed to developing reforms in this area. This includes ensuring clarity on what constitutes misconduct or a breach of expected standards by PCCs; deciding which body is best placed to handle certain types of complaints; ensuring that the system does not give rise to vexatious complaints; and ensuring the effective handling of criminal allegations against PCCs.

We need a system which is open, transparent and fair for all parties when handling complaints. While we develop the reforms in this area, we have taken interim steps to assist, which includes publishing guidance to strengthen the quality and consistency of scrutiny by panels and more clearly explaining their roles and responsibilities. In handling complaints about PCCs, panels must refer serious complaints and conduct matters to the IOPC. Additionally, panels are responsible for resolving non-serious—that is, non-criminal—complaints made about a PCC’s conduct when in office. Ultimate responsibility for handling any non-criminal complaints they have received remains with the panel, and they retain the ability to seek an informal resolution of a non-criminal complaint if they consider it necessary.

We consider the PCC model more democratic than the predecessor model of police authorities, as I hope I have explained. PCCs are directly elected by the communities they serve and are held to account at the ballot box; this democratic power did not exist before PCCs were introduced in 2012. The Government are committed to strengthening and expanding their role. We have taken steps to do so through the implementation of recommendations from the PCC review, and we are continuing to work closely with sector partners to implement all the recommendations.

I thank noble Lords for raising this debate. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to update the House on the progress that we are making to strengthen and improve scrutiny arrangements. The Government believe that panels have sufficient powers and the right structure to carry out their vital role of scrutinising PCCs, and the Government are committed to delivering the PCC review recommendations in full to sharpen quality, consistency and professionalisation of panels. PCCs play a vital role in holding the chief constable to account and keeping our communities safe. The public deserve visible and accountable local policing leaders who are properly scrutinised and held accountable on the issues that matter most to them.

As a final postscript, the consultation on LQCs and the dismissal process remains open. If noble Lords have strong opinions on this, I suggest that they submit them to the consultation.

Sitting suspended.