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Police and Crime Commissioners

Volume 828: debated on Monday 20 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have held with the Police and Crime Commissioners for Cleveland, and for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.

My Lords, the Government engage regularly with PCCs and chief constables across all force areas. There have been no recent specific discussions between the Government and the PCC for Cleveland or the PCC for Leicestershire. However, there have been official-level discussions that I am happy to advise the House about separately as required. The Government recently responded to written correspondence received from the PCC for Cleveland on 9 February. The correspondence sought clarification on the management and extension of misconduct hearings, which are matters for legally qualified chairs.

My Lords, I remind the House that for many months, through many questions, I have been trying to find out why a police gross misconduct hearing in Cleveland, announced in August 2021, has still not started. A former chief constable, Mike Veale—a man dogged by controversy, to put it politely, since he vilified Sir Edward Heath several years ago—is due to appear at this hearing. A detailed report on the complaints against Mr Veale, still unpublished by the Independent Office for Police Conduct following a two-year inquiry, preceded the announcement of this hearing 18 months ago. Things often proceed far too slowly where police misconduct is concerned, but this must surely be a record. Are the Government absolutely content for this hearing to be indefinitely delayed, perhaps never to take place? Are the Government absolutely content that the legally qualified chair, who has sole charge of this hearing, should remain anonymous, even though, in the words of a Written Answer that I received on 22 February:

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

Are the Government absolutely content that an autonomous, anonymous chair should deny the public any reason why this hearing has not started?

My Lords, I refer my noble friend to an answer I gave in Grand Committee on 23 February, when I said that

“the Cleveland PCC has no power over the legally qualified chair”—

except inasmuch as he appoints him or her—

“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.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; col. GC 494.]

That is the case here and, as I have said many times from the Dispatch Box, I am afraid I really cannot go beyond that.

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord’s Question, are the Government aware that the office of the Cleveland police and crime commissioner has delayed answering a series of relevant freedom of information questions on two separate occasions, claiming that it needs more time? Last Friday, on the last possible date allowed by the law, it refused point-blank to answer any of them. Does this course of action sound like it comes from an open, public-facing organisation or one perhaps covering its tracks?

My Lords, I am not familiar with the FoI requests that were put in, so I cannot really speak to them. I was very pleased to see that Cleveland’s most recent PEEL report, which was also published on Friday 17 March, indicates that very good progress has been made under the leadership of the chief constable, Mark Webster. The noble Lord will also be aware that the PCC, Steve Turner, attends the PPOGs. I commend them both on doing a decent job.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of a police authority. If police and crime commissioners have been so successful, as the Minister and the Government claim, why have so many of them let their police forces fall into special measures?

My Lords, I think I have partially answered that. I am delighted to say that Cleveland is starting to make serious progress on the engagement front. I have also answered a number of questions from the noble Baroness about police authorities before. For reference, they consisted of 17 members, nine of whom were elected, drawn from a local authority and reflecting its political make-up. The remaining eight were called independent members and were appointed from the local community for fixed terms. The implication in this House was that they were in some ways more democratic than the police and crime panels and police and crime commissioners. I do not think that is the case.

Does my noble friend accept that, despite his answers, there is considerable unhappiness about this whole story? I understand how difficult it is for him but, frankly, it will no longer wash that an individual who has behaved in a wholly unsatisfactory way, as far as one can see, is just not taken to task. Will he agree to look at this again and find an answer for those of us who have been pressing for many years to try to get one?

I completely accept the noble Lord’s unhappiness—and possibly share it, because I have to answer this question on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the Government have no powers to intervene, as he will be aware, in the misconduct process. There are reasons why it has been held up, but I cannot say them.

My Lords, the Government have promised to make police and crime commissioners more accountable, because getting held to account only once every four years is not really enough. What exact measures will the Government put in place to make sure that they respond to the people for whom they are responsible?

The noble Baroness asks a good question. As she will be aware, we have passed secondary legislation to enact changes to the PCC voting system. This reform will clarify and simplify it and make it easier for the public to hold their PCCs accountable at the ballot box. We are increasing the transparency of PCCs by amending the specified information order so that PCCs are now required to publish additional information to allow the public to hold them to account, including their progress against the Government’s national priorities for policing, recent HMICFRS reports and additional complaints information. There are also recommendations to improve scrutiny, which I can go into. A lot has been done.

My Lords, month after month and year after year, Ministers stand at that Dispatch Box and give wholly unsatisfactory answers. There is deep concern, as my noble friend Lord Deben made plain a few moments ago, and as my noble friend Lord Lexden has made plain time after time. If the rules prevent my noble friend the Minister giving a satisfactory answer, one is tempted to quote Mr Bumble: if the law says that, the law is an ass. Will my noble friend try to do something so that, when he comes to the Dispatch Box next time, he can give a sensible and meaningful answer?

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend finds it unsatisfactory. I think it would be unsatisfactory for me to stand here and make a comment that might prejudice a judicial inquiry. I am not going to do that.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and his persistence in trying to learn the lessons from this hugely unfortunate episode. Law and order go to the very heart of what a civilised society stands for. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, will tomorrow deliver a report on the Metropolitan Police that will give the police force yet another good kicking. Does the Minister not agree that it is not enough to leave all these things up to police and crime commissioners, let alone the Mayor of London? The Government have to take a central role in dealing with what is an ongoing and deeply serious problem.

My Lords, I agree up to a point. The Government are taking a central role, not least through the review into the dismissal process that I have talked about before. I have little doubt that that will become a topical subject within the next 24 hours. That will look into the composition of misconduct panels, including the impact of the role of legally qualified chairs; more broadly, it will look at things such as the appeals mechanism and the effectiveness of the performance system, including for officers who have failed vetting. That review was launched on 17 January and was said to take about four months to conclude. We are getting towards the end of that process, so there will be more to be said.

My Lords, the Minister said he has no powers to intervene. He also said there is a judicial process in which he does not want to intervene. Can he give the House a date by which that judicial process will start?

My Lords, I will make what I hope is a helpful suggestion. Could the Minister not give a briefing to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and perhaps to the Leader of the Opposition on a privy counsellor basis? If there is some good reason, they could then reassure those who are understandably indignant about this delay.

I am happy to reassure the House on that point. I am seeing my noble friend Lord Lexden this Wednesday. He chose not to mention it, but I will.

My Lords, I declare an interest having, together with the late Lord Newton of Braintree, presented the seven Nolan principles of conduct in public life to Parliament. Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that two of those principles, accountability and openness, are not evident in the responses he has been able to deliver so far? Can he please ensure that all holders of public office know that they have to be

“accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to scrutiny necessary to ensure this”?

On openness, they must

“act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”

I accept the question from my noble friend. Yes, they are expected to adhere to the Seven Principles of Public Life, as determined and published by the Nolan committee. The office of the PCC is also expected to ensure that the PCC is adhering to the Nolan principles. In each force area, the actions and decisions of PCCs are scrutinised by their police and crime panels. On the case of Leicestershire—which I suspect is at least partly informing my noble friend’s question—I am happy that the standards are now being met there. They should have been met before, but the Government—as we have said before from the Dispatch Box in the strongest possible terms—expect that PCCs appointing to senior positions in their offices follow the process clearly set out in legislation. I am very pleased to say that Leicestershire is now doing that.