Second Reading of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Nick closes the debate on the Bill

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I apologise to the House for the fact that I had briefly to leave the debate. I was attending and addressing a meeting in the House of London members of the Police Superintendents Association, as were Opposition Front Benchers.

It has clearly largely been a good debate and I welcome the constructive comments that have been made and that have been reported to me. I shall attempt to respond to as many as I can either now or, if appropriate, later. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), mentioned his report and we are paying the closest attention to its recommendations, which we think are very considered. Like the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, he mentioned the importance of operational independence. We all agree about that and we all want to protect it. The Chairman of the Committee suggested that a memorandum of understanding might be the means by which that could be achieved. That is a good idea and the Government have already said that we will sit down with ACPO once the Bill is enacted and agree an extra-statutory protocol-I am sure that we can discuss these issues as the Bill makes progress-that will set out the terms of agreement to ensure that operational independence is protected. There is agreement between us and ACPO-it is important that the Opposition understand this-that we should not seek to define operational independence in the Bill. That is a matter for case law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) made a number of important points and I shall respond in detail at the appropriate time, but let me deal with two of them now. We will be engaging with the Electoral Commission on its recommendations. He asked whether the strategic policing requirement could cover issues such as business crime. That is important, but the aim of the requirement is to cover issues of national importance on which co-ordination is required, such as counter-terrorism and serious organised crime, to ensure that elected police and crime commissioners and chief constables have regard to those cross-border issues. I am not sure whether that would be appropriate for the issues he raised, but it is worth discussing.

Mark Reckless: On the question of operational independence, one could get the impression from Opposition Members that police forces operate and are directed in a political vacuum. Surely, it is entirely appropriate that police authorities should determine whether Tasers, for example, should be used. None of us would expect police to start using water cannon and that sort of operational tactic without political permission and oversight.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree and the Home Secretary said exactly the same thing today. Such tactics are a matter for the operational responsibility of the police, but such major decisions have to be agreed with the police authorities that hold them to account locally.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) made good speeches supporting our plans to toughen alcohol licensing. I welcome the Opposition's support for those measures, but what a far cry it is from the claims of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) that Labour's 24-hour drinking laws were about

"enriching the quality of people's lives."

How naive that was. We have seen the result of those laws-violence and disorder in our city and town centres. So, Labour now repudiates its ill-judged experiment with the so-called café culture, but it is clearly going to oppose the measures on police reform for opposition's sake. That is not the position of the former Minister with responsibility for policing, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), however. Based on the notes I have seen, I think she made a thoughtful speech on the importance of accountability, although we may differ on the particular.

The shadow Home Secretary's arguments against our proposals for police and crime commissioners are deeply unconvincing and he keeps getting things wrong. He attacked our statement on police funding today and got the numbers wrong. Last week, he said that the inspectorate of constabulary's figures were "corrupt and erroneous", but was then forced to retract those words. Today, he told the House that police and crime commissioners would have the power "to direct" policing, but that is simply wrong. Chief constables will retain control and direction of their forces, as it says in clause 2, which he should read. We are determined to protect the operational independence of chief constables. Police and crime commissioners will be able to set the policing plan with the agreement of the chief constable but they will not direct policing and nor should they.

The shadow Home Secretary said that the commissioners will be elected solely to run policing, but that will not be their sole job. They will be police and crime commissioners with wider powers and devolved budgets from the Home Office to fight crime and engage in crime prevention with the local community. If the right hon. Gentleman has such a good case, why does he need to invent objections to the Bill? He continues to assert that the commissioners will appoint political advisers, but we have repeatedly made it clear that we will not allow that. We do not want to politicise policing and we do not want spin in policing. We will not take any lectures about political advisers and spin from the friend of McBride and Whelan.

Ed Balls: I do not want to get into personal invective or to drag the important issue of policing down to the gutter. I have been told by a number of people who attended the meeting of the Association of Police Authorities at which the Minister spoke that he said that, if he were elected as a police and crime commissioner, the first decision he would take would be to appoint a political adviser. Was everyone else at that meeting mistaken or has he forgotten attending the event and saying those things?

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong and our intention is clear-we keep repeating it: we do not want political advisers and we have legislated for that in the Bill.

The Labour party complains about the cost of the commissioners and that complaint was repeated by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have made it quite clear that commissioners must cost no more than the police authorities they replace. Yes, there will be the cost of holding the elections once every four years-an average £12.5 million a year. That is less than 0.1% of police spend, and the money will not come from force budgets anyway.

Ed Balls: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: Labour's manifesto at the last election proposed referendums five times over-on AV, on reform of the other place, on mayors, on further powers for the Welsh Assembly and on the euro. Did Labour Members advance arguments against those democratic pledges on the grounds that they would cost money? Of course not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) pointed out, of course there is a cost to running elections. Police authorities do not have that cost because they are not democratic. That is exactly what we want to fix.

Hazel Blears: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: For all Labour's objections, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the previous Government twice proposed to democratise police authorities. So what happened? They backed down, twice. That is the difference between the previous Government and the coalition. The Opposition retreated from reform at the first whiff of opposition and we are determined to see it through. [Hon. Members: "Give way!"]

One thing is clear. Those on the Opposition Front Bench may be opportunistically opposing this reform, but we know what they really think about the need for it.

"Only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical."

Does that sound familiar to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)? It should do. He said it just two years ago.

Is that too long ago? Let us look at what the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) said just two weeks ago. He told the Home Affairs Committee that "the present accountability of police authorities was not optimal." What a masterpiece of understatement. If police authorities are sub-optimal, what proposals does he have for reform? None. He is silent on the issue. Today the right hon. Gentleman admitted that "there is more we can do to deepen accountability at force level." What? He will not say. He is against reform of the governance of policing, but he is for it, just as he is against cuts while admitting that he would cut police budgets by more than £1 million a year. Apparently these can be delivered without losing a single police officer. That is what he said today.

Ed Balls rose-

Nick Herbert: On point after point, Labour Members get it wrong. They say that the constituencies-[Hon. Members: "Give way!"]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister is clearly not giving way.

Nick Herbert: Labour Members say that the constituencies will be too big, yet the largest constituency outside London will have 2.5 million electors, and the capital has more than 5.5 million. Londoners like the clear line of accountability that the Mayor provides. The Opposition run scare stories about extremists being elected. Did it happen in London? No. Fortunately, Ken Livingstone was replaced by Boris Johnson.

At the heart of objections to the Bill lies a deeply worrying philosophy. It is the view that one cannot trust the people. Heaven forfend that they might elect someone who represents their views. Those are the same disreputable arguments that were mounted against enfranchising the general public and women. The same attitude pervades opposition to the Bill-that one cannot trust the electorate. It is as undemocratic as it is elitist to argue that the public should have no say, and that our public services would be run so much better by people who are unaccountable and who know better than them.

Policing is a monopoly service and people cannot choose their force. This public service has to answer to someone. Is it to be bureaucratic accountability to Whitehall or local accountability to the people? We believe in trusting people and returning power and responsibility to communities. We think that local people should have a say over how their area is policed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, we think that local people should have power so that they can do something when problem drinking blights their town and city centres. We are determined to rebuild the link between the people and the police forces who serve them. That is why these reforms are right for the people, right for the police and right for the times. I commend the Bill to the House.

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13 December 2010

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