Police and Justice Bill

During a debate on the House of Lords amendments to the Police and Justice Bill, Charles Walker raises the questions of accountability and independence of county police forces.

Mr. Walker: I fear that the House may have already heard the best of my speech, but I shall plough on regardless.

It is a great privilege to speak in the debate, not least because I have the almost undivided attention of the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, which I am delighted to have. I have not had a chance to look at the performance table—not the league table—and establish where Hertfordshire resides in it, but I am sure that Hertfordshire is doing an excellent job. I regularly meet our chief constable and chief superintendent, and I know they are very much committed to the safety of my constituents. They could do with more resources, but I have yet to meet a public servant who does not demand more resources, and they are managing very well with what they have.

The debate has raised the vexed question of accountability versus independence. In principle I very much like the idea of an independent Hertfordshire police force, free to make its own decisions and pursue local objectives and concerns. However, I also understand the Government’s wish for a level of accountability. I think that if a police force is clearly failing, there is good reason for some form of intervention to address that failure if the police authority is struggling.

Two contradictory forces pull me in different directions. In Hertfordshire there is a drive for local accountability; meanwhile, understandably, the Government and the Home Secretary seek to ensure that most police forces deliver to a uniformly excellent standard throughout the country. The Government clearly need to be protected from persistent failure. I am delighted that since 1994 the Home Office has not felt the need to intervene in the running of a police force, and I hope that that continues for a long time, but I am sure that if a reason for intervention arose in the future, we who are here in the Chamber—and those in the many House of Commons bars and restaurants—would like to know the basis on which the Home Office and the Secretary of State would intervene. I do not consider that concern unreasonable, and I am sure that the Minister will take it into account.

The merger of police forces created a great deal of angst in Hertfordshire, as it did in many counties and constabularies. My constituents feared that mergers would cause forces to focus on issues that were not of local concern. Like many of my constituents, I watch police programmes in which, accurately or inaccurately—I know that it is fiction—we see many policemen making their careers by chasing international criminal masterminds, pulling down Mr. Big, securing an audience with the Prime Minister and having well-deserved medals pinned on their chests. However, although it is important, international crime does not keep my constituents awake at night. What keeps them awake at night is the fear of low-level thuggery and persistent antisocial behaviour. Let me add, at the risk of sounding repetitive, that they feared that a more “global” police force would view issues on a global rather than a local basis.

That is not to say that the people of Hertfordshire would turn their backs indefinitely on future police mergers if a good case could be made, but I hope that if the circumstance arose there would be full and proper local consultation: not a three-month consultation, but a consultation allowing a period of reflection and consideration, allowing the Home Secretary and his Ministers to devise a cogent argument and allowing us, the elected representatives of Hertfordshire and the local people, to respond.

I hope that as the Bill proceeds, the Minister will keep in mind the need for accountability. It is required at all levels, and I know it will ensure that the people of Hertfordshire sleep more soundly tonight and in the future.

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OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE SAME DEBTATE

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): How many times have those existing powers (the reserve powers to intervene in an underperforming force or police authority) been exercised since 1994?

Mr. McNulty: Let me return to that shortly, if inspiration comes my way; otherwise I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter. The question he asks is an entirely fair one.

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Mr. Walker: I hope that the Minister accepts that it was not my intention in my brief speech to diminish organised crime. Clearly, people trafficking, international terrorism and drug dealing are hugely important. Is the Home Office looking at a different formula for tackling those issues beyond the idea of merging police forces? It may be slightly off the point, but I would grateful if the Minister answered that question.


Mr. McNulty
: I want to make two points on that issue. First, what I said on counter-terrorism rightly does not prevail in respect of serious and organised crime, which belongs more readily at the regional or more localised level, albeit under the umbrella of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. However, we have taken out of that, almost sideways, our centre for human trafficking—although the hon. Gentleman will understand that we are against such trafficking rather than promoting it—and other elements such as the European action plan, so that runs alongside, though very much with the grain, what police forces are doing locally and nationally.

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Mr. Walker: I apologise—I was not present in Committee—but what is the incentive for someone to choose a conditional caution over appearing before the magistrates court?


The Solicitor-General
: There are a number of incentives. One is that the matter will usually be dealt with much more quickly. An offer is made and, in a sense, the defendant then has to choose whether to accept that offer or to take the matter to the magistrates court, with all the time that that may take. There is a greater degree of certainty, because the defendant knows what the offer is, whereas he does not really know what the magistrates court may do. He will be able to determine whether he can afford to pay the fine—or whatever it is—there and then. There are also limitations on the level of fine that can be imposed as a result of a conditional caution. The limitation is about a quarter of the maximum in a particular case or £500. The penalties will be constrained, in terms of what can be done, if we get all the proposals that we want through. So, there are some advantages to the defendant in choosing a conditional caution. He will get free legal advice.

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Mr. Walker: Although the scheme proposed by the Government appears superficially attractive, I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The situation is similar to cases in which the police send people letters that say, “You have been caught speeding—pay £60. You can take this to court, but if you do, be warned that we could fine you £2,000.” That approach has caused concern, because some people who know that they are innocent, but who fear being fined £2,000, have taken the £60 fine and admitted the offence.

Nick Herbert: That is my precise concern. In the case of conditional cautions, however, the approach could apply to much more serious offences. The danger is that people will feel that they do not want to experience a court process, which will mean that the caution is not truly voluntary.

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Mr. Walker: But am I not right in thinking that, if someone appears before a magistrates court, that court will not take into account their earnings, income or savings, and that if they are found guilty in a magistrates court, they will still have a fine levied on them? So the magistrates court does not take into consideration their ability to pay either. Maybe I am wrong.


Lynne Featherstone
: No, but the point about going to a magistrates court is that there is a whole other purpose involved—that the public can have confidence that the right person is convicted and it is publicly demonstrated that justice is being done. At present, we just have the arresting officer’s say-so, in effect.

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Mr. Walker: In July the Home Secretary caught the mood of the House when he talked about doubling the prison sentence for carrying a knife. Will the Solicitor-General assure us that conditional cautions will not be used for people carrying knives, just as they will not be used in cases of burglary?

The Solicitor-General: As I understand it, the Home Secretary said that the aim was to increase the maximum sentence. The courts must determine the appropriate sentence for each case. We take the view that when knives have been involved in an offence, it would not be appropriate to issue a conditional caution. We need to recognise, however, that some cases in which young people have been carrying knives are not dealt with by heavy penalties in the court system. A degree of proportion is needed when dealing with these matters.

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