The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is now about a quarter of the way through its Report Stage in the House of Lords. Further Report days will take place on Monday 4th July, Monday 11th and Wednesday 13th. At present, the Bill is expected to be considered at Third Reading on Tuesday 19th July. With the House of Commons going on Summer Recess that day and the House of Lords on the 20th, it will be impossible for the Bill to receive its Royal Assent until after Parliament returns on September 5th.
The Bill is so poorly drafted in places that I have argued that it is in everyone’s interests for the Government to delay the Third Reading debate until September to allow the Home Office time to prepare tidying up amendments so that the Bill can at least do what it says on the tin.
So far only one amendment has been passed by the House of Lords. This had the effect of removing the first few lines of the Bill saying that there would be a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for each police force area outside London and putting forward the concept of there being Police and Crime Commissions instead – these would be the PCC and the Police and Crime Panel (PCP) for each area working together with the PCP chosing the PCC. However, the amendment agreed did not include all the consequential changes that should have followed from such an alteration and the rest of the Bill refers to PCCs and PCPs as separate entities and, for example, goes into substantial detail on the process of direct election for PCCs.
This amendment (and any others passed in the next couple of weeks) will have to be considered by the House of Commons before the Bill can have Royal Assent. The Government have made it clear repeatedly that they will reverse the Lords amendment in the Commons and restore the concept of directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners to the Bill. This will mean that the Bill will have to return to the House of Lords again, when – in theory at least – the Lords could change it again (but usually the Lords agrees eventually to the expressed wish of the elected House).
Last week the Lords failed (despite my making what former Tory Cabinet Minister, Lord Newton of Braintree, said was “one of the most persuasive” speeches he had ever heard) by 15 votes to support my amendment that would have provided some system of governance round PCCs to avoid them acting entirely on their own – potentially in a capricious manner.
Debate will now focus on what can be done to strengthen the role of PCPs to act as “the checks and balances” on elected PCCs as promised in the Coalition Agreement.
And the Government has at last put forward a number of (small) amendments to the Bill in response to the views expressed in the House of Lords. The most significant of these is that the power of veto that PCPs can exercise over the appointment of a new Chief Constable and over the size of the police precept would now be exercised when there is a two-thirds vote (a pretty high threshhold) in favour of a veto (rather than the totally unattainably high threshhold of three-quarters that was originally in the Bill). PCPs will now also have the power to “invite “, but not compel, Chief Constables to attend their meetings – this is not actually a very big concession as there was nothing in the Bill before that forbade such invitations. PCPs are also being given the power to hold confirmation hearings into (but not to veto) the appointment of the the PCC’s Deputy (if one is appointed) and of the PCC’s Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer. In London, the appointment of the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime (the PCC-equivalent in London appointed by the Mayor) may be vetoed by the London Assembly by a two-thirds majority unless the person appointed is a member of the London Assembly (in which case there will be no veto).
Ministers have also agreed to meet me and a number of colleagues to discuss the extraordinarily complex structures that the Bill creates to replace the current arrangements whereby Police Authorities employ police staff, hold the budget and enter into contracts for the local police service. The logical thing to do would be for these functions to be held by the PCCs in any new arrangements, but instead the Home Office is proposing that both the PCC and the Chief Constable in an area should become something called a “corporation sole”. The by-product of this is that both the PCC will separately have to have a statutory chief finance officer and separate auditable accounts – for the same money, the police fund for the area. This is a totally unnecessary and costly duplication.
I have described the concept of the corporation sole as being “a mediaeval construct”, as it was originally created to deal with priests in the Middle Ages who could not be trusted to keep their personal finances separate from those of the Mother Church. It is not widely used in modern public administration and, in the case of its most recent use in creating the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, the Children’s Commissioner has recently petitioned to have a different corporate structure that would be more transparent and publicly accountable. It is not clear why the Home Office is wedded to using this mediaeval anachronism for the running of twenty-first century police forces, but I suppose Chief Constables (and PCCs) ought to be grateful that the Home Office hasn’t gone the whole hog and demand that they be celibate as well.
On Monday the Report Stage continues. First to be debated is a group of amendments that I have tabled that would require that London’s PCC, the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, should be directly elected on the same day as the elections for the Mayor of London. If the Government believes that directly electing the person who holds the police to account is the right thing to do, it is illogical that in London the person with that responsibility – and for the largest police force in the country – should not also be directly elected. There would be no significant extra cost as the elections are taking place anyway, but then there is a striking lack of logic in many aspects of the Bill.