The dramatic events of the last few days have engulfed the Metropolitan Police in crisis. Those events have highlighted the importance of strong and robust governance arrangements for policing. And they have also called into question whether the Government’s proposals in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill are going to be fit for purpose.
I highlighted one example when the House of Lords considered the Home Secretary’s statement on recent events yesterday afternoon:
“My Lords, I declare an interest as a current member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and associate myself with the very positive remarks that the Minister has made about Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates. However, given what she has just said about the referrals to the IPCC, perhaps she could ponder for a moment what the circumstances of today would have been had the Bill currently before this House been passed.
The Metropolitan Police Authority sub-committee on professional standards met this morning to consider complaints against named officers. It considered those complaints, and, as the Minister has just reported to the House, it made recommendations in one instance that an officer be suspended, and in other instances that matters now be investigated by the IPCC. Under the Bill which she is steering through this House, that would not happen. Any allegations against individuals would be considered by the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis or the Chief Officer of Police outside-of course the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis has now resigned-who would then decide whether something should be investigated or another officer suspended. Surely the interests of openness and public support for the process demand that there be some independent structure to handle complaints and consideration of whether an inquiry should be opened. That will disappear under this Bill.”
In responding to the statement for the Opposition, Lord Philip Hunt spelt out why a rethink was needed:
“What are the implications of the Home Secretary’s proposals to bring in American-style elected police and crime commissioners? The nearest Britain has to an elected police chief-the London mayor-did not stop these problems at the Met. If anything, he made them worse. Boris Johnson described the phone hacking allegations as “codswallop”. He went on to say:
What backing does the Minister think that Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates could have expected from the mayor if they had decided to reopen an investigation that he described as politically motivated? The truth is that the elected mayor made it harder, not easier, for the Met to get to the heart of this issue. The Mayor of London is now looking forward to working with his third police commissioner in his current term. To lose one commissioner is a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. Above all, it shows the risks of the closeness of the relationship between politicians and operational policing.
I come to the implications of all of this on the police Bill, which we are told is based on experience in London. In light of what has happened, I would ask the Minister for a pause in consideration of the Bill, currently due for Third Reading in your Lordships’ House on Wednesday. Whatever the ups and downs of the British police force over the decades, its political impartiality has shone out to international acclaim. However, this Bill threatens a disaster. Party political commissioners to be elected in nine months’ time risk undermining the very impartiality of which we are so proud. The Bill threatens the politicisation of operational policing; and it threatens a huge loss of public confidence in the untrammelled power given to party political commissioners to appoint or to dismiss chief constables at will.
The London situation is particularly worrying. As Sir Paul said in his statement today, the Met faces extraordinary challenges: the phone hacking investigation, the public inquiries, the inquiries that the Home Secretary announced today; its responsibility in counterterrorism and national security issues; and the Olympics. There is now huge disruption in the senior ranks of the force with the resignation of the commissioner and Mr Yates. What are the Government doing to stabilise the situation? They are introducing legislation to scrap the Metropolitan Police Authority, threatening yet more disruption. That is the last thing that the Metropolitan police force needs now. I believe that Third Reading of the police Bill should be postponed so that the consequences of the proposed legislation can be seen in the context of this week’s very disturbing events. Will the Minister agree to that?”
Others also made the case for a pause:
Baroness Smith of Basildon: My Lords, when it became clear that there was no widespread public or professional support for the health Bill, the Prime Minister wisely stepped back and paused the Bill for consideration. What I find incredible in the noble Baroness’s answers is that she does not seem to think that the events of the past couple of weeks have had any impact on, or should be considered in any way in connection with, the police Bill. Will she take this away and think about it? People across the country who support the Metropolitan Police will find it incredible if these events do not impact on deliberations on the Bill. The best thing now would be for the Bill to be paused for consideration, and for the Government then to come back with more effective and thought-out proposals.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, would it not be infinitely preferable for the Government, and particularly the Minister, to consider the events of the past few hours and days with some calm, and therefore to postpone reflection on the Bill until the Government have had a chance to come to a sensible reaction?
So what was the Government’s response?
“The Government believe very firmly that chief officers should be held to account, on behalf of the public, by police and crime commissioners for the way in which they conduct business-not operational business-in their force. The public have been the losers in all this. They have lost confidence, and we believe that the police and crime commissioners, on behalf of the public of their police force area, are the answer to ensuring that the police are held to account both for the way in which they tackle crime and for the way in which they prioritise and carry out what the public want, which is a reduction in crime. …. I suspect that there will always be a difference of opinion between this Bench and that Bench, as there was when the Bill came to the Floor of the House, so I am not in a position to say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we intend to defer Third Reading of the Bill, which has reached its final stages now, having gone through another place and had a great deal of scrutiny in this place.”
I think that is a “no” then.
The House of Lords will therefore consider the Bill at Third Reading (effectively the last moment when detailed changes can be made) on Wednesday – the last day before the Summer Recess – and it will go back to the House of Commons in September.