Ministers ignore warnings from all sides about disrupting policing during the Olympics

Late last night the Government was urged both by Liberal Democrat and Labour Peers to avoid disrupting policing during the Olympics.  Did they heed the warnings?  In a word, “no”:

“Amendment 206A

Moved by Baroness Doocey

206A: After Clause 50, insert the following new Clause—

“Transitional arrangements

(1) The provisions of sections 1 to 50 are subject to this section.

(2) Sections 1 to 50 shall not come into effect until 1st October after the first ordinary elections under section 51 have taken place.

(3) The Secretary of State shall make regulations to ensure that the police authorities established for police areas under section 3 of the Police Act 1996 (establishment of police authorities) and the Metropolitan Police Authority continue to exercise their functions until such time as the provisions of sections 1 to 50 come into effect.”

Baroness Doocey: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 310. The purpose of Amendment 206A is to delay the implementation of Clauses 1 to 50 until October 2012 and to allow for a transitional period. During the period until then, the existing arrangements will continue to operate, so in London the Metropolitan Police Authority will continue to exercise its functions until such time as the provisions of Sections 1 to 50 come into effect. The purpose of Amendment 310 is also to move the implementation of this Bill in London from December this year to October next year.

The Government and the Mayor of London are keen to introduce the new system as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. The Bill as it stands would allow this to happen. The Government’s prime duty is to keep London and the country safe. Therefore implementation should be timed optimally to ensure that the transition does not compromise public safety. When we consider issues around public safety, we need to bear in mind that there are some very significant events in 2012. We will have the Olympic Torch Relay from May to July, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, the Olympic Games in July and August and the Paralympic Games in September. These major events will require a policing operation on an unprecedented scale, so it is difficult to understand why the Government are hell-bent on implementing the changes before these events take place.

My main concern is the policing of the Olympic Games. The Metropolitan Police has described the Games as one of the,

“biggest security challenges the British police have ever faced in peacetime”.

Presidents, kings and queens, heads of state and athletes from all over the world will come together. Their protection will require a security operation of extraordinary complexity. In order to meet this challenge, the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office have spent years planning for every eventuality. As circumstances develop and situations change, these plans are subject to continual revision. The vast majority of Olympic events will take place in London and police officers will be drafted in from every police force in the country to help with the huge operation. For the Government to force the Metropolitan Police to divert their efforts from the security of the Games to a major reorganisation at this critical time almost beggars belief.

Besides the major events I have listed, there is another important event happening in London next year; namely, the mayoral election in May. This election creates a different but no less significant set of problems. It could result in a change of mayor. The new mayor may have a very different vision for the direction of policing in London. If so, this could confront the Metropolitan Police with yet further disruption before the Games. One wonders if the Government’s unseemly haste may be designed to create a fait accompli ahead of the mayoral election.

Whenever this Bill is implemented, it will require a major reorganisation of the Metropolitan Police. The changes proposed have been described by Sir Hugh Orde, president of ACPO, as,

“some of the most radical changes to police governance since 1829”.

Reorganisations are very disruptive. We all know the anxieties being expressed around the NHS. This particular reorganisation will require the police to change all their reporting structures and to get to know, brief, and get up to speed a completely new set of stakeholders and board members. As anyone who has ever served on a police authority will know, gaining an understanding of policing issues is no easy task; it takes time. Let us not forget that this huge organisational change is to be delivered within a framework and climate of an expected reduction in the Met’s spending of some £600 million by 2014-15. Savings to be delivered this year, of £163 million, have already resulted in a two-year pay freeze for police officers and staff, the withdrawing of special payments for police officers and a review of the terms and conditions of police staff.

The reorganisation will be work-intensive, expensive and time-consuming. It should happen at a time when it does not conflict with the London Olympics, so that the police may concentrate their energies and efforts on the huge security challenges surrounding the Games.

The Government have said on a number of occasions that they want to implement the Bill before the Olympics because the Met is in favour of early implementation. In a previous debate in this House on 16 June, my noble friend the Minister said that,

“not just the Mayor of London but the Commissioner of the Metropolis is also keen for the transition from MPA governance to that of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime as soon as possible after Royal Assent is achieved for this Bill … we have double-checked that there is no real concern with the mayor or the commissioner”.—[Official Report, 16/6/11; col. 1033.]

Well, of course there is no concern from the mayor: he wants the changes before the mayoral elections next May. But what the commissioner actually said to Nick Herbert in his letter of 22 June is:

“London should move forward with the new model as soon as is practicably possible … there are some measures that need to be put in place in order that the new structures can work effectively. Clearly if these cannot be implemented in the time available, the arguments for going early become less compelling”.

This is somewhat different from the Government’s claim that the commissioner is “keen” and that there are no real concerns.

In addition, the commissioner has always been entirely consistent in his view that it is for the Government and Parliament to decide the governance and accountability arrangements for policing, so it is not surprising that he will carry out the democratic wishes of Parliament. It is therefore disingenuous for Ministers to claim that the Metropolitan Police wants early implementation so we must do as it says. Governments ignore the advice of the police whenever it suits them. Detention of suspects is just one example.

A delay until October 2012 is not drastic; it is only a few months later than the Government envisage. By October 2012, Londoners will have enjoyed the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. They will have a mayor who has been elected for four years setting a direction over how London is to be policed. Let us allow this direction to be set in a period of calm, with time to think. Let us also give senior police officers the time and space to prepare for these new directions. We need only to delay these changes for a few months, and London will be a better place for it.

I have no doubt that if the Government go ahead and implement this Bill before October 2012, it will cause serious disruption to the policing of the London Olympics and other major events taking place next year. This proposed reorganisation will cause immense disruption at the worst possible time and compromise the safety of our citizens. I therefore appeal to the Minister, even at this late stage, to reconsider this seriously flawed decision. I beg to move.

10.30 pm

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I support the amendment for a number of reasons. First, the Bill is amazingly silent on transitional arrangements. In the immediate aftermath of the vote on the first day in Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised with a degree of interruption and noises off—from me, I appreciate—the question of the transitional arrangements that should be in force before a new system is put in place. I would not go as far as those who reorganised London government in the 1960s where there was one year of shadow operation. But I note that there were several months of shadow operation when the new arrangements in London for the Assembly and the mayor took effect. All the Bill provides for in terms of a transition period is seven days—seven calendar days, one week—for transition from one system of governance to another. That seems strikingly short to me, under any set of circumstances. However, that is the smallest and most insignificant of reasons for supporting this amendment.

My admiration for the Home Secretary grows every day, because of the bravery she shows. In Sir Humphrey Appleby terms, the decisions she is taking on policing are extremely brave. Currently, in policing, there is a most extraordinary agenda of change. There are substantial budget reductions, starting with the current year, and moving through next year and the rest of the CSR period. Major changes are proposed for the terms and conditions of police officers, which will at least cause a degree of stress, uncertainty and confusion, if not downright anger from many police officers. Changes are proposed in the pensions of police officers, which are also causing a substantial degree of distress, concern and anger. That is all happening at the same time as other parts of the public sector are withdrawing various functions from their activities so that more will be expected of the police force.

At the same time, we have the challenge of the Olympics, which is probably the largest policing challenge that has ever been faced in this country, comparing a modern Olympiad with the last time that London hosted the Olympics, in 1948. There is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Wedged in that very short interval between the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games is the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest street festival, involving major policing resources. In the midst of all this, our brave Home Secretary is proposing that we change the governance arrangements for policing in London and the rest of the country.

In supporting this amendment I am not trying to frustrate the Government’s intention. I am simply trying to point out that there are major risks in doing this on that timetable, with one week’s transition. That is all that is envisaged for the rest of the country and it is very unclear when the transition in London might take place. All of that will occur, at a time when all of these other things are going on.

I know that our brave Home Secretary has taken the decision to reduce the security alert status, which is always a brave decision for any Home Secretary because that supposes that you know of everything that might be just around the corner. However, the security situation is that there is a very serious terrorist threat against the Olympic Games. There are enormous public order and security challenges. It is not just al-Qaeda and its affiliates that we should be concerned about. Because of the global interest in the Olympic Games—with an estimated several billion people watching the opening ceremony on television around the world—this is an opportunity for any organisation anywhere in the world, pursuing its local objectives, to get publicity on a global scale. The threat is enormous, and in the midst of it our brave Home Secretary plans to change the governance arrangements for policing.

The amendment is very modest. It does not frustrate the Government’s objectives. It merely says, “At least get the Olympic and Paralympic Games out of the way before you make this change”. Is there any need for further distraction under the circumstances? Is there any need for that degree of disruption? Is it not better to wait for a few short months, which will have the added benefit of allowing a sensible period of transition to the new governance arrangements? I urge noble Lords to support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, my recollection of the transition/shadow period for the Greater London Authority was that it was very short and clearly not long enough, but that is not the point I will make tonight.

I sometimes think that, faced with a difficult decision, it is wise to ask oneself, “How will I feel, looking back in six months or a year, if I did or did not do something?”. In this situation, if the Government postpone the changes in London, they will be able to look back a year and a half from now and say, “Phew, that went okay. What damage did we do by not making the changes? Well, none really. What damage have we suffered? Maybe a little to our egos, but does that matter?”. How much better to be in that situation if there has been a problem, which may or may not be related to the changes in governance, than to be told by the noble Lord opposite or my noble friend behind me, “Well, we did warn you”, and for the world to say, “You were warned”.

I do not see a problem if the Government make what is hardly even a concession but more a slight shift in thinking. The balance is between very little on the one hand, and possibly nothing but possibly something catastrophic on the other.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and my noble friend for raising this matter. The Government’s approach to the Bill is on a par with their approach to other pieces of legislation. We have already seen the debacle of the Public Bodies Bill, and the Government are replicating the approach with the Health Bill. I declare an interest as chair of a foundation trust and as a trainer consultant in the NHS. The NHS is facing the biggest challenge that it has ever faced in reducing its spending and in its efficiency programme. At the same time, the Government are drawing up all the structural bodies that are in place and forcing the health service to devote a huge amount of time to structural issues when it should be focusing on how on earth it will cope with the largest reductions in real-terms funding that it has ever faced.

It seems that the same thing is happening to our police forces. The Government have drawn all the wrong conclusions from the first Blair Administration. They feel that they need to speed on, but destruction is inevitable because of the speed with which they are moving. I can only conclude that it is because no senior Minister in the Government has any experience whatever of running anything. If they had, they would not rush in the way the Government are rushing, with no understanding of the impact on essential public services.

When one considers the challenges facing the Metropolitan Police—I shall not go through the list again but they include: the Olympics; the continuing threat of terrorism; the mayoral elections; the budget reductions; staff issues, to which my noble friend referred, including pensions; and the phone hacking issue—it is obvious that over the next months and years there will be intense scrutiny on the force and its senior officers. There are to be two inquiries into the phone hacking issue, one of which is bound to look in close detail at the actions of the Metropolitan Police. The last thing the force needs during the next two to three years is to cope with a structural change in governance. The noble Baroness’s amendment is eminently sensible, and I hope that even at this late stage the Government will give it sympathetic consideration.

Baroness Browning: My Lords, I reiterate what I have said in previous discussions on this subject to my noble friend Lady Doocey: the commissioner has personally asked the Home Secretary to go as early as possible with London. That is a fact. The commissioner, deputy commissioner, the mayor and deputy mayor are very keen for the London provisions to be commenced as soon as possible.

My noble friend mentioned a letter. That letter outlines issues that the commissioner has flagged up for the Government to look at so that London can go early. The issues in the letter are being looked at and many of them have already been agreed in earlier amendments in the House. We debated earlier today the government amendments to the transitional provisions in the Bill to ensure that the PCCs and the MOPC can operate effectively from the outset and that there is no need for a period of shadow operation. The changes to policing governance do not affect operational control and so will not impact on operational issues.

We are going round this circuit for about the third time. My noble friend may totally disagree with me but I have checked and double checked—as has my right honourable friend the Minister of State in another place—to make sure that our understanding of both the commissioner’s and the mayor’s view on this subject are as we have described them in this House. I can but repeat what I have already said to my noble friend in the House: they are keen to commence as soon as possible and they have in no way sought to delay London.

Baroness Doocey: My Lords, I have listened to the Minister with a very heavy heart because, being an eternal optimist, I had hoped against hope that the Government might take some responsibility upon themselves and say, “We are the Government and we are making the decision. On reflection, we do not think that it is a good idea to put citizens’ lives at risk in order to implement the changes in the Bill immediately”.

I have concluded that I have done everything possible to persuade the Government that this is not only a bad idea but a positively dangerous one. I have also concluded that all my pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and it is with a heavy heart that I feel I have no choice but to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 206A withdrawn.”

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