Howard keen to save legislation on police discipline

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MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, will this week consider whether to reverse two key House of Lords amendments designed to block his attempt to strengthen internal disciplinary procedures in the police service.

The changes to the Police and Magistrates Court Bill removed measures that would have restricted legal representation for officers facing disciplinary charges and would have allowed officers in some circumstances to be disciplined even if they were cleared of criminal charges.

While Mr Howard is not expected to try to reverse most other changes forced by the Lords under the Bill, the Home Office is known to be keen to restore the measures on discipline to reinforce confidence in the police, if it is practicable to do so and there is sufficient support in the Commons. The Bill has its Second Reading in the Commons next week.

Ministers are concerned that an acquittal - or a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to proceed against a police officer charged with an offence - does not necessarily mean that he has not committed an act unbecoming to a police officer. The Police Federation argued that the proposed change placed its members in 'double jeopardy'.

Under Mr Howard's original proposals, a police officer could have a 'friend' accompany him to the early stage of disciplinary hearings, and give advice, but not conduct the case. In an appeal against disciplinary action, the officer would still have full legal representation.

Mr Howard's dilemma over whether to recover some of the ground he has lost in the Police Bill comes at the same time as confirmation in Whitehall that any further Bill on the administration of the criminal justice system in the next parliamentary session will include measures designed to protect informers, undercover investigators and 'supergrass' witnesses.

The measures would impose new limits on the right of defence counsel to go on 'fishing expeditions' that can secure, under the rules covering Crown disclosure of evidence, details of secret informers. Chief police officers have complained that they have to withdraw prosecutions for fear of exposing informants to unjustified risk of intimidation.

Ministers are concerned about a trial of alleged Animal Liberation Front activists in Reading last year which was abandoned by the prosecution as the price for not identifying an undercover informant within the organisation.

The likely further Bill will also implement the recommendations by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice for a review body to take over from the Home Secretary decisions on whether alleged miscarriages of justice should be referred to the Court of Appeal.