Police Bill draws criticism

PLANS DISCLOSED yesterday which allow the Home Secretary to appoint the chairmen of the new, smaller and businesslike, police authorities ran into immediate criticism from chief constables, local authorities and opposition politicians.

Other parts of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill have also attracted anger across the criminal justice system. The Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech, sets out a framework which Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said yesterday would make the police more efficient and cut crime. But he said that its success could not be measured by crime statistics alone.

It combines the White Paper on police reform, published earlier this year, some parts of the Sheehy Report on policing adopted by the Home Office, and the new arrangements for disciplinary procedures, announced in September.

The key change involves reducing all police authorities to 16-member free-standing bodies, with eight local councillors, three magistrates and five members and the chairman appointed centrally. For now, authorities can have more than 30 members and are either county council committees or formed from several district councils. A third of their members are magistrates.

The bitterest criticism has come from the Association of Chief Police Officers. John Smith, its president, said the combination of Home Office appointed chairmen, the setting of objectives and the placing of chief constables on fixed-term contracts threatened to undermine local policing.

Chief constables fear a Home Secretary could use an authority chairman to put undue pressure on senior officers fearful of losing their jobs. Currently, chief constables have total operational independence and security of tenure.

Attacking the Bill for simply grabbing headlines, Tony Blair, the Labour spokesman for home affairs, said it was a 'fundamental error in principle and strategy, a retrograde step which takes policing in the opposite direction to the one which it needs'.

In a joint statement, the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, criticised the Bill for proposing too few elected members and said the overall size of the new authorities would be too small for larger areas.

Ian Lowrie, their spokesman, said the appointment of five members and the chairman by the Home Secretary was 'a breach of normal democratic procedures and a dangerous step in the direction of a national police force'.

The Home Office has defended its proposals against criticisms of centralisation by emphasising the measures designed to improve local accountability. Critics of the often cosy relationship between some police authorities and chief constables will welcome the provisions ordering authorities to set local objectives, provide annual reports and respond to criticism by the Inspectorate of Constabulary. Authorities will also have to issue a local policing plan.

Chief constables and local authorities are also pleased at the provision in the Bill which will give them freedom to allocate resources within an overall budget. They will no longer have to apply to the Home Office for manpower increases or permission to spend money on small capital projects.

The discipline proposals will end the right to silence of police officers under investigation, take away their legal representation and create a five-stage system of dealing with officers who have not been accused of disciplinary offences, but are considered inefficient.

Chief constables will be able to instantly dismiss any officer accused of committing a serious offence if sufficient evidence is available. These proposals have prompted widespread anger among lower ranking officers, who say they undermine the rights of those under investigation and allow chief officers to exercise grudges.

MAIN POINTS OF POLICE AND MAGISTRATES' COURTS BILL

New free-standing, 16-member police authorities;

Home Secretary to issue key policing objectives;

Freedom for authorities and chief constables to allocate resources within a cash limited grant;

New powers to simplify amalgamation of forces;

Abolition of deputy chief constable rank as recommended by Sheehy. Other rank changes and introduction of fixed-term contracts for chief constables will follow as amended regulations;

Inspectorate of Constabulary formally extended to cover Metropolitan Police;

New informal discipline procedures;

Proposals to improve the performance of magistrates' courts committees.

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