Inside Parliament: Howard pledge is single act of defiance over 'tattered' Bill: Blair derides 'exercise in mistaken ideology' - MPs salute historic events in South Africa

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Indy Politics
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday introduced the tatters of his Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill to the House of Commons with all the enthusiasm of a boy showing off a new bicycle after it has been run over by a truck.

The Bill was severely mauled during its passage through the Lords. In over a score of changes, peers excised what they believed to be excessive powers granted to the Home Secretary over police authorities and local justices.

Presenting the measure - later given a Second Reading by 290 votes to 247, a Government majority of 43 - Mr Howard pledged himself to overturn only one of the Lords' amendments. 'Another place' had changed his plans for reforming police discipline to such an extent that all that remained was 'the existing rigid system', he said. It did not allow police managers to review an officer's behaviour or performance or take action in response to a failure to meet proper standards.

'This is totally unacceptable,' Mr Howard went on. In particular, he wanted to reverse an amendment that would prevent disciplinary proceedings being brought against an officer in respect of a matter for which he had been tried and acquitted in a criminal court - 'the so-called, but wrongly so- called, 'double jeopardy' clause'.

In support, Edward Garnier, Tory MP for Harborough, pointed out that if an officer was acquitted of a criminal offence there might still be evidence that he was unfit to remain in the service.

Thanks to the Lords, however, officers will have the right to be legally represented at hearings if they are at risk of dismissal, forced resignation or demotion. Mr Howard said he was 'persuaded' that police officers should continue to have this right.

Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, was free to make hay. The Bill was a 'foolish exercise in mistaken ideology'. The only reason it continued in existence was because no one had the courage to dump it.

Mr Blair said that though the measure came before MPs in a 'badly wounded and limping state' it had not been changed enough. Nor had changes come about 'through a process of consultation', as Mr Howard claimed.

'Not one single change of any substance occurred until the time when the clock was just about to strike midnight in the other place, when under pressure of defeat and humiliation, then change was announced. It was secured not by a listening government but by a scared one.'

The Bill remained flawed, he said, because the thinking and ethos that underpinned it was flawed. With one or two exceptions, such as the proposals on greater flexibility in the financing of police authorities, it represented the most determined and least popular attempt to centralise policing and give ministers unprecedented control over the way the police did their work.

'It is driven not just by short- term cost-cutting but by ideology which resents local freedom and has an aversion bordering on paranoia for local government.'

Roger Sims, Conservative MP for Chislehurst, said that neither Mr Howard nor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, had been 'covered in glory' by the handling of the Bill. 'It is no small achievement to produce a measure which is greeted by the united opposition of all police organisations, the Magistrates' Association, the justices' clerks and a cross-section of knowledgeable Lords.'

The only time that Mr Howard brightened up during his speech was for the obligatory swipe at his political opponents. Though brief, it was undeniably topical. 'For Labour to pose as an ally of the police is rather like Eugene Terre-Blanche posing as a friend of Nelson Mandela,' the Home Secretary said.

The historic events in South Africa cropped up several times during the parliamentary day, though Mr Howard was the only person to give Mr Terre-Blanche, leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement, such prominence.

At Question Time, the Labour MP for Carmarthen, Alan W Williams, urged John Major to congratulate Mr Mandela, the ANC 'and everyone involved in the anti-apartheid movement for bringing democracy at last to South Africa'.

Spotting the nuance, Mr Major replied: 'I am very happy to extend my congratulations to Mr Mandela, to President de Klerk, and to everyone else who over the years has worked for a non-racial South Africa.'

Tim Rathbone, Tory MP for Lewes, called on Mr Major to welcome the final step away from apartheid and to continue to bend his energies to bring South Africa back into the Commonwealth.

The Prime Minister hoped the elections would be concluded without more violence. 'When the result is concluded and a new multi-racial government is formed, I hope very much they will decide to rejoin the Commonwealth,' he said. 'As far as this Government is concerned, they will be very welcome entrants.'