The Queen's Speech: Police and magistrates' courts: Home Office to aim

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THE POLICE and Magistrates' Courts Bill announced in the Queen's Speech contains the most far-reaching proposals for changes in the management and funding of the police service for 30 years.

Three strands exist in the Bill: the White Paper on reforming police authorities and funding, those sections of the Sheehy report which have been adopted by the Home Office, and third, plans to reform the discipline system. On to this has been tacked plans to improve the administration of magistrates' courts. All the measures have been previously announced.

The Home Office says the measures will streamline the police, improve efficiency and help fight crime. Critics say many of the proposals to reform police authorities will increase centralisation of the police, creating the potential for misuse by future governments.

Under the White Paper's plans, police forces will be set national objectives while local performance targets and policing plans will be set by new-style police authorities. These authorities and chief constables will be given greater freedom over how they spend their budgets and recruitment. The new authorities will have a membership of 16, half of whom will be elected members and the remainder divided between magistrates and others, such as business people or those from the voluntary sector, nominated by the Home Secretary.

The chairman would also be nominated by the Home Secretary, not elected as at present.

Many of these proposals have been attacked, mainly by chief constables and the local authority associations, as a threat to democracy and are certain to provoke fierce parliamentary debate.

Also included are simplified procedures for merging forces, all that remains of original and strongly opposed Home Office plans to almost halve the total number of forces in England and Wales.

As Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced last month those parts of the controversial Sheehy report which will form part of the Bill are fixed-term appointments for senior officers - commander or assistant chief constable level and above - and the abolition of three management ranks - chief inspector, chief superintendent and deputy chief constable.

Many other details of Sheehy, including a revised system of annual assessment, are being discussed at the Police Negotiating Board.

The third element comprises previously announced plans to replace the present quasi-judicial discipline process with one more akin to the private sector, removing the rights of police officers to maintain their silence under questioning and to legal representation. Senior officers will be given new powers to deal with inefficient officers and to dismiss instantly those accused of very serious offences.

Proposals in a White Paper which was published in February last year which give the Lord Chancellor extensive powers over the magistrates' courts service are also included in the Bill. These give the Lord Chancellor the ability to re- organise areas, appoint local managers for magistrates' courts committees and approve the appointment of justices' clerks.