Andreas Whittam Smith: When the police turn to lobbying Parliament

Oh the naivety of the police chiefs who responded positively to the Home Secretary's wish!
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What exactly is wrong with this statement by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo): "of course we were contacting MPs. They needed to be informed before they made a decision"? This was the Acpo's response to the charge that senior officers had breached the traditional neutrality of the police service in lobbying for the 90-day detention clause in the Government's anti-terrorist legislation. They had telephoned MPs to make the case. And, in a most extraordinary way, Andy Hayman, the head of Scotland Yard's specialist operations, held talks with around 30 Labour rebels.

Just the phrasing of the Acpo statement, let alone the substance, raises the eyebrow. "Of course" we were contacting MPs. As if what senior police officers were doing was quite normal, merely participating in the political process like any other institution. Except, of course, that the police aren't like any other institution.

Members of Parliament "needed to be informed before they made a decision". This is a little bit arrogant, is it not? Poor old MPs are unlikely to get anything right without direction is what the Acpo seems to be saying. Disrespect of Parliament is implicit in the statement. Arrogance derived from ignorance rather than superior knowledge is a common police fault.

In this instance, it is ignorance of our constitutional arrangements. Everybody accepts that in considering how best to combat terrorism, senior police officers have a wealth of experience to offer. Their opinions are more valuable than most. And their views on the law in relationship to terrorism and whether new legislation is required should be taken with the utmost seriousness. That is common ground.

That the police should make their views known where they have special expertise is, again, unexceptionable. They have two channels of communication. The first is upwards to the Home Office, its officials and ministers. In addition the Home Secretary may choose to take senior officers to see the Prime Minister. Indeed this seems to be a regular occurrence.

The second channel is outwards to the public at large. Senior police officers are asked to speak at public and private functions; they are interviewed by the media; they reply to questions put to them by Parliamentary committees; they hold conferences which are attended by the press. On any of these occasions they may offer their views with a view to briefing the public. If, for instance, a senior police officers states in a widely reported speech or interview that he or she considers that the present rules for holding terrorist suspects without charge are unworkable, that puts MPs and the media on notice that there is something to be examined seriously here. In this way, we have a better informed democracy.

These two channels should be sufficient for all occasions. If the Home Office, say, is not responding as hoped to police requests, then senior officers may hope that an educated public opinion will in due course bring about the required result. Is there, then, any evidence that the system is not working as it should? If there was, then the police might be entitled to blow their whistles and, as happened last week, seek to influence the outcome of an important parliamentary debate. But the circumstances in which they would be right to do this would have to be truly exceptional. And before doing so, senior police officers would have had to have taken lots of advice about the appropriateness of their proposed course of action.

What is truly astonishing about last week's events is that senior police officers had so completely persuaded the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, of the efficacy of 90-day detention without trial that he constantly quoted their opinion as decisive. So the upwards channel of communication had been working as well as it possibly could. As to public opinion, the most recent surveys show that the 90-day proposal is widely approved. From the police point of view, therefore, the outward channel of communication had also been effective.

Therefore no more to be done at all. Game, set and ... but not match says the Home Secretary. As Charles Clarke described it in a letter to the press: "On 3 November, I suggested to the Acpo that chief constables write to MPs in their areas, making themselves or a relevant senior officer available to MPs of all parties who wanted to know their local police attitude to these issues. I made clear that this should not be on a party political basis."

Pause a moment and look carefully at Mr Clarke's words. A "suggestion" from the Home Secretary does not have the force of law but it is much more than just a debating point, especially when he is proposing to merge many local police forces into larger units, putting at risk the career prospects of those whom he is addressing. And then there is the phrase "not on a party political basis". Its meaning is obscure but its purpose plain: it is to salve the conscience of any senior police officers who may wonder where Mr Clarke is leading them.

Oh the naivety of the many police chiefs who responded positively to the Home Secretary's wish! Couldn't they see that he was inserting them into party politics, that he wanted them to get the Prime Minister out of a hole, that he was destroying their political independence. That he was, in effect, corrupting them.

Mr Clarke will move on, unscathed. Meanwhile senior police officers have stained their reputation for impartiality. What was wrong with the Acpo statement? It was unconstitutional.