BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.03.02

Interview: John Denham, Home Office Minister,

suggests that the Government may be prepared to compromise to get the Police Reform Bill through the House of Commons but defends the principles behind it.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well the Home Office Minister John Denham is in our Southampton studio. Mr Denham, good afternoon. JOHN DENHAM: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: You're gonna lose this whole thing unless you compromise aren't you. We hear that David Blunkett's going to meet opposition leaders in the House of Lords tomorrow. You are going to have to back down on allowing the Home Secretary to intervene in police operational matters, aren't you? DENHAM: Well I think what we've got to do is make sure everyone's concentrated on what we're actually trying to achieve. We of course... we respect the local accountability that's there to Police Authorities, but let's not forget that at the moment, if you have the misfortune to be in a car accident on the boundary of two counties at the moment, the chances are the police officers who arrive from two different directions couldn't speak to each other on the radio because they have different radio systems. So there are some real practical problems here, about having good policing systems in place, that's what we want to achieve. Now if we can make the legislation clearer, so that it doesn't open up, I don't think it does at the moment, but so that it's very clear it doesn't open up some of the more dramatic policy, possibilities people were talking about in your piece, then we'll be happy to do that. HUMPHRYS: You're not really suggesting that the Home Secretary intervened to make sure that the police can talk to each other on their radios and sort out their radios. I mean, the point that Jeff Rooker, Lord Rooker made, your colleague in the House of Lords was that if Clause Five is unamended it'll be rejected outright. We are not stupid, we can see that, he said. DENHAM: Clause Five, Clause Five, let' technical, it's a different part of the Bill. That's the ability of the Home Secretary at the end of the day to take action if firstly the Chief Constable, and then the Police Authority have failed to act in a demonstrable way and as a result, people in their communities are not getting the quality of protection, or the quality of policing that they should desire, now we do believe that at the end of the day, and it's not the sort of thing you'd expect anybody to use on a regular basis, but at the end of the day, government has to have the ability to do that. We're quite happy to talk about how that is phrased to make sure that what we actually achieve is what we've said we want to do, a last resort, to make sure that the public in every community in this country can get a good quality of police service. HUMPHRYS: But that's exactly the point isn't it? I mean, you've just made it clear. It is a principle that's involved here, it's a question of overriding local accountability and you are prepared to do that. That's exactly what we're talking about. DENHAM: And then, so we need to look at the debate about this part of the legislation. The Police Federation who represent about a hundred and twenty thousand officers are in favour of this part of the Bill. The Association of Chief Police Officers have not rejected it in principle. They have expressed concerns about how far it goes. So that's the discussion we're in. The discussion is one where most people who have looked at this say: yes, in principle, we can see the need for this. What we must do is make sure it delivers what the government has said we want it to deliver. HUMPHRYS: Well, must say, listening to David Grossman's, watching David Grossman's film there, they seemed to be pretty opposed to it, and if Lord Rooker is saying it's got to be amended, well you know. DENHAM: Well I've seen lots of Bills go through there, both Houses of Parliaments since 1992, both in government and in opposition. Many have been changed, improved and clarified and I wouldn't for one moment say this is a Bill that shouldn't have any changes associated with it... HUMPHRYS: you might... DENHAM: ...but I think on the issue of principle, it's very important to say we do believe that at the end of the day, if all other people who are responsible for putting things right have failed, government must be able to act. If there are ways of looking at how we do that, then we'll do that. HUMPHRYS: So when Oliver Letwin, the Conserv..., the Shadow Home Secretary says, and I quote "The operational independence of the Chief Constables is a cardinal feature of the rule of law in this country, and this Bill is a fundamental threat to that". What do you say to him, because he speaks for an awful lot of people, doesn't he when he says that? DENHAM: Because he's wrong. Firstly, unlike.... your introduction was completely wrong, because your introduction said that the Bill would give the Home Secretary the power to order the arrest of named individuals, or to direct a specific operation. In fact far from that, the Bill makes it perfectly clear that the Home Secretary couldn't do that. What we're talking about here, is if the performance of the Police Service fails so consistently for so long, and nothing is put...done to put it right, that actually some action needs to be taken. I actually believe that that's what the public would expect. HUMPHRYS: And that action might involve ordering the arrest of certain people, in the final analysis. DENHAM: No, no, no and the Bill makes it very clear. You, you, we're not talking about how you respond to a particular bank robbery, or particular actions of an individual. That cannot be done. No Home Secretary would want to have that power, not least because we'd all be confronted every day of the week by demands of why haven't you arrested so and so. What we're talking about, is if a force is persistently failing, for example to tackle persistent offenders and burglars in their area, that every effort has been made to get them to adopt the best practice which has been shown to work in other places, the Police Authority hasn't acted, then do you leave that community at the mercy of those, the rules, or do you say to the Chief Constable, we need to know how things are going to be improved. Now I believe that the Chief Officers, and certainly as represented by ACPO, can understand our argument and have said they do. They want to be sure that the powers we have are limited to those types of circumstances. HUMPHRYS: Well, some might say it's a bit of a fine distinction really between saying 'go and arrest Joe Bloggs from down the road' and 'go and arrest an awful lot of Joe Bloggses who have been doing a lot of burglaries'. I mean, you're interfering in or could theoretically be interfering in their operational duties. That's the point of it. DENHAM: Well we recognise that the difference is so absolutely fundamental between the overall performance of a force and individual operations and individual actions that we have explicitly written it into the Bill that that cannot, that it cannot get into that area of action. We've gone that far because we recognise that needs to be laid down in law and that actually fundamentally stops a Home Secretary from doing what your introduction suggests he was trying to do. HUMPHRYS: So when the Home Secretary meets his opposite numbers in the House of Lords tomorrow, what sort of compromise is he going to be offered? Because clearly there'd be no point in the meeting unless he had something to say. DENHAM: Well I think what we would say, and I don't think this is the time to go into the detail of that discussion. We've set out very clearly the important but limited areas in which we think the powers of intervention are necessary. We will be happy to discuss how we ensure, if it, if people feel it doesn't do it at the moment, the Bill actually reflects our desires and our intentions and does not reflect what some people have raised as a much wider and frankly more sinister agenda which we're not interested in. HUMPHRYS: Alright, well something you are interested in is community policing, something that the rank and file police officers do not like, Police Federation very cross about it indeed, because what they say you're doing is you're, you're looking for cops on the cheap effectively. You're going to have to compromise with them as well on this, aren't you? DENHAM: Well this is a proposal that was put forward initially, not by David Blunkett or myself or the, by the Metropolitan Police Service and by Sir John Stevens the Commissioner. They argued that there are a range of patrolling duties that you need in a major city like London that don't require the full, trained, tested police constable to do, and act as a complement, as a supplement, to the main body of police officers. Now the background to this of course, is a rapid expansion in the number of police officers in this country. We're heading for record numbers of police officers in England and Wales this year. We'll have, we believe, a hundred and thirty thousand by this time next. So no-one's talking about policing on the cheap. But it's about having additional people to work with the police. And I think that the arguments put forward by the Met, frankly were, were won conclusively after the tragedy of September 11th, where the police needed to put a large number of people on to the streets with a very high profile, to reassure the public, but actually that involved a lot of use of police officers who are also needed in London to be tackling other types of crime. HUMPHRYS: But there is still a shortage of policemen, obviously, nobody disputes that. Why don't we have more of those, which is what everybody says and why, a lot of people say why can't we go back to the old system we used to have, sort of community wardens, we didn't call them that, we called them, I don't know, park keepers or even attendants at public lavatories and caretakers and all the rest of it. You know the sort of people I mean, the sort of people we saw all the time, who were walking around the place, representatives of authority, who did work with the police officers. DENHAM: And in a modern way that is actually what we are seeking to do, community support officers will work directly to the police, they'll work for them and be directed by the Chief Constable. But we also want the police service to link up, effectively, with the type of people that you were talking to in Sheffield, the neighbourhood wardens, they don't work for the police, they're not directed by the police, but we can have a much more effective, if you like extended police family by making use of that wider group of people. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let's look briefly at the way our criminal justice system operates, obviously you're not happy with it, nobody seems to be happy with it, certainly senior police officers are not happy with it. You've accepted that it needs, I think, end to end reform is the phrase that's been used. You now agree for instance, that there is need for more stop and searches, but, you seem to be making that very difficult by adding on enormous amounts of red tape because of the way they would have to conduct those stop and searches and all the details that would have to go in their reports afterwards. DENHAM: Let's deal first with the criminal justice system, we do have to get it working effectively as a system and that's why reform to each part of it is needed. We are doing that with police reform, we've at the moment got major consultations underway on sentencing and also on the structure of courts, on the Halliday and Auld Reports and those, I think, indicate the need to change the system and to have a much more consistent focus on victims and witnesses and what happens to them in the criminal justice system because without those people you can't have a criminal justice system at all. So the need for reform is necessary. HUMPHRYS: And all the red tape? DENHAM: Red tape we are determined to cut.. HUMPHRYS: But you've added on to it. DENHAM: Can I just make a point. We ourselves did a study back in the Autumn of what happens to police officer time and we found that forty-three per cent of a police officer's time nominally there for patrolling duties actually has to be spent inside the police station. So we are going to cut that and we have a group led by the former Chief Inspector of Police, work with the police service, to tell us how to do that and that will free up more time of police officers to be on the streets. So, we are very alert to this. But when you come to... HUMPHRYS: ..stop and search. DENHAM: ..the issue of stop and search powers, those powers are very important, I've said so myself in the House of Commons just a couple of months ago. But given the whole of history, we also know that they need to be used in a targeted and effective and sensitive way and the Lawrence Inquiry Report recommended changes to the procedures by which that is done so that we can use the power effectively and that is necessary. It's been called for by leading members of the Black Community within recent days, but in a way that maintains the trust of communities that they are being used effectively. HUMPHRYS: Some people might say there's a touch of hypocrisy about your overall approach here because we had a Criminal Justice Bill, it was withdrawn and what was it withdrawn of, a Fox-Hunting Bill, so you might be said to worry more about foxes than human victims of crime? DENHAM: Yes, of course that didn't happen though. What happened in the Home Office was that, look at the events of September 11th, we had to introduce at very short notice, a major piece of anti-terrorism legislation and that did knock other timetables back. But we are committed to Criminal Justice Reform, we will publish a White Paper setting out what we want to achieve and there's no diminution at all of our commitment to change. HUMPHRYS: John Denham, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.