§ Mr. Benn
I beg to move, in page 7, line 32, to leave out from "may" to "and" in line 33, and to insert: 776refer the requirement to the Secretary of State who shall consider it together with any report on the matter submitted by the police authority concerned".This Amendment is one which I hope will commend itself to the Secretary of State. It was raised with me in Bristol. It relates to the way in which chief constables will operate with the police authorities. In the Bill as drafted the provision is that the police authorities have the power to ask the chief constable to make a report to them on matters concerned with their statutory duties which, of course, are the maintenance of an efficient police force. It is quite obvious that an occasion could arise when the chief constable would feel he was being asked to give a report which would not be in the public interest—as specified in the Clause—or was not needed for the discharge of the functions of the police authority. I think it is quite clear, and nobody would dispute it, that the chief constable must in certain circumstances retain some discretion whether he should furnish a report, and that where any disagreement arises between the chief constable and the police authority this obviously must go to the Secretary of State. There is really no dispute between my Amendment and the purpose of the Clause and the Government; my Amendment is well within the intention of the Government.
The question is: if such a disagreement arises, how should it be resolved? Clause 12(3) reads:If it appears to the chief constable that a report in compliance with any such requirement of the police authority would contain information which in the public interest ought not to be disclosed, or is not needed for the discharge of the functions of the police authority "—that is the point that I have been following—he may request that authority to refer the requirement to the Secretary of State; and in any such case the requirement shall be of no effect unless it is confirmed by the Secretary of State.The Bill, as drafted, puts the position as follows. The chief constable goes to the police authority, and it asks for information. In most cases the chief constable will give it. But there may be a case when he honestly thinks that he should not give it. He then has the right to say "No", and the initiative for appealing against the chief constable's 777 decision then rests with the police authority. This is of very considerable practical importance. If the police authority has to keep going to the Secretary of State, it will greatly reduce its influence, and the chief constable—I am not suggesting that any chief constable would do it—might feel a little superior and say, "I am sorry, but I do not think that is in the public interest, and if you do not like it, you had better go to the Secretary of State." That is unsatisfactory.
From reading what the Minister said in the Standing Committee, that is not his account of what happens. The right hon. Gentleman said:…what happens if the chief constable refuses a report. It is not the case that the chief constable can then do nothing. This Clause as drafted means that the chief constable has two alternatives—only two. He cannot do nothing. He must either respond and submit the report, or if he does not wish to do that he must apply to the Secretary of State.That is a totally satisfactory assurance, hut it is not what is in the Bill. The Bill says that the chief constable may decline and do nothing and that it is for the police authority to appeal to the Secretary of State. I have been in the House long enough to remember many occasions when I have tabled Amendments which the Minister has said have not met the point that I had in mind. That is a regular experience of back benchers. A Minister sometimes accepts what we are trying to do but says that the Amendment does not do it. Here is a case where we accept what the Government intend to do, but the Bill does not do it.
In case it should be thought that that was a mistake, the Minister repeated what he said in a later column:I assure the Committee that this is not something that I have thought up at the last moment. It was the Government's full intention not to give the chief constable the option of sitting back and doing and saying nothing. If he thinks it right to refuse the original request, he must refer the matter to the Secretary of State."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 17th December, 1963; c. 234–7]I invite the Minister to look again at the Bill, which says that if the chief constable feels that the information ought not to be disclosed he may request the authority to refer to the Secretary of State.
778 I do not want to hammer this too much. I hope I have made the point, which is that the Minister's assurance and his explanation of how it will work are wholly satisfactory to us, but the provision ought to be explicit. Occasionaly the relations between a police authority and a chief constable may not a ways be perfect either for a long period or over a particular issue, and it is absolutely crucial that the police authority and the chief constable should knew what happens in the event of disagreement. At the moment the chief constable may look at the Act and say, "You have to go to the Secretary of State", and the police authority may look at the Home Secretary's words and say "No, it is you who have to go to the Secretary of State." From this will arise a quite needless problem.
In drafting my Amendment I ran into certain difficulties. I did not want to draft an Amendment which simply transferred the initiative to the chief constable so that if he did not like what the police authority asked him to do he could pop off to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State could consider what he said and reach a decision without the police authority having any say.
I have drafted a rather longer Amendment than I would have liked. It consists of only two lines, but that is fairly long, and if accepted would provide that in the event of a dispute the chief constablemay refer the requirement to the Secretary of State"—that is to say, he takes the initiative—who shall consider it together with any report on the matter submitted by the police authority concerned…What will be the position? I cannot think of an immediate example, but suppose that the police authority wants to know something and the chief constable dews not think that he should provide the information, he will say, "I think that this is wrong. I shall refer it to the Secretary of State", and the police authority will say, "That being so, we shall give our reasons at the same time".
The matter will go to the Minister who will consider both representations together, and the passage which says that the secretary of State has to confirm the matter will remain the same. 779 That means that in the event of a disagreement, even if my Amendment is accepted, nothing can happen until the Secretary of State confirms it. That keeps the balance right. Without any doubt the matter has to be referred to him.
I do not attach enormous importance to this because of what the Home Secretary said. I would do if he had not said what he did, but the matter was raised by my local watch committee. I listened to the arguments very carefully, and I was convinced that they were right. I was convinced that they were right on the constitutional ground that where one has a chief executive, particularly a semi-independent one, as a chief constable is, working with a statutory body, it is extremely important to get the relationship right from the start.
Having recommended my Amendment in those terms, I hope that the Minister will find himself able to accept it, or, failing that, will put the intention of the right hon. Gentleman into more effective words.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I am sincerely grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) for having raised this matter because it enables me to try to clear up a misunderstanding—in fact perhaps more than one—in a rather wider forum than we were able to attempt in Committee. The effect of the Amendment would be to enable a chief constable, where he failed to comply with a requirement to submit a report to the police authority under Clause 12, to refer the requirement on his own initiative to the Secretary of State who would then have to consider it along with any report from the police authority before deciding, and the essential difference from the Clause as drafted is that the Amendment would transfer the responsibility for referring the case to the Secretary of State from the police authority to the chief constable.
It is not quite correct to say, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the initiative then rests with the police authority, because the police authority will act only because the chief constable had exercised his right under the Clause as 780 drafted to request that it should do so. The police authority would be taking what I might call a secondary initiative on the primary initiative of the chief constable himself.
In explaining this Clause in Committee my right hon. Friend was concerned, in the passages which the hon. Gentleman quoted, with trying to remove a possible misunderstanding which had arisen in the Committee, that the Clause as drafted would allow a chief constable to defy a police authority and to do nothing at all in response to its demand for a report, and to do nothing at all with impunity.
My right hon. Friend's explanations were intended to remove that misunderstanding and in fact to make it clear that there will be an obligation on the chief constable either to conform with the request for a report or to exercise his right to ask the police authority to refer it to the Secretary of State.
I come now to the words which the hon. Gentleman read from the Report of the Standing Committee, which I, too, have studied. Pedantically speaking—I say this in a perfectly respectful sense, because it is a matter on which one has a perfect right to be pedantic—the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the Secretary of State's words is correct. What the Secretary of State was doing was explaining that the chief constable has these two alternatives. He was not at that point concerned with the question of who actually makes the reference to the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend spoke elliptically, both in column 234 and in column 237, from which the hon. Gentleman has quoted, in using the verb "refer" instead of the phrase "cause to be referred".
I concede the point the hon. Gentleman has made and, if he studies these passages in the light of my explanation that the word "refer" should be read as "cause to be referred", he will follow the point my right hon. Friend was making.
§ Mr. Benn
The word is not "refer" at all. The Home Secretary said this:…if he does not wish to do that he must apply to the Secretary of State.It is categorical that he—that is to say, the chief constable—must apply. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman 781 would confirm the clear suspicion that is now apparent, that he is taking the opportunity in answering the Amendment, in the absence of the Home Secretary, to withdraw categorical assurances the Home Secretary gave, which is very serious.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
The word "apply" and the word "refer" in the Secretary of State's remarks were intended to mean, and should be construed as reading "cause to be referred". I think that the hon. Gentleman will see that the Committee was not misled on this point if he will read the words at the beginning of column 237:The Bill says that if the chief constable does not think it proper to answer—I am paraphrasing the position—'he may request that authority to refer the requirement to the Secretary of State …"—[OFFICJAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 17th December, 1963; c. 234–7.]In subsequent references to the same phrase, my right hon. Friend elliptically and succinctly substituted the word "refer" for the fuller expression "cause to be referred". I wish to make it quite clear that on the merits of the point we are discussing what the Secretary of State meant was what is written into the Bill as drafted.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, three times the Secretary of State used the term "he must apply". It would be a little franker with the House if the hon. Gentleman said that the Home Secretary had made a mistake. Everybody can understand that the right hon. Gentleman might, in the heat of the moment, have made a mistake. To try to read "he must apply as meaning he must cause others to apply" is to destroy the meaning of the language. If the hon. Gentleman says that the Home Secretary made a mistake, we shall know where we are. We will press on with the Amendment. But to bend the Home Secretary's words in a way that does not bear any examination is just—I do not like to use the word—to lead the House into grave and unnecessary difficulties.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I am not seeking to bend the Home Secretary's words. I 782 concede that he used the wrong expression. When he used the word "refer" he meant in each case the words "cause to be referred" within the terms of the Clause as drafted.
§ Mr. Benn
Mr. Speaker, you are the guardian of Parliamentary language. Is it in order for an hon. Member to describe the senior Minister as having committed in ellipse? I do not know what "an ellipse" means. If the Home Secretary commits an ellipse, where are we? He made a mistake, and I hope to get this on the record, Mr. Speaker.
§ Sir F. Soskice
Does the hon. Gentleman mean that the Home Secretary committed an intentional ellipse or an unintentional ellipse, or lapse?
§ Mr. Woodhouse
My right hon. Friend is not with me and only he could answer that question.
What is important is for the House to be in no doubt about the meaning of what we are discussing on its merits. That meaning is exactly what is written into the Clause as drafted and was correctly construed by the hon. Member for Bristol South-East in his speech. It is for that reason that he is seeking to substitute a reversal of the responsibility to rut it upon the chief constable instead of the police authority.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
That is a correct description of what the hon. Member is seeking to do by his Amendment. Having clarified what it seeks to do, perhaps I might continue to discuss the Amendment on its merits.
There are two objections to what the hon. Member wishes to do. First, it would enable the chief constable to do what the Clause as drafted expressly intends to avoid, which is to go behind the back of the police authority to the Secretary of State on a matter in which there is a dispute between the chief constable and the police authority.
783 The second thing which is objectionable in the Amendment is that it would also have the effect that every such disagreement between a chief constable and a police authority would have to be referred to the Secretary of State for adjudication, whereas the provision in the Clause is so drafted as to leave the position—this might well happen in a great many cases, perhaps the majority—that after discussion between the chief constable and the police authority of the matter on which the chief constable felt it right to refuse a report, a resolution of the dispute and accommodation between the two parties would be arrived at by one side or the other yielding. It might in that case—this would, I think, apply to the majority of cases—be unnecessary for the matter to be referred to the Secretary of State. These are the reasons why the Amendment, once we have settled exactly what it seeks to do, is objectionable.
Although the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East referred to the opinion expressed by the watch committee in Bristol, I am advised that his Amendment would be unacceptable to the local authority associations. Our feeling is that it would be bound to lead to animosity between a police authority and a chief constable. We agree with the hon. Member that it is important that the relationship should be got right from the beginning, as he says, but we do not feel that his Amendment would contribute to achieving that relationship.
§ Mr. Benn
Will the hon. Gentleman deal with what appears to be another Ministerial error when the Home Secretary said that it was the Government's full intention not to give the chief constable the option of sitting back and doing and saying nothing? If the Amendment is rejected, the chief constable would have the right to do and to say nothing, leaving the initiative entirely to the police authority, which is another Ministerial mistake.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
No, he does not have the option of doing nothing. He has two alternatives, either to conform with the request for a report or to address to the police authority a request that it should refer the matter to the Secretary of State.
§ Amendment negatived.