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May. 16th, 2011

Some years ago I suggested that Tony Blair was trying to introduce consumer choice where consumer choice just wasn’t wanted or needed.

The coruscating political satire that toppled the Blair administration [1]

Still, I wasn’t prepared for the Tories to come roaring out of the traps with the same idea, only applied to police chiefs. And not just elected police chiefs, an idea already rife with potential pitfalls, but elected along political party lines. Party politics—your guarantee of transparency and fair dealing.

According to former home secretary Lord Howard, whose baby this is, the suggestion will ensure “transparency and accountability”. This would probably carry more weight as a reason if the phrase weren’t already obligatory in politics to get any project at all signed off, from dismantling the civil service to repairing a roundabout[2]). But elected police chiefs is a certified coalition Big Idea, a Tory policy that the Lib Dems are fully signed up to (I saw that twitch, ex-Lib Dem voter! It's time to let it go) so they got to work on it immediately upon taking power, and the result is the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.

At the heart of the bill is the election of police chiefs and putting the Met under the control of the Mayor of London (police reform), along with other provisions about licensing laws, drugs, arrest warrants and, at last, Parliament Square (social responsibility). It made its way unscathed through the Commons, as bills tend to when the government has complete control over the way the elected House scrutinises and votes on its legislation, and recently made its debut on the floor of the Lords.

The Lords didn’t like the look of it. Anyone with any knowledge of the police, from chairs of police boards to Met ex-commissioners, lined up to denounce the idea of elected commissioners as bafflingly idiotic (I paraphrase, but only just). The intriguing possibilities offered by having non-police in charge of police forces, the precise functioning of relationships between the elected commissioners and the chief constables who would have to remain in charge of actual policing, the chaotic potential of regular four-year political oscillations and many other aspects bothered their Lordships. To all of this the government replied, “We are listening”, which is of course subtle parliamentary code for “We are not listening”.

Wednesday saw the first day of committee stage. As this country works so hard to educate its citizens about the functioning of its own parliament, you of course don’t need me to tell you that committee is the first stage of the actual line-by-line scrutiny of a bill after its general principles have been rehearsed at second reading, but I thought I’d mention it in case any foreigners happened by[3].

The first line in the first clause of the bill read:
1 Police and crime commissioners

1) There is to be a police and crime commissioner for each police area listed in
Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (police areas outside London).
Baroness Harris of Richmond, a veteran Lib Dem and for years the chair of the North Yorkshire Police Authority, had tabled Amendment 1, which read:
Page 1 … leave out subsection (1)
In other words, entirely remove police and crime commissioners from the bill. It could be argued that this ran counter to the spirit of the legislation.

There is a convention that you’re not allowed to table an amendment that could potentially kill a bill stone dead. However, in this case the bill wasn’t just about police chiefs since it contained the social responsibility provisions as well, so her amendment, though still controversial, was permitted. The Lords set to and debated it for the best part of four hours. Then—another convention flouted; you’re generally expected not to vote on amendments in committee since there can be dozens of them, even hundreds, and that would take forever—Baroness Harris pressed it to a vote.

As it became clear during the debate that the bill’s opponents included some rebellious coalition members, including traditionalist Tories appalled at their leadership’s proposed scheme, Nick Clegg is said to have sent his whips around to have urgent words in shell-likes to remind his own troops to vote with the government. On the first anniversary of the coalition it was important that they display unity, even if they might privately find some of the individual policy decisions troubling.

Pictured: coalition.

The result: 188 voted for the amendment, 176 voted against. Thanks to a Lib Dem, police and crime commissioners had been completely removed from the bill, at least for as long as it remained in the Lords. And 13 Lib Dem peers had rebelled, voting against the government’s own proposals, while others had abstained.

Consternation on the government benches. The guts had just been torn out of their bill, leaving only some tattered elements around the edges. Once the bill limps back to the Commons, the first thing they’ll do is vote elected police chiefs straight back into it and the whole rigmarole will start again, with the government forcing it through the Lords with the Parliament Act if necessary, but this defeat was a clear signal of massive opposition and battles ahead. They adjourned the committee in some disarray and the dinner-break debate went ahead a little earlier than scheduled.

When the committee reconvened, the opposition chief whip suggested that they stop proceedings so that the government could take the whole thing away and think again. The government chief whip responded stonily that there were plenty of other things in the bill still to debate, and would everyone please get on with it. This they tried to do, with much confusion about which amendments were still relevant and which were now redundant, while sundry peers kept bobbing up to object to the business proceeding at all. After half an hour of this, the government gave in and adjourned proceedings for 10 minutes, ostensibly to allow discussions among the usual channels—the whips of all parties—but, ever since the shenanigans in January, the two front benches have detested each other and can’t even bothered to be cordial about it, so the chances of communication between them are nil.

When the 10 minutes were up, the government immediately adjourned again for another 10. When they reconvened again, Baroness Royall pointed out from the Labour front bench that no-one had spoken to the opposition. Indeed they hadn’t; the government front bench had seethed and squabbled among themselves for the whole 20-minute hiatus. The result was that the House continued, crossly and pointlessly, to debate the bill. The legislation had, technically, just been transformed beyond recognition but the government have every intention of restoring it and so decided to proceed as if nothing had happened. Their feathers were thoroughly ruffled, though, and their leader can be catty when he’s fractious:
Baroness O’Loan [Cross-Bench, former police ombudsman]: My Lords, if I may speak again, perhaps the Leader of the House could help me by telling me exactly what it is that I am now discussing. I think that I am discussing a police commission comprising a police and crime panel that will elect one of its number to be a police commissioner that has no powers in the Bill, as all the powers in the Bill belong to other organisations. I am mystified as to what I am supposed to be thinking about.

Lord Strathclyde: The noble Baroness is generous in giving me powers, which I do not have, of knowing what it is that she is talking about. [Hansard]
Lord Harris of Haringey: Can the noble Lord the Leader explain to the House why the government Front Bench has permitted us to debate an amendment that potentially no one in this House understands? …

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, first of all, this will not be the first time that the House has debated an issue that it does not know anything about. [Hansard]
After more confusion and sniping, tempers were pretty frayed all round:
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, may I make one very small point?

Noble Lords: Sit down! [Hansard]
Some 30 minutes of further debate later—which felt suspiciously like 30 minutes’ detention for an unruly House, since it achieved precisely nothing—the House finally adjourned, with a flagship government bill in tatters and the coalition partners fuming at each other. This isn’t over by any means, and doubtless the government will get its own baffling way on this one as on everything else, but this unexpected spasm of life from the otherwise supine Lib Dems, against the wishes of their leader, might prove to have interesting consequences.

[1] In my defence, some of these weren't too bad.  Back

[2] If Saddam Hussein had had his wits about him and described his invasion of Kuwait as “a move to ensure transparency and accountability”, the UN would probably have just nodded it through. And if he’d gone on to say it was “sustainable”, they’d have given him a sodding grant for it.  Back

[3] I grew up in Britain. I knew very little of our political process, and nothing of the day-to-day functioning of Parliament, until I actually worked there. My sister did learn all about the UK's constituency system and how its bills become acts, but then she grew up in Norway. Back

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