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Rosser4x3.jpgRichard Rosser on the government’s unusual behaviour over proposals for PCCs to take over responsibilities for fire and rescues services

Last week saw the start of the Lords Committee stage of the Policing and Crime Bill, with a key debate on a government proposal for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to take over responsibility for the local Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). In seeking to delete the relevant Clauses, Labour has pointed out that ministers have yet to explain the likely benefits; and at the same highlighted the many existing and successful voluntary arrangements between emergency services.

Yet the government appear to have decided that the most effective organisational structure for FRSs, both now and in the future, was precisely in line with that currently in existence for the police and PCCs. Yet there have been mergers of FRSs which has meant they are not always co-terminus with police/PCCs structures. Bringing fire and rescue under such control would make unlikely further desirable mergers.

The government’s consultation has not made the case for the change either. Nor did it seek views or comments on the substance of the proposal, instead asking for comments on a process by which the takeover could be effected.

Ministers have also not addressed the potential risks involved in the transfer of fire and rescue to PCCs, and the impact it could have on existing collaborations – including with the ambulance service, with whom the FRS works far more closely than the police. Another risk of being closely associated with the police relates to the FRS’s much smaller budgets and less media attention. It could become the service of secondary concern under a new police orientated management and governance structure, and suffer from benign neglect.

Then there are the potential associated problems of a change in public perceptions of the FRS and its personnel. The public regard the FRS as a humanitarian service as opposed to the police with its law enforcement role. Much of its work is preventative, involving visiting workplaces and homes and talking to people about safety issues. A closer alignment with the police will be rightly or wrongly interpreted by some as leading to an increased exchange of information, making the preventative role more difficult.

In response to our many concerns, the government made assertions but failed to provide hard evidence that the takeover of FRS responsibilities by PCCs would be more effective or improve performance. They also could not explain why having made it a statutory requirement in the Bill for an emergency service to keep under consideration entering collaboration agreements with other services, they were now seeking such changes.

In the end, Ministers sought merely to fall back on the argument that there had been a commitment in the Conservative Party’s manifesto at the 2015 general election. In reality, it was not specific in this regard but referred to enabling fire and police services to work more closely, and to develop the role of PCCs. We will of course return to this issue during the later stages of the Bill but for the now the government is showing unusual tunnel vision on this matter. Something perhaps, to do with the former Home Secretary’s new position of power?

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th September 2016

Tunnel vision

Richard Rosser on the government’s unusual behaviour over proposals for PCCs to take over responsibilities for fire and rescues services

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith speech in the House of Lords, 7th September

My Lords, I thank the Noble Lady for repeating the statement today.

It was always going to be difficult following the Brexit vote, but as a new Prime Minister Theresa May appeared confident. She met with most of the other world leaders who were interested to meet her, partly because they are keen to understand what the post-EU era means for them and their relationship with us in the UK. This was, by any standard, a crucial summit.

We are all aware that the vote to leave the EU has created considerable uncertainty here in the UK; but in paragraph 42 of the communique the international uncertainty is very clear. And despite some promising manufacturing statistics recently, the long term uncertainties remain. 

My Lords, what is clear is that the Government is still thinking through the implications; still thinking through what our negotiating position is; and still thinking through what outcomes we are seeking. And it’s now common knowledge that no advance preparation had been undertaken. That makes the job of this Prime Minister even harder.

She had to attend this summit, knowing that she would be expected to discuss with other world leaders how the decision would affect them and their relationship with the EU and the UK. Countries like Japan were seeking some degree of predictability for their investments and businesses in the UK. But she was unable to provide reassurance or answers.  Not because she doesn’t want to be helpful and make the best case for the British economy – but because we are still in the ‘don’t know’ zone.

And My Lords, whilst I understand what lies behind the statement – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – I have to admit, I don’t know what that means. And neither apparently, do other members of the G20.

Following the Prime Minister’s meeting with her old university friend, the Australian prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, I think we were all left with the impression of exciting new trade and economic agreements. But the clarification from Mr Ciobo, the Australian Trade minister has dampened that excitement. It almost sounded like a Yes, Prime Minister sketch as we heard him say on the Today programme that a UK-Australia deal could only happen “when the time is right”.  As Sir Humphrey might have added, “in the fullness of time”….or “in due course”

We can’t sign deals with other countries whilst still in the EU. We don’t know when we’ll be leaving. Meanwhile, negotiations between Australia and the EU will be completed – probably before we even start. And heaping humiliation upon embarrassment, the Minister added that because the UK has no trained negotiators of our own he’s offered to lend us Australian experts for the initial talks.

Can the Noble Lady confirm that what is really on offer is talks about talks, and will we accept the kind offer to use their experts for our discussions with them?

Is she also able to say anything more about the meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, following his 15 page memo on their specific concerns and whether they discussed car manufacturing remaining in the UK whatever the Brexit terms?

But My Lords, we do understand why our allies are uncertain. And I fear that there is a danger of us becoming marginalised. Meetings took place, without us, that in the past we might have expected to be part of - such as President Obama’s meeting with Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.

What is encouraging though is that these countries aren’t hostile. I think they genuinely want to make their economic relationship with us work but we have to get moving to create clarity and certainty they need.

It’s not just our international friends that are uncertain. So are we – even, it appears members of the Cabinet.  It would be helpful if the Noble Lady the Leader is able to clarify the position today.  

On Monday, the Secretary of State for exiting the EU, David Davis, responded to a question from Anna Soubry MP about whether, in light of the concerns raised at the G20 about the impact on the economy, “the Government were prepared to abandon membership of the single market”.

He then told the House of Commons: “… the simple truth is that if a requirement of our membership is giving up control of our borders, then I think that makes it very improbable”.   That’s the Secretary of State’ words: “very improbable”.

Now, I’m not clear how he defines ‘giving up control of our borders’, but he was quickly slapped down by Number 10 that this was his ‘opinion’ not a ‘policy’.  Yet, in Your Lordships House, the Noble Lord Bridges responded to my Noble Friend Lord Wood, that the Government “was not in a position to go into detail other than to say that we are not looking for an off the shelf response”.

I’m confused and I don’t think I’m the only one. I thought that the Secretary of State was articulating Government policy from the Despatch Box – but apparently not.

Can she confirm whether or not, when Ministers make statements in either House, they should be regarded as Government policy – or can we now expect to hear private ‘opinion’ as well?  And how will we be able to tell the difference?

Finally, My Lords, the summit also discussed other issues=, included terrorism and refuges as referenced in the statement. Para 44 of the communique, deals with the issue of refugees and I welcome that the Government signed up to this including: “We call for strengthening humanitarian assistance for refugees and refugee resettlement”.

The Noble Lady will have heard the exchange in Your Lordships House yesterday and again today about the grave disappointment with the Government’s actions to date on resettling those unaccompanied children who qualify to come to the UK, under family reunification laws, yet remain in the camps in Calais – the ‘jungle’. 

Is she aware of the UN report today from UNICEF – highly critical of the UK Government - regarding the danger these children are in? They are often traumatised from both the journey from their home country and what they have witnessed or suffered there.  And, as the report’s author states they are “at risk of the worst forms of abuse and harm and can easily fall victim to traffickers and other criminals”.

My Lords, what can be more important than ensuring that these children – who are legally as well as morally entitled to safety and refuge in the UK – have that refuge?

So can I ask the NL, whether she considers that the Government now needs to take faster and more effective action to fulfil both the Dub’s amendment passed by this House on child refugees, whilst Theresa May was Home Secretary, and the agreement reached at the G20 summit?

I hope that she is able to address these questions – and that the Government understands how important clarity is, and that uncertainty is the enemy of good government.

-Ends-

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 7th September 2016

Government statement on the G20 summit

Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, 7th September

Rosser4x3.jpgRichard Rosser on developments so far in the government’s latest legislative attempt to balance collective security and individual privacy

With the Investigatory Powers Bill now halfway through its House of Lords Committee stage, Labour has achieved progress on a number of issues.

One key concern was the setting of a threshold to the acquisition of Internet Connection Records (ICRs). We worked with the government in the Commons, leading to agreement on a threshold relating to the prevention and detection of serious crime. Essentially, this means that ICRs can only be acquired where an offender could be sentenced to at least six month’s imprisonment, or for other crimes like stalking and harrassment. Plus, where necessary, to locate a missing person.

Government amendments, as outlined in the Lords, mark a step in the right direction. But we also have doubts about a new ‘relevant crime’ threshold that could see ICRs used in connection with minor, non-serious crimes. That’s why we have offered Ministers further talks, and in fairness to them they are “open to discussions on this topic”. 

The issue of legal privilege has also been raised, with Labour names on amendments put forward by the Law Society and Bar Council. These asked for clarity on whether the authorities should be allowed to access information about confidential legal discussions, when there is no reason to suspect a crime but where other vital information might be needed to prevent one. Home Office Ministers have committed to consider this before Lords Report stage, when amendments might also be tabled.

We have also raised concerns on the matter of journalistic sources, suggesting that any powers affecting these should only be in exceptional and compelling circumstances (as with items subject to the aforementioned legal privilege). In the Commons, the government agreed to look at how to define ‘a journalist’ but with no developments so far, this is something else to be pursued at Report.

Labour has also tabled a series of Constitution Committee amendments. On the one hand to keep the Investigatory Powers Commissioner independent from the Home Secretary; on the other to ensure the government responds to that Committee’s report which will inform our later debates.

Other outstanding issues on the Bill include the recovery of compliance costs for communication service providers who have to implement the legislation. Ministers are committed to a 100% reimbursement but we await the detail of how they intend to reflect this. On protections for whistle-blowers meanwhile, we have highlighted the misuse of investigatory powers – with the government now adding a clause that means such individuals will not be subject to a consequent criminal offence or civil liability. (Although the wording as it stand does not yet adequately reflects this objective.) And following pressure applied by Labour at both ends of Parliament, the government has tabled further amendments in lieu to prevent the Bill being used to monitor trade union activity.

The remaining Committee days will take place when Parliament returns in September, with the focus on the findings of the independent review into the Bill’s most controversial area: the Bulk Powers Review. Led by David Anderson QC and due to report later this month, the conclusions will be crucial for our scrutiny. I for one hope that Ministers will work with us to ensure that this aspect of the legislation is both appropriate and fit for purpose.

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 9th August 2016

Legislative update 3: The Investigatory Powers Bill

Richard Rosser on developments so far in the government’s latest legislative attempt to balance collective security and individual privacy

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