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Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
The Act was introduced by the Conservative government shortly before their election defeat to Tony Blair’s labour party. After 18 years in power, the Tories had begun to feel the pressure of the popularity of Labour’s new leader, and turned to the issue of policing to demonstrate that they were the party of being ‘tough on crime’, but also that they remained a party of fresh thinking and reform despite their long years of being in power. The strategy was not enough to secure the government a majority in the election – Blair won a landslide victory in the general election, and the rest is history. However, the Police Act 1996 remained in place and has provided the basic framework for the regulation of the police to this day, though its provisions are significantly amended by the Labour government’s 2002 Police Reform Act.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The purpose of the Act was twofold: on the one hand it reformed the structure of policing in England and Wales, whilst on the other hand it consolidated many existing provisions scattered across disparate legislation and it drew these together into a single Act in order to govern policing. The primary aim of its provisions were to define the police areas in England and Wales and to constitute the police authorities for these areas. This occupies the weight of the Act’s provisions and has been its most lasting impact on the law. The Act also set out the relationship between the Home Secretary and police forces, and repealed the Police Act 1964.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The Act is divided into five parts. The first, and longest, of these parts addresses the division of responsibility for policing nationally and regionally. It provides for the division of England and Wales into defined police areas (in addition to the Metropolitan police district and the City of London police area, in which slightly different provisions are applicable). The boundaries of policing areas were made coterminous with those of local government for the sake of simplicity and ease of co-operation between the institutions. In the interests of efficient allocation of functions and use of resources; the Act also provides for collaboration between police forces. The second part of the Act outlines the role of the Secretary of State in determining the objectives of the force and in setting its budgets. Much of the legal changes in this section have now been repealed by the Police Reform Act 2002, which removed many of the powers reserved for individual forces by the 1996 Act and increased the control exercised by the central government. The third part of the Act preserves the prohibition on police taking strike action, which originates from the Police Act 1919 based on the rationale that to allow the police to strike would create the potential for widespread chaos. This section of the legislation also outlines the alternative representative institutions, in particular the Police Federation of England and Wales, available to the police as an alternative to trade unions. The fourth part of the Act makes provision for the operation of the Police Complaints Authority in handling complaints made against the police and instituting disciplinary proceedings where necessary.
The fifth part of the Act covers ‘Miscellaneous and General’ provisions. Amongst the most significant of these miscellaneous provisions was the creation of the offence of assaulting a police officer in the execution of his duty (section 89(1)). The Act also addressed the vicarious liability of chief police officers for any tortious conduct committed by officers under their control.
In addition, the Act incorporated a number of provisions under the previous law with the objective of clarifying and consolidating these. For example, it set out clearly for the first time the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (which had first been established by the 1856 County and Borough Police Act). The Police and Magistrates’ Court Act 1994 was also consolidated, clarifying the tripartite structure which had already been established.
Although the Act has been amended significantly by subsequent legislation, most notably the Police and Justice Act 2006 Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act 2005 and the Police Reform Act 2002, the essential features of the framework which it established still remain in place. It was generally well-received and its provisions were seen as both necessary and rational, particular those which consolidated the areas of the law previously governed by a disparate collection of statutes. The Act has served as a building block for future reforms, most notably in the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act.
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