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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sorry, but I must make progress. The inspectorate looked at a number of options for restructuring the police service. It concluded that the creation of strategic forces offered the best solution, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary agreed. He has made it clear that he has no blueprint for restructuring, and that the process should be led by the police. He has therefore invited chief constables and police authorities to submit proposals for restructuring by 23 December.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I will in a moment. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is confident that the proposals for strategic forces will improve our capacity to tackle the most serious crimes, and therefore strengthen local policing. The bedrock for the delivery of neighbourhood policing is the basic command unit. That will not change. Local policing will continue to be delivered from local police stations, by locally based police officers, special constables and community support responding to locally determined policies.

In fact, far from putting local policing at risk, the creation of strategic forces will help safeguard neighbourhood policing. If a police force has the capacity and resilience to staff major crime teams or respond to public order incidents, it will not need to call on neighbourhood policing teams. If such capacity is not in place, local policing will suffer from abstractions to meet other demands. As I have said, police authorities and chief constables have been asked to submit firm proposals for restructuring by Christmas, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will report to the House on those submissions in the new year.

Mr. Gray: The Minister is very generous in giving way. If his thesis is that big, by definition, is beautiful, will he explain why the City of London police force is being left alone? That force has national strength in the prevention of white-collar fraud, but it is the smallest force in England. Why is it not to be touched?

Jim Fitzpatrick: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is making progress on the basis of the HMIC report, and further information will be available in due course. However, it is to the HMIC that he will listen and the hon. Gentleman will be able to continue this dialogue when the various police authorities have made their submissions and my right hon. Friend has presented his report to the House in the new year.

Mr. Francois rose—

Jim Fitzpatrick: I turn now to the ambulance service. A full 12-week public consultation led by the strategic health authorities will be held on the future organisation
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of ambulance trusts. The Department of Health will propose that there should be 11 such trusts, but no final decision will be taken until local interests, patients and the public have been properly consulted. The proposed change is part of a wider review of ambulance services that sets out a compelling vision for the future. It will provide an extended range of service, take health care to the patient and offer fast, effective and convenient care at the first point of contact.

Dr. Tony Wright: My hon. Friend made a powerful case about the fire control centres, but he has a less powerful case in relation to some other services. In Staffordshire, we have a high-performing police force. I have an outstandingly successful local primary care trust and the Staffordshire ambulance service is the best performing ambulance service in the country with the best response times. Our approach to public services used to be based around the slogan, "What matters is what works." That was sensible. What is not sensible is to exchange that for a slogan of, "If it's working well, abolish it."

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in defence of the Staffordshire ambulance trust, and I am sure note will be taken of his comments in the consultation, which is under way. We are not trying to replace what works best. We are trying to make sure that what works best works across the country.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): In relation to the police service, the Minister has just said that he is going to have a police service-led review. In relation to the ambulance service, he has been told by the Department of Health that the Department will propose 11 trusts. Why cannot he accept that the review led by Peter Bradley did not point towards 11 trusts but to maybe 20-plus? Also, if the review were ambulance service-led, there would be a different solution. Why will he not have open consultation on the basis of an ambulance service-led solution?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; the consultation is open. I have indicated that, at the conclusion of the submissions, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will report to the House in due course. Clearly that will provide opportunities to colleagues to make their feelings known.

It is our belief that ambulance trusts need to be of a size that enables appropriate investment in people and resources to underpin current and future services. These proposals will ensure that resources are targeted where they are most needed in improving patient care and supporting the front line. It is not about reducing frontline service provision. Local innovations and successes will not only be preserved, but will be shared to the benefit of all patients.

We have an opportunity to lift the quality of the lowest and to set a new high benchmark where world-class services are provided for patients wherever they live. Nor is it about one trust taking over another; it is about new trusts that provide efficient and effective locally responsive ambulance trusts that meet patient needs. We believe that these proposals will put the NHS in the best position to provide convenient, consistently high-quality and appropriately mobile health care for
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the people of England. I am sure that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) will be saying more about this in due course.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way. May I take him back to policing? The Government seem convinced that big is beautiful. They are trying to press chief constables to have fewer and fewer divisions and are now threatening to get rid of well established county forces such as Essex. How will having fewer and fewer divisions and getting rid of the Essex police force make that force more accountable to the local people whom they are supposed to serve?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the big successes in recent years, certainly in London, has been neighbourhood policing; dedicated teams in the locality that are connecting with local people and local representatives, whether these are democratically elected or community groups. As I said, the measure will give capacity to allow forces to deal with the big incidents and challenges of the 21st century, while being able to be responsive to local needs and to deal with local problems, which is what people want most. That is a success story that we are rolling out across the country.

Finally, over the summer recess, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of fire and rescue services across the country. These visits have given me the opportunity to see at first hand the excellent work going on locally, especially new work on community safety, including youth intervention schemes and the growing use of co-responder schemes in which, again, the emergency services work together.

Fire and rescue authorities have in general responded well to the challenge presented by their new responsibilities. The combination of national strategy and investment with local delivery led by elected fire and rescue authority members is working. Nowhere is this clearer than in the voluntary regional management boards, where Conservative and Liberal Democrat members work alongside their Labour colleagues to provide the best service for their communities. They know how important it is to support the fire and rescue service, and the improvements can be clearly seen on the ground.

Our approach—I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), but I do firmly believe in our approach—has the full backing of the Chief Fire Officers Association, who lead a practitioners' forum that gives us expert professional advice, the Local Government Association, who are key partners in modernisation, and the stakeholders represented in our business and community safety forum.

I pay tribute to our whole-time, day crewing and retained firefighters as well as to other fire service staff who serve our communities well. We know that, regardless of debates about geographic boundaries and management structures, the Fire and Rescue Service will continue to work with local people, elected representatives from all parties and other emergency services to give the public the protection and the help they expect and deserve.
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1.36 pm

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