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Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): We should begin by scotching the first myth of this debate: that Labour started the process of quangocratisation. [Interruption.] It is a long word, is it not? It is a good way to start. In 1994, the Conservatives invented a system whereby the Home Office appointed independent members to police authorities, thereby separating the relationship with county councils and, in effect, quangocratising it.

Let us not pretend that the Conservatives oppose regional quangos. In London, they abolished elected regional government and replaced it with a host of regional quangos, such as the London planning advisory committee, the London research centre and the London ecology unit. They did not oppose that then and they do not oppose it now. They are going through a phase of claiming to champion local government—probably because they have lost faith in their ability to get into government nationally.

In office, the Conservatives were responsible for some of the worst crimes of centralised tyranny and affronts to local democracy—for example, universal and arbitrary rate capping and the nationalisation of business rates. Despite their high moral tone today—it sticks in my throat even more than my October cold, which, forgive me, has made me cough throughout the debate so far—there is little substantive detail in their policies on localising power.

The Conservatives' polices to abolish quangos leave a lot to be desired. Before the election they promised to abolish 168 quangos—a swathe of quangos, particularly in the Department of Health, that the Government were already abolishing. Another group of quangos on the list had not met for 15 or 20 years. Of the others, the majority had been proposed for privatisation or renationalisation. I do not call that an expansion of local democracy. The only quangos whose powers would be returned to local government were regional assemblies, regional observatories and regional housing boards.

If the Conservatives want to defend local accountability, why on earth are they so opposed to regions? The main reasons are some kind of strange conspiracy theory about Europe, concern about the committee of regions and a perceived threat to county councils, when instead they should be making proposals to devolve power from central Government.

Let us have a look at Labour. Regions were already a fait accompli when it came to power because the Conservatives had developed the regional offices. Labour, however, did have a good idea that we supported, although we disagreed on some of the details, which was to make regional government accountable. We supported the proposals to establish elected regional assemblies across the country because they would deal with the democratic deficit of regional government, which at present is unaccountable. We did not think that the proposed devolution went far enough and we disagreed with the compulsory link with local government reorganisation. That is history: the question now is how we move beyond the north-east referendum.

Mr. Gray: Does the hon. Lady agree that more important than what the Liberal Democrats think is
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what the people think? In the north-east of England, 78 per cent. of the people said that they hated the idea of elected regional assemblies. Does she want to go against the will of the people?

Sarah Teather: That is precisely the point. The people in the north-east rejected the proposals, yet, regardless of their views, Labour is ploughing ahead with the regional agenda. Our view is that governance without accountability would be a massive step backwards.

Perhaps Labour has achieved what it wanted all along, because the regional quangos are still in place. Unelected bodies with a membership largely appointed by ministerial fiat tend to do what they are told. If they do not, they can be overruled with impunity. However, if the Labour Government were true to the democratic traditions of this country, they would seek to reform those bodies to make them more accountable, not less accountable, and more in touch with their local communities, not less. Instead, vital services will become even more remote from the people they serve.

What of the pragmatic details of regionalising emergency services? Hon. Members would expect me not to subscribe to the view that big is beautiful, but the existing 43 police authorities vary considerably in size and capacity. I accept the scope for reviewing relationships across forces, but why will the process be so top-down? The Minister suggested that it would be led by police from the bottom up, but will he give us an assurance today that if police authorities oppose the proposals to merge, they will be allowed to retain the forces that they believe to be best for local people? Perhaps that question could be answered in the wind-up. At a time when everybody says that they want more community policing, the priority should be to make the police more local, not more distant.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the Minister failed to respond to hon. Members who made similar points earlier. If a police force is organised to be more efficient for a small number of rare but serious crimes, police authorities will focus on those crimes to the detriment of local community policing. I do not see how that can fit with the Department's emphasis on communities and neighbourhoods.

Sarah Teather: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the danger of skewing police operations towards rare incidents. I understand that responding to such incidents eats up the resources of small forces, but there must be other ways of addressing that problem. For example, we could have a national resources unit, with senior officers and experts who could provide back-up in complex cases. That would be better than proposing to run rural policing in Cornwall from Exeter or, even worse, Bristol, which would feel a long way from people who live in rural Cornwall.

The Government have proposed much structural reform but have failed to account for the existing fundamental flaw in police authority structures—that they are tax-raising bodies but are not elected. Police authorities have put up their council tax precepts by 150 per cent. since 1997—double the figure for
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councils—but there has been no outcry. It is the councils who bill people, collect the money and take the blame. No one begrudges the police the extra money that we know they need, but what happened to the principle of no taxation without representation? The Government should consider ways of making the police more accountable. The Liberal Democrats are consulting on our policies following the result of the north-east referendum, and we will look for ways of making police and other services more democratically accountable.

One of the options—of many—that my colleagues have raised is the provision of policing contracts with local authorities. Each council would negotiate a local policing contract with the police authority, based on an agreed local policing plan and a minimum service agreement. The contract would specify the level of funding for the police authority and set out the minimum deployment of police and community support officers in each district or borough.

We must also abolish the byzantine system of appointment for independent members of police authorities. We would remove the role of the Home Secretary and have a more transparent, locally controlled process that would be far more in the hands of local people. The Government are quiet on such issues, but why are they not thinking more boldly about how to make police authorities and other structures more accountable?

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I invite the hon. Lady to visit the west midlands, which has the largest police force outside London. We have neighbourhood policing, with operational command units—as we call them, although other forces call them basic command units—that work well and provide the local focus. She might need more information about the work of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, because the police are intimately involved in local area network arrangements—which we have pioneered in Wolverhampton—and I think that ultimately there will be more accountability in policing budgets. The devolving of power is already working well in our large police force, so amalgamations in the greater west midlands are driven by the needs of forces such as Warwickshire for the specialist services to which she refers.

Sarah Teather: My point was that such issues should be locally determined. In some areas, it is right and proper that forces work together, but the west midlands is geographically different from the area that would be created by linking Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge, with far greater numbers of people involved.

Fire services have been the predominant issue in the debate. Ironically, the Conservatives have supported the Fire Brigades Union's line. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has not yet revealed whom she intends to support in the Conservative leadership contest, but perhaps she has given us a little clue today.

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