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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is noticeable that the Government are somewhat lacking Back-Bench support.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) has left the Chamber but he made some cheap remarks about whether this was an appropriate place to hold a debate. The Floor of the House of Commons is entirely the right place for the debate. If it were not for my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), we would not be having the debate and discussing matters of such great concern to our constituents.

My first point is about regions. As someone who represents a rural constituency in a rural county, I was struck by the fact that many of the contributions from the Government's supporters were London-centric. Providing emergency services in a densely populated capital city is different from providing them in a sparsely populated rural county. Clearly, it will be more expensive to provide the services in a rural county because of travelling times, the quality of the roads, response times and so on. That is evident to anyone who examines the matter.

I support my hon. Friends' comments about the sense of the regions and whether it would be sensible to allow co-operation across regional boundaries. The Forest of Dean constituency is on the Welsh border and on the border between the south-west region and the west midlands region. If there is to be co-operation, there is a great deal of sense in allowing it to happen across regional borders when that is appropriate. Moving to a regional structure appears to make that more difficult rather than easier.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made a point about computer systems and postcoding. In my constituency, several postcodes cross borders, especially the Welsh border. Several organisations, including Government organisations such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, are sloppy about their use of postcode information. Many of my constituents who live on the Gloucestershire side of the border and have Newport postcodes find that Government organisations assume that an NP postcode means that they are in Wales and they get bilingual documents. That is not a heartening example. If Government organisations are sloppy about their use of data, it is not a serious problem when someone who does not want one gets a bilingual driving licence, but it is tremendously serious if a fire response takes a long time and lives are consequently lost. I ask the Minister to ensure that, whatever happens with technology, some of the problems that affect borders are tackled and that the technology can cope with that and does not make assumptions about postcoding and geographical locations.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the nine regional control centres will operate seamlessly because they will all have national geographical mapping data. If a problem occurred with one of the centres, any other could fill in the gap. Postcodes should not therefore have any effect.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful for that reassurance.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) mentioned the Lyons review of local government. Now that it is considering local government functions as well as funding, and given the Government's proposals on regionalisation of emergency services, it is worth asking whether the Lyons review will examine regionalising other local government services. Hon. Members from all parties will perhaps be concerned about that.

I shall consider fire control briefly because I would rather spend more time on the police. As has already been said, we have an excellent tri-service control centre in Gloucestershire. I had the opportunity to visit it in the summer. In a serious incident such as the bombings in London on 7 July, the importance of all the emergency services working seamlessly was apparent. A control centre model whereby all three services and their senior and chief officers are located in close proximity appears to me, as a layman, a good model for providing seamless co-ordination. The Minister said in his response to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that he would deal with the reasons for the Government's view that the tri-service model was inappropriate. I may have missed the reply but if he did not deal with it, perhaps the matter could be tackled in the winding-up speech.

Mr. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman might know that his comments about the tri-service model are supported by the Audit Commission report produced in July 2005, which listed the establishment of the tri-service centre in Gloucester as a key strength of the fire and rescue service and stated:

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The following month, abolition was announced. Is not that particularly galling?

Mr. Harper: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely intervention, which leads me to my next point on the merger proposals for the police service.

The report produced by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which has driven the Government's thinking on this issue, makes the point that small rural forces are not very good, on the whole, at dealing with level 2 criminality—serious and organised crime—and at responding to terrorism. However, I understand that Her Majesty's inspectorate's last report on Gloucestershire found that

Indeed, the National Crime Squad has adopted Gloucestershire's profiles as best practice, and has also said that Gloucestershire has been able to deal successfully with terrorism investigations, notably the recent Badat case.

It is entirely laudable and sensible to have more co-operation and collaboration between forces, and it would be much better if that were done on a bottom-up basis whereby forces collaborated regardless of regional boundaries, where it made sense to do so. It does not seem sensible to impose a one-size-fits-all, top-down model.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Does he acknowledge that police forces co-operated in respect of the Fairford peace protesters—a very big policing operation? Gloucestershire police managed the operation with a range of other forces. My hon. Friend referred to a big terrorist operation that Gloucestershire police carried out, and they also conducted the Fred West murder investigation. Some of the very biggest crimes are being perfectly ably handled by the Gloucestershire police force. There is no reason whatever for it to be merged into a bigger force.

Mr. Harper: I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent intervention. Last week, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) launched a petition for the people of Gloucestershire to sign to support the retention of our local police force.

I know that my hon. Friend will agree—he and I represent rural parts of the county—that we already have a problem ensuring that rural areas get a sufficient level of police cover, response and attention in comparison with the more urban parts of the county. If the Gloucestershire force were to be merged with, for example, Avon and Somerset police, which covers the large conurbation of Bristol, that pressure would intensify and the level of policing in rural areas would be under threat.

It is worth noting that, since 1997, the level of Government grant to pay for policing would, by itself, have led to a reduction in the number of officers in the Gloucestershire constabulary. The increase in the
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number of officers has all been funded by the increase in the council tax precept. Local people are paying for the extra officers, and my constituents expect to get their fair share of local policing. If we move towards a much larger regional force, we would be much less likely to get that support in our rural areas.

It is essential that all our public services co-operate and collaborate across borders, and that we do not allow those borders to become artificial barriers to best practice. Cross-border co-operation is the best way forward, rather than trying to set up templates from the centre and to impose them on local services in a short period of time. Voluntary cross-border collaboration is the model that I would recommend.

3.24 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is not often that a new Member can stand up in the House and be proud to talk about something that he knows about historically. I declare my interest as a former fireman and a former member of the Fire Brigades Union, of which I am very proud.

Being a former member of the FBU does not mean that I have not had as many battles with it as the Minister has had—or perhaps the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has now returned to his place—over the years. As a fireman in Essex, I battled long and hard with the union about the draconian way in which it operated, and told it that it desperately needed to modernise its position in relation to a modern fire service. It was with some pleasure that, during the strike—which I was sad to see happen—I wrote in the Daily Mail about some modern ideas for the fire service. I said quite openly that the fire service and the FBU could move on only if the dinosaurs who led the heroes—the firemen of this country—were removed from office at the top of the FBU. I am pleased to see that most of them have now been removed. I am sure that I shall get similar hate mail to the kind that I got last time, for making that comment again today.

The Minister knows that I have deep reservations— I have talked to him about this privately and publicly —about the regionalisation of the fire service. I was pleased to discover that his office is next to mine in the Palace. I know that he has been very busy recently, because I have been knocking on his door and he has not answered. One of the reasons that I was doing so was that he promised several Members at a meeting before the summer recess that he would give us notice before the recess of the decision on the regionalisation of control centres. Sadly, that did not happen before the recess. I was desperately worried, because the Minister had made a commitment to us—I am sure that he did so in good faith—to let us know about this matter in good time, so that we could debate it before the recess. However, I am pleased that we are here today debating it.

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