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Police Force Mergers (South-West)

5.8 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I am pleased to have secured this debate, so that we can discuss the Government's proposals to merge police forces in the south-west. I am pleased to be joined by my   hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr.   Harper), who will be seeking to catch your eye later, Mr. Chope, and to contribute briefly to this debate. I encourage him to do so.

I am totally opposed to the merger proposals in principle. I say "in principle" because we do not yet know the details of the proposals. As I understand it, the Government have said that the ideal force size is at least 4,000 officers and have asked the chief constables and police authorities up and down the country to come forward with proposals based on that guideline.

Gloucestershire constabulary has some 1,300 officers and will, under the Government's criteria, be a prime contender for merger with two or three other forces—or possibly, as we are beginning to hear, with a force that covers the whole of the south-west. That latter proposal is the nightmare scenario, although it would fit neatly into the Government's regionalisation policy.

Even the proposal to merge Gloucestershire constabulary with two or three other forces is unacceptable. The constabulary may be relatively small, but by all measures it performs very well indeed, and surely performance, rather than dogma, is what matters. The constabulary has a good track record of dealing with extraordinary incidents. The shoe bomber was arrested in Gloucester. The largest legal aid fraud case was brought to a successful conclusion in the county, as was the infamous West case, one of the largest murder investigations in the country. All those cases were investigated without the benefit of special grant financial resources. Add to that the special protection that the constabulary has to provide to members of the royal family who live in Gloucestershire, and one gets the impression of a competent force that has improved much in recent years.

Even on the Government's own measures, the assessments are good. In the "Closing the Gap" report, the constabulary was awarded an "excellent" for strategic management and a "good" for investigating major and level 2 crimes—the areas critical to the concerns raised from a national perspective. Last month, the whole organisation was recommended for an Investors in People award, and was graded as being "good" on financial management in a recent assessment by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. That same body acknowledged that the force had successfully met the challenges of serious and organised crime and terrorism. That latter point is most important, because the Government say that one of the main reasons for proposing mergers is to enable forces to tackle the threat of terrorism more effectively, and to counter organised and serious crime. However, HMIC says that Gloucestershire constabulary already meets those criteria.

Let me be absolutely clear: the fight against terrorism should have as high a profile as possible. Nothing should be spared in our determination to protect our country and citizens from any form of attack. That is one of the
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biggest challenges that we face, and nothing should be allowed to detract from that. However, as well as that—and not instead of it—it is important to recognise that most of my constituents are more concerned about the yobs on the corner of the street every evening who are drunk, on drugs, kicking in doors, pushing down fences, throwing stones, swearing, threatening and being generally abusive. My constituents are more concerned about those people than about al-Qaeda.

Of course, there are criticisms such as "We never see a policeman around here", "The police are obsessed with hounding motorists to the exclusion of everything else", and "They do not turn up when crimes are reported". I am well aware of those criticisms, but it must be pointed out that they are made about not just the Gloucestershire constabulary or the smaller forces, but about forces of all sizes. The police are too remote for my liking, but that is the fault of too many pointless Government targets, too much paperwork, too much political correctness and, yes, perhaps too heavy an emphasis on traffic crime, when that could be tackled differently.

The police are not just another arm of government; they are there to serve the public. The question is whether they could better serve the old lady whose purse has been snatched, or the shopkeeper whose window has been put in if we made control of the police more remote. I do not think that they could. The chief constable of Gloucestershire, Dr. Timothy Brain, has a detailed knowledge of the entire county. When I talk to him about villages or even hamlets in my constituency, he knows where I mean and what the issues are. Would that be true of a chief constable who controlled a force covering three or four counties or, for goodness' sake, the whole south-west? It just could not be the case.

At present, the police authority draws its members from the county, but it would become remote, unaccountable and unresponsive if members were drawn from three or four counties, or from the whole region. If the authority represented such a large area, how would the enlarged force be financed? People make strong enough objections now to paying for increases in the police precept. Those same people would find it highly objectionable to be asked to pay increasing police precepts—on top of the inexorable rise in council tax—when that money would be spent on police work in other areas.

The local aspect is important. In the run-up to the county council elections, the Conservatives in Gloucestershire said that, in office, it would fund an extra 63 police officers for the constabulary. That is a 5   per cent. increase in manpower for the force. The Conservatives took over administration in May, and are starting to fulfil that pledge. Those extra officers could be lost if the mergers go ahead, because the county council is pledged to provide them for Gloucestershire only.

In a joint statement, chief constable Dr. Timothy Brain and the chairman of the police authority, Brigadier Michael Browne, said:

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The chief constable goes on to say:

There is no equivocation there from the chief constable or the police authority of Gloucestershire. They believe that they have met the Government's requirements, have performed well and are still improving, and that to merge police forces would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Government say that forces must be large enough to be blind to existing county borders but even a regional police force would have its borders. I live in virtually the most northerly house in the county of Gloucestershire. I am a long way from Cornwall; in fact, I am as near to the Scottish border as to Land's End. However, if a crime were committed just a few hundred yards up the road from me, who would deal with it—the remote south-west police force or the much nearer West Midlands police force? The point that I am making is that taking away county boundaries will not help in that respect. A further point is that Gloucestershire has far more in common with Worcestershire and Herefordshire than with Cornwall and Devon, yet the force is more likely to be amalgamated with Cornwall and Devon, or at least Wiltshire and Avon, with which it has nothing in common. In other words, regions do not exist in any meaningful sense.

The people of the north-east voted to reject the proposal to create an elected regional assembly in that area of England, yet the Government are introducing regional government by stealth. Proposals to merge the ambulance service, the fire service and the police are already on the table, as is the move towards regional planning and road funding, for example. The electorate have never voted for such changes. The only place where they are desired is in the pro-European minds of the Prime Minister and his Government.

To summarise, the Government say that they want forces to be more capable of tackling national, international, serious and organised crime and terrorism. Gloucestershire constabulary, which has increased its number of detectives and other specialist investigators, has already showed itself to be capable of doing so. What the Government should be doing is concentrating on improving those forces that are not performing; in other words, take the rifle approach. The blunderbuss approach—setting yet another arbitrary and meaningless target, such as the requirement on forces to have a strength of 4,000 or more officers—will not achieve the Government's objectives. Nor will it satisfy a dissatisfied public who want Osama bin Laden arrested, but also want an end to the antisocial behaviour at the corner of their streets, which is blighting their lives. There is an old saying that all politics is local. It is not true; nor is it true that all policing is local. However, those are commonly held views.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman knows that I concur with what he is saying. I am sorry that I missed the first two minutes of his speech. I do not know whether he mentioned the new
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headquarters in Quedgeley, but in respect of the link between that and triservices, there would be a huge cost implication if there were two white elephants. Is it not time that the Government considered the implications of that, rather than just scrapping Quedgeley before evaluating the situation?

Mr. Robertson : I am grateful to the hon. Member, who is my neighbour in Gloucestershire, for making that point. The three emergency services moved two years ago into a tristar centre. As far as I can see—I have visited it—it is a centre of excellence. Gloucestershire constabulary has a new building coming as its headquarters, yet we are talking about moving it and throwing that all away. That is absolutely incredible, and he makes a good point.

To conclude my remarks, in reality, control of the police should be a mixture of local as well as national input, and there should be no place for mergers based on political dogma, arbitrary targets or artificially drawn boundaries. I ask the Government to think again.

5.20 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I wish to make two brief points. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) drew attention to the successful way in which Gloucestershire constabulary deals with serious incidents. As long ago as 1995, it dealt successfully with the West case, one of the largest murder investigations in the country. In 2003, it led the successful policing operation in respect of RAF Fairford, which involved one of the largest deployments of police officers in the United Kingdom since the miners' strike. In the same year, Gloucestershire was the focus of international attention with the highly successful terrorist operation to arrest Sajid Baadat, the alleged shoe bomber, in Gloucester. It was not supported by specific Home Office grants, but funded purely from the constabulary's own resources. The constabulary is capable of dealing with both serious crime and terrorist incidents.

I represent a rural part of the county and I wish to draw attention to the impact that a merger, especially a large-scale merger, would have on policing in rural areas. The constabulary confirms in its outline business case that experience of such mergers has demonstrated that resources will inevitably be drawn from rural and suburban parts of forces to the largest settlements within the boundaries. There is already tension in Gloucestershire about such matters and a perception in its rural communities that a disproportionate amount of resources is devoted to Cheltenham and Gloucester.

I am concerned about mergers with large cities. For example, if we merged with Avon and Somerset, Bristol would be in the mix. In those circumstances, my worry and that of my constituents is that there would be an inexorable move of policing resources to the large cities, given the more serious crime in those areas and, as a result, my constituents and those in other rural parts of the county would be disadvantaged. That is why I have no hesitation in supporting the police authority and the chief constable in their contention that the best strategic option for Gloucestershire is to remain a stand-alone police force.
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5.22 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I apologise to you, Mr. Chope, to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for being a little late for the start of the debate. The time change has slightly confused me.

I wish to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). One of the great successes in policing in recent years is the result of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and, in particular, local policing initiatives. Even if they are not visible on the streets of our small market towns, the local police can get closer to their communities. They have been successful in Gloucestershire, for example, in providing mobile police information units to some of our more remote villages, which have been of great benefit and have provided much reassurance.

If the Government's plan is to merge police forces, a proposal that I strongly oppose, we shall have to make changes to the other agencies of the Court Service. Under the heading "Force Restructuring", a letter that I received from the chief constable dated 4 October 2005 states:

It seems that, in general, people have not got to grips with some implications. The letter continues:

The Government are restructuring everything yet again. The chief constables goes on:

The matter is serious, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. Suffice it to say, Opposition Members represent a large chunk of Gloucestershire and it is the perception that the people of Gloucestershire do not want their county force, which they much respect, merged into a larger unit.

5.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on obtaining this important debate. I am glad that he has had the opportunity to raise his concerns, and that his hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) have been able to raise their concerns. I am becoming more familiar with policing issues in the south-west, not least those affecting the constituency of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), who on a previous occasion obtained a similar debate, to which I responded. It is helpful to me to understand some of the local concerns.

I do not deny that there are concerns. Equally, I hope that the debate and other opportunities will enable me to explain why we believe that the reforms that we have
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in mind will strengthen policing, not just at strategic level, but locally. That was the key point among several important ones that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury made. I understand why hon. Members are concerned, but, as I have said, our proposals, far from pulling resources away from neighbourhood policing, will reinforce it.

The clear message from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary is that the demands that are now placed on our police forces by what are called level 2 threats—terrorism and organised crime—are growing. If we do not do anything about that, the growth in business, as it were, for the police, will increasingly draw resources away from neighbourhood policing.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Paul Goggins : I may in a while, but my main duty is to respond to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. If there is a little time available, I shall take the intervention. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) made the Chair aware of his interest in the debate.

In its review, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary found a relationship between the size of a force and its ability to cope with the demands that I have mentioned. Larger forces were more likely to be able to absorb them with less impact on their front line and on local policing. The move to larger strategic forces will protect neighbourhood policing, by ensuring that all forces have the necessary resilience and can tackle crime at all levels.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is right; we need police forces that can deal with the threats of terrorism and organised crime and also deal with the yobs who create difficulties for his constituents, and lend assistance to victims of crime such as the old lady to whom he referred. What is happening is a matter of correctly rebalancing strategy and strategic organisation at one end with neighbourhood policing at the other. The basic command units will not be diminished by the restructuring that we have in mind. On the contrary, they will be strengthened. Most importantly, they will remain the key platform for the provision of local policing services to communities.

I agree that the role of the local police officer—the bobby on the beat—is essential. We want those officers to be more visible, but the reforms will strengthen neighbourhood policing, not detract from it.

Martin Horwood : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and apologise to him, to you, Mr. Chope, and to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), whom I congratulate on obtaining the debate, for being late. I, too, was wrong-footed by the change in timing. I just want to ask the Minister whether he is quoting Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary only when it suits him. It reported on Gloucester constabulary in October 2004 and said:

and that

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It may be right in a general sense that level 2 policing is not effective at county level, but that is not true of Gloucestershire.

Paul Goggins : I shall deal in a moment with the performance of Gloucestershire police. It is encouraging, but I would argue that it is not sustainable. With the ever-increasing demands made by level 2 criminality, we cannot expect our smaller police forces to continue that level of improvement, which is what we want of them. The question is how to ensure a sustainable structure that can deal with the level 2 threat as well as neighbourhood policing, which is important to us all.

I return to the question of force structure. The work now being undertaken by police forces and their authorities is not the result of some whim or diktat from the Home Office; it is the result of a detailed study by independent professional advisers on policing matters. It did not come out of the blue from Marsham street. It is a considered study by professional advisers. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he has no blueprint for force amalgamations. The initiative for reform should be and is being driven locally, by people who know their communities and who know the challenges faced by the police in each area.

HMIC's report "Closing the Gap" is the product of an extensive examination of the capacity and ability of all 43 forces to provide key protective services to national standards. It found that the 43-force structure is no longer fit for the purpose, and that the police service cannot provide protective services to the standard that is essential given the twin demands of level 2 criminality and neighbourhood policing.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The Minister said that we have 43 forces in England and Wales. Will he give us an idea of how many forces might remain at the end the process? Will there be 25 or 30? Will he also take the opportunity to rule out a single force for the south-west? I would be interested to know how many amalgamations there are likely to be.

Paul Goggins : I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman—we have had exchanges on the subject before—but I cannot give him an optimum number because, as I said, the Home Secretary does not have one. We want to see it built from the ground up. Equally, I cannot confirm or deny whether there will be a regional force. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I do not confirm or deny that we will have a regional force, because we want to see what is recommended and proposed by the police forces and authorities from the region represented by the hon. Gentlemen. We are listening to local opinion; we do not have a preset agenda about size or shape, nor about numbers.

With regard to the performance of the Gloucestershire police force, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and others have commented on the improvements in dealing with local crime and neighbourhood disorder, and in terms of reducing volume crime. Gloucestershire deserves credit for achieving a 10 per cent. reduction in volume crime since last year and for its strong performance in sanction detections, achieved with a record number of police officers. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean said that
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there are now 1,300 officers—I would settle for that; my notes say that there are 1,291 which is fairly close. That is 158 officers more than in 1997.

Mr. Harper : With impeccable timing, the Minister closed on the point that I wanted to follow up on—the reason for the increase in the number of police officers. The number funded by central Government since 1997 has fallen; the increase has come about because of an increase in the police precept. The increase in the number of officers has been completely paid for by local council tax payers. It is they who should be thanked, not the Government.

Paul Goggins : Time does not allow for a detailed analysis of who has paid for what, but I promise to write to the hon. Gentleman, giving him a clear breakdown of the increases in Government funding for the police force in his area—increases of which we are proud.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The Minister has said more than once that he has no preconceived idea of what sort of police forces might emerge from the consultations. He also said that he would listen to local opinion. If local opinion and the view of the Gloucestershire police is overwhelmingly against a merger, is the status quo still an option?

Paul Goggins : The status quo is not an option for reasons that I am about to give. My earlier remarks need to be seen in the context of the overall recommendations. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, HMIC was clear that the creation of strategic forces would require at least 4,000 officers or 6,000 staff to provide the necessary capacity to offer the "best business solution". It is a radical solution, but I put it to him and other hon. Members that simply fudging the issue, perhaps by asking for greater collaboration or some sort of federation without considering the need to create strategic forces, would mean that, in time, as level 2 threats increased and other, neighbourhood issues had to be dealt with, we would have to return to the issue again.

Mr. Jeremy Browne : Will the Minister give way?

Paul Goggins : I shall make a little more progress and then, if there is time, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Gloucestershire police have about 1,300 officers and 2,029 staff in total. As I have emphasised, I am not prejudging the submission to be made by Gloucestershire police authority in December, but if Gloucestershire police want to remain as an independent force, they will need to make an extremely powerful case for that to be considered, because it would fall completely outside the criteria that have been advised to us by HMIC.

Mr. Browne : Seven of the 43 existing forces have 4,000 or more officers. I would be interested if the Minister could say how much flexibility there is on that figure. Will only forces of more than 4,000 officers be considered appropriate under the new regime, or will there be scope for forces below that size?
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Paul Goggins : Again, HMIC has made a recommendation on what it regards as the minimum size for a strategic force. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that a small number of forces already fit that. An extremely powerful case would need to be made for a force to have numbers lower than the ones that I have indicated and to be considered sufficient to be a strategic force.

Mr. Harper : The Minister's latter comment seems to suggest, assuming that a sufficiently powerful case is made, that the status quo is an option, whereas he previously said that it was not. I am a little unsure; perhaps he can help me.

Paul Goggins : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the title of the debate, which is about the south-west. We are talking in a slightly wider context, although we are focusing on Gloucestershire. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it absolutely clear that, in respect of the number and size of our police forces, the status quo certainly cannot remain. I am also saying—I shall repeat it one final time—that we have not made a prejudgment about which forces we want or do not want. We want things to happen from the ground up. We are waiting to hear the preference of people in the south-west—the police authorities and the police forces—and that will be considered.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury gave Gloucestershire constabulary credit for its performance in dealing with a number of high-profile investigations and public order incidents. I share his view that it should be congratulated and I heartily join him in doing so. I shall write shortly to all chief constables, including his chief constable, on the subject of asset recovery. Gloucestershire can take credit for being ahead of its target in terms of the number of asset confiscation orders issued. Again, that is because the force has made the issue a priority and it should be congratulated on doing so. I cannot, however, share the hon. Gentleman's view that that is sufficient to meet the requirements that HMIC has set out. More importantly, HMIC does not share his view. "Closing the Gap" found that all forces lacked capability to deal with the less publicly visible but hugely important challenges posed by serious and organised crime and terrorism.

We should also consider how effectively and efficiently we equip our police service to cope with extra burdens under the current structure. Gloucestershire constabulary received a special grant of £7.2 million for policing RAF Fairford during the Iraq war. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean raised that issue. I recognise that policing the base was a major burden on the force and I place it on the record that I believe that it did a very good and professional job. Although there will always be exceptional cases in which mutual aid between forces is required, even under the new structure with the larger strategic forces, a larger and more resilient force is still less likely to have to rely on help from other forces to manage such demands. That is one reason why we are considering restructuring. Police forces and authorities throughout England and Wales have now submitted their initial shortlist of options, and experts from HMIC, supported by specialist analysts and researchers, are working through the plans with forces.
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Each proposal will be assessed on its merits, and the local discussion of the options will be informed by the design criteria set out in HMIC's report, including such matters as size, geography, coterminosity with partner agencies, criminal markets and local identity. The hon. Member for Cotswold is correct to say that there will be consequences for the criminal justice agencies if and when there are changes and the strategic forces are introduced. I assure him that the Government will consider that question very carefully, because we have placed great emphasis in recent years on developing, for example, local criminal justice boards so that local agencies can collaborate. As we move to new strategic forces, we will need to take account of other changes that will be required.
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Although restructuring at force level will give us the larger strategic forces that we need to deal with the new threats and the increased pressures, I shall not deny the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Members the neighbourhood policing that they require. The Government do not believe that the strategic forces will detract from resources or the focus on neighbourhood policing; rather, they will allow the resources to be allocated that are needed at that level. Resources will not be pulled away to deal with the new and more difficult threats that we face. We will be able to have the front-line policing that we all need.

Question put and agreed to.

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