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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): The police performance assessments published by the Home Office and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary on 27 October show that in 200405 the West Mercia police force achieved a very positive assessment of its performance across the range of its core policing activity. All delivery grades are either good or excellent, and most direction grades have improved.
Mr. Dunne: I am sure that the Minister agrees that we should congratulate Paul West, the chief constable, on the fact that his force not only achieved those grades but was the top-performing force in the country, on the Minister's own criteria. How does he reconcile that outstanding performance with his Department's arbitrary decision, made during the current "Closing the Gap" consultation, that there should be a minimum force size of 4,000 officers? West Mercia has just proved that, with only 2,400 officers, it can deliver the best performance for the best value in the country.
Paul Goggins: I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in praising Paul West and all his officers and staff for their tremendous achievements. They have cut crime in their area by 13 per cent. Burglary, for example, is down by 22 per cent. However, there is no contradiction between giving that praise clearly in the House and elsewhere and accepting the advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate that, in order to deal with terrorism and serious organised crime and ensure that neighbourhood policing is not taken away from local communities, we need to have strategic forces of the size that it suggests: 4,000 officers and 6,000 staff. Those are not arbitrary figures. Her Majesty's inspectorate judges that those are the numbers that we need.
Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to the chief constable and the team at West Mercia? What is the Minister's assessment of the position in relation to violent crime in West Mercia and the police's performance overall on that aspect? In making that assessment, can he perhaps refer to adverts that were carried across West Mercia just a few months ago, paid for by the Conservative party, that said that violent crime went up in West Mercia when, in West Mercia and in many other regions, it actually went down?
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. I confirm that in the past year in West Mercia, robbery went down by 19 per cent., so it is a safer place to live in. Again, the police deserve praise for that. In relation to the change that is being suggested by the inspectorate and the need to ensure that we have robust strategic police forces, there is no blueprint. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has no blueprint for the forces that will emerge. He wants to hear from local opinion. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to contribute to that consultation.
Paul Goggins: The police authority in the hon. Gentleman's area received a fair assessment and a fair allocation, but he has just used an interesting word"overstretched". In fact, as we have discussed, the police are performing remarkably well. Think about how the police in his area will deal with the threats posed by terrorists and serious organised crime and the increasing pressure that that brings. If we do not make these structural changes now, there will be a tendency for police to be drawn away from the local neighbourhood and local communities that he may represent. It is in order to get that balance right that we need to press ahead and to form these new larger strategic forces.
Mark Pritchard: That is quite a revelation. I have been informed, perhaps misinformed, that there are currently five vacancies. Whether it is three or five, does the Minister share my concern[Interruption.] I know why hon. Members want to shout me down. They do not want to hear what I have to say. Does the Minister share my concern, in the context of the global terror that we live with, that three, or possibly five, major police forces are having their command and control diminished by those vacancies? Is it not another example of the Government driving through their regional agenda before full consultation has taken place?
Hazel Blears: No, I entirely reject the hon. Gentleman's assertion. I ask him to check his numbers. We have three vacancies. Cambridgeshire has decided to make an appointment for a 12-month period because of the pending restructuring. Lancashire and Norfolk both have temporary appointments in place. They are ensuring that their forces have good leadership and a proper command team. The purpose of looking at the restructuring of our forces is to ensure that they have the capacity and capability to look at the range of challenges and threats that they face.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
(Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Lancashire not only does not have a chief constable, but its deputy chief constable has left. The police authority's failure to appoint is serious. It is unacceptable that, as we move towards a merger with perhaps Merseyside or Cumbria, a force the size of Lancashire does not have someone with a strong enough voice to outline what good policing in Lancashire is. It is too important; can she do something about it?
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Hazel Blears: I understand my hon. Friend's concern and he is a great champion of policing in Lancashire. We have just published the police performance assessment and Lancashire is doing an extremely good job; it is one of our really good forces, with two excellent grades, three good grades and two fair grades. The force is going in the right direction. My hon. Friend will always be keen to make sure that his area gets the very best policing, but he will agree that the force is doing a good job. I have no doubt that the members of the command team will keep their eyes on the ball and make sure that they are delivering to the people of Lancashire.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Is not the real problem that the present surplus of chief constables rapidly may be converted into a glut as a result of the Government's headlong pursuit of a policy of regionalisation of our forces, under which my village of Aynho in the south-west of Northamptonshire may well soon be under the same policing command structure as Skegness, where, if my constituents are of good behaviour, they may hope to go across the entire east midlands to spend their holidays?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the basic unit of policing in his area will be a command unit with a borough commander, which is the basis on which neighbourhood policing will be provided. We have a commitment to ensure that every community, urban and rural, has a dedicated, available and accessible neighbourhood policing team by 2008. People will have the team's mobile phone numbers and can contact them, and they will have the same officers for two or three years. That is the way in which the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others across the country will be able to see that they have neighbourhood police officers, dedicated to making sure that their streets are safe and their communities more secure.
Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): In cases of a merger between police forces, will the appointment of the new chief constable be restricted to the chief constables of the forces being merged, or will the new police authority have discretion to look within a wider pool of police officers for the new chief constable?
Hazel Blears: It is important that the debate be led by police authorities and police forces, and it must involve Members of Parliament and local councils. That is why the current consultation is led from the areas themselves and not from the centre by Government. We want to make sure that people locally can make the right decisions. I cannot say at this stage what the procedure will be in terms of that recruitment process, but I am clear that the police authorities need to be fully involved in the process so that they get the command teams that can do the job we want them to do.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): If the Minister is genuinely anxious to consult and to listen, will she consider the views of those who believe that emulation of the best is rather better than amalgamation of the rest?
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance. When he came to see me last weekwith other Members of Parliament from Staffordshire,
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including some of my hon. Friendshe will have had the sense that was I listening to the points that were made. We are a listening Government[Interruption.] We are a listening Government, and we are flexible, pragmatic and practical. We want to make sure that when the new structures are in place they are fit for purpose. The point is that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary said that the current 43-force structure is not fit for purpose and it is the responsibility of any Government to take seriously the advice of the inspectorate and to try to make sure that our structures have the capacity, capability and resilience to be able to protect our citizens from the threats we face.
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