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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 29 November 2005

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Police Service Restructuring

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Good morning, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate you on having attracted so many attendees to today's event. Will you register with Mr. Speaker my gratitude for his allowing me the debate? In the hundreds of long hours when, as Deputy Speaker in this esteemed place, I have occupied the Chair in which you now sit, I have pondered whether I would ever have to speak from the Floor. However, I did not expect to do so with the sadness and dismay that I bring with me today.

We have so much to consider and so many questions that need to be answered that I shall do my best to be brief. If the Minister seizes the opportunity today, she will be able to shine like she has never shone before. I promise hon. Members that she has the chance to save the Home Office from a fate worse than death.

Allegedly, we are in consultation throughout the country, except in Scotland, and we have until 23 December to consider how to treat our police forces, but have we? Last week, in response to a business question from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), the Leader of the House replied:

At the same time in Belfast, the Association of Police Authorities stated categorically and unanimously that it will not voluntarily enter into any form of amalgamation.

There have been certain contradictions. Mr. Giffard, the esteemed chief constable of Staffordshire, is heading the review board. He said that investing further resources on options not shortlisted would be useless and that

For the north-east, there is only one proposal, which is    the merger of Northumbria with Durham and Cleveland. There is no prospect of giving consideration to anything other than that. That seems to be a denial of consultation.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The Home Secretary decided to go for a reduction in the number of forces in the country and said that that was okay because it would be a cost-cutting exercise. However, within days it was put in the public domain that the Home Office review unit had decided that we need a single force for the area. Does my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that, only a few weeks earlier, the Home Secretary wanted a consultation
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process, yet a few weeks later a review emerged from nowhere that boxed in all the forces to reach a known conclusion that existed in the Home Office? Is that not a Machiavellian plot, or does he regard it as a coincidence?

Frank Cook : I could hardly give the Home Office the       credit of being Machiavellian. However, "extraordinary" is the understatement of the century. A serious game is being played. Mr. Giffard's statement about one option only was made on 9 November. On 16 November, Ministers said that no options will be closed. That is another contradiction. The political world is going mad.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): In light of what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) said about Ministers saying that no option would be closed, is the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) surprised that my authority—the Hampshire police authority—was told that it was not to consider amalgamation with Dorset or Wiltshire because those authorities were on the wrong side of the arbitrary Government office boundaries?

Frank Cook : Yes, it certainly seems strange that so many questions are being answered even before they have been asked.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has done the House a great service in initiating this debate. Although most of the debate will be about the north, not a single person from West Sussex and Sussex has written to me to say that they want an amalgamation. I hope that he will not blame Mr. Giffard for what he has said, because I expect that he is a man under instructions. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Home Affairs Committee report on the subject? Has the Minister been questioned at length? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that would be a better step than this rush before Christmas?

Frank Cook : If the hon. Gentleman is looking for an argument he had better change the subject. Of course I agree. The sad thing about all this is that it has been introduced at such a pace. I cannot do better than cite Christopher Booker, who wrote in The Daily Telegraph:

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate at this time. He believes in listening to the people: I know
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that because I know him well. Do his constituents, like mine, feel that local policing should be kept local so that local people can have control of their police forces and identify with them? If so, does he believe that we should have a major three-hour debate before the House rises for Christmas?

Frank Cook : There were two questions there. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to stop writing my speech for me. A MORI poll has been conducted and the results will be published today. It will not surprise hon. Members to learn that it was commissioned by the Cleveland police authority, but it was conducted right across the country. I have the full results here for anyone to examine. I will gladly pass it on to the Minister if he would deign to look at it. Of those questioned, 8 per cent. want a single police force for Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland. Does that not mean that 92 per cent. do not want it? That reflects the resounding rejection of a north-east regional assembly less than 12 months ago.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think it right that Cleveland police authority has spent over £100,000 of public money defending its cause? Can he also say how many of my constituents in Durham or in south Durham have been consulted on the bonkers idea put forward by the chair of the Cleveland police authority to split a very successful force like Durham in half?

Frank Cook : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those matters. I was going to refer to them anyway but I will do so now. The simple truth about Durham is that it already operates on two distinctly separate commands: one in the north and one in the south. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that that is not the case. I promise him that it is. The suggestion that has been made from Cleveland is that the Cleveland force goes with the south of Durham and that the Tyne and Wear forces go with the north of Durham.

Mr. Jones : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Frank Cook : Not at the moment. That is why the chief constable of Durham has said that this splitting of the force will make it operationally dysfunctional. It already operates on that basis, but for some reason he thinks that adding it to Cleveland will render it dysfunctional.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, and for giving way. Does he think it particularly odd of the Government to bring forward the proposal to merge north-eastern police forces into a regional structure so soon after the people of the north-east made clear their views on regional government by voting comprehensively against elected north-eastern government? Does he agree that there is no great sense of regional identity in the north, although there is a lot of pride in counties and cities?

Frank Cook : There is merit in some of the points made by the right hon. Gentleman, but to say that there is no
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regional identity in the north-east is, frankly, flying in the face of what exists. I advise the right hon. Gentleman to go to a football match and hear the crowd singing "The Blaydon Races".

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Cook : Yes, but then I really have to make progress.

Mr. Gale : The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr.   Jones) seemed to suggest that it was somehow improper for Cleveland constabulary to spend money defending its case. Could the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) say whether he or the Home Office have given any indication of the cost of the entire exercise? The chief constable of Kent, a force that has no borrowing at the moment, has said that he would have to borrow considerably—it would take up to 10 years to pay it back—just to complete the exercise.

Frank Cook : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dragging me back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham. On that very point I can quote Andy Ford, the head of the police resources unit at the Home Office. He told police authorities last week that the money for the restructuring across the whole country will

Mr. Kevan Jones : Can my hon. Friend answer the question I put to him earlier: has Cleveland police authority and its chairman consulted anyone in Durham about proposals to split the highly successful Durham force in half?

Frank Cook : I do not know, but I go back to the MORI poll. People in Durham were consulted in that poll; samples were taken to Durham, just as everywhere else.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He refers to the MORI poll; Hampshire police force tells me that

in Hampshire

Does that not add to the argument suggested by the results of the MORI poll?

Frank Cook : The answer is so obvious that the question does not even warrant a reply, though I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the point.

Before I leave the subject of finances, I point out that in Cleveland we estimate that the restructuring—we will have to borrow for the restructuring—will cost in the region of £50 million. The borrowing would have to be financed, and we reckon that the finance charges on it would be about £5 million a year. Where will that charge
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fall? It will fall to the police precept, and the precept will be added to council tax. How will we answer our constituents if such a measure is adopted?

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He mentions that there are tight finances and no additional money. Does he recognise the problem facing my constituency in Cumbria, where the force could be merged to become part of a much larger north-west force? If one were chief constable of that larger, north-west authority, one might feel the temptation to borrow police from the apparently peaceful streets of Kendal and place them on the less peaceful streets of unnamed towns in Lancashire or Merseyside. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that that means a real challenge for rural areas, which could lose police officers as a consequence of the move?

Frank Cook : That problem is evident across the country. I did not want to focus this debate purely on Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria. The point about the different characteristics of the region is important. If I can highlight them—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who seeks to delay my speech, could easily have applied for the debate himself. He knows the northern region very well. We will be asking the police force, if there is one force up there, to deal with the rural characteristics of Northumbria as well as the characteristics of Cleveland, which has a nuclear power station, a huge chemical complex and the deepest mine in Europe, the Boulby potash mine. Those are totally different characteristics. Can we really expect one police force to cater for them all?

Let me describe what happened to the chief constable of Cleveland when he was addressing a meeting at a community centre on Rossmere way in Hartlepool. I am a Hartlepudlian myself and am rather proud of the awkward characteristics of the Hartlepudlians. [Interruption.] Be careful now. We hanged a monkey once and we can hang one again; we have plenty of rope left. That is not meant for the Minister.

At the meeting at the community centre, a member of the audience got up and said, "Mr. Price, if we have only one police force for the whole north-east, do you think we could get the chief constable to come down here and answer our questions?" Mr. Price was polite enough not to respond. I suggest that the answer, if it were true, would be in the negative, because the area would be too big for one chief constable. Big is not necessarily the answer to everything.

What did the Met do when we had the bus and train bombings? It borrowed constables from Cleveland and all over the country, so big does not answer the problem. It is communication that is important. [Interruption.] Absolutely. It is communication and co-operation that are important. That is the secret of how to defeat the terrorism that is used to justify these insane measures.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Although this is not relevant to the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, is he aware that police forces, through the Home Office, intend to introduce one national telephone line for the police, apart from the 999 number, so that anyone in the whole of the United Kingdom can telephone one number? It would be for assistance other
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than through the 999 number. The system is being trialled in Hampshire. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that will be an efficient improvement?

Frank Cook : I was unaware of that proposal until the hon. Gentleman brought it to my attention this morning. In my experience—I have been here only 22 and a half years—hon. Members regularly receive complaints from constituents who say, "I telephoned the police but no one turned up." That is the situation now, so what on earth will be the consequence of the system that the hon. Gentleman describes?

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is a senior Back Bencher from the governing party. Does he think that the fact that the Government have cancelled this Thursday's debate, which would have given the whole House a chance to express its views, is a sign that the Government have been caught out and will not be allowed to get away with the measure quite as they wanted to, by slipping it under the carpet before Christmas, and that they may be rethinking the issue?

Frank Cook : I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is right, but of course the only person who can answer his question is sitting in the ministerial seat. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication in that regard, because 12 weeks for the type of reorganisation that we are discussing is totally inadequate and unacceptable.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend the Minister knows what I will say. The problem is that the police reorganisation is taking place    against a background of ambulance trust reorganisation, fire service control reorganisation and NHS reorganisation. There is no stability in the way in which those emergency services are being reorganised. Surely it is time for the Government to consider a degree of coherence before bringing other services into that pattern. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Frank Cook : All sorts of holes have been blown in the speech that I had prepared. It is only the second time in my life that I have prepared a speech; I usually use bullet points. My hon. Friend is right. Part of the thesis that I was trying to advance right at the beginning was to depend upon the concept of city regions that the Deputy Prime Minister has proposed. If he is calling for city regions, why on earth are we cutting across that and saying that individual police forces will extend right across the country? All emergency services—the fire, ambulance and health services, and the coastguards; the whole shebang—should be based on the city region principle. They would be related to particular communities, knowing fully their characteristics, and would be able to respond more expeditiously and rapidly.

Mr. Kevan Jones : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Frank Cook : I will do so for the last time.

Mr. Jones : My hon. Friend advances this argument, but what has a small village in rural Weardale in common with inner-city Middlesbrough?

Frank Cook : Mrs. Humble, you must excuse me. Whose debate is this?
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Dr. Kumar : Surely the answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham is that the Cleveland police force is in its strongest position ever. In the MORI poll that was mentioned, 70 per cent. strongly supported the existing position of Cleveland police authority.

Frank Cook : My hon. Friend does the Chamber a service by offering a response to a question that I thought was so fatuous that it did not deserve to be asked. That was going to be my answer, but I thank him.

I must try to address points that have not been made, which might take some jiggling and shuffling around. The review has been rushed without proper thought and is a knee-jerk reaction to the London bombings. It is rather characteristic of the Conservative Government's reaction to pit bulls, which was equally insane, or, of course, to both Governments' reaction to small-bore weapons—hand guns. That did not do a damned thing apart from deny perfectly law-abiding families the exercise, two or three times a month, of putting holes in pieces of card from a range of 25 m. There are more firearms on the street than ever before and Jack the lad can get them wherever he wants.

I often think of the words of my predecessor—not my immediate predecessor, because he is in the House of Lords, but the person three or four back who represented my constituency. He became the Earl of Stockton, but he was once the Member of Parliament for Stockton. Apparently, when he was Prime Minister he used to get up in the morning and say, "How are things today? Are they quiet? Good, let's leave them that way." It is a pity that Mrs. Thatcher did not adopt the same kind of principle, but there we are.

Cleveland, which is the only force in the country with a multi-agency planning unit, has spent £100,000 putting forward its arguments. It is nothing to do with size; it is to do with the expertise required, how it has been gathered and the way it has been needed because of the different characteristics within the Cleveland constabulary unit and the area that it has to police. There are nuclear power stations, petrochemical plants and storage of all sorts of volatiles. We have enormous subterranean depositories of the most volatile substances imaginable; if ethylene oxide ever goes off, there will be such a very big hole in Teesmouth that the North sea will disappear. Cleveland is ahead of the game; on inspection, it was one point behind Northumbria and several points ahead of Durham. Cleveland has had its problems in the past, but it has a right to have its options considered—not for everything to be put in one pot and to be told by Mr. Giffard, "You can't consider anything else."

What about the nightmare situation of a single region stretching from the Scottish border to the north Yorkshire moors? How on earth could that possibly have the concentrated expertise or resources to respond to events? That answers effectively the point about Weardale and central Middlesbrough.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is it not symptomatic that the Government do not understand that there is a difference between urban and rural life and between urban and rural policing?
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Frank Cook : My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) says, "Tell him I've got a rural seat," and of course he has. So have I, in part. There are chemical plants in my constituency and stud farms and heaven knows what else on the fringes, towards Darlington and Sedgefield, which is policed in similar ways. Those characteristics, when they are properly organised, can be properly policed.

We have referred to the 12-week time scale. I do not know how the Minister will answer my question, because I shall quote Denis O'Connor of the Association of Police Authorities, whose report is the sole justification offered by the Government for the review. Mr. O'Connor's verbatim statement said:

He did not have time to consider—he was not allowed it—but he puts the report out and we are being forced and crushed into the same kind of structure that he accepted.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way yet again. I hope that I am not betraying a confidence, but when we bumped into each other in Central Lobby last night, he said, "Do you think many people will turn up tomorrow morning?" I said, "I think there could be one or two."

The timing has undoubtedly been rushed and there are as many strong feelings in the south of England as there are in the north. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Essex police authority met yesterday, in response to the Home Office's rushed consultation, and voted unanimously to resist its proposals and keep the Essex force alone? Does the hon. Gentleman have sympathy with that view?

Frank Cook : Of course I do. To ask me such a question is chasing the obvious. I am well aware of that, having read about it. The Library put out a batch of newspaper extracts from across the country. Read them. There is no support at all. There is a little bit of support in The Northern Echo, but I have always suspected it.

I have already covered the cost implications for Cleveland. I invite all hon. Members to consider the direct implications of the costs for their constituents—the people who sent them here to represent them. Think about what their council tax bill will be like if the measure goes through.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The hon. Gentleman said that the justification for this proposal is allegedly to close what the Government call the protective services gap. The flaw in the argument on the finance side is that forces and police authorities will have to borrow to fund the measure. It would take the Gloucester police force, for example,  in the context of the proposals for the south-west, 25 years to save enough money to close the gap in protective services. Not only will this measure be expensive, it will not even deliver the improvement in policing that the Government say will happen.
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Frank Cook : That is clear. I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said, but I have to amplify them by saying that protective services are not the only exercises that police forces conduct. There is a lot more to policing than providing protective services.

Without any kind of business case, it is proposed that those massive costs—£50 million for Cleveland—should be incurred, with a potentially huge burden on local tax payers. We have not been given a business case. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's plan for city regions has been totally ignored in all this consideration. The auditors will have a field day later.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On that point, I spoke to my chief constable and he was horrified that just one bit of IT change caused by this reorganisation would involve £50 million, which would have to be borne by the council tax payers of Northamptonshire and the rest of the region.

Frank Cook : Put that with the chaos that will be caused by the helpline mentioned by the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), and that is enough to frighten me and make me run away.

It is abundantly clear that Mr. Giffard, in coming out with his pre-emptive strike—"You can only consider the shortlist that we have put out for you, and no other options"—has totally exceeded his remit. On the one hand, he makes it crystal clear to authorities and forces that, as far as he is concerned, there is no real point in their working on any options other than those that he has shortlisted as a result of the most flimsy, inadequate and cursory consideration. Yet on the other, Ministers are telling us that no options have been closed off. Somebody has got it wrong.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not think it amazing that the possibility of Leicestershire amalgamating with Warwickshire has been ruled out? Their police forces are adjacent. Does not that make the hon. Gentleman's point?

Frank Cook : There are so many variables. We are expected to consult and consider by 23 December, when "Jingle Bells" will be playing in every shop window—frankly, I just do not know who dreamed it up. It beggars my understanding. If Mr. Giffard is to stand by his comments and if he has not been drawn to order, he should either be replaced or put under the tutelage of someone with a good deal more common sense.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the timetable not contrast rather sharply with that used the last time there was a series of police amalgamations? In 1959, a royal commission was set up; it reported in 1962. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1964, and the full set of amalgamations did not complete until 1974. In other words, that process took 15 years. The Government seem to be proposing to carry out these amalgamations within two or three years.

Frank Cook : I can only say that I concur with the comments being made. Perhaps I ought to mention that the British Transport police are equally concerned, because this reorganisation will cut right across their funding. They pass their funding on to the user; the user
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pays. How are we going to match British Transport police in Weardale with British Transport police in London? How will we pass the funding on to the user there? It is a total denial of accepted practice and in three weeks it has yet to be thought through.

There appears to have been no consideration of the governance and accountability implications of moving forces to cover huge geographical areas. Take, for example, the north-east, where there are no fewer than 23 local authorities, all of which have the right to have a say in policing—not to mention the magistrates and independent members. Are there going to be representatives from all those authorities in the police authority? I suspect a sneaky plot; perhaps this is one way for the Government to get a north-east regional assembly, which they failed to get last year. All elements of real accountability to local communities would go.

If others are to speak, I ought to stop. However, before I do, I shall make one further point to the Minister, to every other Minister and to the House. Allegiance and loyalty are admirable characteristics. I owe allegiance and am loyal to the Government, but the first call on my allegiance and loyalty is to those who sent me to Parliament 22 and a half years ago. I therefore state candidly that I cannot accept the proposals. I never usually make a statement before going into the Chamber and hearing the debate, but on this occasion I am doing so. I cannot accept the proposals because they are sheer madness. This is a headlong rush through uncharted waters like some kind of Gadarene panic.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Before I call hon. Members to speak, I point out that many Members are seeking to catch my eye and there is a very limited amount of time left. I hope to call Front-Bench spokesmen soon after half-past 10. I urge hon. Members to keep their contributions as short as possible so that as many people as possible have an opportunity to speak.

Mr. Gale : On a point of order, Mrs. Humble. I should be grateful if you would be kind enough to take a message to Mr. Speaker from the debate this morning. Many of us have to leave the debate; I have to leave to chair the Committee considering the Equality Bill. There is a great deal that I would like to contribute to the debate but I will not get the chance to do so. A very large number of hon. Members present will be denied the opportunity to participate in the debate. Would you please take a clear message to Mr. Speaker that this matter—saving the grace of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) who has managed to secure this debate for an hour and a half—should be debated in full and voted on properly on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman's point has been made.

Mr. Bone : On a point of order, Mrs. Humble. As a new Member, I do not know whether we will be able to
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vote at the end of this debate so that we can express an opinion on the matter. Will you give me a ruling on that point?

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair) : This is a debate on the Adjournment of the House, but we will have the opportunity to hear the Minister in her summation.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Humble. You kindly indicated that the Front-Bench spokesmen would be able to begin their remarks at about half-past 10. I am very happy to forgo the vast majority of the time allotted to me as a Front-Bench spokesman so that others may speak. I am happy to speak for only 30 seconds, because what I have to say can be said very crisply.

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair) : I note the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, and take it into account.

10.8 am

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I apologise to hon. Members for being slightly rusty in speaking to the Chamber of the House of Commons. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. I hope, Mrs. Humble, that you will convey to Mr. Speaker, as I personally shall do, the anger of so many of us that we are forced to make only brief remarks in this Chamber on this vital subject, rather than being able to debate it properly and fully on the Floor of the House.

I have in front of me a document from the Home Office called a 60-second brief, which somehow seems appropriate. It might be better named a back-of-the-fag-packet brief, because that is the type of plan that we have had for police restructuring in England and Wales.

This policy exercise has been conducted scandalously. I say that as a former Minister with responsibility for the police, who has deep respect for Home Office civil servants and for Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. However, I know that when the Government and Ministers ask HMIC to come up with independent recommendations, it can usually come up with recommendations that are convenient or conducive to what Ministers want. That is the smell that I have from this report—that HMIC has suddenly concluded that forces with fewer than 4,000 officers are no longer fit for purpose. Where is the logical argument for that? Where is the detailed debate on it? If that was HMIC's genuine conclusion, we should have had some months of debate on the size and structure of forces based on that report. The first scandal is that we have not had that debate. The Home Secretary immediately decided that Her Majesty's chief inspector's report was excellent. What a surprise: did he not know that it was going to come on to his desk? He then ordered police forces to restructure. No, that is not quite correct: he asked police forces to restructure.

The next scandal is that so many of our so-called independent county forces fell over themselves to follow the Home Secretary's and the Minister's urging. Some of them—scandalously, in the case of my force in Cumbria—made that decision and went public before
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the police authority pronounced. That is absolutely disgraceful. As a former police Minister and someone who has never criticised the police force or the police service in his life, it grieves me to say that my own constabulary had a meeting with the Home Secretary one day and rushed out a statement the next day practically licking the Home Secretary's boots, saying that it was going to go ahead with all that he wanted. Two days later, the police authority put out a statement saying that it disagreed with the Home Secretary, and wanted to see an independent Cumbrian force. Last week, after the Home Secretary said that the only options would be those that he and John Giffard had recommended, the chief constable of Cumbria was ahead of the game and made a pronouncement that now that the Home Office had determined that, he had no option and was going to go along with its recommendations.

Once again, the police authority, the democratically accountable body that is supposed to be in charge of the police, was left a few days later to say that it still wanted an independent Cumbrian force, but as its own police service had pulled the rug from under it, it was now stuck with the Home Office's options. The speed with which this is being conducted is a scandal. It is a scandal that local opinion is being ignored. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) was complaining that no study had been done by Cleveland force on what it wanted in Durham, but no study has been done by the Home Office on what we want in Cumbria, or anywhere else. It is a Home Office plan, foisted on police forces that have no option but to go along with it.

If the Minister genuinely wants more strategic forces—let us not pay too much attention to the term "strategic", as the Government attach it to everything these days, and "strategic police forces" is a meaningless, nonsensical phrase—

Mr. Kevan Jones : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I will not take lessons from someone who was a member of a Conservative Government who abolished Cleveland county council without consulting anybody in Cleveland, and the Tyne and Wear authority without consulting anybody in Tyne and Wear.

David Maclean : If indeed that were the case, surely the hon. Gentleman is not using it now as justification for the dictatorial way in which the Home Office has foisted this on everybody. If the Minister wants larger forces, offering better protective services, why were not Cumbria and Northumberland allowed to have discussions on amalgamation? We have seen the Government's political agenda: they want regional police forces. We do not particularly want police forces to be combined, to work together at a so-called strategic size, but they want them combined into a political regional structure, so that they have regional political control.

If there were a case for Cumbria to amalgamate with another police force, it would be with Northumberland, which shares similar problems in the north Pennines and the north of England. Instead, it will be amalgamated with Lancashire, or possibly with Liverpool. I say to the Minister that the only good news for us in Cumbria, without opening up another political subject such as
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support for hunting, is that we will not have a single copper left in Cumbria to enforce the hunting legislation, because Cumbria will always haul its officers down to the higher crime areas. That is not a criticism of Lancashire, Preston or Liverpool, but there is a higher level of crime in those areas, and Cumbria will be cleaned out as a result of officers going there.

All regional commissars or commissioners will envy the Met. I suspect that this is another reason behind some senior officers in all our forces being so keen to go along with the policy. I visited every police force in this country a few years ago, and they all envied the size, wealth and power of the Met. We all know what the outcome will be: new regional commissioners will be created. They will be on the same salary as Ian Blair, and all the other chief constables will be assistant commissioners. They will create a huge new police service with regional commissars and regional commissioners. There will be no democratic accountability to local people; it will not be possible to build that in. The Home Office will have control; it has always wanted to get control of every police service and to cut out local democratic accountability. It wants a system such as that in France, where the police answer purely and simply to the Home Department.

The Minister's time scale is outrageous. If there is merit in any of the proposals, they will stand up to scrutiny over a longer period. Let us get John Giffard to appear before the Home Affairs Committee, and let us question him about issues such as the viability of the minimum threshold of 4,000 officers, or 6,000 staff in total. Let us also look into having a sensible time scale, and if the House then concludes that some of our county police forces need to be larger, let them amalgamate with the best nearest police force, in order to give us the best possible size of force. We must not force them into the artificial straitjacket of the Government's regional structures.

We know what will happen. Our ambulance service was stripped down and is now controlled from the regions. Our fire service in Cumbria will now be controlled from Warrington. Our strategic health authority and police are also controlled regionally. In a few years' time, the Government will say, "Oh dearie me, you are not controlling anything in Cumbria any longer, because everything is being controlled from the region, so you had better have some democratic accountability now."

That will also happen in the north-east. The people there say, "We have nothing left in the north-east. Nothing is controlled from the county any more. Everything is controlled regionally." However, they will end up voting for a regional assembly, because it will be better for people to have a democratic regional assembly controlling their services than to have the bureaucrats controlling them from London.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North might not agree, but it is transparently obvious that that is the Government's agenda, and it must be stopped.

10.17 am

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate on such an important issue. I have taken a great deal of interest in the Cleveland police force,
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including through the years of Operation Lancet and all that went along with that, as is shown in the Hansard record of parliamentary debates that my hon. Friend often used to chair. We clashed on the matter on many occasions; he was on one side and I was on the other. However, we agree on one thing: we both care passionately about the Cleveland police authority.

Frank Cook : May I just correct the record? I did not clash with my hon. Friend from the Chair; we clashed in debate. I was strictly impartial when occupying the Chair.

Dr. Kumar : I stand corrected. The point that I was trying to make is that we both care passionately about our police force. My hon. Friend has articulated today the spirit and loyalty of the force.

Over the past few years, the Cleveland police force has done a marvellous job under the leadership of Sean Price, the chief constable, and Councillor David McLuckie. We have begun to get things right: burglaries and crime in general are down. There is a close working relationship with the mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon. There is a tremendous spirit of cohesion—of people working together, instead of everybody fighting each other. There was new leadership, and I was very proud of that, and tried to champion its spirit.

The Minister has always been supportive of the force, given the circumstances and the budget shortfalls we had. It is a great credit to her that she came to the rescue at the right time. Therefore, I speak to the Minister as a friend, because I recognise the efforts that she has made in the past.

However, I also sincerely say to her that something is seriously wrong. I cannot understand something. The Home Secretary asked for reorganisation, and that is fine. I support the Government: I believe in reform and modernisation. However, why was a Home Office review introduced within weeks that said, "This is the conclusion you should come to?" That is outrageous. That is boxing us in by pushing us in a direction that we do not necessarily want to go in. We might want to go in that direction in due course, but do not tell us the conclusion before we have decided to go down that road. Give us time. Members of all parties have been asking: what is wrong with a slightly longer time scale? Let the debate take place. What is the hurry?

Mr. Gale : Would the hon. Gentleman like to hear from the Minister about the publication of a risk assessment? We all want better policing. I have not seen a word that suggests that there has been a risk assessment.

Dr. Kumar : I agree.

Why are things being done in a hurry? If we want to get things right, we should let time flow and let the debate take place. This is the first time that I have heard this debate here. The debate has hardly started in Teesside—I do not know what is happening in Durham. The debate has hardly moved. I find that amazing. When the Home Secretary asked for the debate to take place, I was happy. I thought that we would make our case and let the debate take place, but instead decisions
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were made. I say to the Minister: please go back and tell the Home Secretary that we need more time, and, finally, in the end, we might go down that road.

Please will the Minister keep an open mind? Having spent all these years trying to get things right for Cleveland, we do not want to unravel everything. I cannot support that because, for five or six years, I was very critical of the police force, certainly in our area. There are strong feelings about this. My hon. Friend mentioned the MORI poll. The first choice of 70 per cent. of people is to keep Cleveland as it is. We are talking about a local model and local communities. That is still the spirit of what people want for our police force. On the one hand, we as a Government are saying that we want to transfer power to local neighbourhoods and local areas, and, on the other hand, we are moving power somewhere else. That is the danger with the north-east police force.

Mr. Kevan Jones : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in the past. He has been highly critical of the Cleveland police force. I accept the changes that he and others have brought about and I accept that some of that is down to the present chief constable. However, if my hon. Friend thinks that this should be about local community policing, why is the argument that we should amalgamate the Cleveland police force with half of a very successful force in Durham, rather than that we should retain Cleveland as a police force?

Dr. Kumar : My ideal solution would be to keep the police force as it is, but the point is that the local authority has decided on a wider model in order to co-operate and try to move away from a fixed position, in order to move the debate onwards and try to work together. The Cleveland police authority has decided that it is willing to look at that road. It is trying to move from a fixed position. However, I am happy with the Cleveland police force model as it exists. At the same time, I am happy to let the debate flow. If we come to a different conclusion, that is fine. I am not taking a fixed position at the moment. Ideally, my position is to support the Cleveland police force.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North made a point about the situation in Teesside. Mention was made of the airport, the ports, the chemical works, the nuclear industry, the Boulby potash mine—in my constituency—and the expertise that is being developed. My fear is that there is a danger that, if we have a wider force, much of the expertise could be lost.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Is not the issue illustrated by the intervention that the hon. Gentleman accepted from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the interventions that he made in the speech by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook)? The Cleveland police force, in seeking to move its position to in some way accommodate what it sees as the wishes of the Home Office, undermines all our efforts to maintain the traditional county identities. As constituency MPs, we realise that where there is an existing link within counties to police force structures, our constituents identify with their police forces through
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existing elected police authorities. All of that will go if forces such as Cleveland decide that they want only half a region and seek to—as would appear to be the case in Cleveland—spend public money with a view to splitting the Durham force in half. We must all hang together or we will lose our police forces to massive reform across the country, which is liable to cost a great deal of money and fail to bring the benefits that the Government seek.

Dr. Kumar : I do not think that the Government are deliberately trying to break up the Cleveland county authority. [Interruption.] That is the hon. Gentleman's view, but it is not mine. We do not have a Cleveland county as such; that was abolished by the Conservatives when they were in power. If one is honest, one will recognise that this Government are not in the business of abolition. However, I do not wish to go down that road. I believe that the Government are trying to introduce reforms and create a different and better system, and everything else that comes with modernisation.

I support the spirit of Government policy, but if we go for a north-east force, there is a danger of the disaggregation that we saw previously. When Cleveland county council was abolished, we were told that the final cost would be far less than we had bargained for. However, the figures have proved the opposite. There are great dangers and we have learned from that bitter experience, which never delivered. I could give the Minister figures, but other hon. Members wish to speak and I want to keep my comments focused. I can tell the Minister that I have genuine fears about a monolithic force for the north-east because it would stretch from the Scottish borders to the North Yorkshire moors at the south end of my constituency. That would be massive and far too big. We in Cleveland and Teesside do not wish to be policed by a force that is about 50 miles down the A19. That is not practical. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North mentioned the difficulties faced by ordinary constituents who try to contact the police and find that no one ever responds. We want neighbourhood policing; that is the focus of Government and everything they are trying to do.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Kumar : I cannot give way because we are running out of time.

We cannot go down the road of a monolithic force because, in years to come, we will find ourselves in serious problems. I express my concerns as a loyal friend who has never voted against the Government or abstained on a Government vote. During the years when I was fighting battles over Cleveland police's Operation Lancet, the Minister took very seriously the concerns that I expressed, and has always subsequently taken my concerns seriously. I ask the Minister to recognise that the force is making a tremendous effort. Many changes have been introduced and the new chief constable is trying very hard. He is on the front line and is making things happen. We do not want bureaucrats to turn everything upside down when our officers are trying so hard. We are trying to improve the quality of life of our constituents and citizens.
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Urban and rural seats have been mentioned. Some 66 per cent. of my seat is rural. I have been elected four times for that seat and I do not need lectures from anyone on caring about rural areas. I passionately care about my seat and I ask the Minister not to hurry or rush, but to listen to us. I speak as a friend of the Government and of the Minister. Please, do not rush into it and do not go down that road at the moment.

10.30 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate and for making a splendid speech, which covered many points. I shall be as brief as possible. I represent North Shropshire, which is policed by West Mercia constabulary, which was rated the most efficient of the rural police forces. It is the fourth largest police force geographically and the fourth lowest funded, yet it is to be crashed into a new regional force for the west midlands for reasons that I do not understand and for which there is no popular support. I have not received a single telephone call, e-mail or letter from any constituent demanding that change. The West Mercia constabulary is a responsive force. The new chief constable in my patch took on board the reopening of cells in Oswestry and Market Drayton. He will meet Members of Parliament, but there is no way that we shall have any influence over the creation of a vast new regional force.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and I met senior policemen in Shrewsbury soon after the announcement of a new regional force. They were utterly dismayed, because they know that they do a good job. One policeman told me, "We are a most efficient force and we work." They do not understand where this is coming from. Since "Closing the Gap" was published, there has been no report that presents evidence for the change.

I wrote the most forceful letter that I have ever written to a Minister to the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety on 10 November to ask what the evidence is for the change, why that evidence has not been published, why it has not been peer reviewed and why on earth there is this extraordinary rush for change.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I, too, would ask the Minister to explain in her closing remarks why in May, at the Association of Chief Police Officers' professional standards in policing conference, the criteria for assessing the strategic force size was 2,500 officers, and why that figure has now risen to 4,000 officers. There is no discussion in the "Closing the Gap" report on the subject.

Mr. Paterson : My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the totally arbitrary figure of 4,000. The West Mercia constabulary has 2,380 officers in what is, I repeat, the fourth largest policing area. We are being forced into an enormous west midlands force. The unsigned letter that the Minister sent me on 9 November dismisses the other option of going in with Staffordshire. The letter says:

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That is nonsense. That is not what the police wanted when we saw them in Shrewsbury.

Moreover, that is not what the chief constable and the chairman of the police authority wanted when all eight Conservative Members for the region met them at Westminster; nor is it what they wanted when they roasted the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), at an impromptu meeting in the café downstairs two weeks ago. The Minister could not attend the debate for understandable reasons: she was at the Report stage of the Terrorism Bill late into the day. It is absolutely ridiculous, however, for her to write me a reply that says:

I heartily congratulate my chief constable on sticking his neck out. He said that it was

Will the Minister give a guarantee today that she will publish the analysis that formed the basis for "Closing the Gap"? Will she guarantee that she will allow that analysis to be put out for peer review? Will she state where the arbitrary figure of 4,000 came from? The IRA blew up Tern Hill barracks and Shrewsbury castle, and West Mercia police performed magnificently. Our chief constable previously worked for Thames Valley police, where three counties work alongside a Goliath in the shape of the Metropolitan police, but it worked. There is no operational necessity to force us in with a monster force. That marks the beginnings of a national police force.

Nine chief constables will sit down in one room with the Home Secretary to receive their orders. We can all forget it; we shall be absolutely irrelevant. We shall have no say in and no impact on the policing of our people. This is totally contrary to our traditions. In Elizabethan times, citizens were expected to perform both jury service and police service. That will go. We have never had a gendarmerie or a carabinieri in this country. When Robert Peel first set up the police force, the idea of a national force was debated for days in Parliament before it was rebutted. It was decided then that policing should remain close to local people.

This very brave chief constable has been put in an impossible position. Like the other chief constables, he has had to destroy his life's work. He is bravely working on West Mercia as a strategic force. Will the Minister give equal credence to his studies and promise to see him so that West Mercia can be kept intact but carry out strategic operations? Will the Minister pass on to the Speaker my view that it is a disgrace that this debate is not being held on the Floor of the House and we cannot vote on it? The timetable is so tight that the debate must be reinstated—the chief constables tell me that final option justification must be sent to the Home Office on 20 December. It is an utter scandal.
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Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): I will call one last Back-Bench Member, but I urge him to make his contribution within four minutes so that I may call the Liberal Democrat spokesperson.

10.36 am

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mrs. Humble, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) for securing this important debate. It is important, too, that the debate should have a Welsh dimension because the Home Office has proposed a national police force, which has made progress to this stage as a result of its assessment. That is totally unacceptable.

North Wales is a very successful police force according to the baseline assessment report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. The Minister works hard with that force and knows the progress that it has made. As I have only four minutes, I will not mention the chief constable, but I will mention the excellent work done by the police on the ground.

The issues that have been outlined by hon. Members in the debate suffer from the added problem in Wales of being blurred with politics. There are many in the National Assembly for Wales who feel that if they cannot get their own way they will be happy with a national force under their powers, devolved from the Home Office. I want the Minister to respond firmly to that point, on the record.

The response from Mr. Giffard, the director of the police structures review unit, said that one option was available—that of a national police force. However, there is a contradiction in what he said in his response to the chief constable, of which we all have a copy. He said that any proposed partnership between North Wales and the neighbouring force—Cheshire—would cross Government boundaries and there was no compelling argument that that should happen. He then contradicted himself, stating that

There is an operational necessity for neighbouring forces in England and Wales to collaborate. The police authority feel that that is the best option, and I support it.

Mr. David Jones : Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the regional agenda is being promoted by the Secretary of State for Wales, who came out strongly in favour of an all-Wales force? He suggested that the chief constable should oversee that new force by helicopter, travelling between north and south, which led to the headline in the Daily Post "Stand by for super copper in a chopper."

Albert Owen : That was a rather long intervention. I often disagree with the Secretary of State because I am here to stand up for my constituents and, in this case, north Wales, and I am happy to do so. A North Wales police force works well within some of the limits.

I shall mention costs briefly, as I am short of time. The North Wales police authority estimates that restructuring in Wales would cost about £50 million, and that to meet the criteria on terrorism and organised
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crime would cost in the region of £3 million. It would be false economics to spend all that money on restructuring; I want it to be spent in regions such as north Wales to retain a regional dimension.

My final point is on the experience of the North Wales force. The port of Holyhead in my constituency is one of the busiest in the United Kingdom. The traffic to the Republic of Ireland is about 2.5 million people a year. The North Wales force works on terrorism, smuggling and other big issues, and has done for many years. An all-Wales police force would diminish that experience, and I urge the Minister to reconsider the options to allow for a north Wales dimension in policing in Wales.

Mr. Francois : On a point of order, Mrs. Humble. May I just reiterate the point that a large number of hon. Members desperately want to contribute to this debate? You have done your best to squeeze in as many as you can, but it is self-evident that lots of Members want to speak in defence of their police forces. I reiterate that it is absolutely critical that debate time be made available in the main Chamber of the Commons before the consultation closes, so that we can do what we are paid to do and speak up for the people who sent us here.

Mrs. Humble (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman's comments have been noted.

10.41 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is absolutely right and I am happy to support his call on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.

I congratulate you, Mrs. Humble, on chairing such a passionate debate so well and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. It is probably the best attended Westminster Hall debate in the history of this Chamber. I commiserate with the Minister for not having got away with a poorly attended debate, for which, no doubt, the Government hoped. I am sure that she will take the opportunity to clarify to hon. Members that we will be able to vote on the matter at some stage after a substantive debate in the main Chamber.

I advise the Minister to think about the breakneck speed of the timetable and the rushed and cursory consultation that has been undertaken, to which many hon. Members have referred, but I ask her not to spend time on matters about which we agree. There are themes in the "Closing the Gap" report about which I am sure we all agree: the unique challenges facing modern policing or the potential weakness of police force structures in areas such as intelligence and level 2 policing. No one disputes that there may be weaknesses, but what is the best way to address them?

The value of community policing is common ground among people of all parties. However, none of those issues suggest that we should take a next step of having huge police forces. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer in his place, said earlier, there is a worrying trend for things such as ambulance trusts, primary care trusts, fire control centres and planning powers to become less and less local. It may be a fantastic coincidence that all of those things are becoming less local at the same time. Perhaps each
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decision has been based on careful analysis of the evidence, but as many hon. Members have said, the evidence seems to be lacking.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that such is the pressure applied to police forces and authorities by the Government that operational changes are already taking place? In Northamptonshire, for example, the four police basic command units have already been halved to just two on the basis that they will be unsustainable under the inevitable merged police force.

Martin Horwood : I was not aware of that; the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The "Closing the Gap" report says that the basic command units will allow local connection to be preserved, but it also underlines the fact that during a three-year period the number of basic command units has already fallen from 320 to 230. Clearly, they too are becoming less local and it sounds as if the hon. Gentleman has a concrete example of that already happening.

I recommend that hon. Members read "Closing the Gap" in full because it contains a lot that supports our case, not that of the Government. Point 1.11 is very instructive in this regard because it says that one size should not fit all and emphasises that performance is influenced by very many factors, including, most significantly, local leadership, and not necessarily structure. That does raise the question of why there is such restructuring instead of an improvement in performance.

The question of the purpose of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary is also raised. Is not its purpose to identify weak performance and help forces to improve in areas of weakness, such as level 2 policing, rather than to come up with a structural solution? Point 1.25 in the report refers to the lack of comparative financial information on the cost of protective service outcomes. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) pointed out, some of the maths behind the proposals is distinctly dodgy.

Mr. Harper : On that point, is it not the case that the "Closing the Gap" report, which was finalised only just before it was published, had its chapter on finance removed because the team responsible for producing it did not agree that the Government's conclusions were supported by their analysis? The whole theme is that the reorganisation will cost a huge sum, much of it in IT expenditure, and it is not sensible to divert money away from operational policing to this unnecessary reorganisation.

Martin Horwood : I entirely agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the cost of closing the protective services gap in the proposed five/four south-west mega-force has been estimated by our Gloucestershire constabulary to be £21 million. The set-up costs of the merger have been estimated to be £64 million, £40 million of which will go on IT. The point is well made.

There is a clue to where the pressure on finance is coming from, because the "Closing the Gap" report, where one would hope to find a financial analysis, states:

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Why is that? Well, there is a reference that states:

In effect, the forces are being told to restructure to save the Home Office money and to help the Chancellor of the Exchequer to balance the books in his post-election period.

Bob Spink : The hon. Gentleman makes some excellent points. It is clear that, like other hon. Members present, he will not have time to make all the points that he would wish to make. The Liberal party has an Opposition day before the consultation closes in December. I urge him to take up this cause as the subject of that Opposition day so that we can force a debate in the main Chamber on this important and ill-conceived proposal.

Martin Horwood : I am happy to raise that point, but I would like to make a few others to the Minister. Paragraph 1.32 in the report, under the heading "Stakeholders have mixed views", states:

Paragraph 1.33 states:

Let us note that it does not say "merger". It goes on to say that

In other words, there are many other ways to achieve the objectives that the Government want to achieve.

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the hon. Member to consider drawing his remarks to a close? I want there to be a couple of minutes for the Opposition spokesperson and I am sure that all hon. Members want to hear from the Minister.

Martin Horwood : I shall wind up by saying that there is a risk to some first-class forces—West Mercia has been spoken about, and Gloucestershire was commended by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary on its performance on level 2 policing.

The Government often—at least in the past couple of weeks—ask hon. Members to listen to police officers when it suits them, but our chief constable and other chief constables have been adamant that this is not the best solution. I hope that the Minister will listen to police officers on this occasion.

10.48 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on initiating this debate. I am so sorry, as many hon. Members are, that we have not been able to have this debate on the Floor of the House, led by the Government, on a substantive motion upon which we could all cast a vote.
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The best piece of advice that I can give the Minister at the moment is to quit while she is behind, because this argument is running away from her. The devastating analysis that has been applied to the Government's apparent policy has been shot at her with great force by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber. I thank them all for their contributions this morning, because it will bring home, not only to the Minister but, hopefully, to other Members of the Government that this is not a single issue nimby group that is complaining. We are talking about a feeling that is emanating from our constituencies—[Interruption.] I did not hear what was said, so I will not bother to reply to it. This theme is emanating from our constituencies and from our police authorities—from the places that we represent.

I urge the Government to consider this matter. This looks to us like a growing regionalisation across the whole provision of emergency services; it looks like the nationalisation of the police. We know that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was probably the most authoritarian Home Secretary since the war, and he wanted to control everything. The new Home Secretary has unfortunately had to inherit that agenda and the Minister is having to pick up the pieces. She went to Belfast on Wednesday and Thursday last week to listen to the Association of Police Authorities and came back, if I may say so, with her policies somewhat singed. This is an expensive and undemocratic waste of time, and this is all that the Government can come up with.

We want policing by consent and by the citizen in uniform and police to be connected to the constituencies and the areas that they police. Of course there is a case for pragmatic co-operation between police forces. Of course there is an argument for concentrating expertise in particular forces—expertise in nuclear and chemical inspection, for example. Cleveland was mentioned in that context. Of course the Metropolitan Police Authority is the centre of excellence on terrorism. However, that does not mean that one size fits all and that one form of regional policing needs to be applied to everybody.

I shall finish on a local point, made from my own constituency point of view. The Leicestershire police authority has been advised by the HMIC report and those behind it that the Government are looking at two possibilities. One is to form one force by combining the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire forces and form another by merging the Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire forces. One has only to put those positions forward—and then look at a map, perhaps—to see how ludicrous they are.

The alternative is even worse: to merge all five forces—Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. Look at a map; that goes from the outskirts of Greater Manchester at the top end to the eastern and northern borders of Buckinghamshire at the bottom end. If that is a sensible way to run a local police service, I am in the wrong job.
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10.52 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), not only on securing this debate but on tapping into an issue that is demonstrably of concern to Members across the House. I am genuinely pleased that this debate is so well attended. I had no intention of slipping things under the carpet—one phrase that has been used—and trying to get rid of this debate before Christmas. As hon. Members know, I am always perfectly prepared to engage, discuss, challenge and consider the issues, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do that.

Several hon. Members rose—

Hazel Blears : I genuinely want to deal with some of the issues. If I give way during my eight minutes, I shall be criticised for not having answered some of the questions, and I want to try to do so.

I, too, am sorry that we will not have the debate on the Floor of the House on 1 December. I would welcome another three-hour debate in this Chamber, although that is clearly a matter for Mr. Speaker. We are trying to ensure that there is a debate on the Floor of the House—after Christmas, if necessary. I absolutely want to be able to have debates on the issues so that every single Member who is concerned about the future of their police service has an opportunity to contribute. I am delighted that the police service conjures up the great emotion and passion that has been exhibited by all Members who have spoken today. That should continue.

However, as well as having the passion and strong feeling exhibited particularly today by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), the best kind of debate is also informed and constructive. I say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that I did go to Belfast last week and listen to members of the Association of Police Authorities. I found them constructive and willing to engage. They were dealing with some difficult issues, but I found that they were genuinely concerned to try to maximise the performance of their police services. That is in all our interests.

I should like to say a word about neighbourhood policing. That concerns many Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who is extremely concerned that his neighbourhood policing should continue to perform at its best ever level and that it should be in touch with local people and reflect their priorities. One of the very reasons why we are going down the route of strategic police authorities is to try to make sure that for the long term we can protect the neighbourhood policing that is so important to our constituents. That is the policing that they see, feel and touch in their neighbourhoods.

Denis O'Connor's report makes it very clear that, as the threat from serious and organised crime, major murders and terrorism becomes greater and the criminals become more sophisticated, level two crime will become a bigger pull away from neighbourhood policing. Unless we have strategic police forces that have the capacity, capability and resilience to deal with that
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level two challenge, the abstractions from neighbourhood policing will inevitably grow and our forces will be unable to protect and ring-fence the dedicated, visible and accessible neighbourhood policing teams.

In our manifesto, we made a commitment that every area, rural or urban, will have such teams by 2008. If we do not address the issue now of coping with threats posed by emergencies and critical incidents, our detective capacity will be drawn away from the neighbourhood in order to deal with the complex and serious crimes. Members should be clear about why we are going down this route. It is to ensure that we can cope with the serious threats from more complex and sophisticated crime and protect the very neighbourhood policing about which all hon. Members have expressed concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North raised some serious issues.

Frank Cook : The Minister has laid out very clearly the difficulties that we face. If they are so difficult, why do we not have more time to consider them?

Hazel Blears : I was just about to turn to the issues of time scale, governance and finance. Those are genuine matters and it is right that Members should be concerned. We have said that we want forces and authorities to come forward with their options by 23 December. The central implementation team tried to give people a steer by saying which options were worth looking at and which were not worth investing time and energy in to work up in such detail. That is a pretty honest way forward, but it does not preclude authorities coming forward with other options. I know that that is a short time scale. My concern is that if we are to embark on major change—every organisation, public or private, will agree—we must get on with it or we end up with blight, low morale and people looking for the jobs that are available in other organisations. Once we have
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decided to embark on major change, we need to proceed as quickly as possible, but commensurate, as my hon. Friend says, with getting the decisions right.

I do not intend us to rush headlong into this process at the expense of making proper, considered decisions about the long-term future of our police service. [Hon. Members: "You are!"] We will continue to consult after 23 December. I have no doubt that communities will continue to be engaged in these extremely important issues. If authorities and forces decide to go down the voluntary route of merger, that could proceed relatively quickly. If they reject the voluntary route and it is necessary to make an order there is a statutory four-month consultation period in relation to that process too. Again, further opportunities for fairly extensive consultation are built into the process.

It was said that that the APA said that nobody was willing to volunteer, but it has genuine concerns about governance, finance and basic command unit accountability. I will try to see whether I can give assurances on all those issues and whether it might be possible to make some voluntary progress. I am concerned to ensure that there is a mechanism at BCU level that gives local people the ability to call the police service to account, gives people the local input that all hon. Members have requested, and ensures that the locality, which is the basic command unit, rather than the strategic force is the engine that drives forward the process that we want to happen.

Many Members have raised the issue that some strategic police forces might cover such a large area that that would be difficult. We are exploring the possibility of having a member of the command team with geographic responsibility for a particular area, which again would give local people a real sense that policing is being delivered for them in their locality and there is no reason why we could not pursue many of those options—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the next debate.
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