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The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): The consultation phase is currently under way and no decisions have yet been made. Police forces and authorities in the south-west as well as other regions will be expected to present their preferred options by 23 December. Thereafter, careful assessment will be carried out on the viability of those options for proceeding to implementation. Throughout the whole process, forces and authorities should be engaging fully with their local communities and stakeholders, and feeding in their views.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I suspect that the whole House believes that decisions have already been taken on this issue. I am glad that she is going to listen to the consultation, because in Gloucestershire the chief constable, the police authority, the county council, each of the six local authorities and thousands of people across the area totally oppose the proposed mergers. Gloucestershire has a very good record in tackling level 2 crime, and we should remember the infamous West case and the biggest legal aid fraud case in the country. Why does the Minister feel that all those people are wrong and that she is right?
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Hazel Blears: I can certainly confirm that decisions have not been taken, which is why we have said to police forces and authorities that we want them to do the work locally and to produce the options and business cases that will enable us to provide improved policing for local communities. The hon. Gentleman and his party have to face up to the reality. According to the best possible advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the current 43-force structure is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century, and we have to do something to ensure that we can meet the challenges that exist. We have not closed off any options, but there will have to be some change.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Somerset and Avon police have worked very closely with South Wales police on Operation Tarion, which is trying to tackle the terrible trade in drugs in the south Wales valleys. As one who supports the combining of Welsh police forces into a single Wales police force, may I ask the Minister whether she will ensure that, none the less, the relationships that have been built up with forces across the border, especially on drugs policy, will continue?
Hazel Blears: I am delighted that my hon. Friend is engaging in this debate in a mature and constructive fashion. This is a serious point, because all of us will be subject to very local views. People will naturally want to cleave to their current organisation, but my hon. Friend is prepared to look at change in order to improve policing. I am delighted to give him the reassurance that he seeks. The existing relationships between forces that have been working across borders to tackle serious and organised crime will not only continue but will need to be strengthened. HMIC's advice is that such crime is likely to get worse, not better, and that the pressures on level 2 services will increase as criminals become more sophisticated. So those excellent relationships in tackling drug crime across the south-west will need to be strengthened.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I hope that the Minister is aware of Bournemouth's strong relationship with Hampshire; indeed, it used to be part of Hampshire. Why, therefore, are Dorset and Hampshire being prevented from considering a merger in the context of police restructuring?
In originally setting out the criteria that we wanted police forces and authorities to consider, we said that we wanted options that did not involve crossing Government Office boundaries or dividing existing forces, and we did so for a very good reason. Improving policing services does not depend simply on the police working on their own; it also depends on the rest of the criminal justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service, the various community safety funding streams and local government. We said that we would not rule out such options completely, but that there would have to be a remarkably compelling case for going across Government Office boundaries or for splitting police forces. Some may well come forward with such options, but at the moment we see no sign of the compelling case that would need to be made in order to outweigh the practical considerations contained in the criteria.
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Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I very much welcome the announced merging of police forces across the south-west, and I hope that that will help to deal with the very serious problems of crack cocaine dealing and Bristol's acting as a drug supermarket for the south-west. However, there is also the increasing problem of the misuse of khat among the Somali community in the south-west. When will the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' report on the criminalising of khat be produced?
Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the constructive way in which she is approaching the question of merging forces. She is right: we need to combine our capacity, so that we have the resilience to cope with very serious issues such as drugs, money laundering, serious and organised crime, terrorism and civil emergencies. I can also give her the assurance that the issue she has raised about khat is under active consideration. I understand that the report is with the advisory council at the moment and we will consider the issue as soon as we can. It is important to bear down on all kinds of drug activity that can lead to increased criminality in our communities.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Is the Minister aware that Gloucester, Cleveland and Northamptonshire police forces have estimated that this restructuring will cost them each £50 million? Is the Minister in a position to say what the overall national costs will be? They could run to billions of pounds. Will it be left to council tax payers to fund it or will the local government finance statement later today reveal that the Government will pick up the bill? Surely the Government should listen to the public, abandon the restructuring, and provide more front-line police, not an unnecessary merger programme.
Hazel Blears: Issues of finance and governance will be of prime importance, especially to our police authorities. Indeed, when I went to the Association of Police Authorities conference last week in Belfast, those issues were rightly raised. We envisage that savings will be made by bringing forces together, but there are issues about up-front costs. We have set up a tripartite finance working group, with representatives of the association, the forces and the Home Office. We can look at a range of measures to obtain finance. It may be that forces that will come together already have improvement programmes costed into their forward business plans. When we consider the business plans on 23 December, we will take a keen look at the financial provisions. It may well be possible to do some prudential borrowing around those issues and it may be possible to capitalise some of the costs. I genuinely believe that bringing forces together will give us some long-term economies of scale, but this is not a cost-cutting exercise
Order. I may need to brush up my English geography, but as far as I am aware, Yorkshire is not in the south-west. The hon. Gentleman may ask his question if he can keep it to the south-west.
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Mr. Clapham: The reorganisation of the police forces in the south-west of England is obviously an important measure, as it is elsewhere in the UK. In addition to considering the reorganisation, will my right hon. Friend look closely at the way in which action is co-ordinated between and within police forces including, for example, the chief constable's policing plan, the police committee and the safer and stronger communities priority? It is important that we all share the same agenda, because the public can be confused by the disintegration between the various committees that put the police argument forward. Will she ensure that that co-ordination takes place?
Hazel Blears: Yes, I shall try to ensure that there is co-ordination in the south-west, the south-east, Yorkshire and the north-east. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bringing forces together at a strategic level should help us to strengthen the neighbourhood policing that everybody wants to see in their communities. The pressures to take our neighbourhood police officers away to deal with serious and organised crime will grow, and if we can bring forces together, we can ensure that we will be able to sustain our commitment to every area having a visible and accessible police team. I know that my hon. Friend plays a pivotal role in his local crime and disorder reduction partnership and how much he will want to protect neighbourhood policing.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister has had the advantage of listening to the chairmen and chairwomen of the police authorities of England and Wales at the Belfast conference last week. Can she identify a single one of them who supported the Government's restructuring policy?
Hazel Blears: Yes, as well as attending the general conference session, I had a series of positive, constructive and detailed discussions with chairs and chief executives of police authorities. The hon. and learned Gentleman would feel that I was being somewhat premature if I were to detail the nature of those discussions at this point, but many of the police authoritiesunlike Opposition Membersrecognise the need to change if we are to be able to deal with the serious issues of counter-terrorism, serious and organised crime and civil emergencies. I point out to Opposition Members that if they think they live in a world where we can continue with the current configuration of police forces and not provide better services to the people of this country, they are living in a fantasy world. I suggest to all of them that they talk to their police authorities and look at the real and serious issues that many of them face.
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