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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the Home Secretary aware that Thames Valley police authority told me today that it has no figures for the costs or benefits of a merger with Hampshire and the other option? The authority has no idea of the staff changes entailed—whether there will be staff losses or a requirement for more staff. Does not that show that the process is being rushed ridiculously? There can be no proper figures for consideration before 23 December, and asking the police to do that so rapidly takes them away from the local neighbourhood policing that we want.

Mr. Clarke: It does not mean that in any respect whatever. I shall come to the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised about financing and time scale in a moment, and will take further interventions at that point.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way in a second, but I want to make some more progress.
 
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Starting in June 2004, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary conducted an extensive examination of how effectively protective services are currently provided, and I pay tribute to Denis O'Connor and thank him for the work he did for the inspectorate. The inspectorate published its analysis, "Closing the Gap", in September. The inspectors' stark conclusion, based on their independent, police-led analysis of the circumstances in every force, was that the current structure of policing is

In their view, there was insufficient focus on the challenges posed by modern serious and organised crime, and they came to the conclusion that strategic forces offer "the best business solution" for the future.

Faced with that clear, well-argued and independent police advice, I judged it essential to act rather than to ignore those proposals.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I said that I would give way in a moment.

Without action to address the problem, the situation is likely to worsen, rather than improve. The problems identified by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary are those that we face now, not problems that might never materialise. That finding is endorsed by police leadership at the most senior levels.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Home Secretary will be aware that Thames Valley police force is an example of the successful amalgamation of three county-based police forces. Given the success of Thames Valley police as an effective operational unit, is he aware that not one single person in the Thames valley wants to go back to parochial county-based policing?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right. He makes the powerful point that the police have always been up for addressing the process of change—quite rightly so. Our current policing structure has reflected the past assessment of such matters. The process through which we are now going is intended to address that in the same way.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Home Secretary said at the beginning of his speech that the process would be undertaken only with the consent of police forces. Paul West of West Mercia police authority categorically told the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), that he was against the measures, so will the Secretary of State take that view on board?

Mr. Clarke: I will take every view on board. For precisely the reasons that I shall explain in a moment, I   want to hear the views of police authorities and chief constables so that I can assess the best course of action to follow.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Home Secretary will know about the difficulties that Nottinghamshire police face: serious crime and high rates of homicide. Is that not a typical
 
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example of why we need to increase resilience to tackle the way in which the face of crime has changed over the past 30 years? Change is necessary now.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. The case of the Nottinghamshire force gives us an excellent illustration of the situation. As a Member of Parliament who lobbied my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and me on the matter, he will know about the need to get additional resilience into the Nottinghamshire force to address the problems that it faces. I am influenced by the terrible case of the murder of Thomas Marshall in Norfolk some 10 years ago. The way in which much of the Norfolk constabulary had to devote tremendous resources over a considerable time to the appalling murder meant that it thought that its ability to deal with other threats that   could have arisen might have been threatened. That is the precisely the sort of problem that must be addressed.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Why have the   Government not given more consideration to the federation of forces option? May I draw the Home Secretary's attention to paragraph 1.11 of "Closing the Gap", which made it clear that

He has not made the case for strategic forces.

Mr. Clarke: This is an interesting discussion. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that some people think that a form of federation would be a more effective way of dealing with aspects of the situation than strategic forces. I take the view—I think that I am right in saying that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary takes the same view—that that is not the right approach, because if one considers the resources that are required to deal with threats of serious and organised crime, intelligence matters, drug dealing and people trafficking, one sees that a strategic capacity is needed, not simply a mutual aid-based capacity. That is the right solution.

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): I understand that my   right hon. Friend must consider the difficult and   complex issues of terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking. However, in my constituency and the   Wakefield district we have excellent leadership at   the district level—the basic command unit—and there is a shift towards community and neighbourhood policing due to the increase in the number of officers. Will he reassure me and my constituents that in any reform that he proposes, the BCU at the district level will remain as the main building block for neighbourhood and local policing?

Mr. Clarke: I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. West Yorkshire has been a leading force in developing the strength, resilience and leadership of BCU commanders not only in Wakefield but in other local authority areas in West Yorkshire, so my hon. Friend is right to focus on that matter. As I shall say in a second, that is why the BCU and the neighbourhood policing structure is central to the whole approach that we want to follow.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Home Secretary mentioned a murder that
 
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took place 10 years ago in Norfolk and its impact on the Norfolk force. Much more recently my constituency suffered the tragedy of the Soham murders, when the   Cambridgeshire force—one of the smallest in the country—brought in the services of officers from 21 other forces to help because it lacked the necessary capacity. That is an example of what could be achieved under the present arrangements. Surely it would be better to make the present system work effectively than to engage in the wholesale disruption that he proposes?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that mutual aid is an essential part of the way in which our policing works. It has been seen not only after appalling tragedies such as the Soham murders, but after the 7/7 attacks in London, when the largest force in the   country—the Metropolitan police—relied on mutual aid for several aspects of its response. That is important and it will remain a feature of policing, but I maintain my strongly held view that a strategic approach is the right one.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for taking another intervention. Does he accept that, in addition to the police and the   police authorities, the general public deserve to be consulted? My experience in Nottinghamshire tells me that, as well as good neighbourhood policing, the general public want the most efficient possible wide-scale policing against major crime, not a reactionary attachment to county boundaries, which criminals have long since ceased to respect, if they ever did.


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