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Mr. Clarke: I believe that people want precisely what my hon. Friend says they want: strong, vibrant, resilient neighbourhood policing teams without abstractions; strong basic command unit-based policing working with other authorities in other areas; and a strategic force that provides the necessary support to local policing so that local police are not distracted.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I will give way more, but I wish to make some progress first.

I have made the central argument for change. HMIC's conclusion was that larger forces—those with at least 4,000 officers or 6,000 staff—are more likely to have the critical mass needed to cope with organised crime, terrorism and civil contingencies without abstracting from local policing. Furthermore, there is now no area of the country where we can afford to neglect protective services. Organised criminals operate in remote areas and rural communities as well as in urban centres. Drug traffickers take advantage of remote areas to site manufacturing operations and gangmasters use illegal immigrants in rural industries. Unfortunately, murders and other major incidents, although extremely rare, can and do occur in any part of the country.

I decided to ask the police throughout the country to consider HMIC's conclusion and to make proposals this year. They are now considering that in detail. I argued that there were three key principles of the reform: to deliver improved protective services, to achieve it
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without taking resources from neighbourhood policing, and to modernise and reconfigure policing and the way in which it does business. The aim is to use the substantial investment that we have made in policing, which has increased by more than £3.7 billion since 1997, more effectively to deliver a better service.

We want to achieve that in the most effective ways possible. Merging police forces will deliver economies of scale and put that investment to better use. Now, there is duplication in provision of some services but gaps in   others, and we can reduce the money spent on back-office functions and redirect it to strengthen front-line policing. Let me give an example. The police service now runs 43 separate finance departments, 43 press offices and 43 human resources departments, all of which do things their own way. There is no justification for continuing to spend the money when efficiencies are possible. To give another example, it is a clear duplication of effort for one region to have a total of 500 firearms officers spread between four forces, some located within 10 miles of one another, when combining them would allow skilled officers to be transferred to other areas when they are needed urgently.

Larger strategic forces—I emphasise strategic—will be better able to afford specialist functions such as firearms units, murder investigation teams, sexual offences units and counter-terrorism teams, and they will be able to use them more efficiently. At the time of the inspection to which I have referred, only 13 of the 43 forces had fully resourced specialist murder units. Smaller forces will always find it difficult to provide that level of service since, by definition, they need it far less often. However, that means that when they do need it, the skills and experience are not there or have not been tested. It is in such situations that forces have to take officers from local policing to fill the gap. The creation of strategic forces will help to safeguard local policing against that, because they will have sufficient capacity and resilience to deal with major investigations or public order incidents without abstracting officers from neighbourhood policing teams.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I am second to none in my admiration for my right hon. Friend. The logic of the argument is that we are moving towards a national police force. Is that what he intends?

Mr. Clarke: If I am genuinely second to none in the admiration of my hon. Friend, I am in real trouble. [Interruption.] That is exactly the point coming from those on the Opposition Front Bench.

I have rejected from the outset the suggestion of a national police force. Some serious organisations—the Police Superintendents Association, for example—have proposed that such a force be established. I think that that would be a dangerous development given the spirit of the police in this country, who have always relied on the principle of consent and on the operational independence of chief constables. Were there to be a national force, as there is in some other countries, there would be an entirely unhealthy relationship between Ministers and the operational commander of such a
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force. I have opposed the concept from the outset for that reason, so there is no plan to take that course. I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): In Kent, we have a force that is near the top of the league by most of the Government's measures. It handles a number of strategic assets including the channel tunnel and the port of Dover. Given that Kent meets the Government's criterion on total manning, both uniformed officers and civilians, may we have an assurance that the wishes as expressed by its police authority and its county council to keep Kent as a police force will be upheld?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is right to point both to the effectiveness of the Kent police authority and the constabulary and to the general strategic size and importance of it in dealing with major issues. I say to him, as I say in relation to all particulars, that the Government will consider all proposals when they come before us. We will take all points of view seriously into account, including the one that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I give my right hon. Friend another point of view—from Cheshire? I agree with the strategy that he is setting out, but how can a strategic plan be predicated on a structure that in the north-west, for example, Greater Manchester has unilaterally declared itself to be outside? Is that not an illogical basis on which to develop a strategy?

Mr. Clarke: I say with all courtesy to all forces in the north-west, including Greater Manchester, that no one can declare themselves unilaterally outside the approach that is being taken.

Andrew Miller: It has done it.

Mr. Clarke: It does not have the ability to do that. As I said to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), we will consider all proposals that come from all forces. Some forces say that they can stand alone and that that is it. We shall consider those proposals extremely seriously. There are some forces—Greater Manchester is one—that can make such a case. There are no unilateral decisions in those areas.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Home Secretary says that he will listen to all points of view and that he wants to consider everything that has been put on the table, but he has set the deadline of Friday for police forces to come up with proposals. Furthermore, those forces that bend to his will are to be given a cash handout. If that is not a bribe, what the hell else is? In Hampshire, like the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), we have a splendid police authority that by 2007 will meet all the Home Secretary's strategic objectives. The county has a strong military presence where it needs special policing. If the right hon. Gentleman is really interested in
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listening to what is said throughout the country, he should extend the deadline well into the new year so that all of us in this place can discuss these matters properly.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I   remind the hon. Gentleman of the maxim in "Erskine May" on the use of parliamentary language?

Mr. Howarth: I am extremely grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise.

Mr. Clarke: On the issue of funding, we have established that fund precisely to meet the request from the Association of Police Authorities and others that we provide funding to deal with the issues that arise in that area.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I readily acknowledge the economies of scale if forces merge that ought to release resources for front-line policing, but can the Home Secretary give me, as a Member representing a predominantly rural police force, an assurance that if that force merged with a metropolitan police force, resources would not be sucked from rural areas into big cities?

Mr. Clarke: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. First, the Government's position, which was set out in the manifesto on which we fought the last election, aims to establish neighbourhood policing at the local level. Secondly, it establishes that the basic command unit—for example, the City of York—will take policing decisions in the locality, working with other agencies in the city. Thirdly—this is very important indeed and develops the argument that I   made a second ago—relatively small forces such as North Yorkshire are vulnerable by definition in the case of major incidents such as murder or a significant attack, which take resources away from neighbourhood policing. I can therefore give my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking.

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