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Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Home Secretary deal with the questions that we cannot get an answer to in this time scale? What will happen in an area such as Northumberland—where the present police force size is adequate for the strategic purpose—to the precept that council tax payers will pay, which is generally lower than in other authorities, and to the representation of Northumberland on the police authority for the strategic police area, which might mean that only one person and possibly nobody at all is on the body that determines spending?

Mr. Clarke: Both issues will be addressed in the context of the proposals that will come to me by the end of this year; both issues will be part of the continued discussion with forces, authorities and chief constables in that period; and, on both issues, I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that his concerns will be given full weight as we get to the position that we need to get to.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend is concentrating on local policing, on which many Members of Parliament are working in their local areas. In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), he indicated that he was not moving towards a national police force, but that is exactly what he is doing in Wales. He talked about moving resources, so is it possible for those regional authorities now to make bids whereby they could make up the level 2 gap by increasing the budget rather than by spending all this money on restructuring?

Mr. Clarke: With respect to my hon. Friend, I do not believe at the end of the day that the issues that are addressed in the HMIC report on the level 2 capacity can be dealt with purely through resourcing. There are important structural issues in many parts of the country, and they relate to different areas of priority and different areas of spending. However, I can give him the assurance, if that is what he is looking for, that if the Welsh forces were, for example, to come forward with a proposal, we would look at the pot that we have made available for giving money to help to address those particular issues.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Home Secretary please explain to the House why he is proceeding at such speed? This is the biggest shake-up in the police force for half a century and he ought to want to take the people of the counties of England and Wales with him. If he devoted six months, which is not a long time, to this process, he could
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probably have what he wants. However, he is driving fast and furiously without any regard to local concerns and local people. May we not have an extension of this ridiculously tight timetable?

Mr. Clarke: Perhaps I should remind this very senior Member of the House that, under the law as it stands, if I were to propose a particular change covering, for example, Staffordshire that was not agreed and did not come forward on a voluntary basis, there would then be a legal requirement to go through a four-month consultation period during which anybody—be they individuals, local authorities or whoever—could make the observations that they wanted to make. Therefore, I do not think the charge that he makes that we are not allowing time for consultation in the event of changes is fairly and well made.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The Association of Police Authorities has estimated that because of the start-up cost plus equalisation the increase in council tax could be 30 per cent. in some areas, so we can probably rename the council tax as the police tax. Will the Home Secretary tell us who will pay those costs? Will it be police tax payers?

Mr. Clarke: As my hon. Friend knows from our previous conversations about the matter, the figures that he is plucking out of the air have no substance. The basis on which such discussions should take place are the figures in the proposals that police forces put forward for us to think about, which will be placed in the public arena. That will allow us to have the discussion that my hon. Friend perfectly reasonably wants, but let us conduct it on the basis of actual figures rather than on a totally speculative basis.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Many hon. Members on both sides of the House understand the Home Secretary's argument about the requirement for strategic resources, but will he rethink the time scale? Norfolk police authority covers both of our constituencies, and it is unanimously in favour of one option on the grounds that it had better act quickly to avoid being dragged in. It had hoped to merge with Suffolk police authority and Cambridgeshire police authority, but unfortunately they are entirely opposed to the idea. The Home Secretary also knows that the regional assembly has unanimously voted against his proposals. Given the variety of options, will we see a uniform pattern at the end of the day or are we into chaos theory?

Mr. Clarke: We are not into chaos theory in any respect, but I am not sure whether the uniformity that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned is the right approach. Some people have argued that the approach should be the same in each of the Government offices for the regions, but we have not said that, which is why we are asking police authorities and police forces to examine the matter in relation to their own areas.

As I have said, I expect the cases, which I must consider by the end of December, to be robust and to show how mergers can lead to significant economies that can be reinvested in neighbourhood policing and protective services. As I said earlier in response to an
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intervention, I had that in mind when I responded to the Association of Police Authorities and decided to set aside £50 million of police capital funding for 2006–07 and up to a maximum of £75 million of police capital funding for 2007–08 to support authorities and forces committing to early—voluntary—mergers. The business cases that forces and authorities are now completing include information on financing and costs. The Home Office has provided considerable advice and guidance, including involving the independent Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, to ensure that this financial information is provided on a consistent and equal basis.

Throughout January, my officials, supported by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and operational policing experts, will continue to work with forces and authorities to ensure that the business cases for reforms have been made and are designed to be cost-effective. This work will take place in January, and I expect to be in a position to make decisions as soon as possible. Again, I acknowledge that the time scales are challenging, but it is crucial that we press ahead to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty, which could lead to loss of morale and distraction from the core task of protecting the public.

There are other issues that we will need to resolve to make sure that mergers can progress smoothly. My officials are working with the Treasury, the Association of Police Authorities, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Welsh Assembly Government to reach agreement on future precepting arrangements. I cannot say today what the detailed outcome of that work will be, but the level of precept gathered in England and Wales as a whole will not rise. We will obviously consider ways in which the transition can be smoothed.

In conclusion, there is an overwhelming case for reform, based not only on the professional judgment of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the evidence presented in "Closing the Gap", but on the professional judgment of ACPO, which has consistently drawn attention over the past year to vulnerabilities that it perceives in the service that the police can provide at level 2. In the light of that, no responsible Government could refuse to act.

Strategic forces provide the best solution to the problem of delivering strong protective services to all communities as efficiently as possible. The real measure of success will be not the number of forces that we end up with next year, but how well equipped we are in 10, 15 and 30 years' time to meet the two key demands of protecting the public and providing a police service that remains truly responsive to members of the public.

5.9 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The matter that we are debating—the prospective reduction of 43 police forces to 12—is enormously important. The constitutional independence of the police, their local accountability, their operational effectiveness, their cost-effectiveness, the stability of their finances, and their very identity with their local communities are all at risk. That is why the Association of Police Authorities rightly called for a full parliamentary debate on this important issue. In his recent letter to its chairman, the Home Secretary said that
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So what do we have today? A debate timed to fall after the formal meetings of most or all of the relevant police authorities, despite the Home Secretary's demand that the authorities meet his deadline at the end of this week, on Friday; and a debate held just before the Christmas recess, after a major prime ministerial statement and without a substantive vote. One might almost conclude that the Home Secretary does not want it to get much press coverage. This is hardly the full debate that the subject deserves. The Home Secretary should know that Conservative Members expect a much more extensive debate on the future of policing in the new year.

We are not opposed to changing policing in Britain. We have long argued for reform and for a greater focus on neighbourhood policing. We are keen to work with the Government to find the best way to achieve that. We recognise that Britain faces growing threats from terrorism and organised crime that often require greater co-operation across forces. However, the Home Secretary would do well to heed the words of one chief constable who rightly said:

It therefore requires a local response. That is why we are very concerned about plans to force mergers between forces that will inevitably make policing more remote from the people.

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