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David Davis: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting but false point. Does he disagree with the proposition that we should take a sensible time—six months or so—to cost the proposals, work out their real consequences and consult the people involved to ensure that we get a decent and stable outcome?

Mr. Denham: I will make points about the timing, the consultation and the information that is necessary in just a moment, but the right hon. Gentleman needs to confront one fact. When I intervened on him on police performance, he swept aside the argument that larger police forces are necessary to tackle level 2 crime—serious and organised crime. I was a Police Minister for two years and, in my experience, the overwhelming weight of professional opinion in the police service was that larger police forces were needed to produce the capacity to deal effectively with such crime. When I was a Police Minister—which was only a couple of years ago—ACPO adopted a report produced by its then
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president, Sir David Phillips, who I believe is still head of the National Centre for Policing Excellence, which called for strategic forces of 5,000 officers. That view did not emerge from the report issued earlier this year by HMIC—it has been the professional consensus of policing in this country for some time.

The reasons are clear. If there are to be sufficient officers to deliver an effective neighbourhood policing service without abstractions continually taking officers off the street, we need sufficient officers and support staff to concentrate on drug running, people trafficking, serious organised crime and fraud. We know from the analysis that has been provided that the vast majority of serious criminal gangs go untouched by the attentions of most police forces in this country.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend understand the scepticism of people in Leicestershire about the idea that there is a magic number of 4,000 or 5,000 officers that will guarantee the protective services that he is describing? The reputation of the Leicestershire force, which numbers 2,300 people, for accessibility, openness and responsiveness could be weakened or lost by resources being transferred to counties to the north of Leicestershire such as Nottinghamshire, where crime is   a serious problem. Can he understand their nervousness?

Mr. Denham: I can understand the nervousness and I   think that Members have a responsibility not to feed it. I say two things to my hon. Friend. First, I believe that small forces will find it difficult to contribute to efforts to tackle serious and organised crime. The cost of that failure might not be immediately apparent within the boundaries of that police force area, but a weakness will be created in the capacity of policing across England and Wales to tackle organised crime. Secondly, I can see no reason why larger police forces should lose local responsiveness. I have heard hon. Members from Hampshire—my own county—talk about Hampshire remaining a stand-alone force. Hampshire police force is a large force—much bigger than Leicestershire's—but I do not believe that it can be criticised for being too remote or unresponsive. What is important is the quality of leadership provided by chief constables and chief superintendents within force areas. Yes, there are some important challenges to be managed, but there is no reason to believe that the move toward larger police forces will necessarily diminish local responsiveness, and larger forces will contribute more to efforts to tackle organised crime.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the importance of leadership in police forces. Is he concerned that the abolition of up to 30 chief constable posts might remove an entire tier of leadership from our police forces?

Mr. Denham: I realise that there is nothing worse than someone like me standing up and saying, "When I was a Minister," but it was not that long ago that I was a Police Minister. During that period, I met perhaps 90 per cent. of those who are now assistant chief constables or chief constables and I discussed these issues with almost all of them. I did not encounter a
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single senior police officer in the ranks of those who aspired to become chief officers in the next five to 10 years who had a word to say in defence of the existing structure of policing in England and Wales. Every single senior officer or aspiring senior officer wanted larger police forces.

Tonight's debate should have started from that premise. We should then have considered the process and the way to undertake it. On that, I will make some remarks that will be less comforting to Ministers, because I believe that the Government should now take into account certain questions about the process to make sure that we take the public with us in making the necessary changes.

We need to be careful to avoid too rigid an application of coterminosity with regional boundaries. That has been an issue in Hampshire. There is a case for structuring forces to reflect the movement of crime. I do not wish to tread in areas that English MPs should treat with sensitivity, but I observe that, in terms of crime patterns, north Wales is linked far more with Cheshire and Merseyside than with the rest of Wales. Similarly, if there are to be mergers in my part of the world, there is a case for looking westward to include Dorset.

The agenda of local government is changing. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, the initial concept—that regionalisation would be followed by elected regional assemblies—was hit a heavy blow by the north-east referendum. The debate on local government is becoming more diverse, with talk about city regions becoming the basic building blocks of local government. I do not think that a fixed approach should be taken to National Assembly or regional boundaries if the patterns of crime and of the criminal justice system point in a different direction. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated—in Hampshire's case at least—some willingness to consider those boundaries and I think that he should continue that approach.

Paul Flynn: Has my right hon. Friend noted that the greatest decrease in the problems of drugs in Europe in the past five years has been achieved in Portugal? The Portuguese changed their laws and reduced the number of drugs deaths by 50 per cent. Does he think that, if we want to tackle that serious problem, we should do what Portugal has done and what his own Home Affairs Committee advocated a few years ago, which is change the laws rather than the organisation?

Mr. Denham: The Committee has certainly not advocated that since I have been a member of it. I have no expertise in the area, but I will hazard a guess that, even if Portugal has made progress on drug crime by one means or another, the criminals concerned are still involved in organised crime. We need a policing pattern that deals with the way in which crime is organised.

The second issue that Ministers should address as quickly as possible is council tax and local government funding. That issue is not fatal to our position now, but in the new year, the prospects for making progress will be far better if it is possible for each of us to explain to our constituents how reorganisation will affect local funding. If it appears on paper as though our
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constituents will be picking up the bill for other forces, it will be important to be able to say that, in fact, that will not be case.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): It seems from doing a few back-of-the-envelope calculations on the Government's preferred option of a merger between the Hampshire and Thames Valley police forces that we will be looking at a 23 per cent. increase in the police precept across the Hampshire constabulary for no discernible benefit. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that will be hard to explain to our constituents, given that the force is already the third most effective?

Mr. Denham: We need to move beyond back-of-the-envelope calculations, which are rarely right or helpful. It is important for the Government to produce the necessary figures as quickly as possible.

We need to see at each stage the national picture and for everyone to understand it. There has at times been a sense of 43 people trying to complete a jigsaw, with only the Home Office hanging on to the lid of the box so as to see the overall picture. The merger between Hampshire and Thames Valley that is under discussion would not   sit easily with, for example, Kent remaining a stand-alone force. It would not be clear what different rules were being applied in each case. I urge the Minister to ensure that, as we move into the new year and consider the pattern of reorganisation, it will be clear what decisions have been made and what guidance has been given in each case, and that it will be possible to demonstrate a consistency of decision from one place to another.

I did not come into the Chamber to say that everything in the garden is wonderful. There are some issues that arise from the handling of the proposals that we can learn from and tackle in the months to come. I   have been surprised by the extent to which the Opposition have challenged the rationale for attempting the exercise. That challenge is misplaced. I believe that a reorganisation is necessary to protect our citizens from the crimes that they face. That is the basis on which we should start tonight's discussion.

6.11 pm

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