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Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): It is right and proper that we are discussing changes to the police. We should be emphasising—it is something that has not come across sufficiently—that we probably have one of the best police forces in the world. We are trying to tackle the changes that are taking place in policing, which should not be perceived as a criticism of the work that is done by many policemen and policewomen throughout the country. We have incredible police officers and we should celebrate their work, but that work has changed enormously in the past 10 years.

Six months ago, during the general election campaign, I was hauled in, as many of us were, to talk to the National Farmers Union. One issue that the NFU raised with me was the fact that we do not see police in rural communities. I was somewhat defensive and argued strongly that they, NFU representatives, had to have a change of expectation of what they could get from the police service. They
 
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wanted to go back to the "Dixon of Dock Green" era, but the world of policing has moved on enormously since those days. We now have complex crimes such as terrorism, internet pornography and those involving fraud and corruption. Some of those crimes did not exist 10 years ago.

We must acknowledge that, while policing patterns have changed enormously and there are new crimes, we still expect our police to do what they were doing 10 years ago. As well as new and complex international crimes, there has been a great increase in some of the crimes that were taking place 10 years ago. There is antisocial behaviour and drug-related crime. There has been a massive increase in the work that the police do in dealing with drugs.

There is a twin problem: new complex crimes are taking place and established crimes appear to be on the increase. That must be coupled with the massive public expectation of what we want from our police. There is a real need for change, which is why people such as Sir Ian Blair have been right to say that we need a major debate about policing.

The Government had an enormous opportunity. There was good will among many on both sides of the House in recognising that there should be such a debate. The Government have damaged that good will by rushing forward with a set of proposals and in coming to a conclusion before the debate has even taken place, the conclusion being that the only solution is that mergers should take place.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my great lack of confidence, despite the protests of the Home Secretary this afternoon, that every option advanced by local police forces will be considered? For example, federations and the crossing of regional boundaries could be good solutions that might fit the criteria apart but for the fact that the regional boundaries stand in the way.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In this rushed process we should not be so blinkered as to assume that merger is the best way forward. We should consider some of the options that I wish to set out. It may be that mergers are one alternative. The process should be based on what matters to a local area, with local people being listened to, rather than on a map in the Home Office with the approach of putting things into a grid that suits government rather than individuals and local patterns of crime.

I have three concerns about what the Government are suggesting. The first is the process. The second is that enormous costs are involved. The third, and probably most important, is the question whether this is the right way forward for policing models.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Is there not a fourth problem, namely that of democratic accountability, especially given the legal limitations on the numbers of representatives allowed on police authorities? Does not the creation of large regional forces mean that many local communities with special policing needs, such as the one that I represent, will be entirely unrepresented in the new police authorities?

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One difficulty with the Government's proposal, and
 
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with the Opposition's proposal for directly elected police commissioners, is that we have not tackled the issue of real local accountability. I shall have more to say about that.

Consultation has been badly handled. There is a need for a wide-ranging debate. Given the way in which the Government have proceeded at such a fast rate, they have lost much good will among those who wanted a sensible debate on the issue. They have also angered the associations that work in policing. The Association of Police Authorities is right to feel aggrieved that the process has been boiled down to about three months. It rightly points out that, when the previous restructuring took place in 1959, the bedding-down period was much longer. It was reasonably successful. A rushed merger and a rushed process will create bad will and probably result in a structure that will not work.

The chairman of the Hampshire police federation has described the process as having been rushed through the Home Office at an "almost obscene pace". I believe that he is right. The chairman of Cheshire police authority said to the Home Secretary:

Those comments were echoed by the shadow Home Secretary and many others who are involved in police matters.

The next area of concern is the costs involved. Different figures are being put around. My office has spoken to a number of police authorities. First, there is Lincolnshire. The proposed merger for the East Midlands force would amalgamate Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It is estimated that that would cost £100 million. The director of finance says that, even if the change were made, which could result in some efficiency changes over a long period, there could be a net recurring debt cost of £30 million a year.

David Taylor: I have seen the same figures of a one-off cost of £101 million and a cost of £30 million into the middle distance. A good share of the extra £30 million over forthcoming years relates to underinvestment under previous Governments, as well as the present Government, in relation to the protective service that the police have to offer. Surely the hon. Gentleman should balance his remarks in that regard.

Mr. Oaten: To be honest, it will be of little comfort to local taxpayers to start blaming Governments of the present or past. We are where we are. A proposal has been made that, rather than helping to clear the deficit and the cost problem, will add to it.

There is a proposal to merge Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire into one force. The director of finance said that that would be at a cost of £66 million. Similarly, when we talked to the forces for Kent, Surrey and Sussex, we were told that the merger would cost £91 million. Those are large sums for police forces and the money will have to be found from somewhere. Given the global figure, we can assume a total sum of £500 million to £600 million. The money will have to be found from council tax payers or from front-line police. If the figure is £500 million, it
 
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equates to about 5,000 police officers. I know where my priorities lie—I would wish to have 5,000 police officers, rather than spend that money on restructuring.

May I deal with the criticism that the Government are approaching the problem from the wrong direction and   have produced the wrong solution? I believe passionately that policing should be local. Many contributors have said that people want a local model for policing and, in fairness to the Government, they and the Home Secretary have stressed that point themselves, but I fear that a shift towards super-forces will send all the wrong signals if we wish to establish local accountability. Chief constables should be able to name every village and every part of the community. They should not be in a position where they do not have any idea at all where they are. However much we strengthen basic command units and however much we   invest in local policing, unless the people at the heart of the organisation—the individuals who drive and deliver the service and are in charge of it from day to day—know and understand the needs of their communities, we will not achieve proper local policing in this country.

Mr. Denham: Would the hon. Gentleman apply that logic to the Metropolitan police service, which is far larger than any of the police forces that are going to be introduced?

Mr. Oaten: Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner, does not have any problem travelling around that geographical area. Some of the forces that are to be created would need to hire police helicopters just to transport the chief constable from one area to another. The two concepts are very different and we have always accepted that policing in London requires a separate model. The link with the local community is essential, because it gives the chief constable a connection with the community and ultimate accountability for the area.


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