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Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that any trend that favours regionalisation and organisation by regions will lead to an increasing breach in the trust between people who perform a service for the public and the public themselves? If the police are to be merged into larger units, there will be a failure of trust, as, indeed, will be the case if proposals for the ambulance and fire services, and for shire county local authorities, are carried out.
Mr. Oaten: There are many examples in which the forces that would be created are so large that a breakdown of trust would ensue. Worse still, there would be unhealthy competition between areas defined by the old boundaries, which would start to lobby against one another inside the new organisation. There would be accusations that one area was losing out and that large cities were gaining more than rural areas in large forces. Great tensions will build up when there is no need to create them in the first place.
It is important to acknowledge the role of the public, who are rightly concerned about the terrorist threat to this country, child pornography and so on. They want the Government to set up a structure that does everything possible to tackle those issues. The reality is that, however awful the events in London in the
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summer, people are concerned about crime that affects their daily lives, such as having their car window smashed, having their house burgled or having something sprayed on the side of their house, all of which they regard as an important policing priority. My nervousness about larger strategic forces, which will rightly be given the priority of dealing with the terrorist threat and larger crimes, stems from the fact that they will forget individuals' local concerns, which will be pushed further down what will be a very large inbox for the chief constable. The chief constables of the new forces will be required to report to the Home Office to say that they have dealt with the larger issues, but the local policing issues will be left behind.
Finally, on the question of structure, I have a growing concern, not only in relation to the police but in relation to the fire services and the Government's proposals on the probation service, that we will remove important local links, because it is thought that they do not matter. It is not as if it is efficient to move fire control centres to a larger area or local boards in the probation service are not needed. Such change is regrettable, and the move to larger areas takes away the local agenda.
What is the alternative and how do we deal with the problem? I acknowledge the difficulty in relation to some of the smaller forces and I accepted at the outset the need to recognise changing policing patterns and the way in which we deal with them. The Government have gone some way towards dealing with the issue. Only 18 months ago, they established SOCAthe Serious Organised Crime Agencybecause they rightly accepted that solving some serious crimes required expertise and a national approach. We should expand SOCA so that forces that experience difficulties and cannot cope with, for example, a serious threat of a terrorist attack or a complex crime, can call in resources from SOCA, which has the expertise to deal with such problems. That is a much better model than merging forces and requiring them to achieve SOCA's skill level. The solution is staring the Government in the face. They created SOCA, which we should expand and use further. We need to make a number of other changes.
Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent point. Having established SOCA, we should use and expand its expertise, so that forces can call on it at any given time. That is a perfectly sensible solution, as I am not convinced that mergers will solve the difficulty.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
Under the Government proposals, the south-west would stretch from the Isles of Scilly to north Gloucestershire. For an individual in my constituency, there is precious little difference between such an authority, which covers an area the size of Belgium, and
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a national police force. I am therefore not sure that the regional forces represent any sort of localism at any level.
Mr. Oaten: In some of the examples that have been given there is little connection between the communities involved. In such circumstances, one might as well have a national police force. The model that we are suggesting, however, keeps everything that is special and important about the local structure, but does not dodge the difficult question that the Government rightly ask about the way in which we deal with more complex crimes.
There are two more things that we need to do. We must recognise that our borders are difficult and complex. Leaving border control to a combination of the local force and Customs and Excise is probably not the most effective way to secure our borders and I argue strongly that we should consider setting up a national border force. At the same time, we should do everything that we can to strengthen local accountability.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am interested in that point. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that some aspects of policing, including, according to him, the policing of our borders, should be handled by a national force?
Mr. Oaten: The hon. Lady is correct and I shall clarify the model that we are suggesting. First, we should have a national border force for our borders, which, we accept, are complex and difficult to police. It is critical to do so at a time when guns, knives and the drugs problem are threatening the country. Such a force would manage sea borders and our ports. Secondly, we would expand SOCA to deal with the complex crimes that I set out. Finally, we should keep our forces as they are, with strengthened basic command units, so that they can deal with day-to-day local policing. That is a sensible policing model for this country.
Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. His accusation could have been levelled at the Government when they set up SOCA, but they have changed their position. We supported SOCA because it was a sensible acknowledgement of the complex nature of crime. I do not understand why the Government cannot develop that proposal and expand the agency to take care of our policing problems.
Mr. Denham: Will the hon. Gentleman expand his argument? SOCA does not have huge numbers of people working for it. It is dependent on the existing capacity at force level. Is he suggesting that there would be a massive transfer of perhaps tens of thousands of officers from police forces to SOCA? If not, his solution does not solve the problem of needing people in each police force who are capable of delivering the response to organised crime.
I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who is the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. What I have been saying is that
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SOCA needs an expanded and enhanced role, but the point that he makes is interesting because a great deal of movement is already taking place, as the individuals seconded to SOCA from Hampshire or other forces move backwards and forwards. There clearly is spare cash, so rather than spending the money on reorganisation and restructuring, expanding SOCA would be the sensible model with which to make progress.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am interested in the notion of a border police force. Durham has a very long and now beautiful coastline, thanks to having had its beaches cleaned up by a Labour local government. Can the hon. Gentleman exemplify how such a force would work in practice? For example, when working with Durham police, would it control the beaches of Durham or Northumberland? How much would it cost?
Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous. We know where the critical points are in this country, where we need a border force: ports, airports and other points of entry. Those are the key points where we need to expand and have better co-ordination.
Having established such a structure, the Government should focus on other things, rather than a wasted merger exercise. For example, is it not time that we saw better co-ordination between the various police forces in this country? That can be achieved without a merger. There is no evidence to suggest that creating 11 large forces will improve co-ordination. Sadly, in the Soham case, there was a failure of communication between the Cambridge and Humberside forces. That failure of communication could still happen even with larger forces.
Step one would be to ensure that the existing forces have proper IT and management, so that they can talk to one another. Step two would be a big investment in the technology that the police must work with. Step three would be to start to cut some of the targets that the Government have set. Step four would be to cut some of the time police waste on paperwork. Labour Members may tut, but that is what police officers talk about. None of them talks about merging police forces: they talk about changing their day-to-day working routine so that they can be out on the streets for longer.
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