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Ian Lucas: I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's important speech. Can he explain why none of the Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament for Wales has seen fit to attend the debate today?

Mr. Oaten: I guarantee that, if the Government are prepared to hold a debate on a serious day when we can vote on the issue, all 62 of our MPs will be here, but the Government have chosen not to allow such a vote, which is a disgrace. Without a shadow of a doubt, we are up for being here in large numbers if the Government allow a vote on the issue.
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Other hon. Members want to speak, so I conclude by saying that the Government have wasted an opportunity. We need to invest in our police, to ensure that they are local and accountable and to use the existing structures that the Government have set up to deal with serious and organised crime in this country. What we do not need is a merger exercise that will cost the equivalent of 5,000 police on the beat or a rushed debate on the issue. I hope that the Home Secretary will listen to the shadow Home Secretary and consider giving us six months. Perhaps the Minister will be prepared to acknowledge that an early debate will take place in January, when the Home Secretary has had time to consider some of the proposals that have been made. Perhaps the Minister will even be prepared to let the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and his colleagues do some serious work on the issue, because I   believe that, when the proposals are examined in detail, it will be shown that they will do nothing to improve policing in this country.

6.34 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I am pleased to address an important issue for Members of Parliament from Wales. It should be important to hon. Members from all parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats, who now call themselves the official Opposition in Wales, although not one of their four MPs from Wales could turn up.

Martin Horwood: Does the hon. Gentleman think it disgraceful that none of the Labour Members from Gloucestershire is present for the debate? Is there not much division that can be talked about?

Albert Owen: I was about to argue that the Liberal Democrats are part of the official Opposition, and I am sure that many English MPs from all parties are present, but the point has been made.

Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Albert Owen: I want to make a little progress if I can, because I want to add the very important Welsh dimension to the debate.

The Home Secretary said in his opening remarks that he was not moving towards a national police force, but in Welsh terms that is exactly what he is doing. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee made a very important point about the crime trend in Wales, which is east-west. Indeed, the geography and the transport systems in many ways lead east to west, which is the way in which crime takes place. I shall return to that point a little later.

An all-Wales force will be a Cardiff-centric force. In many ways, resources will be taken to Cardiff from the areas on the periphery that I represent and, indeed, from the whole north Wales region. We have experienced that with devolution. I am very much a pro-devolutionist, but most of the powers have been transferred from London to Cardiff. When we have strategic forces, the   resources will cover the Cardiff area. In fairness to
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the Welsh Assembly Government, they are talking about moving regional offices, but there is no talk about the fire and other emergency services following that pattern.

I feel strongly about a couple of other issues, including the cost implications for Wales. North Wales police force has invested using its council tax precept and increased its numbers over and above the Home Office allocation. We north Wales MPs have supported that in many ways, and we have seen the results. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, who is sitting on the Front Bench, is aware of the work that North Wales police have done, which was reflected in the HMIC baseline report that came out in October this year. There have been excellent results, with excellent resources. What worries the police authority in north Wales and, indeed, many councillors, MPs and Assembly Members is that all that may be lost. If we have an equalisation in council tax, those in the south will cry out that their precept will increase. On the other side of the coin, many of the resources that have been invested by north Wales council tax payers will go down south. That is a big issue for people in north Wales.

Another issue is jobs. The Home Secretary said that there will be economic savings, but I guarantee hon.   Members that, in the Welsh dimension, jobs will be lost from the north to the south. There is no need for that to happen. I have heard no one at HMIC come up with a solution that would allow strategic forces to be effective in places such as north Wales and others on the periphery that do not have the necessary critical mass. I   am a bit concerned about those issues.

We have an added problem in Wales in that the Welsh Assembly Government contribute an awful lot of their money to community policing issues in work that is coterminous with that of local authorities. The Minister is aware that I have been concerned about that in the past. I should like her to make it clear to the House today that the Home Office does not envisage the proposals as the thin end of the wedge in devolving police issues to Wales. It is very important to retain   cross-border links with English authorities—particularly, in respect of the North Wales force, with Cheshire, but not just that authority. My colleagues from the south have the same concerns about the links with Bristol and Somerset. Those are big issues for us.

Historically, crime has moved east-west. North Wales police have taken down motor vehicle registrations because of the historic east-west links, and that project works. What would happen to such hugely successful projects, which North Wales police have piloted, if we were to move to an all-Wales force?

On another issue that relates to cost, the North Wales police authority has estimated—these are the only figures that we have, because the Home Office has given us none—that to meet the level 2 policing requirement in the HMIC report would cost about £3 million for the   North Wales force. The Association of Police Authorities in Wales estimates that the Welsh
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dimension of restructuring would cost between £47 million and £57 million. I believe that that money would be better spent on assisting the smaller forces to meet the level 2 requirement that the HMIC report asks them to meet. Of course, some small forces, such as the North Wales force, which covers the port of Holyhead in my constituency, are dealing with terrorism issues, and Welsh ports have done so for many years, given the IRA threat in Ireland.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of powerful and important points against an all-Wales police force. Against that background, does he not agree that it is absolutely disgraceful that the Home Office has ruled out any option for Wales other than an all-Wales force and is attempting to bounce the people of Wales into a marriage of inconvenience that nobody seems to want?

Albert Owen: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present when the Home Secretary made his opening remarks and I intervened on him. My right hon. Friend said that he was willing to look at all the   options, including the one that I put forward. The reason that Conservative Members have been asking for a debate is to make such points to the Home Secretary in the House, and we have begun to do that. I would like a longer period of debate, and that is why I am making the points that I am today and have made before.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the chief constable of North Wales is firmly sitting on the fence and is giving no leadership on the issue. He says one thing to one area and another elsewhere. Indeed, the four chief constables in Wales are sending mixed messages, and I would like to see leadership from them. Three out of the four said at the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs that they favoured an all-Wales force in principle. My chief constable might be sitting on the fence, but I am not. I think that an all-Wales force would be bad for the people I represent in north Wales.

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend will recall that the four chief constables said a year ago that they were all opposed to an all-Wales force. What credibility can we put on what they say?

Albert Owen: That is the point that I made when I said that our chief constables are not showing the leadership that we want. A cynic would say that one of the four is after the top job if we move towards an all-Wales force, but that is not for me to say. It is for me to say that we need leadership. We also need the time so that those leaders can make a proper case for the other options.

North Wales is one of the top-performing police forces in the United Kingdom. It came in the top 10 in the United Kingdom and has been the top-performing force in Wales year on year. It has improved with the extra resources. We should not rule out the cross-border collaboration that we have with Cheshire, and we should not put the political dimension before the operational needs of policing. I reiterate that point.

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