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Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising that, to get the extra money in the precept, it was important to convince people that that meant extra police on the streets? That is now being delivered. If we
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move to an all-Wales force, there is a danger that it will be seen as meaning that resources will be sucked into south Wales.

Albert Owen: That is the point I made earlier. We have invested additional resources in local policing and we are concerned that we will lose them in an all-Wales dimension if decision making takes place further south.

David Taylor: May I offer my hon. Friend a word of caution? Any cross-border collaboration with Cheshire might have its problems, because Cheshire built a new force headquarters on a greenfield site as little as four years ago. If that force were to merge with others such as Merseyside or North Wales, who would pay for the remaining 20 years of the private finance initiative deal into which a commitment has been made for that site?

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend knows that I could not possibly answer that question, but it is one of the serious issues that is thrown up when new expenditure takes place. There are additional police stations in the North Wales force and if it were to merge with another, many of those stations might become redundant. We must also consider that issue.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has just opened the new police headquarters in Winsford in my constituency. It cost only £30 million and if the Cheshire force were to merge, it looks like there would be a questionable return on the PFI.

Albert Owen: I shall repeat my belief that collaboration between North Wales and Cheshire is important, and I hope that the Minister will address that point when she winds up and deal with the issue of the political boundaries and the Welsh dimension of the   Assembly Government, and that she will allow co-operation to take place.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred to police headquarters, but the issue is also about the rebranding of Welsh police forces. It would cost an awful lot of money if we were to rebrand them. There has been a lot of expenditure on North Wales and on each force with its own identity, and that expenditure would also be lost when it could have been used elsewhere.

I know that many Members wish to speak, but the Welsh dimension is extremely important. I ask the Minister to bear it in mind when she winds up.

6.44 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The chief constable of Gloucestershire, who was accurately quoted by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, has said that the proposals that are the subject of today's debate represent the most profound change in policing since the modern police service was created in 1829. They should therefore have been based on compelling evidence, subjected to a full and thorough consultation exercise and been supported by a substantial body of public opinion. The extent to which
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these criteria have not been met has admirably been explained in detail by my right hon. Friend in his speech, with which I entirely agreed.

I also largely agreed with the speech of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), and not surprisingly, as it consisted in large part of a full endorsement of the policies on which the Conservative party fought the last general election. It is a pity that he did not say so at the time, but we cannot have everything in life. I welcome his conversion to our policies.

I want, however, to concentrate my remarks on the implications of the Government's proposals for the   policing of Kent. It is always useful to start at the beginning. The purpose of the report that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary was commissioned by the Home Office to prepare was to provide a professional assessment of whether the present 43-force structure is the right one to meet the challenges posed by the current and future policing environment. I would like to begin by assessing the extent to which Kent police meet those challenges.

On any view, Kent is a high-performing force. In the baseline assessment, published as recently as 27 October, Kent was placed at joint third. Kent, Lancashire and Staffordshire are the only forces to have had a top five position for two successive years. In the overall 2004–05 police performance assessment framework, Kent achieved the fourth highest national score, and is listed as improved in five of the seven assessment categories measured.

Kent has a proven track record in dealing with high-risk, protective services issues such as the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, the Deal barracks bombing and the channel tunnel fire. As the channel tunnel terminal is in my constituency, that is, of course, a matter of special and particular concern to me. Kent also has widely acknowledged and respected investigative expertise for major and serious crime. The force currently has a 100 per cent. detection rate for murder and manslaughter. Moreover, Kent is a force that is keen to change. Prior to the publication of the inspectorate's report, Kent had already embarked on a number of comprehensive force-wide reviews to secure "fitness for purpose" for the next 10 years.

In their plans to achieve that objective, Kent police are very conscious of their links with the agencies responsible for securing our borders and with their law enforcement counterparts across the channel. Those links, and Kent's links with the Metropolitan police, are much closer than the links with Sussex and Surrey, although I stop short of suggesting that a merger with the gendarmerie of the Pas de Calais would be an appropriate solution.

In the light of those facts, it is not surprising that the response of the chief constable and the Kent police authority to the Government's proposal is that Kent can do best as a stand-alone strategic authority. That view is supported by nearly nine out of 10 Kent residents. What arguments could there possibly be for the view that Kent should merge with Sussex and Surrey? It certainly cannot be cost. The cost of the merger is estimated at £58 million. As we know, unless Kent caves in by Friday, which I very much hope it will not, the cost would not be met by the Home Office; it would be met by the council tax payers of Kent.
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The only argument as far as I can see against the stand-alone option is that although Kent satisfies the   6,000 total staff threshold set by the Home Secretary, it does not quite meet his requirement that forces should have at least 4,000 police officers. Kent does not quite satisfy that test, because it has taken a proactive approach to work force modernisation and, in particular, to the recruitment of support staff into a wide range of roles previously filled by police officers, which is something that every Home Secretary, including me, has encouraged police forces to do for the past decade or more. In addition, Kent has 323 special constables, who are not included in the figures.

The question also touches on the extent to which the Home Office is dealing with those matters in good faith. On 15 November, the chief constable of Kent and the chairman of Kent police authority discussed the issue with John Giffard, the director of the police structures review unit, when Mr. Giffard assured them that the requirement for 4,000 police officers is not a must. On 29 November, the chairman of Kent police authority wrote to the Home Secretary asking for confirmation that that is indeed the case, but, sadly, no reply to that letter has been received yet. I hope that the Minister will specifically deal with that question and give me and the House the assurance sought in that letter.

In his speech at the beginning of the debate, my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary made some powerful criticisms of the Government's approach, and I support those criticisms. Even if the Government are determined to proceed with their proposals in general—I hope that they are not—there is no case for forcing on Kent police a merger that does not accord with logic, the effective use of resources or the wishes of the people of Kent. I hope that wiser counsels will prevail.

6.52 pm

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I took part in the police parliamentary scheme with North Wales police. In the previous Parliament, the Welsh Affairs Committee took evidence from all four forces in Wales about how they deal with antisocial behaviour. I   therefore have some knowledge of the issues and many concerns about the proposals, but in the light of the number of hon. Members who want to speak, I shall make only one or two points.

I am afraid that the change will not work for Wales, and especially not for north Wales, because the parameters that the Home Office has laid down—a force size of between 4,000 and 6,000, no existing force being split and no crossing of boundaries—do not work for Wales. I do not disagree with those parameters per se, but from what I have learned about crime patterns in north Wales, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned, an amalgamation with Cheshire police would make more sense than an all-Wales police force. However, the only realistic regional boundary in Wales is the Welsh border. An all-Wales police force would have nearly 8,000 police officers, more than 5,000 of whom would be in south Wales, which is more than 200 miles away from the cross-border level 2 crime in north Wales. I do not believe that an all-Wales police force would deliver on level 2 crime for the north.
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North Wales police force is not huge—it has 1,600 police officers—but it has a very good record. Most local authority wards already have a dedicated policeman—the community beat manager. Community policing is not so advanced in other parts of Wales, and in south Wales it is mainly performed by community support officers. In north Wales, council tax is high because of the high police precept, but the people accept it because they get good policing and because they are happy with that policing. Yes, council tax will decrease under the proposals, but my right hon. Friend the Minister will recall that when I met her recently she said that any reductions will be phased in. Any changes in council tax will benefit south Wales, which will not go down well in north Wales. I also wonder what effect such changes will have on the North Wales police budget.

There will be provisions for local accountability in the more rural parts of Wales, but the other side of that coin is that there will be no economies of scale, which is a worry. However, an all-Wales police force is the only answer to the criteria, which is why police forces in Wales appear to support it. They have been given the parameters and the task of fulfilling the criteria, and the   only answer is an all-Wales police force.

Will the Minister consider allowing a change in the criteria to fit the geography of Wales? Better still, will she consider the other option, the status quo, but with extra resources for north Wales and south Wales to deal with the level 2 problem? We should also consider how the basic command units and community policing will work out in practice. We should try to make real improvements on level 2 crimes by other means before making what I believe will be a bad mistake for policing as a whole in Wales.

6.55 pm

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