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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Once again, I   place on the record the fact that this is not the debate that the House wanted. On 29 November, there was a debate in Westminster Hall, and it is because of pressure arising from that, and only from that, that we are having this debate on the day before the House rises for Christmas, and with no vote. Given the importance of the issue to all our constituents, the House and the public can only regard that as a disgrace.

When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that she will say that in the light of representations that may or may not be made by 23 December, there will be a further debate with a vote in the new year, in which case she will find that both the Government Benches and the Opposition Benches will be packed. The 23 December deadline is far too early; the statistics are inadequate; and the finance has not been backed up with any figures. For any chief constable to be asked to seek to respond within that time scale to something as serious and as far-reaching for the future of policing in this country as this is, again, a disgrace.

I shall concentrate on two issues. First, I shall follow the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr.   Howard) on policing in Kent; and, secondly, I shall briefly touch on the future of the British Transport police, in which I have a particular interest.
 
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As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has said, Kent is an exemplary force that meets all the strategic qualifications—for example, it has 6,124 staff. Kent police has made a major input into the Kent public service board, which pulls together public services in the county and co-ordinates a £7.2 billion budget. The proposed reorganisation would place much of that co-operation at risk and is highly undesirable.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has highlighted Kent police's track record in dealing with the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Deal barracks bombing, the channel tunnel fire and high profile murder inquiries. He omitted asylum and immigration, which are still real concerns to our constituents in Kent. That track record is exemplary.

At the moment, Kent police effectively has no borrowing. We are discussing the imposition of an almost instant debt of between £18 million and £20 million, which the chief constable, Mike Fuller, has told me would take between possibly five years and probably 10 years to repay, before any savings are made. That cannot be sound economics and, as has been said, we all know that such savings never actually accrue, because costs always rise.

The Home Office has not indicated who will meet that cost, which, as has been pointed out over and over again, can fall only as a burden on council tax payers—in this case, in the county of Kent.

The Home Office appears to have paid scant or no attention to the legislative implications of its proposals for Kent. My understanding is that the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 would need to be amended, the Sangatte protocol of 1991 would have to be redrawn, and the Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) Order 1993 would require primary legislation, as would the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996. It will be interesting to hear the Minister explain when and how all that primary legislation will be introduced.

Kent is ready and prepared to be a strategic authority within its own boundaries, but I would not wish to throw to the wolves any of the other forces—Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey or the Thames Valley—with which Kent's name has been linked. We are looking for a strategic role for Kent, but a federal solution for the others. That is the real issue that neither the Home Secretary nor any of his Ministers has yet properly addressed, and it cannot and will not be addressed by 23 December.

I turn to the British Transport police and its future role within the policing of the United Kingdom. I am aware that the BTP is not a Home Office force but, in tandem with the review of the Home Office constabulary throughout the United Kingdom, it is the subject of a Department for Transport review. As the Minister is well aware, one of the proposals on the table is that it should be merged, in whole or in part, with the Metropolitan police and become a Home Office force.
 
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The British Transport police, with which I have the honour to serve as a special constable, was established in the 1830s. It does not meet the Home Office requirements for staffing, with 3,662 staff in total. It polices, or is responsible for the policing of, 21,000 miles of railway track and 2,500 stations, as well as goods yards and all other railway property. Last year, it looked after the travelling needs of passengers on an estimated 1 billion journeys.

The BTP has been subjected to five reviews since 2001. It meets nine out of nine performance targets, and in 2004 and 2005 was regarded as, and remains, a target leader throughout the European Union. Its chief constable, Ian Johnston, has said that it has its own environment, with a way in, a way out, and a defined territory. It also has a defined force of men and women with specialist training in railway law, track safety, and all the hazards of 21,000 miles of track and associated stations and other territory. The BTP is experienced in dealing with terrorism—it has had to be since the terrorist outbreaks caused by the IRA in the 1970s and beyond. In 15 years, BTP policemen have dealt with eight major crashes covering five police areas. They also attend many major events and are responsible for the policing of football crowds. If Members will pardon the   pun, the track record is there.

The proposal to merge all or part of the BTP with the Met could only weaken a very specialist and specialised force. It is inevitable that a commissioner of the Met, short of staff, would immediately poach from the London underground, which is part of BTP territory, and from the BTP's above-ground force. That would be to the detriment of the policing of London, of London's subways and of the whole United Kingdom. If we rip the heart out of the British Transport police force by giving the underground system to the Met, we do so at our peril. It was tried with the New York police department, but all that happened was that subway crime rose.

I say this to the Minister: whatever else you choose to do, please keep your hands off this very specialised force; recognise the job that it does not only in the London area but nationwide; and understand that once it is gone it will never, ever be replaced.

7.4 pm

Mr. Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab): Police force reorganisation will affect every community in the country. At its heart is this fundamental question: what is the correct police force structure to serve the community on the range of crime related issues from antisocial behaviour in local neighbourhoods to major organised crime such as drugs, people trafficking and, ultimately, international terrorism? In today's world we cannot leave the community or police forces facing a choice between effective policing at a local level and an effective fight against organised and international crime. The public rightly expect both. The task for Ministers and for the police is to deliver a force structure that meets these very different challenges as effectively as possible.
 
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Of course, the easiest option would be to do nothing—to duck the issue, avoid the controversy, and say it was all too difficult. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, we have heard that sentiment from Opposition Front Benchers today. They gave us a shopping list of reasons not to change and not to face up to the issues facing the police and the country, but a party of government has to choose and to take difficult decisions if it wants to meet the challenges of the future.

The most common charge against the proposals is that they will make policing more remote and less responsive to local communities. That is a serious charge that we should examine. As Members of Parliament, we are acutely aware of the importance of issues of crime and antisocial behaviour to local communities. We regularly see constituents who feel powerless in the face of those in our community who pay no regard to the welfare of others—who vandalise property, spray graffiti on houses, disturb the peace of the area and engage in other forms of antisocial behaviour that are a blight on our communities. For the decent people in our constituencies, a small measure such as the gating off of an alleyway or the imposition of an antisocial behaviour order preventing those responsible from entering an area can make the difference between a tolerable life and one that is a constant struggle for peace and order.

It is precisely because of the crucial importance of the fight against antisocial behaviour and local crime that the very first question we should ask of the Government's proposals is what their effect will be on neighbourhood policing. The key police unit for community policing is the basic command unit—the BCU—or, as it is known in the west midlands force, the   operational command unit. That unit organises local policing and ensures the presence on the streets of the police whom local people want to see. I therefore welcome the strong assurances we have had from the Home Secretary and, in the past, from the Minister, that the BCU structure will not be diminished by proposals for force reorganisation.


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