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Peter Luff : Has the hon. Gentleman seen the briefing by the Association of Police Authorities stating that

and that

I am afraid that what the hon. Gentleman suggests will not happen.

Mr. McFadden: That is certainly not the view of the chief constable of the west midlands police force, to whom I spoke earlier today.

The point about BCUs is absolutely essential, because it means that the unit of policing responsible for community policing stays as it is, regardless of the force structure above its head.

Martin Horwood: Is not the hon. Gentleman alarmed that it says in section 4.12 of the O'Connor report that
 
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the number of BCUs has fallen from 320 to just 230 in three years, so the process is already in train whereby they are getting bigger?

Mr. McFadden: Again, the chief constable of my local force believes that the BCU structure will be strengthened, not diminished, in the coming period. Indeed, the greatly increased number of police community support officers planned over the next few years will be deployed at BCU level, thereby ensuring an enhanced uniformed presence on the streets, which is what our constituents want. In the west midlands area, it is expected that this expansion in community support officers will mean some 1,200 more uniformed officers in local communities.

I have referred to my discussions this morning with the chief constable of West Midlands police. He has long experience of both rural and urban policing, and his view is that an expansion along the lines proposed by the Government would

Mr. Stephen O'Brien : Would the hon. Gentleman find it more helpful in placing absolute confidence in the impartiality of all chief constables if they were either not   allowed to take part in the consultation or had a self-denying ordinance that none of them would apply for the top jobs if there was any reorganisation? We could then place some trust in their impartiality on those somewhat partial opinions.

Mr. McFadden: I believe that the motives of the chief constable to whom I spoke are somewhat higher than the hon. Gentleman implies.

The issue is what the effect of the proposals would be on more serious crime and on contingency planning for emergency situations—the level 2 crime that we have heard about. It is that kind of issue that the HMIC report that triggered the process sought to highlight. This is the very gap in current capabilities that force restructuring seeks to address. Here again, the West Midlands force believes strongly that the economies of scale involved in mergers will strengthen provision in those areas.

As we have heard, serious crime holds no respect for county boundaries. People traffickers and the drugs trade operate across wide areas. By pooling resources and concentrating key officers when and where they may be needed, amalgamation could strengthen significantly the police's hand against this sort of crime. For example, it has been questioned whether it is really sensible, when there may be a concentration of very serious crime in a small force, to have sometimes to withdraw officers from the community to fight such serious crime when reorganisation could enable the force more readily to call on specialist officers and units to deal with such crime. If the proposals can combine more effective policing at a local level and better protective services on more serious crime, they will offer a better service to the public and should command the support of the House.

There is then the critical issue of cost. Inevitably, there will be start-up costs, as there would be with any restructuring. But the way to judge the proposals is to take into account both start-up costs and savings in
 
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future years released by not having 43 separate force headquarters and 43 separate chief constables' offices, and by ensuring that savings released by economies of scale go back into front-line policing. I cannot speak with certainty about the future costs over the coming years, but the West Midlands police authority estimates savings of some £158 million over 10 years. The other cost issue is any impact on the police precept. The public   will, I believe, understand the arguments for reorganisation of police forces, but I ask the Minister to bear in mind any impact on police precepts for local people as she and her colleagues take the proposals forward.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that our police service is among the   best in the world. It enjoys a high level of trust from   the   public and it has more resources and manpower now than ever before. It has helped to bring about a fall in crime of some one third since 1997 and now it must face up to new challenges at every level. If it is communicated loud and clear that these proposals help, not hinder local policing, if they do not result in major precept increases for the public, and if they can deliver the kind of improvement in protective services that we all want to see, they can and will command the confidence of the public and will lead to a major enhancement of our ability to fight crime, both in local neighbourhoods and against the most serious crimes facing our society today.

7.14 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful to be called relatively early in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Inevitably, like many other hon. Members, I want to refer to my own force, Cambridgeshire, but before doing so I want to use the knowledge and experience that I gained in the role of shadow police spokesman, which I held for some three years, during which time I met many chief officers, police authority representatives and ordinary police officers throughout the country, as well as—I referred to this earlier—having experienced the awful tragedy in Soham in my constituency, a high profile murder case, with all its implications for inter-force co-operation.

I was staggered to hear not only the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) but the Select Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), castigate my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary for apparently resisting change. Frankly, that is nonsense, because he is rightly proposing directly elected police commissioners. To say that he is resisting change while at the same time he is proposing directly elected police commissioners, I   find somewhat odd. But the Home Secretary is right; there are problems to be resolved. The present form of policing in this country leaves a lot to be desired. Policing is far from perfect.

The "Closing the Gap" report, about which we have heard a lot today, identified where in the protective services there are grave shortcomings across a vast proportion of the police forces. I in no way dissent from the fact that there is a problem. What I dissent from is the Government's proposed solution to that problem. But there are also other problems that the report did not address. There are problems concerning the police themselves. I fear that there are now too many of what I
 
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call technocrats in the police force—people who are not necessarily good managers, but who have read the book and absorbed the gospel about how to solve crime without actually having gone out and done it. They are not very good at managing people and policing is largely about personal skills, both liaising with the public and with all the many other people with whom they have to deal. There is a perception in parts of the country, certainly in my constituency, of an unwillingness among the police sometimes to get out of their office or car. Those perceptions will not be resolved or improved by even more remote services, which the proposals suggest.

I also accept, as the Home Secretary suggested, that there is a need to do more to combat high level and organised crime. But as the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said, that was the purpose of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported. It is the building block for a much more comprehensive attack on such crime. There is no reason why there could not be local branches or squads of SOCA in every force area, precisely to address local issues and form local links. But the vast majority of my constituents—and I   believe the same is true of everybody else's constituents—are bothered not by high level and organised crime, but by local crime such as street crime, car crime, vandalism, burglary and so on. Therefore, the proposed changes have to be examined against their effect on that sort of crime—the 95-odd per cent. of crime that affects ordinary people. I do not believe that the changes will help. Policing will become more distant and there will be a less accountable police force.

The importance of neighbourhood policing cannot be over-emphasised. It is not just about reassurance. In my time I have been very critical of the word "reassurance". Reassurance is a result of effective policing; it should not be the objective. Neighbourhood policing is about local intelligence. The Home Secretary referred to the greater importance of intelligence-led policing. Yes, but so much of that intelligence arises from police officers on the ground, on the streets, in our villages, knowing who is a stranger in the area, picking up what is going on and   being part of the community. That is real neighbourhood policing, and it is about low level local intelligence. But so often that can lead to much higher level intelligence in the field of serious and organised crime.

As I said earlier, as with the Soham tragedy, mutual aid is also important for small forces that cannot perhaps, as currently structured, do everything as effectively as a larger one. The Soham case demonstrated that mutual aid does work—but there is plenty of room for improvement. That would be a better way, with an enhanced role for the Association of Chief Police Officers in issuing codes of practice about how it can work, to create a much clearer understanding. That is the basis for greater cross-border co-operation.

On the issue of effective use of resources, not many people would say that spending £500 million on these proposals is the best use of resources. I suspect that if the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who has left the Chamber, had been asked by the Home Secretary how he, as a former Minister with responsibility for police, would spend £500 million to enhance our policing, restructuring would not have been his first suggestion. I suspect that not many other Members would have suggested that.
 
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I suspect that the economy of scale envisaged by the proposal will not arise. Of course smaller forces are not able to have specialist units—reference was made to firearms and quick-response units earlier—but there is no reason why adjoining forces should not share a unit and the costs of it. All this restructuring is not necessary to address a relatively minor, albeit important, understanding. Again, ACPO could have a role in producing draft memos of understanding about how such joint squads could be operated. I see all that as being done within the police family, without the Home Secretary coming from on high and getting heavy.

Similarly, in the case of central services such as human resources and all the other administrative-type services, there is no reason why one cannot have joint provision, with one force contracting its services out to others. That sort of thing could happen if we had a more proactive ACPO, and fewer prima donnas in the police force who want to do it all in-house, which is part of the problem. Again, that could be done without the Home Secretary stepping in.

As for Cambridgeshire, I cannot say like many hon. Members that mine is one of the best police forces and that I want to keep it as it is, because I readily admit that it comes close to the bottom of the league table in many aspects. Those figures are out-of-date, however, and we believe that the force's performance over the past year or so is improving, partly as a result of the appointment of our former deputy chief constable, Julie Spence, who, I am delighted to say, was appointed last week as chief constable. She has brought a breath of fresh air to the force.

My constituents want to see their local police officers on the street. They know full well about the problems of   cross-border policing—we have problems with Travellers in Cambridgeshire and adjoining counties, and police forces must work together because the crime linked to that mobile community often goes across county boundaries. The disruption and disorganisation that is being proposed, however, is not required.

I have a rule that I call Paice's law, whereby when one joins all sorts of different organisations, one usually ends up with a central administrative system that is greater than the sum of the parts of its previous components. I have seen that on many occasions during my time in the House, and I believe that the same would happen with this proposal.

It is terribly important that our policing is with public consent. Over the past few years, there has been increasing concern that we are getting policing of the public rather than policing with the public. Policing with the public is critical, and these proposals will make the situation worse.

7.24 pm


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