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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab):
In a democratic system, policing will always be a delicate task. The essential art is to persuade the general public that what is happening is in their best interests, and to persuade them that the amounts of money that the police force costs are more than justified. When the Government decide, for whatever reason, that they will change that massive and important service, it is essential
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that the reason and the basis for that should be clear. My difficulty is that I believe that the Government's suggestions, first, for a truncated timetable and, secondly, for a number of imposed decisions, write parameters for what is a very important change without taking account of the need for public support.
Most of my constituents, who support the police 100 per cent., hope that they will have very little to do with them. They hope that they will never have to call a policeman, that they will not have their homes burgled, and that they will not be assaulted. Essentially, however, they want to know that those services are there if they are required. The Government, it seems to me, have a special responsibility to spell out what sort of changes will be introduced and how they will improve the service before such a degree of change is carried forward. I was surprised, for example, that the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety had been to the City of London and said, apparently with some effusion, that its force was not only very good but one that she hoped that others would copy. Since the City of London has perhaps 1,000 officers, I found that interesting and slightly perplexing.
For the small county forces, a number of arguments can be generally accepted. Other Cheshire Members will undoubtedly tell the House that we have such a superb force of such incredible intelligence and energy that it is capable of solving all the problems of policing in a rural and urban area. That is not my attitude. I believe that there is now a real perception gap between the householder and the police.
In my constituency, no matter how often we talk about neighbourhood policing, someone who has a gang of young people on their doorstep tearing down fences and wrecking their gardens wants an immediate response. They do not want to wait two hours for a car that passes by at the end of the street. If a number of hazards are being posed by antisocial families and people are being assaulted, they do not want to ring their local police station and be transferred from one automatic voice to another before getting a response. They want someone who will be there when they are in difficulty.
Will the changes make that easier or more complex? My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), it seems to me, made a watertight case about the difficulty of simply considering units in terms of numbers and geography. I am happy to accept that the normal flow of co-operation should be between north Wales and Cheshire. It would be a very brave Home Secretary, however, who suggested that Crewe should be the automatic centre for a police force consisting of north Wales and other areas in the north-west of England. However, I think that we will face that situation.
I was delighted that the Home Secretary said plainly that he does not approve of a national police force, because that is the logic of the arguments that we have heard from the Government. If one cannot organise into small units, one puts them into regions, and if one cannot put them into regions, one puts them into bigger units. One does that not on the basis of what is the bulk of normal policingdealing with assaults, car crime and ordinary difficulties on the streetsbut because one is facing difficulties in several highly specialised fields. If
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that is so, let us debate the implications of that in the House, and let it be clearly spelt out. So far, that has not been the case.
There is far more in these proposals. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke about the British Transport police. Why have they been included in proposals yet again? They have been subject to five reviews in five years, which, even for central Government, is probably slightly otiose. Since 70 to 80 per cent. of the work of the British Transport police is precisely what is called level 1 crime, one must have a very good argument before suggesting that they should be absorbed by the Metropolitan police. The British Transport police form a specialised unit. Its officers must have special training before being allowed on to the railway system, and they are clearly committed to a particular type of policing. If it is possible that in the future a member of the British Transport police will find that those brilliant Virgin trains are crossing the border into Scotland, but the British Transport police can do nothing about it because they are attached to the Metropolitan police, I may not be the only one to foresee difficulties. That, however, is the sort of proposition that we are hearing tonight.
I want to make it very clear that I am totally opposed to the absorption by the Metropolitan police of a specialised police force such as the British Transport police. I do not care what anyone says; in a very short time, the specialised force would cease to have an individual existence. It would so rapidly be used for other jobs and become involved in other functions that it would lose its specialised knowledge. Believe me, railways are extremely dangerous places, and that does not apply just when there are explosions. It applies to normal, day-to-day dealings with passengers and services. Railways are places in which people should not blunder about on the assumption that being part of the Metropolitan police confers God-given responsibility. That is not an acceptable point of view.
Let me express one opinion very strongly. I am disturbed that in the rush to come up with a solution, the House is being stampeded into arguing a fragmented case relating to a number of small areas. In defending the west midlands or debating whether north Wales should logically be involved with Cheshire, we are missing the point of the argument. The Government have a long time in which to decide what they want to do. They should give us a much more detailed and much more serious set of reasons for their wish to pursue the changes.
If the Government seriously imagine that the whole problem can be solved on a formulaic basis, let me say this to them. It does not matter which part of the United Kingdom we are discussing. I represented Exeter once. Exeter regarded Bristol as the outer darkness then, and the Cornish regarded the rest of the peninsula as entirely unacceptable. If we simply ordain that so many thousand members of a force should go somewhere irrespective of the wishes of local people, we shall soon discover something very obvious. Neighbourhood policing is just that: it means policemen and policewomen who can be seen, and who respond to letters.
The Secretary of State did something that I cannot do. He persuaded my chief constable to write a letter to me, and to send three e-mails. They were not very effective,
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because I did not do what he wanted, but the Secretary of State persuaded him to write to me. I could not persuade him to write to me answering questions about my own population.
Do I care about what is being proposed? Yes, I do. Do I think that it will work? I have grave doubts. Do I wonder why the Home Office is pushing this through? I am astounded, but perhaps the answer lies in the Minister of State's views on the City of London police: as long as we all have fraud departments, we shall be able to cope with the future.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who chaired the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee when I was a member of it during an earlier Parliament. As usual, I agreed with a great deal of what she said, which may explain why Her Majesty has yet to receive advice that the hon. Lady should be invited to join her Privy Council. I hope that the oversight will be rectified in due course.
As a Surrey Member, I am well aware that the two most recent chief constables in Surrey have been Sir Ian Blair and Denis O'Connor. They may not be entirely happy when I say what consummate politicians they both are. We should read Denis O'Connor's words with great care, and take account of his reservations about the applicability of his report to police restructuring as a whole. My understanding is that he was invited to consider just onealbeit importantaspect of restructuring, but the Government have taken the report to apply to the police in general.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): When we read the various parts of "Closing The Gap" that deal with protective services, we see that Denis O'Connor is not quite as unequivocal as the conclusions may suggest. Under the various headings relating to protective services, he raises a number of doubts over whether larger strategic forces will make much difference.
It is the speed with which the Government have sought to impose the most dramatic reform of police structures for over 40 years that concerns us all. When police forces are to be driven into marriages that they do not want, we can be pretty certain that they will have plenty of time to repent at leisure. Others have quoted much less complimentary observations by members of the Association of Police Authorities than I intend to quote about the Government's use of incentives to persuade police forces to sign up to their proposals. My principal concern relates to the destruction of the county-wide forces, which will take control of the police from identifiable and accountable bodies and place it in the hands of amorphous regions with which my constituents in particular do not identify.
Although today's debate focuses on the regionalisation of county constabularies, the reforms seem to make sense only as an element of the
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Government's incessant desire to regionalise the public services on which our constituents rely. The fire control room in Reigate is about to be moved to Fareham in Hampshire, and according to information from our ambulance service that reached my in-tray today, we should prepare for the regionalisation of the service. In each case, accountability is being taken from elected county councillors who speak up for the people of Surrey and dispersed over ever larger and more cumbersome regions.
We in Surrey are currently missing an opportunity to bring health structures into line with county structures such as social services as health services are reorganised yet again. Strangely enough, we seem to be returning to the regional health authorities that we had in 1997. Every time a structure takes root, the Government want to rip it out and replant it. Four or five years later, they revert to the original structure. That costs an enormous amount and makes the organisations involved much less accountable. Even we, who are trying to address the issues in a full-time professional manner, have great difficulty in understanding who does what.
I am also worried about the cost of the restructuring, to which others have referred. In Surrey, it is estimated at some £28 million. I am not remotely surprised that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) do not want the Kent force to merge with Surrey. As may be pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), neither the Sussex nor the Kent force will want to merge with Surrey on financial grounds alone. Surrey is in a desperate financial position. In 1997, it was one of the best-funded forces in the country, with a crime prevention record second only to that of Gwent. Its reward for being so successful in crime prevention has been to see its budget reduced, reduced and reduced.
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