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Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend may be confused about the motivation. In paragraph 6.8 of the financial section, "Closing The Gap" suggests a possible reason for the restructuring. It notes that

It is possible that the Government hope to reorganise in order to mask the fact that police forces are to receive much less in the next two years.

Mr. Blunt: That would not entirely surprise me. There must be an explanation that makes rather more sense than the one that the Government gave today.

Despite the under-resourcing of Surrey police over the past eight years, they have managed to perform outstandingly well—perhaps owing to the leadership of Sir Ian Blair and Denis O'Connor. To their credit, they were not only accomplished politicians but extremely good policemen in Surrey, which is no doubt why they have gone on to take wider responsibilities

A high level of performance does not seem to matter to the Government. To them, it seems, only size matters. They have hung on to the number of 4,000 to determine the level of protective services rather like a drowning
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man saying, "This is the magic figure." It does not strike me as a magic figure at all. Some small forces deliver an extremely high quality of service, and some much larger services—the merged Avon and Somerset force, for example—receive a much lower score in the national assessment than Surrey.

A graphic demonstration of what has happened to Surrey relates to financial matters. County councillors have been forced to find 46 per cent. of Surrey's funding for the next financial year from the council tax payer, in comparison with only 15 per cent. in 1997. If the Government take away from the county structure the control, accountability and responsibility for the Surrey police force, at what price will councillors vote increasing council tax precepts to support their force? In fact, it will no longer be their police force. They should dump the financial mess—that is my recommendation—in the laps of the Government, because the police will be a governmental organisation accountable to no one. I would oppose Surrey councillors who supported an increase in police precepts in that context. They should fight it as hard as they possibly can when it is no longer their police force.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Will this not become a precursor of, and excuse to introduce, a regional assembly in order to provide proper accountability? Not only that, it will presumably be a regional assembly with tax-raising powers.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend is precisely on the mark. It is important to establish what underlies all these different proposals to reform different parts of public services: they are all relentlessly driving towards the regional level. It is ironic that the Home Secretary is now promising extra funding to forces that agree to the mergers early, while refusing to guarantee funding to the county forces that understandably remain wary of these reforms.

I recall that, when the Conservative Government promised extra funding to schools that were keen to apply for grant-maintained status, the Labour party accused us of bribing schools to follow our agenda, yet the Home Secretary is content to use the threat of withholding funding to bully county forces into mergers about which they have grave reservations. The only difference between then and now is that schools were then only too enthusiastic to take control of their own affairs and secure grant-maintained status. If Conservative policy had stayed in place, every school would have had control of itself through grant-maintained status. That seems rather similar to what is in the recent White Paper, but it has taken a long time to get there.

While I believe that the restructuring of police forces along regional lines is foolhardy in terms of financing and operational effectiveness, my greatest concern remains the impact on accountability and recognition of the police force for the people it serves. The reform will affect the relationship between my constituents and their local police. We bemoan the fact that the police are seldom face to face with the public. Over the past 30 years, the personal relationship between the police and the people they serve has been undermined. There is absolutely no way that the proposals will help to overcome that problem.
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There are arguments in favour of assuming responsibilities at the national level, and the example of soccer was mentioned earlier. There are also arguments for having smaller borough units with specific local duties: to their credit, the Government are making progress on that. There is no argument, however, to justify vast regional forces that have no emotional or logical connection with the populace that they serve. A south-east regional force would not be responsive to the huge range of challenges faced in areas as different as Reigate or Redhill in my constituency, the outer suburbs of the capital, the ports of Sussex and Kent, our nation's two busiest airports or the vast swathe of rural areas in the south-east. Nor will my constituents recognise a regional force as one directly responsible to a body that they either elected or could identify with.

We are entitled to conclude that another agenda beyond the mere restructuring of the police is behind the proposals. The Government are set on regionalising the United Kingdom, taking powers from historic counties and granting them to new regional assemblies. The happy failure of the people of the north-east to support a regional assembly, despite an acknowledged strong sense of regional identity there, does not seem to have deterred the Government at all.

In Surrey, the Government are moving the police force, fire service, hospitals and ambulance services to a regional level away from county structures. If the Government's reforms remove the local education authorities, the county council will become a largely redundant body—and it is surely no coincidence that county councils are rarely in the hands of Labour administrations. The counties are being emasculated to make way for bodies even more beholden to central Government, with no thought for the traditional elected bodies of the old counties and the people who identify with them. The police restructuring is but a part of that agenda and the cost will not be substantial only in monetary terms, because it will make our police even more remote from the people whom they serve.

7.45 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): First, I appreciate that there are some powerful arguments in favour of building a critical mass in resources and applying that to serious crime and to counter terrorism. I am not unsympathetic to the Home Secretary's arguments in his opening speech or to the arguments of the O'Connor report. My concern has been partly about the process—arguments about the time frame within which we are having to consider such a complicated matter have already been aired—and partly about the narrowing of options too early in that process.

The assumption has been made that full force amalgamation is the only acceptable way to proceed, but two options, partly aired in the debate, have been discounted. One is to form more specialist forces to deal with particular activities, as in the case of the transport police, and the other is the sharing of resources co-operatively across different parts of the country to achieve common objectives. Those options were posited as possibilities in the O'Connor report, but were discounted by the Home Office in the rather too hasty process of reaching a conclusion.

The concept of co-operation has been explored in limited fashion in the east midlands. We have a helicopter service that is shared perfectly happily
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between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and it is a successful and efficient service. My concern—to some extent, I am arguing against my own position—is the difficulty of pushing police forces that constantly seek to run their own empires and agendas into that logical step.

I am perfectly clear—I agree with the Home Secretary on this—that to have back-office operations run separately in 43 different police forces is simply crazy and mistaken. Having purchasing functions running in the 43 forces is similarly mad—not just on account of the waste of resources, but in respect of the technologies that the police require, running from the rudimentary ones such as police cars through to individual information systems. It is true that some forces, including the Derbyshire force, have made powerful reputations for scientific advance that should certainly be shared across a number of forces. It is crazy to have just one beacon of expertise.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the cost savings that may be available, but such savings may be a necessary but not a sufficient requirement. Does he agree that the level of cost savings suggested is no more than about 2 per cent. and that the co-operation and collaboration that he mentioned is already happening?

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