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Peter Luff : My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) earlier quoted from a report prepared for West Mercia constabulary by Professor Lawrance of the university of Warwick. He states:

The whole statistical basis of the "Closing the Gap" report is fundamentally flawed, and the 4,000 figure has no justification in empirical fact.

Martin Horwood: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who would agree with my chief constable, who said that the report contained some challengeable assumptions and selective analysis. The statistical basis and the methodology are far from proven. The report also suggests to Ministers that in terms of geography

We see no evidence of that yet, but I live in hope.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a good case on behalf of rural areas and police authorities. The Government's proposals would not be such a problem if the consultation had been meaningful, but it is meaningless in Wales because the Secretary of State has already said that there is only one option—a single Welsh police authority. It is therefore hardly surprising that the police authorities are unwilling to take part in the consultation.

Martin Horwood: Many hon. Members have made the point about the worrying lack of consultation on the proposals and the speed at which they are being rushed through.

I shall quote one further passage from "Closing the Gap", which appears on page 62 and is, I suppose, the straightforward evidence to which the Home Secretary referred. It states:

Probably? Might? That is not straightforward evidence. Denis O'Connor's report does not provide the cast-iron basis for the Government's proposals that Ministers claim. The O'Connor report is, if read in detail, a call for a debate about the alternatives. It presents a genuine problem—and hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that there is a problem in the tackling of level 2 crime. It has also been suggested that the Cambridgeshire force has a particular problem with some of its issues, although that may be a little unfair. Nobody suggests that we should not try to tackle the problems that the report identifies, but the detail in the report does not make the case for the large super-forces. It makes the case for a debate on the alternatives.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr.   Oaten) suggested one alternative, which would be to extend the Serious Organised Crime Agency model, which the Government have only just started to try out. There have been suggestions that forms of federation might be tried. In Gloucestershire, we discussed the possibility of going back to regional crime squads in some form for specific forms of crime. That might tackle some of the shortfall issues of particular forces. Some back-office functions could also be merged—the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) mentioned purchasing. There is no reason why purchasing powers could not be merged on whatever regional basis the Government like. We could live with that. The Home Secretary could even have his merged regional press offices, if he really wants them.

There is potential and much discussion to be had on the different options, and the Government simply have not made the case for a structural solution to a problem of how work is done. That is the same approach that they take to the probation service, the NHS and regional fire centres. It is about trying to shoehorn a problem into a structural solution instead of looking at the quality of work—in this case, policing—that is being done and using the inspectorate of constabulary for what it was set up to do, which is to help police forces to improve where there is a shortfall and to encourage them to collaborate.

In Gloucestershire, there is all-party opposition to rushing headlong into the abolition of the local force. The Prime Minister told us recently—admittedly, in another context—that what the police asked for, they should get. The police force and the chief constable in Gloucestershire are clear that the best option is a stand-alone force for the county and an independent Gloucestershire constabulary. I think that we should obey the Prime Minister's advice and give the police what they want.

8.7 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate and expressed some of my serious concerns about the reforms that the Government are introducing. I am not against reform; I agree that reforms are necessary and we need to make changes. However, like many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am concerned that we are rushing into making major reforms and changes. There has been some debate about when the reforms were introduced, but that was 40 or 50 years ago. Surely we want to get reform right. That is crucial.

On Teesside, we feel that the reforms are being bulldozed through by the Government—my Government, whom I support wholeheartedly. Before anybody says that I am being disloyal, I point out that I   have supported my Government on every occasion and have never even abstained on an issue. I speak as a friend, and with great concern. I am concerned about the proposals, and I say that not as someone who parachuted into a constituency. I lived in my constituency for 21 years before I was elected as a councillor and then a Member of Parliament. I have served the area and I know it well, so the concerns that
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I express are based on observation over several years. I   am concerned by the changes that are being pushed on us so quickly.

Why cannot we have more time? The shadow Home Secretary suggested six months, although that is not necessarily the option that I would suggest. The Minister should go away and think about the time scale, because it is essential. My police authority has asked what approach the Home Secretary will take towards police authorities that do not submit a business case by 23 December. I shall be interested to hear the answer.

I have expressed serious concern about the timing and the rush because I recognise that policing is an important issue in my constituency. At meetings and coffee mornings over the years, it has always been one of the top three topics. I have taken issue with Cleveland police in the past. Some Members may remember that I   championed the robocop, Ray Mallon, when corruption charges were levelled against him, yet he now holds a senior position, running Middlesbrough. Many of the people who told me not to support him now visit his office and say what a great job he is doing. That includes some Ministers.

I take a great interest in Cleveland police—how the force is managed, how it functions and its accountability. The Government's proposed model for us is the super-force, a merger of the Northumbrian, Durham and Cleveland forces. It would cover a massive geographical area—according to one calculation, more than 3,500 square miles, from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north to Boulby in the south. The southern parts of that region would have more affinity with North Yorkshire than with the Northumbrian region. Such a force would serve a huge area.

I cannot understand the Government's thesis that bigger is better. It seems to be a running theme. On one hand, we are reforming education by transferring power to local areas, as the White Paper suggests—great; a good idea—while on the other hand, in reforming the health service and our fire services, we are moving to regional level. I do not understand that. There is a lack of joined-up thinking.

I do not share the view expressed by Tory Members that there is a hidden agenda for regional government. That is not so, but I want my Government to demonstrate that we are advancing an intellectually coherent case. We must do so, to win hearts and minds. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said that we must carry the people with us. That is essential.

In Cleveland, our chief constable, Sean Price, has worked hard to turn things around. Earlier, a question was asked about chief constables visiting different parts of a constituency. Sean Price has attended meetings in many villages in my constituency, but I cannot see a chief constable based in Newcastle travelling 70 miles down the road to hold meetings in my little villages. I would like to believe that he would turn up, but I think it would be a struggle. The present chief constable has worked hard to win hearts and minds in small villages in my constituency.

The chairman of the police authority, Councillor Dave McLuckie, and the chief constable have worked hard to ensure that crime is down. Burglaries and robberies are down and they should be praised for that and all their work tackling crime over the past few years.
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Feeling about the issue is strong. The shadow Home Secretary cited a MORI poll carried out by Cleveland police. It demonstrated that 70 per cent. of people want no change at all. When they were asked for their second preference, 60 per cent. supported a city region police force. When Tyne Tees, the television company, asked people what they thought, 78 per cent. said they wanted no change. That is how strong feeling is. Only 20 per cent. of people support a regional force, so there is a vacuum. I support an elected regional assembly, but we should remember that we were thwarted on that last year. Bearing in mind how strong feeling is, the Minister should take note of those figures.

An additional problem in Teesside is that we have the biggest concentration of petrochemical plants, and the   emergency services really work together. If changes are introduced there will be disruption. Change will not be systematic. I fear for the future if a regional force is introduced. The Minister must think carefully about the concerns I have expressed. If we are to introduce reforms, we must demonstrate that they are necessary; the public must be behind us.

We held a referendum about the regional assembly and about an elected mayor for Middlesbrough. If the Minister believes that there is strong support for a regional force or a super-force, we should put the matter to a referendum. I am clear about what will happen. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) is shaking, but if democracy was okay for issues such as electing a mayor and regional government, why not for our police force? If there is support, I will accept the verdict of the electorate, but given the figures I presented I am clear about which way our people would vote.

I speak to the Minister as a friend and with great concern, and ask the Government to reconsider. I may not be able to support the reforms if Ministers go ahead without considering the things that I have asked them to note.

8.16 pm

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