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Police Restructuring

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

8.26 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Before any reorganisation is authorised by the House, the case should be overwhelming. The last two Opposition speakers have made clear how weak the case is. The original report states the case for reorganisation in very tentative language and points out that some of the biggest police forces fall short in dealing with all levels of crime, whereas some of the smallest—including the Gwent, Dyfed-Powys and North Wales police forces—achieve remarkable results.

It was once said that

That was said by Gaius Petronius in AD66, and it remains true today. That is the experience that most of us have had of reorganisations. I have been an elected member of authorities for 33 years and I have seen many reorganisations, all promising to produce marvellous results. The first reorganisation of local government that I endured was based on the notion that big is beautiful, the second on the notion that small is beautiful. All of them duplicated jobs, despite promising reductions and all manner of efficiencies of scale, whether large scale or small scale. None delivered the promised improvements and all plunged the authorities affected into a period of upheaval.

Probably the only groups of people who favour police reorganisation are the criminals, because they are likely to benefit, and some members of the police service, because they are ambitious and know that it is likely to produce many new and well paid jobs. In the year leading up to the reorganisation, the police will be able to say, "Of course our standards have dropped and we haven't arrested so many people or solved so many crimes, but that is because we are building up to reorganisation." Their excuse for the next two years will be, "We are in the middle of reorganisation." The worst period will come after that. Members of the National Association of Retired Police Officers have first-hand knowledge of what happened during the last reorganisation, which took place in 1965–66, and their evidence states that it took 10 years to get back to pre-reorganisation levels of efficiency. That is the key point. There is no case for changing. We have the tyranny of arithmetic determinism. Someone names a number—for example, 4,000—and everyone has to fit into this Procrustean bed of a false 4,000.

We have a splendid police force in Gwent. It is at the top of the league, not only for last year or the year before that but for a period of 20 years. It is institutionally sound as well as administratively efficient. It enjoys enormous support from the public. The national approval rate is 78 per cent. What other service enjoys public confidence on that scale? It seems that we shall throw it away in response to a report that was not part of the Labour party's manifesto. There is no reason why we should be bound to the report. There is no ideology behind it. There is no reason why we should be
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supporting the report on the basis of party loyalty, or for any other reason. We are entirely free to vote against the report because it was not part of our manifesto.

There is an extraordinary political situation in the House. There is a Liberal Democrat Green who wants to hug all the asylum seekers and who is splendidly politically correct. There will be great changes to the political structure in future. The last thing that we want is to have round our neck the albatross of a reorganisation that will be unpopular, with all the problems that will occur in future, which will be blamed on the reorganisation. We shall suffer that ignominy and blame in future elections.

The report, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) said, makes a weak case. We are offered the window dressing that it will solve the problem of terrorism. The same excuse was used for selling identity cards, but that was dropped. Identity cards will not solve the problem of terrorism. The other issue is drugs, to which a rational approach should be taken. The new leader of the Conservative party has a splendid, pragmatic view on drugs, which he demonstrated during his interrogation of witnesses who appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee when it was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). The present Chairman of the Committee did not seem to reflect that view. I   believe that if the Leader of the Opposition continues to pursue the brave policy that he advanced then and during his leadership campaign election we will, for the first time in 30 years, have an intelligent debate about drugs in the House.

We will solve the problem of drugs not through a reorganisation of the police but through a set of new laws. I spent the last weekend in a country that is not regarded as one that is successful on drug policy—Italy. The Villa Mariani in Rome operates a drugs policy that would be approved by many progressive people in the House. It is one of harm reduction, of needle exchanges and of treating drug addicts not as criminals and throwing them into prisons where there are drugs—and there are drugs in every one of our prisons in this country. It is a humane and practical policy that is pursued in collaboration with the police.

Portugal has, over a five-year period, reduced the number of people who have died from drugs by 50 per cent.—an extraordinary achievement. The Netherlands, Belgium and Australia have reduced the number of deaths from drugs by taking an effective, practical and humanitarian approach to the problem. The structure of our police is completely irrelevant to that.

Criminals will, of course, welcome a restructuring. During the reorganisation the police's attention will be on where headquarters will be, on who will get what job   and on who will be given what desk. Their attention will be distracted from the task of trying to catch criminals. They will be diverted by the black hole of reorganisation.

We have heard about what happened in Wales; it is an extraordinary, marvellous story. Evidence was given on 27 October 2004 to the Welsh Affairs Committee. The four chief constables turned up to say that they did not want an all-Wales authority. One of them said—I had the pleasure of quoting it back to her—that she did not
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want to see a link between north Wales and south Wales. Exactly a year later, on 27 October 2005, she told us that she would like reorganisation on an all-Wales basis. We must not be too hard on the police, as ambition comes into play. Some very attractive jobs and career options will be created. It has been said that when Wales reorganises the chief constable will have a helicopter—the "super-copper with a chopper". However, benefits will not be delivered to the general public.

As for costs, it is irresponsible to suggest that we should embark on such a programme when the police tax—it is more accurate to describe the council tax that way—will increase by up to 30 per cent. My area will be affected by equalisation between north Wales and Gwent, so our council tax or police tax will increase by an enormous amount—an increase of 13 per cent. next year is already being talked about. If we want more community police officers, it will increase by even more. We cannot be rushed into a decision by 23 December if there is no prospectus on costs at all. What on earth would the public make of that? The decision to reorganise forces has been rushed and has no rational basis. It will help only the criminals, and it will harm the structure of the police. It is reorganisation for reorganisation's sake, and we do not know whether big or small is beautiful. We know, however, that reorganisation, before it is introduced, must be based on a strong, powerful case. This is based on nothing.

8.36 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): All Governments are, from time to time, guilty of the offence of hurrying to change or to legislate. This Government, I am afraid, are doing so too often. Pressures have been imposed on the people who have to respond. What chance is there of an inquiry by the Select Committee on Home Affairs into police restructuring and reorganisation? What discussions have taken place with bodies that operate on a county basis and which will be seriously affected, including the magistrates courts service, the Crown court service, the probation service and the Crown Prosecution Service? There has been no consultation with them whatsoever. The Home Secretary said that the time frames were challenging. Frankly, they are nothing short of a disgrace.

I should like to say a word or two on behalf of Surrey, which is a small police force consisting of 1,959 officers. However, the great and the good deem it too small and "not fit for purpose". I invite them, however, to look at what Surrey has been able to achieve. Surrey police have made the county one of the safest in England, and they are consistently among the top five performers nationally. The latest results indicate that they have hit the top performance targets set for them by Surrey police authority in many different areas. They have cut robbery, vehicle crime and burglary. Surrey police are an excellent police force, and their success has been achieved despite Government help which, over the years, has decreased more and more. A succession of excellent chief constables—Sir Ian Blair, Denis O'Connor and the present chief constable, Bob Quick—and an excellent authority chairman, Liz Campbell, together with a dedicated police force in Surrey, have worked against a background in which, year after year,
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our grant has been cut. Surrey has one of the lowest grants per head of population in the country, and receives £88 a head compared with an average of £103 a head in the south-east.

Surrey's difficulties will not be sorted out by an amalgamation with Sussex or anyone else, as they stem from the underlying funding instability of the past few years. So put that right and we could be on the road to solving Surrey's problems, by giving Surrey police increased flexibility in reconfiguring and modernising their work force, which they want to do. That, coupled with a fair financial settlement, would sort out Surrey's problems.

I have talked to many in Surrey about possible amalgamations. Where do we go? Is Surrey keen to amalgamate with another force? In truth, its preferred option is to stand alone, without the need for a merger, by exploiting work force modernisation and by co-operating with neighbouring forces to share services and with some limited financial investment. That is a viable option for Surrey police force. If it must amalgamate, I suspect that its favoured option would be to do so with Sussex; but, in truth, I am not sure that Sussex wants to amalgamate with Surrey. So the real answer is to treat Surrey police fairly—give them a chance, and they will prosper—and the Home Secretary should never say that a force of 1,959 is too small to be effective.

If I wanted to find the answer to two questions—what we think of our police forces, and what we want from—I do not think that I would go to a Whitehall mandarin; I would go and ask a victim of crime. What do the victims think? There is still huge respect for our police force. Many would say that we have the best police force in the world. Many would rightly say that our police have a magnificent record of responding to major disasters and terrorist attacks and of dealing with high-profile murders. On all the big things, there is tremendous respect for our police force in this country.

Ask individuals about their localities and how happy they are with the policing that they get, however, and perhaps there would be a frown on their foreheads. They are not so sure that the service is what they want. Locally, individuals want the police to respond and react quickly when they are contacted. They want detection levels to go up. Above all, most people still want to see more police on the streets, and the truth is that, whatever the Government's plans and policies and whatever they have talked about over the past eight years, I think that there are fewer police on our streets, and people do not like it, for each of us is comforted and reassured by the presence of the police, by knowing them personally and by knowing that they get deeply involved in the community.

If the police are deeply involved in the community, known to people, moving around, talking to people and learning about solving the minor crime—the graffiti, the assaults and the drunkenness—and if they take control of communities, not only do they get the intelligence to sort out low-level crime, but that way comes intelligence to sort out the very serious crime and to find out who is responsible for it. So one's contacts perhaps might fear that the amalgamations, the mergers and the whole principle that big is better is a flawed concept.
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Someone told me not long ago, "Everything in my life seems to be getting bigger and more remote. It's moving away from me. I don't feel that I have any real involvement." So my advice to the Government is very clear. They should avoid the steady march towards a regional police force system; it is the last thing that people want. They should not think that bigger means better; it does not. They should not think that centralisation is better than devolving powers to communities; it is not. They should understand that larger can mean more remote. They should also understand that, if they focus too much on the big issues, those at the bottom end of society will find that the issues that matter to them are ignored and left aside.

So will it be in Surrey's interest to amalgamate? I   doubt it somehow. If it amalgamates with Sussex, performance may drop, things will be more remote and the financial resources may be sucked down to Brighton, Hastings or Gatwick. People in my constituency, Woking, will feel less involved, and they will feel that the police service is less accountable. The Government should remember that people in our communities are feeling increasingly left out and detached, and the more that we create big things, the more that they will feel remote and left out of our society.

8.45 pm

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