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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I have concerns about the proposals because I am extremely proud of the progress that the Government have made in improving policing in Wrexham. When I was elected in 2001, one of the most common issues in my constituency was antisocial behaviour and crime. I had difficulty in dealing with those issues and referring them to the police because I could not contact identifiable officers for geographical areas in the constituency and I was not sure to whom to refer constituents. I am pleased to say that, in the Wrexham and in the North Wales police area today, we have identifiable community beat officers in each council ward. In addition, we have community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. We would like to have more neighbourhood wardens, but unfortunately the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives on the local authority voted against that.
The Government have a tremendous record on neighbourhood policing and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has personal experience and knowledge of policing in Wrexham. She came to Wrexham at a very difficult time and I am grateful for her support then. She has seen neighbourhood policing in its infancy and the way that it has developed since.
My concerns are shared by my colleagues right across north Wales and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for already giving us a great deal of time. She has listened carefully to what we have had to say and she is aware of some of the arguments that have already been referred to in the debate so far. I will not discuss north Wales at length, because a number of colleagues have already raised the issue.
I wish to consider specifically Denis O'Connor's report. I am a reformer and a great believer in police reform. Police reform has occurred substantively under this Government, but it has been opposed at many stages by the Opposition parties. I remember being in
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Committee when the introduction of community support officers was being discussed. That was opposed by the Opposition parties. I remember concerns being expressed about the extension of neighbourhood warden schemes, but I am very pleased that progress has been made.
I welcome the assurances that have been given about the future of neighbourhood policing, but we must consider Denis O'Connor's report. I am not against the amalgamation of forces if it improves the level of policing that is afforded to my constituents. I am not against the amalgamation of forces if it improves the operational capacity of the Wrexham force and the North Wales force.
I have considered closely the proposals in Denis O'Connor's report, but I have also considered closely the statement by Chief Constable Giffard in his letter of 9 November this year to the chief constable of North Wales. It set out the reasons for recommending an all-Wales force, and it is worth quoting them in full:
"The option meets the HMIC criteria on size of force and demonstrates the potential capacity to provide protective services to national standards without adverse impact on police services at the neighbourhood level."
There is no dispute that an all-Wales force would have more than 4,000 officers; that is not an issue. However, I have seen no real evidence to date that suggests that protective services across Wales would be improved by the creation of an all-Wales force. If that evidence exists, I would like to see it. If it exists, it should be put before the public so they can see the evidence that suggests that policing would be improved.
In the Welsh context, it is extremely important to consider the geographical area that would be covered by the all-Wales force. Five hours is not an unusual journey time from Holyhead to Cardiff and, from Wrexham, it takes three hours to get to Cardiff and four hours to Swansea. It is a huge area.
Denis O'Connor also refers to criminal markets, which are very important in the improvement of level 2 activities such as collecting intelligence and dealing with serious organised crime. It is easily explicable that improved level 2 policing would occur with the closer integration of police services in Merseyside and north Wales because, as any police officer or magistrate in north Wales knows, there is an active criminal market that is common to both places. However, it is not easy to understand how a national Wales force will deal with those criminal markets more efficiently than present arrangements, as its structure will take no account of criminal markets.
To date, the evidence has not been brought forward to support the proposed restructuring. I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to tell me how level 2 policing will be improved. How will there be better intelligence gathering in an all-Wales force? How will serious organised crime be better addressed? Will the fact that
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criminal markets, which Denis O'Connor describes as "fundamental", are ignored by the present proposal for an all-Wales force make any difference?
I am concerned that neighbourhood policing may be undermined by an all-Wales force. I have heard and welcome the assurance that the basic command unit will remain the building block of policing, but I have concerns relating to finance, the foundation on which the building blocks stand. In particular, north Wales has invested more in policing than other parts of Wales, and its police precept is higher. If the police precept is standardised across Wales, the north Wales precept will necessarily be reduced. If that happens, will there be a call for services to move from north to south, where, after all, crime rates are higher? If resources are shifted, it will have a detrimental effect on neighbourhood policing in north Wales.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I appreciate that there is already a time limit on speeches by Back Benchers in this debate, but if hon. Members are brief, a few more may be able to contribute, even at this late stage.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): The Government claimed that the O'Connor report forced them to restructure our police forces. They started a panicky, so-called consultation exercise, which was too hasty, and now they are providing a financial bung to those who kowtow to them before the ridiculous deadline of Friday.
A week last Wednesday, I asked the first question at Prime Minister's questions, when I mentioned an extraordinary letter from the chairman of my police authority, who is a Labour councillor. The Prime Minister said that a full consultation is taking place, but that is not what Cheshire police authority expects. In a letter that was copied to the Minister, Councillor Peter Nurse has stated:
"Policing should be at the heart of our communities and your proposals do nothing to safeguard or develop this. Your timetable is so absurd that it is impossible for us to have a meaningful dialogue with our communities . . . Your direction in respect of Cheshire is severely flawed . . . Restructuring policing with such haste and without considering the long term implications is dangerous and not in the interests of the people of Cheshire."
Two days after Prime Minister's questions, I attended a meeting with Cheshire police authority and the chief constable, where I paid tribute to the hard work of the Cheshire constabulary and all the policemen and women within that force. Performance has been middling, and nobody would say that there is not vast room for improvement, but the force has specialist policing capabilities, and, as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, it has engaged in fantastic collaboration with not only North Wales
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police, but Merseyside police, Greater Manchester police, Staffordshire police and, in north Shropshire, West Mercia constabulary.
My constituents in Cheshire are served by tailor-made collaboration, co-operation and co-ordination, while national threats are met by national strategies. In terms of a criminal market, as it was rather delicately put by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), crime is either local or national. There is no such thing as regional crime. Logic does not impel the Government to design a response that is regionally based rather than nationally based or, as at present, locally based.
What is the answer? It is not what is on offer in the House today. We are not allowed to maintain the status quo or to look across National Assembly or regional development agency boundaries; instead, we have to look at this precisely as the Government want us to, for the convenience of Ministers and Whitehall mandarins, who no doubt see it as a nice dotted line that will not disturb their administrative flows.
We need to tell the Government to think again. This hasty timetable can easily be extended and the financial bung can be removed so that there is not a perverse incentive for rushed responses. There should be a proper, considered and serious response so that we get to the point where we have an organisation that is equal to the threats and meets the needs and demands of our local citizens. All the constituents whom I represent in south-west Cheshire want good collaboration with north Wales to continue. They do not need a national police force to make that happen, because it happens already. As we have heard from Welsh MPs, a national Welsh force is not needed either, for much the same reasons.
When my good friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), asked whether there should there be a national police force, the Minister replied with a categorical no. Let us therefore assume that it is not going to happen. I very much support that. We could, however, expand national organisations such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the British Transport police and the National Criminal Intelligence Service in order to collaborate, co-ordinate and co-operate nationally to deal with national threats, be that through counter-terrorism or anything else.
Deep down, the consent of the British people is required for us to have confidence in our policing, because policing, as it was originally set up, has to be by the people and for the people, just like our mandate in this place.
Not for the first time, the Government's proposal has been presented to the House in a panicky way, with no votes and no chance to make correctionsonly an opportunity to urge a Minister who is not necessarily going to respond positively, although she is giving a good impression of listening. We are being offered a false prospectus. This is not about improving the service of policing to my constituents; it is about mapping an organisation on to a pre-conceived regional agenda that has nothing to do with meeting the additional threat that my chief constable rightly said has gone national, while continuing the local neighbourhood policing strategy. That is what is so inconsistent, and that is why we should not be shy of
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holding the Government to account and accusing them of issuing a false prospectus for an agenda and a strategy that is below-the-table stealth regionalisation that we should reject out of hand.
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