Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I welcome the fact that we are having a debate on police reform. We cannot divorce the idea of police structure from police functions. Having said that, I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) about the purpose of the rearrangement and the process that is being followed.
It is worth stating that police reform is already well under way. Lots of things have been happening, and I see them in my own constituency. We have significant new services in operationfor example, a mobile police station for rural areas. We have our first community support officers. We have £1.5 million of investment in a new police station in Glossop. We have had the very successful Operation Slipknot, whereby a major drugs ring was busted just a few weeks ago. Derbyshire has record numbers of police and has had a record fall in crime. That shows that things are working in my constituency as regards policing and the fight against crime. However, it is not a question of complacency, as there is much more to do.
One of the first antisocial behaviour orders in the country was imposed in my constituency. ASBOs have been welcome in the Gamesley area, where unacceptable behaviour contracts are bringing young people to book and encouraging positive behaviour, not just punishing bad behaviour. We are seeing positive leadership from police officers in our county.
I commend Derbyshire constabulary on being an active member of the local strategic partnerships that operate throughout the country. They advise others on how to work with other public services to help reduce crime across the board and to see what the police can do to help those other services deliver what they are there for as well. But most of all, we are seeing the development of neighbourhood policing. We are seeing the concept of the police officer in the allocated area with a telephone number and e-mail address, known to the people in the wards, building relationships, and that is working well. Only this weekend, a police constable said to me that, whatever happened at the top level, what was important was that the investment in neighbourhood policing should continue.
That is the agenda behind this reform. It is not about centralising control in regions but about devolving power and responsibility to the divisional headquarters, to the BCUs, and into the neighbourhoods. That is exciting and to be commended. I wonder if there really is an hon. Member who has more contact with their chief constable than with their BCU chief superintendent. When I refer constituency cases to the police, it is to the divisional headquarters, not the constabulary headquarters; it is to the chief superintendent, not the chief constable. Of course, I have a good relationship with the chief constable. I have even been to a Derby County football match with him; that is how good the relationship is. [Interruption.] Yes, I know, but we have to make sacrifices in this job. This really is about decisions made at chief superintendent level.
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A few years ago, like a number of other speakers in this debate, I took part in the police service parliamentary scheme, and every aspect was a real eye-opener. I spent 22 days with police officers in Derbyshire and in the Metropolitan constabulary, really seeing what life was like on the front line for police officers. During that experience, I saw my first dead body. I helped to discover a cannabis factory. I found myself chasing down a street at night after a few kids with balaclava helmets and baseball bats, wondering what I was doing there. I was one of the first on the scene when an officer had been attacked with his own CS gas. We were searching an abandoned derelict building for young children who were missing at midnight. Those are the sort of pressures faced by our police officers, who are genuinely committed to what they are doing in the neighbourhoods as part of the strategy and regard themselves in Derbyshire as a police service rather than a police force.
As I started the police service parliamentary scheme, the Airwave project was being introduced. Police officers were cynical about it. They saw it as a big Government IT system that was bound to fail and questioned its advantages, saying that they were quite happy with their police radios. At the end of my participation in the scheme, 18 months later, Airwave was well established, without any fuss, on budget and on schedule. People were saying that it was wonderful and asking why they had not had it before. That innate conservatism, scepticism and cynicism about whether it would work and produce results was there at the beginning, but Airwave did work and demonstrated that police authorities and services throughout the country could deliver on such issues.
I do not mind whether we move to a Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire arrangement, or a wider east midlands arrangement. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), I do not think that it matters where the headquarters is. What is important is that police are available in neighbourhoods. I also see this in the context of delivering more neighbourhood policies in families of schools, in primary care trusts with locality commissioning and in local authorities with local area agreements. All those policies look to more neighbourhood control and influence and more sensitivity to the delivery of services at that level.
This is an exciting set of proposals. I look forward to it being developed in harmony with the other proposals that are going on in different Departments, and I wish the Minister good speed and good luck with it.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con):
Were an educated but ill-informed Martian to wander into this place and ask why this Government were both unpopular and had lost the confidence of professionals in the public services, we could do little better than refer him or her to the subject of this debate. In particular, had the Martian been observing this debate, he or she would conclude that any governing party that had the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on the Back Benches and the Home Secretary on the Front Bench was working in the wrong direction.
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The Government's handling of this matter is a microcosm of what they get wrong in three respects. First, the consultation process and time scale never do justice to the complexity and seriousness of the issue being considered. Secondly, there is always a hint of menace in the Government if one does not do what they ask. Thirdly, they do not learn from their mistakes.
First, on the seriousness of the issues to be considered, we have heard plenty of serious speeches tonight. Had the Home Secretary approached the subject on the same basis as many of those speeches, which have called for longer to consider these matters, he would have been heard better. There are serious issues in relation to balancing local matters and larger-scale problems.
I do not want the Minister of State to talk to me about terrorism. Bedfordshire police authority is still reeling from having £400,000 removed from its budget this year, which was previously paid to it to look after the policing at Luton airport and to cover anti-terrorism measures. Bedfordshire does not need lectures from the Government about the importance of tackling terrorism.
We have not had answers in relation to serious issues such as accountability, the precept and other matters. Many colleagues mentioned the operational issue and asked whether forces will be moved from a low-crime area to a higher-crime area, bearing in mind that everything is run by targets and quotas these days. How can anyone in a low-crime area be sure that that will not happen when those who run the police force must respect the targets imposed by the Home Office?
The police authorities of the eastern area met today and could agree on nothing except that they did not want a regional force. They had different ideas on everything else. The Bedfordshire police authority voted unanimously last Friday to reject the idea of mergers. The county council passed a motion saying that it did not want any of this. In dealing with policing matters that are so important to all of us, it takes some genius for a Government to get so many people against them who reckon that they have got it wrong.
Secondly, there is the hint of menace from the Government. There is the time scale that suggests to the police authority that if it does not voluntarily co-operate and come up with a scheme, something will be imposed on it that it might not have wanted. If such an authority does not volunteer something quickly, money that might be available will be taken away. Which responsible senior officer could look at money that is available and decide not to go for it?
Thirdly, the Government are failing to learn lessons. The last time that the Home Office tried to foist something on Bedfordshire that was ill thought through, had money thrown at it and seemed to deal with a national problem, it was called Yarl's Wood detention centre, which went down in flames because of the ill consideration behind it. The Government do not learn the lessons from how they did things.
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I asked parish councils in my constituency, which are affected by policing, what they thought of the proposals. I received 15 responses, three of which could be described as neither one way nor the other, while 12 were more or less vehemently against. One parish council summed it up succinctly. Mavis Knight, the clerk to Odell parish council wrote to me:
"Dear Mr Burt, Thank you for your recent letter . . . At a recent meeting, Odell Parish Councillors were somewhat derisory of the whole process and felt it a waste of time to respond with any particular option as they are of the firm opinion that this government has already decided which option is to be adopted. They are probably right, but obviously you are not in any position to agree with that premise!!! Kind regards, Mavis Knight."