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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): We in Swindon do not talk about the Wiltshire police; we talk about the Swindon police. That is because we have a good, well run local force that people identify with. They certainly do not identify with Wiltshire constabulary. It is very rare to find a Swindonian who says that they are Wiltshire first and Swindon second, so discussions about Wiltshire constabulary losing its identity do not trouble my constituents. What they want is what they already have: a Swindon police force that responds to Swindon's needs, delivering the low-crime town that we already have. However, my constituents also want the reassurance that, should a threatening incident occur over and above the usual crimes that our force is good at dealing with, an organisation is in place that is able to respond immediately and with sufficient dedicated resources.

Therein lies the rub. We are pleased with our force's performance on level 1 crimes, but level 2 crimes and major incidents are currently excluded from such measurement. It is unlikely that Wiltshire will do well in this area. With a force of some 1,000 constables, it does not have the capacity to respond to exceptional major incidents, but unfortunately there is little evidence that the police authority accepts that. It is overly concerned with the identity of Wiltshire, to the detriment of pressing national policing needs.

As Members have said such attitudes are bound up with the possible local government review and the precarious position of the county councils. Any suggestion that county identities should go is fought tooth and nail. Sadly, Wiltshire police authority is unlikely to make a recommendation to the Secretary of
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State, other than to recommend the loose federation of police authorities that it proposed in its last letter to the Home Secretary. Of course, such a structure is largely the same as the existing one; if it were adequate, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary would have said so in its report.

A federation would be little more than a talking shop, with all the associated inherent problems. Would it have to convene a meeting to decide how to respond to a terrorist attack? If that is the plan, my constituents will not be very impressed. Federations are likely to be dominated by larger forces, and such an arrangement would be much worse than the current one for small forces such as Wiltshire. However, Wiltshire police authority has made it clear that it will sit on the fence and make the Home Secretary take the decision. That will not meet the needs of my constituents, either, and I cannot support the police authority if it decides to follow that course.

We are not living in the time when the police boundaries were first drawn, and nor are we living in the first Elizabethan age—we are living in the second Elizabethan age. International terrorism and serious and organised crime do not respect historical boundaries. Indeed, they are likely to thrive on them, as they do not reflect current crime patterns. I do not want to have to explain to my constituents that our police force could not respond adequately to a major incident because the police authority's elected members were more concerned with protecting the identity of Wiltshire than with protecting the safety of the people living in it. I have not heard from Opposition parties any proposals that offer a serious and realistic alternative to the Government's proposals for fighting the serious and organised crime that HMIC has identified that we need to fight.

As I have made clear, the removal of the Wiltshire constabulary is unlikely to trouble the people of Swindon. What my constituents want is good local policing, backed up by the reassurance of strategic policing for major incidents. It may be one of the smallest forces, but Wiltshire consistently outperforms most of the other constabularies in its group, thanks in part to its neighbourhood policing policy. I was pleased to note the reassurances given about that aspect of police work. Indeed, Ministers have gone to great lengths to make it clear that neighbourhood policing can co-exist quite happily within larger strategic forces. They are right to say that neighbourhood teams will be protected if dedicated teams for major incidents are created; that means that individual officers will not be taken away from their local duties. That is what we want in Swindon. Our local police commanders have made excellent contributions to neighbourhood teams in Swindon—they have led the way. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will visit us in Swindon to see what we have done with the local authority, housing, health and education, as well as the police authority.

I commend the Home Secretary and Ministers on the rapidity of their response    to the O'Connor report—[Laughter.] Unlike Opposition Members, I do not find it amusing that we face serious policing difficulties. We do not have the luxury of delaying reform—the last restructuring took 10 years—as they suggest and I am glad that my constituents have the backing of the Government for that restructuring.
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9.25 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, partly because I have been helping to co-ordinate a campaign against the changes among MPs in Essex on a cross-party basis, as I shall explain in a moment. I also look forward to an opportunity to vote against the proposals one way or another in the new year.

There are several reasons for opposing these ill thought-out proposals, which I shall attempt to summarise in four and a half minutes. First, they enjoy little or no public support, and certainly not in Essex. The Evening Echo, which covers most of the south of the county, ran a telephone and internet poll that showed that almost 70 per cent. of respondents want to keep Essex constabulary as a stand-alone strategic force. Only 4.1 per cent backed the Government's preferred option of a six-county regional merger.

Secondly, the reforms would make policing more remote. Essex is one of the largest counties in England, with a population of 1.5 million people. It is also very diverse, with a highly urbanised south and a mainly rural north. It is nonsense to suggest that a regional chief constable based in Cambridge would be more in touch with how to police Essex than one based in Chelmsford in the heart of our county.

Thirdly, there are important issues of accountability. County forces have a sense of identity to which people can relate. If we believe in policing by consent, we must do everything that we can to retain that, and these proposals do not. Fourthly, they raise the prospect of the politicisation of the police. We have a proud tradition in this country that our police are non-political, but if we have 12 regional super-forces, they would inevitably come under stronger political control from the Home Secretary. We had an inkling of that in the debate on terrorism when some chief constables, though thankfully not ours, wrote to MPs to advise us on how to cast our vote. We do not want to go any further down that route.

Fifthly, the reforms will be expensive for little benefit. The APA has already estimated that the whole exercise could cost more than £500 million. There will be massive costs and it will also lead to an increase in council tax. The standard Essex precept is £105 for policing, compared with £145 in Norfolk. With the greatest respect to my colleagues from elsewhere in East Anglia, Essex council tax payers pay enough council tax as it is. They do not want to pay even more to subsidise policing in other parts of East Anglia.

Sixthly, the merger is not necessary to combat terrorism, as I pointed out in an earlier intervention, when I quoted my own chief constable in Essex. Seventhly, with all the house building that is likely to take place in Essex, much as I resent it, our policing strength on a pro rata basis will rise well above the   4,000 limit in a few years and thus comply with the Government's arbitrary target.

Crucially, the proposals are now opposed on an all-party basis in the county. Essex police authority, which is chaired by Councillor Robert Chambers and is all-party, has now formally come out in favour of the stand-alone option. At a meeting in Chelmsford last Friday, its members voted overwhelmingly for the option that Essex should stand alone as a strategic force, and the
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authority will submit that opinion to the Home Office to comply with the 23 December deadline. In addition, the chief constable of Essex, Roger Baker, who had previously had some sympathy with the suggestion of a regional merger—as the Minister will know—has now backed the Essex stand-alone option on behalf of the force and the people it protects.

There is all-party opposition among Essex Members of Parliament. Last week, 15 of the 17 MPs in Essex signed a pledge in defence of Essex constabulary and expressed their formal support for option 4—that Essex should stand alone. They included the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)—who is in his place—a Liberal Democrat, and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), a Labour Member, as well as all the Conservative MPs in the county. Therefore, I may claim genuine cross-party support on the issue. Feelings are running high on both sides of the House tonight, but as far as I know, we are the only county for which MPs from all parties have come together and formally signed a pledge in defence of maintaining our force. The Minister ignores that at her peril. Shortly, I shall write to her and the Home Secretary with a copy of that pledge so that she can see the strength of feeling for herself.

I have been an MP for only about four years, and this is one of the liveliest debates in which I have participated—certainly in terms of the opening speeches. Again and again, Members on both sides of the House have spoken out against the proposals. In policemen and women, we are talking about a breed of people who do a special job. In essence, they defend us and our constituents. Tonight, MPs of all parties in the House have united to defend them.

If policing by consent still means anything to the Government, Ministers should listen to elected representatives on both sides of the House who have been sent here to speak on behalf of their police and their constituency. I say to Ministers: think again and make the changes go away.

9.30 pm

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