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Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the report and follow my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), who is unfortunately no longer in the Chamber, in saying that my force, the West Midlands force, welcomes the proposals. It has taken action and made proposals within the time scale.
I spoke not only to the force management but to Paul Tonks, the secretary of the West Midlands police federation. He commented that he was surprised that the reforms had not happened before; the federation was in favour. If both management and practitioners at local level are in favour of the reforms, there must be something going for them.
Public opinion has been prayed in aid for many solutions to the gaps identified in our policing. As with all public consultation, however, it really depends on the question that is asked. If we asked the public whether it was acceptable for only 13 of our 43 police forces to have specialist murder squads, they would say no. If we asked whether it was acceptable that only 6 per cent. of big criminal gangs are targeted every year, they would say no. Is it acceptable that only seven of the 43 forces
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deploy special branch officers in support of local neighbourhood teams? The public would find that shocking, too. In addition, I have evidence from local people who complain that their local police are diverted to other police forces when a major incident takes place elsewhere, and are thus unable to carry out their neighbourhood policing duties.
There are huge gaps in our level 2 policing that must be addressed but, unfortunately, I have heard no coherent argument from Opposition Members about how that should be done. I have heard the Kent solution and the Hampshire solution. I have heard about a bit of federation here and a bit of collaboration there, but all those solutions were examined in the O'Connor report and rejected as not fit for the purpose we wantfor our police forces to be able to deal adequately with level 2 crime.
I accept that the consultation period was short. Having been in local government for many years, I know that public authorities will take as long as they are given for consultation. Indeed, as has been said, the last police reform started in 1960 and finished in 1974. We no longer have that sort of time. We live in an age where technology and its criminal use move at such a pace that delay assists only the criminal. Given the figures outlined in the O'Connor report, the public will be on our side and will say that the Government need to address the issues urgently.
I want to emphasise an issue raised by other Members, but it is essential to keep hammering home the point: at the end of the day, the public will judge their local police on how they respond to antisocial and neighbourhood problems. An improvement in level 2 policing will have a constructive impact on the number of police available and perhaps result in the diminution of crime and antisocial behaviour at a local level. However, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that as they make the changes and give level 2 policing a measurement of performance management, they do not take their eye off the ball on local policing. Level 2 policing must not be carried out to the detriment of local policing.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) mentioned the support throughout Essex for the retention of Essex as a stand-alone police force. The force is already on top of its case and has 3,200 police officers. When the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety winds up the debate, will she set out the number of officers between 3,200 and 4,000 that would be sufficient for the force to stand alone? The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and
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Hythe (Mr. Howard) made an excellent case for why Kent police should stand alone, and I suggest that it was identical to the argument why Essex police should stand alone.
Who is exerting pressure by saying that the people of Essex would be better served by a force that was amalgamated with Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, because all the evidence shows that the Essex force operates perfectly well on its own? Will the Minister comment on the Prime Minister's verbal response to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that he would ensure that the Government would examine the case for Essex to stand alone if evidence to support that were produced? Will she assure the House that what the Prime Minister said was the truth and that the Government will listen and act if such a case can be made?
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I have only a couple of minutes, but I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I know that most of us have looked carefully at the plans, but I have become more and more suspicious that those who oppose them are doing so for many other reasons than their desire to make our police force more effective. I became incredibly suspicious when I had a dialogue with the Sussex police authority, and fast realised that because I did not take its point of view it did not want to be bothered to hear from me. I firmly believe that we need to address the question of our borders and to tackle the crime with which most people nowthank goodnesshave no contact. People are worried about crime in their communities.
I have one question for the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, although I firmly believe that I know the answer to it[Laughter.] I am glad that Opposition Members find that funny, because we in Crawley do not. We think that policing is incredibly important. When I had my regular meeting this morning with my divisional commander, did we talk about force structure or the strange debates that are going on? No, we did not; we talked about how policing is better for people in my community, how we can tackle young people who hang about on parades, how the local strategic partnership can tackle problems and how our increased number of community support officers can do the job that they want to do. That is what matters. People do not say that they want Sussex police to turn up. They want a police officer in their neighbourhood and that is precisely what they will get. They get that now and I am glad to say that they will get it with a changed structure. I want to ensure that we move ahead and have the police authorities that we deserve.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):
I regret the contribution just made by the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who is completely out of step with the views of other West Sussex Members of Parliament, her own chief constable and the police authority, all of whom have expressed grave concern about the impact of amalgamation on policing in the county.
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It will not have been lost on the Government that of, by my count, 26 speakers, only five Government Members were willing to defend the Government's proposals, and many of them offered only a qualified defence. Great concern has been expressed about the proposals. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, voiced concern about the inability of any proposed amalgamation to cross borders.
We face an absurd situation in which Dorset would be unable to amalgamate with Hampshire, even if it wanted to. Many hon. Members representing Welsh constituencies, including the hon. Members for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), made the same points in relation to the inability of North Wales police to merge with the Cheshire force, as did the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who bravely suggested that Derbyshire might make a foray into Staffordshire.
The Opposition fear that in proposing the amalgamations, the Government are pursuing the regional agenda that we have seen in planning, health care and fire services. There is a simple remedy for our fears: if the Minister is not pursuing that agenda, she need only agree to a straightforward request to allow mergers across borders. If she will not agree to that, we shall have a clearer idea of what the proposals are about.
Conservative Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), spoke about the British Transport police, whose position in London is a special one. My hon. Friend's concerns were echoed by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Having met the British Transport police authority, I believe that there are compelling reasons why the BTP should remain a separate, independent organisation. For example, the London underground extends beyond Metropolitan police force boundaries, the British Transport police pursue mainly level 1 policing functions, and soccer trains are run across county borders.
The Conservatives accept that some policing functions are best performed at national level. We would not go so far as to take up the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) to extend the powers of SOCA, but we are grateful to him for taking up our proposal for a border police force. I hope that his brave adoption of a Conservative policy will not harm his bid for the leadership of his party. We strongly reject the concept of a national police force and we are delighted that the Home Secretary has ruled that out, but we remain concerned that the creation of regional forces will be a step towards greater centralisation, which could lead inexorably to the creation of a national force.
Several hon. Members questioned the central premise of the report, which is that a force requires at least 4,000 officers to deal with level 2 crime. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and
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Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out that John Giffard, the chief constable who is charged with driving the Government's proposal, told Kent police authority that that threshold simply did not matter. The O'Connor report itself makes the point that
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said, the weakness of the arbitrary figure of 4,000 staff can be seen if one reads the O'Connor report. There is a central graph designed to show that bigger forces are more successful in maintaining protective servicesbut there are no scales on it. What does that tell us about the integrity of the research? Each force on the graph is represented by an unnamed dot. We do not know how each force performed because that information is not available to us in the report. Perhaps the Minister will agree to report it. We do not believe that a case for amalgamation can be hung upon such tenuous evidence, particularly when the consequences would be so profound.
My hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) referred to unequal precepts. Sussex police authority has said that if it were forced to merge with Surrey that would increase the police element of the council tax in Sussex by 20 per cent. West Mercia police authority has said that the regional West Midlands force, taking in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands and West Mercia, would lead to council tax falling in Staffordshire, West Mercia and Warwickshire but that in the west midlands it would rise and £30 would be added to the average council tax bill. That would lead to great local resentment at a time when levels of council tax are rising unacceptably. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how she would deal with the problem of equalisation of precepts.
The Government's case for merging police forces rests on achieving savings that can be ploughed back into enhancing protective services. The Minister, in her interview in The Daily Telegraph this morning, said:
How did the report arrive at that figure? It seems to have assumed savings of 1 or 2 per cent. of spending. We do not know what those savings are. How can savings on this scale be properly estimated if the structure of the service and the number of amalgamations is not known? There are no supporting calculations to back up the estimate. The figure appears to have been written on the back of an envelope. Even if £70 million is right, that is just 0.6 per cent. of the total budget of policing, which is £11 billion a year.
The Government's case is even less convincing since they have no idea of what amalgamations would cost. The report admitted that there would be costs but did not quantify them. The Home Secretary's first letter to chief constables did not mention the costs of amalgamations. His second letter recommended borrowing to meet the costs of merger. It took a third
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letter, two working days before the debate, for the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that the cost would be significant. He had decided to set aside up to £125 million of capital funding to support authorities and forces committing to an early merger.
We all know why he had to do that. Costly climb-downs appear to be in fashion on the Government Benches today. Where is the money coming from? It does not appear to be new money. The Home Secretary has raided the budget for police capital spending. The sum of £125 million would have been invested in police services and could have been invested in enhancing protective services. That money will now be spent, wholly unnecessarily, on amalgamating forces.
We are concerned also about accountability. The Government have not thought seriously about the issue. The O'Connor report points out that the number of basic command units upon which the Government have been relying for suggesting that there will still be elements of local policing has already fallen from 320 to 230 in just three years. The existing size of police authorities is 17 members. I understand that the Government have said that they are willing to increase that size to 23. If a police force area and the population that it serves doubles or trebles, by definition each member of the public has less representation unless the authority is increased in size by the same proportion.
"Every lesson of every police inquiry, not only the issues that give rise to antisocial behaviour but also those that give rise to criminal activity and to terrorism begin at the most local level, and it is the threat to that local policing that most concerns us about these proposals."
I wonder whether the Minister will tell us why she has not been keen to pursue the idea of federations, which was supported strongly by hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friends the Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) all said that it would be possible for police forces to share functions, and that that may be a much lower-cost option as a way of strengthening strategic services in future.
Finally, it is the speed at which the debate has been pursued that has most discredited the Government. Hon. Members on both sides of the House complained about that. The manner in which the Government have driven the debate is worryingthere has not been any time for debate, and there has not been a vote. On 5 Aprilthe eve of the election campaignthe Government commissioned the O'Connor report. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety said in a letter to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector:
"a wholesale amalgamation of the smaller police services . . . will remove local policing further from local people when there is no evidence that it will create a more effective police service."[Official Report, 5 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 273.]
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