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The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): May I welcome the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to his Front-Bench role? I am sure that he will enjoy it and the opportunity to work with the police.
I shall try to respond to as many contributions as possible. Twenty-seven Members spoke, which shows the level of interest on both sides of the House in the future of our police services and their importance to local people. I was a little disappointed that Opposition speeches did not include a single contribution by a female Member of Parliament. Indeed, I do not think that a female Opposition Member even attended the debate, which is not the face of the new Conservative party that we want to see. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made a disappointing contribution, in which he argued for the "do nothing" option. He often says that he wants efficiency, but he was not prepared to make any of the bold and courageous decisions that the Government are prepared to make. May I remind him of the history of the proposals? The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is in the Chamber and, in June 1993, just before he replaced the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) as Home Secretary, a White Paper on police reform was published. It said that "the pattern" of 43 forces
"is partly the result of historical accident and the merging of organisations established haphazardly over more than 100 years . . . The result today is a patchwork quilt of forces of widely varying sizes and types. . . It is questionable whether 43 separate organisations are now needed to run police operations and whether the maintenance of 43 parallel organisations makes the most effective use of the resources available to policing."
The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), like other hon. Members, commended the ability of our police forces to respond. He acknowledged that changes were taking place, and that there were new challenges in relation to serious and organised crime. However, there is not a blueprint, redprint or any other kind of print in the Home Office to redraw the map, which is why we asked forces and authorities to submit proposals. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that, as a result of those proposals, the links of the locality will be stronger, not weakera point that has been made by several Government Members.
I was grateful for the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who asked us not to be too rigid on coterminosity and Government office boundaries. We included that issue in the original criteria for logical and coherent reasons, because prevention of crime, young people, social services, education and drug action teams are significant considerations, and it is important to align such services with policing services. Only 50 per cent. of work to tackle crime is pure policing businessthe rest of that work is conducted in conjunction with a range of organisations. Where there is a compelling case for going against those criteria, we would look at that, but it is the responsibility of Government to set criteria in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) had some understandable concerns. We have met Welsh Members on four or five different occasions and I am happy to continue having those discussions. North Wales has a good record on neighbourhood policing. I have visited the force and seen it for myself, and it is one of the excellent forces. Again, it will be important for North Wales police to continue to collaborate with the Cheshire force, whatever the future of the strategic force, because that is an important relationship to maintain, as various hon. Members have said.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) asked whether the 4,000 figure for the size of strategic forces was a completely hard-and-fast rule. Denis O'Connor rightly said in his report that there was a clear correlation in respect of the size of force; but, again, we have said if Kent police want to work up the stand-alone optionthey are doing soand if it provides protective services in a proper way, we will consider it.
Again, if Essex police want to work up that option, we will consider it, but all hon. Members should realise that this is not simply about looking at individual solutions. As any Government would, we must also consider the national landscape and what works in each regionthat is a careful balance to makeso we will look at the options, but we will not make the wrong decisions simply because they are based on individual forces. We will consider how the forces interact and at how the whole business is configured.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), with his extensive experience of the British Transport police, made some important points, and he knows that the Department for Transport is conducting a review that, we hope, will feed into some of our considerations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), who has had to leave, put the emphasis in a very lucid contribution rightly on tackling antisocial behaviour and local crime. Again, I can reassure him about strengthened accountability
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arrangements at BCU level. We are committed to looking at the idea of local police boards, whereby local communities will be able to set priorities and have a much greater input than they currently have.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has extensive knowledge from his experience of being Opposition police spokesperson, but he must also know about the links between the local communities and the volume of crime at BCU level, and then between the strategic level and serious and organised crime. They are absolutely connected, and I would not want the role of tackling all serious and organised crime to be taken over by SOCA, thus losing those essential links with community intelligence.
Several hon. Members have spoken about collaboration and federation. I am not convinced that collaboration would take us anywhere on the journey that we need to take. There have been several examples of forces that have tried to collaborate, but other forces have not provided resources and there has been no real buy-in and no real ownership. That would not get us results.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) made some very powerful points, and I acknowledge his support for local policing over very many years. If police authorities do not submit cases by 23 December, we will continue to work with them throughout January and continue to offer support, but if, at the end of the day, we have to make decisions, we will clearly need to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) made some important points, again, about collaboration. I have discussed the matter with him, and I am not convinced that it is necessarily the way forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) wants no change, but I am afraid that, with the serious threats that face us, that is not an option either.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) is absolutely right about the importance of good neighbourhood policing, and I acknowledge, again, his concerns about the relationship with Cheshire police. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), in an excellent speech, talked about the good collaboration that Derbyshire police have. They are a very good force, as well, in dealing with domestic violence and sexual offences, and I hope that they can spread that good practice among other forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) also argued for no change. Again, we must look at the position across the country. He understands the arguments and the serious threat that faces us.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) made an excellent speech in support of the idea of creating strategic forces. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) also made an excellent speech, with an analysis of the gaps in
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our capacity. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) showed a real grasp of the new threats that face police authorities in this country.
We have seen a fairly unholy alliance among the Opposition parties. I wonder whether we have seen the new Liberal Conservatives, or the Conservative Liberals, united on a no-change option. Perhaps we are seeing a new merger not of police forces but of
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