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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

David Davis: For the sake of party fairness, I should make one concession. At a party conference, I once described the Liberal policy of tough liberalism as an oxymoron with the emphasis on the last two syllables.

Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman is tough with a generous heart. He has made an important point about consultation. Does he agree that in many cases the people who oppose the Home Secretary's proposal do not have vested interests? If the Home Secretary listened, he would realise that serious crime is a consideration, but not the only consideration. Many people think that the proposal will seriously harm local crime management. For example, an all-Wales police
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force will pool resources in high-crime areas, leaving relatively low-crime areas to experience an increase in crime.

David Davis: I agree with almost every word the hon. Gentleman has said, despite his opening accusation of kindness, which is very dangerous for a Home Secretary.

Returning to my opening remarks, even if we were not in this new age of consensual politics, I would still believe that every hon. Member wanted to ensure that our police forces are adequately equipped to tackle the myriad threats faced by the people of this country.

The Home Secretary has already admitted that the widespread objections to the proposals have forced him to implement them in two stages. He has said that those forces happy to proceed will start in April 2007, while for those that object it will be April 2008. All the indications are that few, if not none, of the forces will agree to April 2007, so we are discussing April 2008, when most of the forces will be cajoled into submission with doubts about costs and accountability still rampant.

For that reason, surely we should spend the next year on a proper period of consultation, which we should have had in the first place. During that time, precise costings could be made and other options, such as a federated structure, could be properly considered, just as the Prime Minister has suggested. Proper local consultation could be undertaken, with local referendums—I know that the Government do not like them any more—where appropriate.

If the Home Secretary does that, in most cases—the Home Secretary has a point in some parts of the country—the option that will deliver the greatest ability to fight serious crime is the federated option of enhanced co-operation and sharing services between neighbouring forces. Indeed, 23 Labour Members have signed early-day motion 1393 to that effect.

My proposal to the Home Secretary will enable him essentially to keep to his projected timetable while allowing us to exercise our constitutional obligation to ensure that our country's police forces are "fit for purpose", which is fit for all purposes. If he chooses to dismiss it, he must explain why he has chosen to implement uncosted, unpopular, ineffective and undemocratic reforms with undue haste and inadequate consideration. Why has he chosen to spend £500 million to take half a step backwards?

I will listen to the Home Secretary very carefully. If he is reasonable, we may not even force a vote. If he is not, however, we will revisit this issue time and time again in the coming weeks, months and, indeed, years until the serious inadequacies in the Government's proposals are dealt with in the interests of the British people.

1.7 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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Labour Members have no aversion to votes, despite recent experience. I was excited when the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) described the constructive approach that he was going to adopt, but we did not hear a lot of it in a speech that consisted of a series of attacks of the traditional variety. As ever, I shall attempt to respond constructively.

The issue concerns professional policing, and the process is not driven by politics or, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, a regional agenda. Everyone with a serious professional interest in policing accepts that the provision of protective services is deficient. The Association of Police Authorities has acknowledged that point, pointing out that the current 43-force structure is not strong enough to tackle organised gangs and nationally mobile criminals.

The current president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Chris Fox, has said that

Paul Scott-Lee, chief constable of the west midlands, has said that it would be better to serve the region with one force. Jon Stoddart, the chief constable of Durham, has said:

Only yesterday, the chief constable of North Yorkshire said that

Let me go through the different regions. In the west midlands, three of the four forces think that some form of amalgamation is necessary, while one is very concerned. In the north-east, two are in favour and one is concerned. In the north-west, a form of amalgamation is supported by most of the forces in the region. In Wales—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I will give way in a moment.

In Wales, many forces accept the idea of a national force to deal with these circumstances.

The point that I am trying to make is that it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that there is total opposition to these changes or that the policy is politically driven. It is professionally driven: professional police officers think that it is the right way to go.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I assure my right hon. Friend that representatives of the Association of Police Authorities in south Wales, whom we met last week, and
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the chief constable of the South Wales police force and her colleagues not only accept the main thrust of these proposals but recognise that local and democratic accountability will come through the neighbourhood policing model, which was not mentioned at all by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). Does my right hon. Friend think it somewhat unfair that the Tory Front-Bench spokesman has as a motto, "Tough on crime, tough on interventions by the Member for Ogmore"?

Mr. Clarke: I would have thought that that was the authentic voice of Davis. I intend to talk at some length about neighbourhood policing.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I want to make a little more progress before I give way again.

I want to emphasise that the professional view that we need change to deal with serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism and major stretches of forces is not new. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) made the case about Sir David Phillips' report. The "Closing the Gap" report was a consequence of a large number of similar proposals in the past. Even under the previous Conservative Government, a White Paper was published in 1993, which said: "This pattern"—of 43 forces—

It continued:

Those are very similar to Sir Denis O'Connor's words about being "fit for purpose", which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden criticised.

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