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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I will give way in a moment, as I said.

We must be clear that it is our duty—certainly my duty as Home Secretary, but also our duty across the House—to find the most effective way of enabling the professional views of our police service best to protect the public and then to go ahead and implement them without delay. The problems addressed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary are problems that we face now—they will not go away, as they have not gone away in the past. In fact, the inspectorate was clear in its report that they would get worse if we failed to act.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Last week, Bedfordshire MPs from all parties met Bedfordshire police authority, which believes that the cost of the Home Secretary's reforms will affect the number of officers on the ground. I tabled a written parliamentary question on that matter last week. Can the Home Secretary enlighten the House about it?

Mr. Clarke: There is absolutely no reason to say that. In fact, I quoted a chief constable making exactly the
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point that neighbourhood policing will be strengthened, not weakened, by this approach. I will return to that later in my remarks.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A week ago today, Mr. Barry Roper, the independent vice-chairman of Leicestershire police authority, lobbied Leicestershire MPs, including me. Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that there can be a dichotomy of views between an area's police authority and its police force? Would he care to comment on how he intends to react to that?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. There is a range of views about these questions within policing. There are different views between professional police officers, as there sometimes are between chief constables and police authority members. That is part of the debate that we should have. I do not argue that there is a uniformity of view that this is the right thing to do, because that is not so. I do argue, however, that serious professional policing opinion at the level of the inspectorate and others has taken that view consistently.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way one more time before making more progress.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Has not the Home Secretary identified part of the problem? The police forces that support this proposal are by and large metropolitan police forces covering large metropolitan areas. In the west midlands, for example, West Mercia, which covers Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, has real concerns. Rural communities are in danger of losing out, because resources will go from relatively low-crime rural areas into higher-crime urban areas. Is not that why so many rural forces are concerned about his proposals?

Mr. Clarke: I think that that description is completely wrong. In the west midlands region, for example, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, which have many rural areas, support the changes. Northumbria, a force that has great swathes of rural population, some of which is very sparse, supports the changes. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would categorise County Durham as a rural or an urban force, but it certainly has substantial rural areas, and it supports the changes. He rightly says that there are issues in West Mercia, but it is not the kind of area that he describes.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) for a loose federation of constabularies combines the worst of all possible options, first, by not delivering economies of scale at the delivery end and, secondly, by bringing in an additional tier of bureaucracy that can only make things worse?

Mr. Clarke: I agree. That gives me the opportunity to make some progress in addressing precisely that point.
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Sir Ronnie Flanagan describes existing collaborative arrangements as "woefully inadequate" and adds that they

At a different level, Rick Naylor, who leads the Superintendents Association, says:

There are instances of useful collaboration—for example, in providing training for officers, often in reactive response to civil contingencies. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is no longer in his place, rightly mentioned Essex's support for the Met after 7/7. Mutual aid can be very strong and effective. It was required, for example, during the recent fire at the Buncefield oil storage facility, where the Metropolitan police service and Bedfordshire constabulary provided support for Hertfordshire in an effective operation.

I do not in any sense decry the view that collaboration can offer solutions and benefits—it can. However, the "Closing the Gap" report demonstrated that that was not a good enough basis for the continuous intelligence and preventive work that is essential for good protective services. The common element of the types of crime that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden described is that in the modern 21st-century police service we must not only predict and prevent but recognise and react. Intelligence gathering and preparation are absolutely critical, and we need resources dedicated to proactively gathering intelligence and making links that deal with that in a variety of ways.

Many of the business cases submitted by forces and authorities state that, under the current structure, if their forces were to experience sustained demand on protective services, local policing would suffer. We need solutions for each area. I agree that it is not a one-size-fits-all model, which is why the regional picture that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden described is not correct. We look at each case and consider what to do in the light of the professional advice that we receive. We are going through options case by case. The first crucial hurdle that every option, whatever it is, has to clear is to demonstrate operational viability in terms of delivering protective services. I hope shortly to be in a position to make an announcement on those options identified as operationally viable, and we will then discuss with forces the best way to proceed.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I will go on to talk about neighbourhood policing, which I see as absolutely central, and the basic command unit, but before doing so I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham).

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): The west midlands was mentioned earlier. West Midlands police responded tremendously to a bomb scare, for want of a better term, in Birmingham. It showed how well a police force can operate when it gets it act together. However, one of the biggest fears about a
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merger is that in some areas—for example, Coventry, although we have a big police force—it is often difficult to find somebody in charge on a Saturday, or Sunday, when incidents occur in neighbourhoods. The public expect Members of Parliament to be able to get through to a senior police officer, but it is difficult. Will my right hon. Friend look into that?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. That is precisely why we have made the development of neighbourhood policing teams central to our policing strategy. The strategy at basic command unit level—for example, at the level of the city of Coventry—is for the police to work with other agencies to tackle crime in the locality. A key test is whether such a strategy will help or hinder neighbourhood policing and the development of a proper basic command unit structure. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Home Secretary said that there was support in Wales for the proposals in the report. A parliamentary written answer from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety suggested that there had been a joint submission from all forces in Wales. However, the North Wales police authority appears to favour closer collaboration with Cheshire. Will my right hon. Friend take that on board?

Mr. Clarke: I certainly shall. My hon. Friend is correct. There are doubts in the police force and among parliamentary colleagues from different parties in north Wales about the wisdom of an all-Wales basis for policing, and serious issues have been raised. As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and I have discussed how best to tackle them with the police force and Members of Parliament. We are therefore listening. I emphasise that, in the rest of Wales, there is a view that an all-Wales force is the right way forward, but we shall take account of my hon. Friend's point.

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