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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I want to establish the Home Secretary's good faith, having listened carefully to his response to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). Cheshire has made it clear that intelligence as well as crime economy—for want of a better phrase—arguments favour putting north Wales and Cheshire together, rather than putting Cheshire with others in a region called the north-west. If the Home Secretary is truthful about listening, he should wipe away all the administrative boundary constraints, within which North Wales and Cheshire police must fit, and get them together.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is right in an important respect: the crime marketplace runs from Liverpool to north Wales; in south Wales, it runs down the M4 corridor. Examples could be given in every part of the country of the need for collaboration to tackle such circumstances, wherever the border falls.

However, the hon. Gentleman asked me why regional boundaries were important. The reason is that they are important—[Interruption.] Let me be clear. The police will tell all hon. Members who ask that collaboration with other public services—health, education or any other service—is central to improving policing and
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reducing crime. Increasingly, such collaboration is the way to reduce crime and it is therefore necessary. Other services recognise regional boundaries and that is why I said that police structures should consider that. I said previously that it is not an absolute requirement that one should not cross a regional boundary because there may be cases of the sort that have been mentioned. However, I said publicly in September that the case for not respecting the regional boundary in our work would need to be powerful. That is a reasonable position for a Home Secretary to adopt.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Terrorism and other such subjects have been mentioned. However, residents in Essex are genuinely worried that, at a time of increasing antisocial behaviour and violent crime, the reorganisation will distance policing from local people. That is the key concern, not only in Essex but other parts of the country. At the same time, the reorganisation threatens to increase cost when the police levy in the council tax has already doubled since 1998. What would the Home Secretary say to my constituents?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is right about the concern that exists. I believe that people's major anxiety, reflected in the earlier debate on the proposals, which come from professional police but are supported by the Government, is that policing will move away from the local community. I shall now deal with that precise point.

Let us consider the levels of policing. First, there is neighbourhood policing, which roughly covers a local authority ward. There should be a neighbourhood policing team, with police officers and police community support officers working with the community, so that a force serves its specific needs and cannot be abstracted from it. That is a central policy. It was part of our manifesto in the election and it will be driven through. I shall give an example shortly.

Secondly, the level above the neighbourhood or ward is the local authority area, which the basic command unit covers. A structure should exist at that level for the partnership that I described earlier, whether we are considering Coventry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) referred, or any other community in the country. For example, in Essex and, in my case, in Norwich, there should be a relationship between the basic command unit—the BCU—and other services.

Given the anxieties that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) expressed, I want to explain how we ensure that neighbourhood policing happens. He is right that his constituents are worried about that. First, we will provide ring-fenced funding, whereby we can ensure that the money is spent on implementing neighbourhood policing. It totals approximately £80 million this year, rising to more than £130 million in 2006–07 and nearly £390 million the year after that to help forces with the costs of moving towards our target of 24,000 police community support officers. A condition of receiving the funding is that police authorities and forces have to sign up to fulfilling the criteria of the neighbourhood policing programme, which the chief constable of Leicestershire is leading. Police community support officers are vital to those teams. We therefore have ring-fenced funding to provide neighbourhood policing.
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Secondly, the Government, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, are providing a programme of support and guidance, to ensure that all forces have effective police teams. The Association of Chief Police Officers is leading a programme of support, evaluation and programme management to ensure that the programme is delivered in every police area in the country. As part of that, it provides professional guidance for neighbourhood policing teams and BCU commanders, and training to ensure that all officers are committed to implementing the target. If forces fail to implement the programme effectively, the programme team will intervene to support and help drive progress.

If, after such support, forces continue to fail to deliver the neighbourhood policing that the constituents of the hon. Member for Billericay want—for example, knowing the names, addresses and phone numbers of local officers whom they can contact about any problem that arises—we have the power to intervene. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will begin to conduct specific inspections of neighbourhood policing later this year. If it is not being performed according to agreed national standards—agreed with and by the police—the inspectorate will develop an improvement plan with the force, as happens when any force fails an inspection. If the force continued to underperform—that is extremely unlikely—it could lead to engaging the police standards unit. Ultimately, it is possible for the Home Secretary to intervene directly.

I am trying to stress that the neighbourhood policing element, which the hon. Member for Billericay rightly raises, is the key concern. I believe that we have a substantial programme in place to implement the policy. Every chief constable in the country is committed to developing neighbourhood policing. I therefore hope that the sanctions that we have discussed will be unnecessary. The policy is essential.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for his verbal commitment to the principle of neighbourhood policing. However, has not the trend under the Government gone in the opposite direction? Sir Denis O'Connor's report states:

The BCUs are becoming bigger and less accountable. That is the reality of community policing under the Government.

Mr. Clarke: Actually, I do not think that that is the reality. If we look at neighbourhood policing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, we can see it developing much more. I will respond to the point about BCUs in a moment.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire is probably a good example of what he has been describing? We have a large rural force combined with a metropolitan force. The chief constable is based down the road at Stafford, some miles removed from Stoke-on-Trent both geographically and in terms of the
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local environment, yet in Stoke-on-Trent the chief superintendent, John Wood—who was recognised in the new year's honours for his outstanding work—is putting in place just the kind of local policing that my right hon. Friend describes, through the systems that are in place in Stoke-on-Trent, and working at community level.

Mr. Clarke: One of the exciting things about doing this job is that, when I go to communities such as Stoke and meet the borough commanders and local inspectors who are dealing with these issues, I can see that their commitment, engagement and excitement in delivering these programmes is real. This is not something that we are having to put in place against the wishes of the policing professionals; exactly the reverse is the case. They want to deal with these problems more effectively; my hon. Friend is right.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that coterminosity is important? In Surrey, it is therefore important for the Surrey police to stay where they are, coterminous with Surrey county council. If the police force were merged with that of Sussex or Kent, it would be coterminous with nobody.

Mr. Clarke: The key issue is coterminosity with the local district council area, and that is how it should be.

I will take the hon. Lady's question as a cue to talk about the BCU relationship, which has rightly been identified as extremely important. I want to emphasise that, through the Bill that was published last week, we are significantly strengthening accountability, so that the BCUs and the crime and disorder reduction partnerships—the CDRPs—will be more accountable to local communities. It will therefore be much more difficult for forces to ignore the BCU-level demands of those communities.

First, we are introducing national standards, to which the CDRPs must adhere, to provide a minimum quality of service. Secondly, we will ensure that elected councillors responsible for community safety take a personal lead in setting community safety priorities. One of the problems has been that elected local authority councillors have not always been able to give this work the priority that their constituents would wish. The key strategic issues will be set by the CDRP's members, the elected councillors, rather than by officials.

We will also ensure, through the national standards, that the CDRPs continue the consultation with their communities and develop it so as to reflect the concerns of local people. There will be scrutiny of the work of the CDRPs by local authority scrutiny committees—again, in the classic way, through local government—and inspection by the inspectorate in the relevant area. All of this will make it much more difficult for a chief constable or a police authority to circumscribe or weaken the discretion of a BCU commander.

Beyond that, we are introducing measures to ensure that, even where they do not succeed, communities will still have the ability to get their particular problems addressed, even if the overarching force is not involved. To deal with circumstances in which issues are not being addressed, we are legislating in the Police and Justice
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Bill to provide a mechanism—which we are calling the community call for action—whereby people living or working in a particular area can initiate action by the BCU commander or the local authority chief executive. The new legislation will give the Home Secretary the power to intervene to force the police authority—and, through it, the police force—to take BCU-level issues seriously and to give the BCU-level commanders the support that they need to get the job done.

The concern expressed both by Labour and Opposition Members that this reform will lead to the police being distanced from the local community is, I accept, a well-founded fear, in the sense that it is a description of the state of affairs that exists. However, it is not founded in reality. The process that we have set out to promote neighbourhood policing and to develop the basic command unit will apply throughout the country in ways that will materially change the situation.

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