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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous in giving way. He is right to say that some change is necessary. Will he at least acknowledge, however, that the police authorities were right to resist the Home Office deadline before Christmas, and that they acted in the public interest in so doing, because they have facilitated a fuller consultation that will deliver better solutions for neighbourhood policing and enable the Home Secretary to consider Her Majesty's Opposition's proposal to work together to get the answer right?

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. What actually happened was that just about every force in the country—all but one or two, I think—submitted proposals to me as requested. There were a number of authorities that did not make a proposal, although the force in their area did. The Association of Police Authorities then put out what was, in my opinion, an extremely ill-judged press release shortly before Christmas, suggesting that people were not responding when in fact they were. We had very good responses. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to suggest that the key element is neighbourhood policing.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): In regard to the communication that exists at the moment, Dorset MPs have a very close relationship with the chief constable. If we create a super-force for the south-west, that relationship would change fundamentally. The worst case scenario would be that the power, influence and responsibility that we have in regard to the police force would be transferred from the House to the regional assemblies. In the case of the south-west, that would involve the most undemocratic, unrepresentative and unelected body in the entire area.

Mr. Clarke: At the risk of intervening in difficult debates about regionalism, I think that I can say with some confidence that the prospect of an elected regional assembly in the south-west region is some little way away. The accountability of neighbourhood policing that we want to achieve is certainly to the House but, even more importantly, to the local community. That accountability should exist at the level of the basic command unit, the district council or the unitary
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authority, directly to the people in that area by the means that I have described. If the hon. Gentleman believes in accountability, I hope that he will agree that the police in Dorset should be accountable not only to the House—important though that is—but to the people in his constituency in the direct way that I am establishing.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I will not give way. I want to conclude my speech.

The problems that we face today are stubborn, persistent and serious, and no one should try to hide that fact. That is the view of policing professionals in this country—[Interruption.] And it is the view of the Home Secretary. It is the view of the Home Secretary as advised by policing professionals. I am not just making a political point for a political reason. I am looking at the professional policing needs of the country.

Present policing structures have shown themselves to be very able to deliver in terms of reducing volume crime and providing a good local service. However, the present structures have failed to deliver a dynamic, forward-looking and strategic response to the problems of organised criminality, terrorism, and nationally mobile criminals. On the basis of the assurances that I have given, particularly on neighbourhood policing and the basic command units, I hope that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden will urge his colleagues not to vote for his motion today. I should be interested to see how things go if they do.

David Davis: I should be very happy to take the Home Secretary up on his offer. I have said that, if he is willing to have an open consultation on this issue—in some cases involving referendums, in the parts of the country where people have concerns—we shall not press this point. However, the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made it clear that people feel inhibited even from making submissions, because they believe that the Home Secretary will not pay attention. Cross-border policing is just one example of the issues involved. If the Home Secretary will now tell the House that the Government will hold an open consultation in the time that he has available—after all, he is not going to be able to implement this until nearly 2008—and look at all the options, including federation, with an open mind, we will not press this matter to a vote.

Mr. Clarke: All that I will say on that is that we have had an open consultation—[Interruption.] We certainly have, and many submissions have been made by policing professionals. By the way, we have also had quite a large number of debates in the House and elsewhere on these questions—some in Opposition time, some in Government time. I therefore urge colleagues on both sides of the House to support the amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and to help us to take forward this important reform of policing, which will improve the security of people throughout the country.

1.39 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for selecting this subject for
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debate. It is an enormously important matter. I also congratulate him on the tone in which he introduced the debate. This matter should not be fought on strictly party political lines—it is too important for that. I freely admit that in the many years that I have spent speaking about policing matters in the House, I have often found myself in agreement with him, as I have with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety on some of the things that she has been trying to achieve in the police service. We would often share an agenda, for instance, on neighbourhood policing.

That is not to say that I agree with the proposal today on amalgamation. If, as the Home Secretary has declared, we have had an open consultation, it must have been some time over the Christmas holidays, I guess—[Interruption.] Yes, we did not notice it at the time. A police restructuring of such a massive scale must have a real question mark against it. Even those who support it wholeheartedly—there are some who will—cannot deny that a reorganisation of structures of this sort will be costly and difficult, and will divert police attention away from their core duties at, I believe, a critical time for the country. It will also be divisive because different views will be expressed.

None of those is a decisive argument in itself against making changes in the police service—not if there is an overwhelming case in support of the Government's proposals. However, there is no overwhelming case. Even if there were, none of that would suggest the sort of precipitate action that the Home Secretary suggests, given his time scale for developing a structure that suits the country, which would normally take a great deal of consideration both by the House and, more importantly, by those outside the House. To have bypassed that whole procedure in favour of a consultation that was brief to the point of cursory, followed by a decision that I do not believe to be in the interests of the country, is not the way in which we should approach such a serious matter.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the spirit of cross-party consensus, may I share with the hon. Gentleman the views of Dr. Marie Dickie, the Labour chairman of the Northamptonshire police authority, which, together with the four other authorities in the east midlands, has been considering the potential impact of the proposals? She estimates that the up-front cost will be £100 million, and that all five authorities involved will end up with fewer police on the beat if they are to provide the level 2 services that the Home Secretary wants to be provided.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know Dr. Dickie well, because she was chair of the police authority when I was chairman of my police authority in Avon and Somerset, and we worked on the same committees together. I am sure that she will take a sober and sensible view of the cost to her authority.

What the hon. Gentleman says underlines the fact that the Home Secretary makes great play of the professional consensus that he believes exists—but no such consensus exists. Across the country, only 13 forces want to take part in a merger. Police authorities and forces are not voting with their feet to embrace the new
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structure, they are rejecting it. Thirteen of them say that they want to stay as stand-alone forces and another 15 have not expressed a preference. It is simply nonsense to suggest that there is a clear professional view that the proposals are the way forward.

Even the O'Connor report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out in an earlier debate on the issue, was not conclusive. It stated:

That is an invitation to open a debate. It is not an invitation to settle the structure of police forces for the next half-century.

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