Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Keetch : One other area on which the debate has not so far touched is recruitment. I know police officers in Hereford—I was at school with three police officers who serve in my local division—who have said to me that they would not have joined a west midlands force, had one existed, for fear of being transferred from Herefordshire, not to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire or similar rural communities but to Wolverhampton, Birmingham or wherever. They believe that there is a future recruitment problem, especially for small rural forces, as people would not join such a force if there was such a danger.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.

If we return to the underpinning of the whole argument, which is how we effectively fight international and national crime, we must examine the Government's rhetoric. No so long ago, we discussed the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Bill to bring it into effect. However, that agency does not come into force until 1 April 2006. Even before the ink is dry on that legislation, and even before we have that new structure, we are proposing to throw all the building blocks up in the air again and redesign the way in which we fight organised crime in this country. There was no mention of amalgamation of police forces when we discussed that question. There was no suggestion that the agency was unable to work with existing police forces. Now, however, we are to believe that it is untenable to retain the current police forces.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): In relation to the lack of foresight, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the idea of amalgamating basic command units into a regional structure is untested and highly vulnerable? In West Mercia, which the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr.   Keetch) discussed, we have six basic command units. If amalgamated into a regional structure, the chief constable will have 30 basic command unit commanders. In virtually any other sphere of endeavour, maintaining the relationship for direct reports with 30 people, rather than six, is almost impossible. The chief constable will have a much less direct relationship with what is going on in local areas.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know that he has experience of management structures and speaks with some authority.
 
1 Feb 2006 : Column 343
 

If we are considering alternative structures, particularly for dealing with major, national and international crime, we should return to our consideration of the legislation that introduced the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I advocated an expanded role for that agency, so that it would be the clear vehicle for fighting national and international crime. I also called for chief constables to re-concentrate efforts on local policing, keeping the peace in their areas and fighting local crime. I still believe that that is a better structure for this country's police forces.

Regional police forces are neither one thing nor the other. They are a nationalised police force, but we have 12 of them. Why? Where is the logic in that? I could understand more easily if the Home Secretary were to say that there would be a national police force and that that was the end of it. A national police force based in Scotland Yard would be just as relevant to people in Penzance as a national police force based in Gloucestershire. We should recognise that.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I put to my hon. Friend a point to which the Home Secretary seems unwilling to listen—the political equivalent of the point that he just made about the operational side? The question is, what is the long-term future for police authorities in a world in which they are becoming increasingly remote and unrepresentative, and in which, as the Home Secretary made clear, accountability is shifting to district councils and to neighbourhood level? In the long term, will not that reduction of the police authorities' role undermine the legitimacy of their taxation role, which is currently the basis of their overall role?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend has made an important point about the governance of the new authorities. I have not yet heard a satisfactory explanation from the Government of how that governance will work and how it can be in any way representative. I have heard some interesting ideas about local accountability at basic command unit and neighbourhood level, which I am willing to entertain. That is one matter, but governance of the force—ensuring that its resources are appropriate to the areas that are policed—has not been considered so far.

There are different ways of approaching issues relating to the future of policing, and some operations do not make sense at force level any more. I am entirely unconvinced, for example, that it makes any sense for there to be 43 special branch departments across the country, given the realities of the threat that we face, and I should be happy to consider a change in that arrangement. However, the kernel of the Government's case is that we need better co-ordination, better communication and better sharing of resources, and we know that that is possible without huge structures that may, in fact, militate against effective use of those resources.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I want to make a little more progress.

I do not think that the Home Office is taking account of what has happened in local forces over recent years. No doubt the Home Office was shaken by the events in
 
1 Feb 2006 : Column 344
 
Soham and the subsequent inquiry, which revealed serious deficiencies in some small forces. We cannot get away from that and it is right for the Home Secretary to deal with the position. We clearly need better co-ordination—but the idea that that can be achieved only by means of large regional structures is, I think, quite wrong.

As has often been pointed out, the problem with regional structures is that they are not consistent with patterns of crime. Regional boundaries do not map the areas where criminal activity takes place. North Wales and Cheshire have already been mentioned, but the position is replicated in South Wales. For that matter, Avon and Somerset and Gwent form a single crime area, but no one has yet entertained the possibility of a merger between them.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend probably wants to mention Dorset, so I shall give way to her.

Annette Brooke: I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that there is obviously a strong case for a federation in our south-west region, and most of us consider that that would be the best solution. I hope that he also agrees that there is a second option that should be considered—a merger between Dorset and Hampshire. Common sense suggests, as any police officer in Dorset will confirm, that that is the answer if the Government continue to insist on mergers.

Mr. Heath: I entirely agree. I speak as a Somerset man with a constituency bordering on Dorset, but I know that the patterns of crime do not extend from Bristol or Plymouth to Dorset; they extend from Southampton and Portsmouth. The logic of sticking to the Government's office boundaries escapes me; it just does not make sense in operational terms.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I will make some more progress, if I may.

The Home Secretary is absolutely right about local policing. Those outside the cosy world of politics or policing see their local police force as something that belongs to them. They are already worried about the remoteness of policing and the fact that, particularly in rural areas, they are less likely to see police officers than they were in the past. They worry about the possible retreat of the entire criminal justice system from their localities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made a valid point about the size of basic command units. The trend in recent years has been to merge BCUs so that a single unit covers perhaps an entire county in administrative terms. That runs entirely counter to the Home Secretary's objectives.

Even all the assurances that the Home Secretary is able to give can be given only in the context of his policies at the present time in the present Administration. Once the new structures are in place, they will be capable of being enormously remote from the people whom they serve.

Mr. Flello : The hon. Gentleman speaks of people's concern about whether local police officers will be able
 
1 Feb 2006 : Column 345
 
to serve their communities. A serving police constable told me that when he wants information from an adjoining force, he must rely on telephoning and hoping he will be able to contact an officer in the department with which he is dealing. He can only hope that the officer is on duty, and is not on holiday. If the officer is available, the constable must ask him to log into his computer system and call up the information that will enable the constable to deal with the case that he is handling. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what people want is for police forces to work together properly, and that the present system does not achieve that?


Next Section IndexHome Page