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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) answers that question, may I point out that many Members have not yet learned the art of the short intervention? Long interventions—particularly on a day when a great many Members wish to speak and there is a limited amount of time—eat into the time rather badly. Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Heath: I can only tell the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) that if his police commander in Stoke-on-Trent is encountering such problems with Stafford, one wonders what problems he will encounter when he has to ring Birmingham.

As has been established, the estimated initial costs will be up to £600 million. We must add to that the cost of restructuring all the other parts of the criminal justice system, including those that are coterminous and consonant with the present police authority boundaries. All of them will have to be changed. I think that the £1 billion estimate is not unrealistic for the total cost of the exercise. Then there are the capital costs, which it seems will have to be met by the council tax payer. We are talking about a significant amount, which could be better spent on more police officers for our streets and lanes.

Let me end by describing some personal experiences from my time as chairman of Avon and Somerset police authority. I should say at the outset that Avon and Somerset was a merged force. Many people in Somerset strongly resent the fact that they are policed by something called the Avon and Somerset police force, based in Portishead rather than in their own area. There is already some resentment about the potential remoteness of Avon and Somerset. Now it may become part of a south-west regional force which it has been suggested will cover 8,000 square miles—although it is nearer 9,000 if we include the Isles of Scilly—and whose northernmost point is nearer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall. There are huge demographic variations in a region that runs from the St. Paul's area of Bristol to Exmoor, where policing problems are very different. This is, therefore, clearly a difficult and dangerous course to follow.

When I was chairman of the Avon and Somerset authority, we were able to make links. We shared a helicopter with the Gloucestershire force. That was a
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very good idea because we did not need two helicopters, one in Gloucester and one in Bristol. Links of that sort make sense.

Mr. Denham : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I will have to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that no one shouts at me afterwards that I have taken too long.

Mr. Denham : Three or four years ago, when I was the Minister responsible for policing, air support for police services was held back throughout England because in most places forces insisted on bidding for their own helicopter or light plane—which they could not afford—and refused to co-operate with neighbouring forces. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the evidence on that issue, he will see that it runs against the point that he is making.

Mr. Heath: Perhaps I was extraordinarily progressive in my police authority area, but are these not lessons that can be learned by other police authorities without scrapping the entire structure of British policing in the process? I think that they are.

Members may wonder why my authority is still called the Avon and Somerset police authority, given that Avon has not existed for some time, thanks to a ghastly Conservative creation and the process of local government reorganisation. The reason is that my police authority colleagues and I refused to spend money on providing new cap badges and new headings on stationery. I thought then that the money could be better spent on policing, and I think that now in respect of this restructuring.

The issue is not keeping rigidly to the current structures—anyone planning policing in Britain from the start would not devise the current structures—but asking sensible and intelligent questions about those structures, making mergers where appropriate and where supported by local communities and police forces, and improving co-ordination, sharing and communication. However, the issue is also how we go about retaining the basic principle of British policing—that it is by, with and for the community, not by, with and for the state. There is a saying that all politics is local. I should like to say that all policing is local but, sadly, in the modern world it is not. We have to make appropriate arrangements to deal with national and international crime, but a lot of policing is local and is best done locally.

Several hon. Members rose–

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

2.1 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): In my contribution to this important debate, I want to distinguish between the process that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is following during this reorganisation, and the aim that we should have in terms of a future force structure.
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One problem with the debate in this House and in the country is that criticisms of how the reorganisation is being carried through are being used to justify opposition to change itself. That poses a serious threat to our ability to deliver the right policing structure for fighting crime and delivering law and order at all levels—from the most local to national and international. It is very important not to make the mistake of saying that, because some Members do not like the way in which the Government are going about the process, the case for change is therefore wrong. The case for change is very powerful indeed.

As most people have recognised, no one would try to design the current police force structure to meet the needs of policing in England and Wales. This curious mixture of Anglo-Saxon boundaries, with bits of 1960s and 1970s local government reform thrown in, belongs to an age when crime was less mobile and more local, and when the patterns of urban deprivation and rural crime were quite different from today. We have to face up to a fundamental problem: in trying to meet the challenges that policing faces today, our existing structures cannot simply be adjusted by a series of minor and incremental changes.

Because this issue concerns many of our constituents—people whom we respect, such as those serving on police authorities, do indeed have genuine concerns—and because we are all politicians with an ear to what our constituents are telling us, the danger is that we will respond by saying, "The case for change isn't made—here is an alternative." That is not the right approach. We need to recognise that it is very difficult for smaller forces to make their full contribution to all the types of policing that need to be carried out in our communities, from dealing with antisocial behaviour to counter-terrorism.

The police performance results show clearly that many small forces do well—often, it must be said, in not the most challenging of circumstances—on volume crimes such as car crime, burglary and antisocial behaviour. However, few small forces can also make the necessary full contribution to more serious, regional and national crime. That presents a real difficulty. We cannot have a policing pattern in England and Wales that means that only some forces can make their full contribution to dealing with all types of crime.

The Government could have chosen, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) proposed, to adopt a case-by-case approach by mopping up a few weak forces, and so on. There is fine balance to be struck between proceeding in that way and in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has chosen. In terms of the politics of introducing such change, the case-by-case approach would have been a great deal easier. However, it does present the difficulty of painting oneself into a corner: one changes this bit here and that bit there, only to discover that three quarters of the floor is painted and there is no way out of the room. At least the Government's approach has the advantage of trying to paint a rational overall picture.

The two major alternatives to the Government's approach are federation and the FBI model, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome did not push with half the strength—he was very wise not to do so—that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten)
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previously did. As a step from where we are to somewhere a bit better, federation has some attractions, but no sensible person would design a system based on an incoherent pattern of police forces that one then urges to work together more effectively. That would not be a logical approach.

Martin Horwood: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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