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Mr. Denham: Just the once; the hon. Gentleman knows about the strictures on time.

Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the incoherent pattern of forces several times in his speech, but in fact, the pattern in rural areas is very consistent and involves only one or two county forces; indeed, the model is straightforward. Gloucester constabulary supports the idea of a shared services model, an option that has not been costed or properly explored in this headlong rush toward amalgamation.

Mr. Denham: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the pattern is incoherent in terms of its ability to deliver forces of the minimum size required. I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who picked me up earlier on the use of the phrase "optimum size". There is a minimum size of force necessary to deliver the range of services required for all types of policing, but it is clear that the optimum size will vary according to the geography and social nature of the area concerned.

Federation is really a sticky, messy compromise, reached in order to avoid taking some difficult decisions. Asking police forces to co-operate on what will inevitably be an ad hoc, investigation by investigation, crisis by crisis basis will never be as effective as establishing forces that are sufficiently large to deliver, most of the time, the necessary services to the local population.

The Liberal Democrats previously argued very strongly that all policing should be local, with a national force to deal with everything from level 2 crime upward. That does not make any sense either. Such a national force would have to be huge to deliver serious work against level 2 crime at local level. We need forces that are big enough—as my own Hampshire and Isle of Wight county force is—to deliver the required range of services. Operation Phoenix, a co-ordinated drugs raid carried out in Southampton a few months ago, involved well in excess of 600 officers. In a smaller force, such an operation might have used up 60 per cent. of all available officers in the entire area. Generally speaking, such operations are sustainable in larger forces, but not in smaller ones.

I recognise that county forces such as Hampshire are already of sufficient size to provide the required level of service. Changes to the Hampshire force may be necessary—we will have to wait and see—not for its own needs, but to ensure that all forces can deliver the required services; I hope not, but I am open to examining the conclusions of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. But forces that are not big enough to deliver on combating everything from antisocial behaviour to the most serious crime will be letting down not just their own constituents, but people across England and Wales as a whole.
 
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I conclude by making a few points to my Front-Bench team about their handling of this matter from here on. First, they are right to push the case for change, and it would be a mistake to retreat into the short-termism of the federal option. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced what the Government are doing from the top down to secure the development of basic command unit neighbourhood policing, but there must also be some bottom-up guarantees as to how that will be delivered.

The idea of elected police commissioners is silly and dangerous. The last things that we want are the politicisation of the police and direct elections. However, as BCUs fit with local authorities, we need to ensure that there is a democratic route to action. The public need to know that the people whom they elect in their normal local elections have the power to hold the police to account for the quality of service at a local level.

Secondly, the Government need not move to forces that are too big. I was challenged on that point earlier by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. Forces should be big enough to offer the optimum range of services, but there should be no artificial drive for forces that are too big.

I have made my final point before, and it concerns a matter about which I agree with other hon. Members. It is that there is no need to be dogmatic about regional boundaries if the arguments about localism or crime patterns outweigh the case for fitting with regional boundaries.

2.11 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I rise to speak on behalf of my local police force in Wiltshire. In doing so, I know that I am also speaking for other Conservative Members with constituencies in the area, my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who is in his place behind me, for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison).

I want to speak about my local force as it is one of the smallest in the country. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) spoke about a force's "optimum" size, but then corrected that to its "minimum" size. My point is that size does not matter, but delivery does. The Wiltshire force may be small, but its standards of performance are among the highest in the country. It achieves excellent levels of public service and satisfaction, as is shown in the baseline and police performance accountability framework assessments. The force has invested appropriately and prudently, in line with the professional threat assessments, and it has been able to meet demands in respect of major crime, firearms, public order and—as I know from my own past—very important person protection and air support. The force is small but it is effective.

I do not claim that the Wiltshire force is perfect. No force in the country is, but the merger proposals would throw the baby out with the bathwater and that is the wrong way to go.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As my right hon. and learned Friend says, if it ain't broke, don't fix
 
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it. The Wiltshire force was founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1832. Since then, no murder has remained unsolved. Its detection and safety rates are among the best in England. It is an excellent police force, so why on earth is it being done away with?

Mr. Ancram: My hon. Friend makes my point for me very effectively. No Conservative Member is suggesting that change is unnecessary or that all police forces work as well as they can. We are talking about what needs to be done, and as I listened to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I found that I agreed with almost everything that he said. The same is true for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis).

The matter can be dealt with in ways other than merger, such as the co-operative arrangements that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary set out. We need the flexibility to develop structures that best serve the needs of local communities. Those needs will differ between communities and areas. Certain overheads can be shared, and joint operations can be more efficient than those undertaken by individual forces.

I have also looked at the federal model and I am surprised at how that is dismissed by the Government. I have spoken to the Wiltshire police authority about it and was told that the federal approach is less disruptive than mergers, and would be less likely to impact negatively on police performance. Moreover, it was suggested that a change to federalism would work with the grain of local communities and incur lower start-up and associated costs, and could be put in place quickly. If we were starting with a clean sheet of paper, of course, the federal model might not be the best design, but we must begin with the police forces that we have. In that context, the federal model is a good answer that the Home Secretary should study carefully.

Neither of the two options that I have put forward—the co-operative and the federal models—appears to meet the criteria set by the Home Secretary. I listened carefully to what he said about Opposition accusations that the Government had a regionalisation agenda, and I confess that I am sceptical about his denials. Ever since the Government came into office, they have pursued a regional agenda in all sorts of ways. Suddenly, we find that police reform is moving towards a regional agenda and that is clearly a stalking horse for something that has been a major plank of this Government's policy since they were elected.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is proved by the fact that the Government are inflexible when it comes to crossing regional boundaries? If they were not pursuing a regional agenda, would they not be more flexible in that regard?

Mr. Ancram: That was very much the impression that I got from the Home Secretary's body language. I heard nothing to suggest that he has moved away from the regional agenda that he and the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety have been proclaiming on the radio over the past few months.

The Government's proposals are bad news for Wiltshire. That is why they are opposed by our police authority, the chief constable and local people. They will
 
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undermine the important sense of local identity that is very much part of the force's success. They will make even more difficult the already unsatisfactory degree of accountability in our police service.

I have spent many years in politics, and have seen many attempts to centralise, under Conservative as much as Labour Governments. The argument has always been that centralisation would reduce costs and improve services, but never once has that been the result. On every occasion, the push for centralisation has ended up costing more and providing a worse service. I do not believe that this will be any different.

For four years in the 1980s, I was the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for the police force. I saw the results of the regionalisation of local government. The policing of remoter areas of Scotland became much more difficult, and that worries me now, given that my constituency is so rural.

I have a good local test. I live near Pewsey, a large village that some people call a small town. It has two resident policemen. What would happen if police forces in the south-west were merged? My answer is that we certainly would not have two policemen resident in that village.

If the Government continue with these proposals, the result will be that policing will cost more than at present. As some hon. Members have said, the cost will be met, not by the Government, but by the local taxpayer, through the precept. We will end up in the extraordinary position of paying more and getting less. That is a very good reason to oppose what the Government are trying to do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Wiltshire police force is not broke. I have watched the Home Office over the past few years and I get the feeling that it is suffering from a form of ministerialitis. Ministers always want to be seen to be active and with purpose. That was evident last night, when they were defeated in the House, and it can be seen in many other policy proposals. It is right to be active with purpose if the purpose is correct, but I remind the Government that the charge of the Light Brigade was full of both purpose and action. If Ministers are not careful, they will be embarking on a similar road.

Why is the Home Secretary so determined to plough ahead, even after what the Prime Minister told us today at Question Time? The key test for the Government is to produce the best standards of policing with the best local delivery at the best value. Their proposals fall short on all those counts. The Home Secretary should climb down off his obsessional hobbyhorse, listen to the people of this country, and think again.

2.18 pm


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