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Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I listened with some amazement to the comments by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) about neighbourhood policing. As a councillor in an inner-city authority for most of the time that his Government were in power, I had to cope with the reduction in police on the streets, rising crime levels and the total inability to find mechanisms by which the local people could engage with their police force to ensure that their local priorities prevailed. That has changed. I do not claim that there are no longer any problems, but since this Government came to power we have seen a coherent attempt to introduce neighbourhood policing that is beginning to have an impact locally.
I also recall the Opposition's position on the introduction of community support officers and other valuable and valued parts of the local policing scene, so
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I wonder what they can bring to this debate on neighbourhood policing. I caution the Minister that while we all want to see a consensual approach, priority should be given to the views of those who have actually implemented neighbourhood policing, rather than of those who singularly failed to do so when they had the opportunity.
I accept that some people will have views contrary to the thrust of the report, but the gestation of the report goes back to 1993, under the Conservatives. It is clear that the overwhelming balance of professional police opinion supports the O'Connor report's conclusions. I rather regret the attempt by the University of Warwick to rubbish the statistical basis and the credibility of that report. It has a good pedigree and I shall make my judgment on the balance of professional police opinion, rather than on the opinion of university professors in Warwick.
My third point is about the arguments on process. I was in local government for a long time and I know that public services will always object to a process when they disagree with the intention behind it or the outcome is likely to involve hard decisions that nobody wants to face. The last police reorganisation took between 1960 and 1974almost 15 years. We cannot afford to reproduce that process. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ignore those complaining about the process and get on with it. The O'Connor report reveals that 94 per cent. of gangs are not targeted every year by our police. Those criminal gangs will be rubbing their hands in glee with every year's delay in the implementation of the proposals.
The proposals have to be judged against three criteria. The first is their impact on neighbourhood policing and accountability. The second is their impact on level 2 crime and the third is affordability. On the first, people in local communities relate to their local police at their local station, not to their police authority. Local people want mechanisms by which they can communicate their views and priorities to the local police command unit, so that policing habits in the area reflect those priorities. That is being done under neighbourhood policing and I am glad to say that it will be implemented in my area from April.
The idea that there is no connection between neighbourhood policing and level 2 policing must be dispelled. It is essential to have more effective targeting of criminal gangs if we are to reduce the problems in local communities. It is those criminal gangs that are not targeted and put behind bars that feed in the drugs that cause so many problems in local communities. The one complaint I get, even in a large, well organised and well resourced police authority like the West Midlands, is that all too often local bobbies are taken away to deal with major crimes in other areas. If we can set up larger structures that minimise such disruption of local policing, it will be of benefit. The proposals will complement neighbourhood policing, not destroy it.
The arguments for more strategic forces with specialised units were well made in the report, but there are issues of affordability. Economies of scale have a
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certain logic but I have seen other reorganisations in local government and public services and, as we all know, translating the theory into reality can create difficulties. The Government need to ensure that the savings that accrue are ploughed back into front-line policing.
My fear is that, as in all restructuring, the new structures will tend to reflect the priorities of the professionals involved rather than the wishes of the community, so I urge the Minister to ensure that the economies that accrue reflect the priorities of the community, not of the professionals. In terms of affordability and economy, the federal structure suggested by the main Opposition would be a nightmare. There would be an extra layer of bureaucracy, blurred lines of accountability and no savings. We would have the worst of all worlds.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Home Secretary made much of neighbourhood policing in his opening remarks. Neighbourhood policing is not the community police officer, not the police support officer, not the bobby on the beatthe romantic vision. It is all those people, working with the milkman, the postman, the professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and nurses, the greengrocer, the butcher and the baker. They are the eyes and ears of the community by day and by night, waking and sleeping. It is only by harnessing all those energies that the communitythe neighbourhoodstands a chance of beating the antisocial behaviour, vandalism and drunken violence that beset every neighbourhood in the country.
The neighbourhood policing initiative is vital; it is the cornerstone in the fight against crime as most people experience it in their everyday life. The Home Secretary said that his proposals would not damage that project. Well, a week ago, the all-party group on policing was addressed by Jerry Kirkby, the neighbourhood policing programme director for the Association of Chief Police Officers, and by Mark Burns-Williamson, the lead member on neighbourhood policing with the Association of Police Authorities. Both were absolutely clear in their view that if the time, money and energy of the police forces of the UK were diverted into doctrinaire reorganisation, mergers and amalgamations, neighbourhood policing would go out of the window, because the resources will not be there.
The Home Secretary has yet to explain where the £600 million will come from and how it will not be a burden on the money currently paid for the neighbourhood policing programme and other initiatives. If the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), challenges that figure of £600 million, perhaps during the winding-up speech, either he or the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will put a figure on the proposals, because to date there has been none. The bottom line is that the Government proposals will undermine the one police initiative that theyor to be more exact, the policehave introduced that is actually beginning to work.
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The Home Secretary prayed in aid the current president of ACPO, Sir Chris Fox. He received his knighthood in the new year's honours list, so one assumes that he is probably fairly well-known to the Home Secretary. Ministers on the Treasury Bench need to understand that Chris Fox has said that although he believes in bigger police forces, he does so only if the mergers are fully funded by central Government and if sufficient time, energy and thought go into the process. At present, there is no indication of any such funding or that time and thought have gone into the process. In those circumstances, I think we can take it that it is unlikely that even Sir Chris Fox will support what is suggested.
Mike Fuller, the chief constable of Kent, my county, is one of the country's best senior police officers. He and Ann Barnes, the chairman of the Kent police authority, are as one in their opposition to Kent being merged with Sussex, Surrey or any other grouping of forces, in the interests of regional or any other form of government. We have already seen the ambulance and fire services go. School reforms will take governance away from schools, and the health authority is going regional. It is clear that the proposals are a regional initiative. The chief constable of Kent has made it plain that he believes that the process, as determined by the Home Secretary, will damage policing in Kent.
We do not support what Ministers believe to be federation. We need to be extremely careful when using that word. When we say federation we are talking about co-operation, not merger by the back door, so let that not be a Trojan horse. It is fine for police forces to co-operate; in many instances, in emergencies, they already do so. There is scope for more of that co-operation, but there is no scope for the merger of strategic forces such as Kent, with its seaports and airportsthe front line to Europewith any other force.
Finally, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a special constable with the British Transport police, so you would expect me to mention that service. The BTP is not a Home Office force, but it is subject to a parallel review undertaken by the Home Secretary. There are suggestions that all or part of it may be merged with one or more of the Home Office forces. That would be a disaster. The BTP is a national police force. It is already strategic; it is free-standing and it works. Of course, there is room for improvement but it ain't broke; please don't try to fix it.
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