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Mr. Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab): The debate confronts us with a twin challenge: to tackle level 2 crime, as it has been described, while not      merely not damaging but improving local neighbourhood policing.

"Closing the Gap" made several observations about level 2 crime. It noted:

and that

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Some Members say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I am saying not that the system is broke, but that the report indicated serious problems that the Government have to address.

The challenge for Ministers is to propose a configuration of forces that meets the gap and tackles serious and organised crimes such as drug trafficking, terrorism and murder without damaging local policing. Those types of serious crime move across county boundaries, but there are also recognised "crime markets"—the phrase used by the Home Secretary—which may inform the configuration of forces.

The proposed merger in the west midlands is supported by three of the four forces but, as was pointed out earlier, not by West Mercia. A couple of important questions are posed about what such a merger might mean. Opponents say that it will harm local policing. That is a serious charge, because if it harms local policing it should not be pursued. Neither the public nor police forces should be forced to choose between tackling serious crime and tackling local neighbourhood crime. The public expect the police to be able to do both. Week in, week out in our constituencies we hear about antisocial behaviour, graffiti and under-age drinking. There might be some merit in the arguments of those who oppose mergers if this was the Government's only proposal on policing, but it is not.

With the basic command unit structure and, crucially, with the enormous expansion in police community support officers—I understand that the new total will be 24,000—there will be significant expansion in local community policing. In addition, the Government have funded additional police officers in recent years. We do not simply have a proposal to merge forces; we have also placed huge additional emphasis on developing neighbourhood policing, as the Home Secretary said in his opening speech, with individual contacts made much easier between officers and their local communities.

Of course, there is the question of costs. I accept that there will be start-up costs, as in any proposed merger or reorganisation, but that is not the end of the picture. Certainly, the West Midlands police authority expects that significant savings will be made over about 10 years. However, I would ask the Minister to reflect on the police precept, which varies in different parts of the country and in different parts of the west midlands. I believe that the public will accept the argument that we need to reconfigure forces to tackle serious crime, but that Ministers must be very wary about imposing additional costs on local people to pay for the change.

These proposals have merit and can go forward. I do not believe that the current situation can be defended in all its forms, because we sometimes force the police to make a choice: when a serious incident occurs, community policing can suffer because officers are pulled away from the community to deal with it. With the twin emphasis on tackling level 2 crime and on neighbourhood policing, we can deal with that problem and move to a form of policing that not only tackles the serious 21st-century crime that the country faces, but gives people the neighbourhood and community policing that they want.

2.52 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): May I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister who will respond to the debate and my
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hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), because, unfortunately, for the first time in 19 years, I will not be able to be present to hear the winding-up speeches in a debate in which I have taken part? I apologise profusely for that.

I pay tribute to the fantastic work done by police officers and their back-up staff in the Essex constabulary on behalf of the people of Essex. We are extremely fortunate in having a dedicated, hard-working group of men and women who work day in, day out, often in thankless circumstances, to police our streets and countryside and to provide a service to the people of the county that I represent. However, we in the county have grave misgivings about the proposals, which are almost being forced on us against our wishes.

The Prime Minister speaks about the Government listening to the people. We do not get the impression of any sincerity in that statement, given the Home Secretary's comments whenever the subject is discussed. We must take into account the fact that, over the past 20 years or so, policing has changed radically, as have the public's expectations of what they want and expect from their police forces. Sadly, in this day and age, there is a need for more intelligence gathering, whether in respect of terrorism or organised crime. Increasingly, at the very local level, people are demanding that the police take action against vandals, graffiti and other antisocial behaviour.

We make other demands on our police, whether because of increasing vehicle crime or crimes against homes and property, and we expect them to respond. The police have a very difficult task to carry out, and we politicians make it more difficult if we distract them with unwanted, unnecessary and unjustified plans to modernise them, by reforming them in ways that they do not want to be modernised or reformed.

Such things are crucial because policing in this country, whether we like it or not, must be done by consent—the consent of the people—and to gain the support of local communities there must be an affinity and relationship between the police and the public whom they serve. I fear that one of the dangers that we face with the reorganisation is that the Government seem hellbent on the philosophy that big is better, but that divorces local people's affinity from the police force that should serve their needs.

In Essex, we were originally told by the Home Secretary that he would not accept a stand-alone Essex police force option: it had to be a merger, whether an arranged marriage with the Norfolk and Suffolk forces, or with the forces to the west of the county in Hertfordshire or the other surrounding counties. Essex police force is large, like the county of Essex, which is one of the largest counties, geographically, and in terms of population, with just over 1.5 million people.

We have a bigger population than the already-merged police force of Devon and Cornwall. We also have special features. Of particular relevance in this age of heightened terrorism, we have the third London airport at Stansted. We have a port at Harwich and one of the longest coastlines, where the police constantly try to minimise and prevent illegal immigration. We also have urban areas, mixed with significant rural areas, whose policing needs differ radically from those of urban areas.
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We are being told that we must join forces with another police force—possibly two—thus creating a huge, super-police force that would have no affinity with the local community. The financial impact on Essex council tax payers would be significant, and there would be even greater conflicting policing needs between those of the rural community and the demands of an urban society. That circle cannot be squared by putting us with other counties.

If the Prime Minister is sincere in saying that he and the Government will listen to the people, let them listen and let them listen closely—if the Minister would be kind enough to stop listening to his Parliamentary Private Secretary. He is not listening; he did not even hear me say that, so I hope that he will read Hansard tomorrow and get the message that way. If the Minister is prepared to listen to the arguments, he will find a consensus in Essex against any proposal other than one that allows Essex police to continue as a stand-alone force.

The consensus goes from the chief constable, who is a fairly crucial element in the equation, to the police authority and to 15 of the 17 Members of Parliament who represent the area. Only 15 of them have voiced an opinion because the hon. Members for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) are Ministers, and whatever they may think personally in wanting to represent their constituents' interests, they are bound by collective ministerial responsibility, so they cannot voice an opinion. Among the 15 Members of Parliament who are united, there is a Labour Member—the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is the only Labour Member for the county, other than the Ministers—and a Liberal Democrat, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell).

Essex county council is root and branch against the proposals. Most of the borough and district councils in the country are against them, as are the vast majority of members of the public in the county who have voiced an opinion on the subject. So the Minister and the Prime Minister should not pay lip service and use the platitude that they will listen to the arguments—they should act on them. For once, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), instead of driving something forward and pressing for regionalised government, which underlies many of the Government's reforms, they should listen to the people and leave Essex alone to get on with the job of fighting crime without being distracted by other measures.

3 pm

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