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Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a speech because I sat through the debate on police restructuring before Christmas and noted that not one Yorkshire Member spoke. I was thus pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made a speech earlier, although my comments will be slightly different from his. I want to talk about the Humberside police force in the context of what has happened over the past eight or nine years—since we have had a Labour Government. All hon. Members know that crime and community safety are key issues
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for our constituents, so I am proud of the Labour Government's record of putting them right at the top of the agenda.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Johnson: I am going to carry on and make some progress, if I may.

We have already heard about the additional 14,000 police officers, the introduction of police community support officers and the extension of CCTV in major towns and cities. I support the neighbourhood policing initiative, and we know that crime rates are going down in general, so obviously we should welcome that. We must also realise that steps have been taken to try to cut back on the bureaucracy with which the police must deal. There are now fewer forms for our officers to fill in. There are Crown Prosecution Service lawyers in police stations, which helps to ensure that charges are dealt with quickly, which means that cases can go to court far more rapidly than before.

Anne Milton : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Johnson: I am going to carry on.

If we consider policing in 2006, we are all aware that there are local issues and more strategic national issues that we must address. We have already examined the jobs that we ask some of our police officers to do to find out whether they could be civilianised. We have considered establishing non-emergency telephone numbers so that the public can access the police more quickly than they can by dialling 999, to ask them to address problems that need not be dealt with immediately. I have already mentioned the police CSOs, and Hull has excellent community wardens who are about to be introduced throughout the whole of the city from April.

Against that background, I read "Closing the Gap", the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, with an open mind. I also drew on my experience as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority in London. It is worth pointing out that the authority covers 32 London boroughs with basic command units that feed into the commissioner. The fact that there is such a large force does not mean that there cannot be effective management.

The Humberside police force has just over 2,275 officers, just over 1,200 staff, 354 special officers and only 22 police community support officers. Many hon. Members will know that we have had a chequered past in Humberside. We were involved with the Soham inquiry and the Bichard report. Our previous chief constable had a bit of a spat with a Home Secretary a short while ago, and we were the last police force in the country to get police CSOs. Our new chief constable realised that that was a mistake, so we are now well on the way to getting many more CSOs to serve our communities.

The options available to Humberside are either joining South Yorkshire police to form a force of about 5,500 officers, or forming part of a much larger regional force for Yorkshire with 12,000 officers. The chair of the police authority and the chief constable wrote to the
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Home Secretary on 16 December to set out their view that they would prefer to go for a voluntary merger, and I shall briefly run through the chief reasons why I support that.

I was heartened to hear what the Home Secretary said about neighbourhood policing being at the heart of the policing agenda. The basic command unit will stay. It will be where most people recognise it—the local police station for their area. People in Hull talk not about the Humberside police force, but about local bobbies on the   beat and the local Hull police. That would not change under a regional structure. In addition to community wardens and special constables, Hull has the excellent HANWAG—the Humberside association of neighbourhood watch groups. The groups play a key role in community safety in our area and they would all remain local.

A regional force would allow specialisations to develop. I was struck by an earlier comment about the fact that officers might not want to move to a different area or could think that larger forces would not give them the opportunities to develop their career. That is not the case for the Humberside police officers to whom I have spoken because they would relish the opportunities that would be available in a regional Yorkshire force.

Jeremy Wright : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Johnson: No, I am going to carry on.

The Humberside police force does not have sufficient officers to deal with the major incidents and level 2 crime with which it is sometimes called on to address. A regional force would be better able to deal with cross-regional crime, especially crime that moves up and down the M62.

Operation Sapphire, which is run by the Metropolitan police, has the resources and staff that it needs because it can call on the resources of all 32 London boroughs. It creates havens for people who have been the victims of sexual assault. The Humberside police force has considered creating such a structure in its area, but it does not have the resources or staff to do so. If we had a regional force, we might well be able to set up structures such as Operation Sapphire, which would be of great service to people in Yorkshire.

On counter-terrorism, although Hull has one of the country's major ports, I do not think that Humberside's existing number of officers can deal with some of the possible threats to the Humber estuary. We must also consider the duplication of services because great savings could be made by addressing the 43 human resources and payroll departments. All in all, I support a regional force for Yorkshire.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety makes her winding-up speech, will she address the problems with the precept because they are of great concern to many of my constituents? Will she ensure that people on our police authorities will be geographically accountable if we move towards a larger regional force? We should try to encourage a more diverse group of people to become involved in the accountability process. Young people are more likely to be the victims of crime than anyone else, so we should try to get them involved. We do not
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have to rush and do everything at once, so may we consider following a programme lasting for 18 months, two years, or three years so that we do not have to rush to change the badges on police officers' helmets and the signs on cars all at once? All in all, I support a regional force and think that Humberside would benefit greatly from a Yorkshire-wide force.

3.7 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), who gave a speech that was suitable for an ambitious Labour Back Bencher. She said that she supported a regional force for the whole of Yorkshire. She was in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made his thoughtful speech, so I hope that she—and, indeed, Ministers—listened to it. He gave reasons that are grounded in the west Yorkshire community that he represents to explain why he does not believe that a regional force for the whole of Yorkshire would be appropriate.

I represent a rural constituency in east Yorkshire that contains just four towns: Beverley; Hornsea, which is on the coast; Hedon, which is just to the east of Hull; and Withernsea, which is on the coast. Those communities are a long way from Pudsey and the problems that beset metropolitan areas with which a Yorkshire police force would want to deal. Our fears, which have been expressed already today, can be best summed up by saying that the rural needs of those communities would be left behind because of the draw of metropolitan areas. In fact, the chief constable of Humberside police recently said:

A full Yorkshire force would be too large, too remote and too distant from local people.

Already, as many hon. Members have shown in this debate, there is fantastic frustration. Anyone who came with me to the Kirkfield estate in Withernsea and knocked on door after door would see that the Government are right to talk about law and order and the challenges of antisocial behaviour, but that they are not right to move structures that can be influenced even further away from those frustrated people. They elect people such as me as Members of Parliament and others as councillors to whom they talk about their No. 1 issue—the daily challenge of needles, antisocial behaviour and disorder in their community. They feel that, year after year, despite who they vote for and the rhetoric that they hear, nothing is done about that. They are suffering from cricked-neck policing—the police, senior and junior, have a leash around their necks that is being pulled by central Government. That is the nub of the problem.

The Home Secretary was right to address the issue of accountability, but I wonder whether many Labour Members were convinced by what he said. I hope that the Minister, in summing up, will come back to the subject. When the Home Secretary said that there needed to be local accountability, he first mentioned national standards. One could laugh about that if it were not so symptomatic of this Government's approach.
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Their idea of local accountability is greater enforcement of national standards. The right hon. Gentleman then talked about roles for overview and scrutiny committees, but they have not worked in the health service. They have been unable to exert influence or to address the threat to local health services in communities such as Hornsea and Withernsea. The Home Secretary finished his piece on how he would drive local accountability with the point that there was always his intervention.

Of the four key points that the Home Secretary made, two were about intervention at national level, which will not give any reassurance to people in Withernsea and Hornsea, or in villages such as Patrington, where I attended a meeting of the parish council last week specifically on the subject of policing. The local police inspector told us what we already knew—that very often there are just two officers serving the whole of the area. The prospect of unfunded, large-scale mergers, with costs possibly as high as £1 billion, dragging even more resources away from front-line policing and leaving rural communities even more denuded of cover is frightening to those who are already frustrated with the political process.

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