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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I shall make one brief point and one substantial point. First, the Home Secretary has discussed accountability and the link between crime and disorder reduction partnerships and district councils. In my area, for example, the basic command units are the Forest of Dean and Gloucester, which cover a district council area and a city council area. Those areas are distinct and different, and it would not be satisfactory if they were served by a single BCU.

Secondly, I want to discuss the alternative to mergers, which is collaboration between independent forces. As the Minister knows, the chief constable has provided examples of services that are currently shared in the south-west, where independent police forces are already co-operating on regional tasking and co-ordinating special branch intelligence and air support, which, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, Gloucestershire has shared with Avon and Somerset since 1996. Indeed, a new regional arrangement has been implemented on the provision of helicopter pilots. The implementation of Airwave, procurement, drug-testing services and forensic
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physicians have also been shared among services, saving the region £1.4 million per annum. The success of joint procurement shows that the approach outlined in Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary's document "What price policing?" can work. Collaboration and sharing require commitment and belief, but they provide results without the up-front cost of amalgamation.

There is another example of shared services between the emergency services in Gloucestershire. Since 2002 a joint police, fire and ambulance control room has operated from Quedgeley in the constituency of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who is sitting on the Front Bench now. The facility is one of three nationally, proves its worth every day, and is popular in the county.

Shared services and the collaborative model offer the Government a way out. As has been said, mergers are popular and professionally supported in some areas, but where they are not popular, I urge the Minister to consider the collaborative model. The chief constables and the police authorities in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset are working on a proposal to retain those forces' independence and have them make a great commitment to working together, which is a good alternative model. I urge the Minister to examine that alternative, and hope that she concludes that it is right for those three counties.

3.40 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The Home Secretary began by suggesting, incredibly, that the majority of police authorities support his position, so it is worth reminding the Minister of the facts. By the 23 December deadline that the Home Secretary set, of the 41 police forces affected by the proposed restructuring, 14 refused to express a preferred option and another 14 stated that their preferred option was to stand alone. By my reckoning, that means that 28 out of the 41 police authorities—68 per cent.—have rejected the Home Secretary's proposals. Only seven police authorities signed up to the full regional mergers as proposed by the Home Office, and in every case at least one other authority in the region opposed the plans. It is fantasy politics to claim, as the Home Secretary did, that police authorities support what he is doing.

The Home Secretary also prayed in aid the comments of several chief constables. However, for every chief constable who has publicly spoken out in favour of restructuring, others have opposed it. Opinion is divided. I could quote the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys, who said that the Government's plans were


My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned Gloucestershire. The chief constable of that force, who is also the head of finance and resourcing at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said:

The Home Secretary signally failed to deal with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said about the cost of the
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proposals, which the Association of Police Authorities estimates to be £525 million and rising. The Government have so far offered only £125 million to defray those costs—less than a quarter of the amount—and we know that that is not new money. There is a £400 million shortfall. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to tell me how that shortfall is to be funded; perhaps she will tell me now. It is clear that local taxpayers are going to pick up the bill. That means that police precepts will rise by, we calculate, 21 per cent. to meet the £400 million gap. That is against the background of rising council tax and a police precept that has already doubled since the Government came to power.

The last time that I raised this, the Minister said that she did not accept the APA's estimates. I have to tell her that we will be sceptical about the Government's figures—when they finally get round to publishing them—in the light of the National Audit Office's refusal yesterday to sign off the Home Office's books because it could not properly account for its £14 billion annual budget. I remind the Minister that in some parts of her region, the north-west, the £47 million cost of restructuring will result in council tax bills rising by as much as £32, while in the Home Secretary's region they will rise by as much as £30.

At Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his support for the option of sharing services. Today the Home Secretary repeated his opposition to that solution. We might have known that that was the Home Secretary's position, because he has written to us all; we received the letter today. He has published a glossy leaflet about what he intends to do with the police. When he is asked how serious crime is going to be combated, he replies:

It is a done deal, is it not? No sooner had the Prime Minister made his comments in support of sharing services by police forces, than the Minister—who is the Minister for respect—gave a briefing to the lobby to say that that was not the case. I suggest that that was not very respectful to the Prime Minister.

The Home Office appears to be in a state of confusion about what is happening. In a briefing from Home Office officials to members of local authorities earlier this month for a conference entitled the "Innovation Forum", page 2 begins:

If it is not about mergers, what is it about? Do the Government have a coherent view of whether they are willing to consider sharing services? The Association of Police Authorities has asked them to consider that. Perhaps we could have a straight answer to that question.

When the Prime Minister was asked about amalgamations, he said:

Clearly, that is exactly what the Home Secretary plans to do, because amalgamations do not have the unanimous support of police authorities in any region of the country. If the Government are determined that amalgamations are
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the answer, they can only proceed by compulsion. They should stop pretending that some sort of voluntary arrangement is possible, because police authorities do not want it.

The Government's reluctance to allow mergers across regional boundaries, which they confirmed again today, reveals their agenda. The Deputy Prime Minister's plans for regional government were defeated overwhelmingly in the first referendum in the north-east, but the Government are proceeding with regionalism by stealth. That happens with planning decisions, the replacement of local fire control rooms with regional centres, in the national health service and now with the police.

I am sorry that Home Secretary is not here, because I wanted to emphasise to him that big is not always beautiful.

David Davis: The Minister who is here should approve of that sentiment.

Nick Herbert: Indeed.

The Home Office's performance assessments show that three of the top-performing police forces have fewer than 4,000 officers. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said, size does not matter. Why are the Government so dismissive of the option of sharing services? Several points that Labour Members made were wrong. No additional bureaucracy will be created by forces sharing services, as shown by the fact that no primary or secondary legislation is required to achieve that.

Agreements to share services would be legally binding, not ad hoc. Sharing services would enable police authorities to achieve the economies of scale inherent in a merger without the additional costs. Police forces could preserve their local identity and accountability, and implementation would be quicker and less disruptive. Existing arrangements show that the sharing solution is practical. That is apparent when one considers the midlands counter-terrorism support unit or the West Midlands central motorway patrol group, which operate across forces.

Sharing services works well in other public services—for example, the Army, in which brigades undertake operational and support functions while the regimental structure is retained.

The Government could have pursued a police reform agenda. Only one in four crimes are detected, and the Minister knows that detection rates have been falling. Police officers spend less than a fifth of their time on the beat. It takes three and a half hours for every arrest to be processed. The police reform agenda should cover modernising working practices, cutting paperwork and   making police properly accountable to local people.   Instead, the Government are obsessed with reorganisation. That often happens in their dealings with public services.

Constant interference and change is good for only one group of people—the management consultants, who already charge a great deal of money, at the taxpayers' expense, as they advise on changes in the Government's constant public service reorganisations. For everyone else, the process is disruptive.

Chief constables and police authorities should spend time on policing our streets. Instead they spend too much time, as my right hon. Friend the Member for
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North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, worrying about headquarters moves, how to merge IT systems, and their jobs.

We made the Government a serious offer. We said that if they considered alternatives to amalgamation, costed the options properly and consulted local people, we would be constructive in reaching agreement on how to shape policing in the future. However, the Government are clearly blindly determined to press ahead. They have lost the support of police authorities and are losing that of increasing numbers of chief constables. They never had the support of local people and they will not say how the £500 million will be financed. They have no serious proposals to ensure local accountability of the police. They will not allow amalgamations to cross regional boundaries, but the proposed police force amalgamations will leave local taxpayers with a £400 million bill.

Vast regional forces will take chief constables hundreds of miles from the local people whom they are meant to serve. Regional forces will weaken the link between police and their communities, and strengthen the Government's grip on the police. This is exactly the wrong way to strengthen the fight against crime, so we ask the Government, one more time, to think again.

3.50 pm

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