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The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): I was about to say that we had had an excellent debate; I genuinely think we have. We have heard some really good contributions, and the tone of the debate, when it was opened by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), was very different from that of some debates that we have had. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was seeking consensus. He was trying to be constructive and to find a way forward. He agreed that there was a need to deal with protective services, and that services might be weak in some police forces. He also agreed that teams needed to acquire skills and expertise, and that there was a need for major incident teams. There appeared to be a huge degree of consensus between us, and I wondered what I would have to talk about.
Then, however, we heard the speech of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who, in the past 10 minutes, has managed to provoke me to the point at which we really can have a good and proper debate on these issues. It is important that we share some of the concerns, however, and I was also heartened by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who recognised that there were serious gaps in the police forces' ability to deal with some of the serious challenges of 21st century policing. That feeling has been echoed across the Chamber today, and I am grateful for that.
As always in these debates, we can all recognise the problems, but we do not always agree on, or even recognise, the way to deal with them and the decisions involved in doing so. I have to say to Members on the Opposition Bencheswhere we sat for a very long time; far too long, in my viewthat it is easy to say what one is against, but it is far more difficult to say what one is for. We need to develop constructive proposals that will strengthen policing in this country.
I want to put one fact clearly on record from the outset; this is not about a regionalisation agenda. It is not about changing structures or re-drawing the map of
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policing for the sake of it. Our proposals are about trying to ensure that our police service, which protects the people of this country, is fit for purpose and able to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour at a local level, to deal with volume crime and serious and organised crime involving drugs, money laundering and people trafficking, and to deal with international crime and the threat of terrorism.
It is the Government's responsibility to grapple with those issues, no matter how difficult they are. We face difficult issues of accountability, governance, finance and responsivenessit is perfectly legitimate to raise those issuesbut at the end of the day, our top priority must be to ensure that the police service in the whole country, not just in one particular area, has the capacity, the capability and the resilience to deal with the pressures that we face.
Mr. Gray: If this is not about regionalisation, why has the Home Office laid down that the police in my area of North Wiltshire on the M4 may not amalgamate with the Berkshire police, even if they want to, because they are in different Government regions? Why has the Home Office laid down that absolute stipulation about the regional boundary?
Hazel Blears: At the start of this process, we set out certain criteria that we thought would help police forces to draw up proposals to submit to us[Interruption.] Again, I say that it is the Government's responsibility to set a framework, and to establish the broad parameters. The alternative would be a free-for-all in which no one took responsibility or made the necessary decisions. We said that the criteria would include looking at Government office boundaries, although we did not say that that was an absolute given. We said that if there was a compelling case for crossing such a boundary, we would consider it. I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) would accept that, in relation to a range of services, it is necessary to have relationships, coterminosity and people working together to ensure that we have the resilience to deal with all these issues.
I also want to emphasise some of the facts that relate to our proceeding in this way. Although we have talked about structures, accountability and governance, which are important issues, I would not want us to neglect the real policing imperatives. Only 13 out of 43 forces have fully resourced specialist murder units. Fewer than 6 per cent. of the more than 1,500 big organised crime gangs are targeted by police in the course of a year. Only seven out of 43 forces deploy special branch, together with its neighbourhood policing teams, providing that essential community intelligence to enable us to prepare for and counter terrorism. Those are real, substantive policing issues, and that is the agenda at stake.
I want to deal with some of the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that we shared some common ground. He is keen to sustain neighbourhood policing, as are all my right
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hon. and hon. Friends. But he should think carefully; unless there is some coming together, so that we have larger forces with capacity and resilience, we will not be able to sustain neighbourhood policing for the long term as we want to do. We need to consider the whole of the police force's business; otherwise, neighbourhood policing will sit on top of our current organisation, and it will be easy to strip out in years to come. I mean to make sure that that does not happen.
I very much welcome the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). I particularly welcomed his analysis about federation leading to blurred lines of accountability and the possibility of even more costs and bureaucracy if we have to have an extra layer on top of our existing forces.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said that he could ascertain from the Home Secretary's body language that he was about regionalisation. I have never seen regionalised body language in my life. We have already agreed that big is not necessarily beautiful, and that size does not matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), in a thoughtful contribution, set out his genuine concerns. I assure him that I will examine extremely carefully the case made in relation to West Yorkshire. I have met him and other colleagues, and I will continue to give that issue extremely close attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), in an excellent contribution, also spoke about support for neighbourhood policing, and urged us to get on with taking action. It is important that we do not have an extended period of blight and uncertainty, which will provide an opportunity for morale to dip, and I do not want that to happen. When we make our decisions, there is a need to press on with our action.
I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), who knows the challenges involved in "Closing the Gap" to tackle serious crime. He thinks that the public should not have to choose between tackling local crime and serious crime, and he is absolutely right. The mission for the police service is now extremely wide. We therefore need an organisation that is fit for purpose, so that we can deploy our resources to tackle all the threats that face us.
I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), who brought her experience in London to the debate. As she said rightly, the community's relationship is with the BCU commander, and not necessarily with the larger force. That relationship will be key in making sure that local people have the ability to set priorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) gave us some tremendous support. I am delighted that, while her area has a high-performing force and low crime, she still recognises the sense of coming together, sharing resources and considering a collective framework.
Several other Members have made contributions. I recognise the concerns about rural areas. As Members will know, I do not represent a rural area, but I am
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concerned that every part of the countryrural and urban, market town and inner cityshould have a neighbourhood policing team made up of police officers, community support officers, special constables and neighbourhood wardens that is not abstracted when there is a double or triple murder, a major demonstration, or, heaven forbid, another terrorist incident. At the moment, with small forces, the pressure to draw those officers away from the neighbourhood is intense, and that will get worse as serious crime is more of a threat. The way in which to sustain neighbourhood policing in rural as well as urban areas is to ensure that we have large enough forces to maintain that strategic capacity and resilience.
We will of course consider the ideas that have been advanced about federation. I am not convinced that it can provide the solution that we seek, but we will certainly examine the cases that are put to us. However, I say this to Members who see federation as a magic bullet to deal with the problems that we face: it could produce blurred lines of accountability, a chief constable who was not responsible for all areas of crime, an extra layer of governance and another command team. It could cost each area £1 million if a separate command team had to deal with serious and organised crime.
There is no simple solution. These are complex issues that require a complex response. We are determined, however, that the steps we take will improve policing in every part of the country, so that we can protect the people to whom we owe a responsibility. I hope that Members throughout the House will recognise that the responsibility of us all, not just Government, is to consider not only individual forces but how to secure the best possible system, which will serve us now and also in 15 and 20 years' time and will take account of the real challenges of 21st-century policing.
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