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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The chief constable of Gloucestershire has estimated that the south-west amalgamations will cost an estimated £56 million. My hon. Friend can add that to his figure, so we are beginning to get some large sums. Gloucestershire has, I think, the highest police precept, which went up by two thirds—66 per cent.—in the past three years. Does he agree that it would be unacceptable if the people of Gloucestershire, who have made good progress on the Government's "Agenda for Change", are clobbered yet again with a much higher police precept because of the forced amalgamations that no one wants? Indeed, the chief constable and five out of the six Members of Parliament who represent the region are adamant that they do not want it.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is right. The proposed amalgamations are unpopular in the south-west, as they are in the rest of the country. The cost of £175 million was solely for the four regions affected by the Government's announcement today. The total cost will be £525 million. That will have to be met in part by council tax payers in the south-west, including Gloucestershire. It does not deal with the problem raised in interventions on the Minister, to which he did not respond, of the need for precept equalisation, resulting in much higher council tax increases in some police force areas or additional costs if those differences are to be ironed out.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Would it not add insult to injury for many of the larger regions to find themselves paying extra tax, following the Metropolitan police's example of pulling resources towards the more urban, metropolitan areas and away from places such as Gloucestershire and Staffordshire?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is right. One of the great concerns about amalgamations is their impact on policing, particularly in rural areas. There is potential for funds and police officers to be drawn away from the community policing that the public want. If £525 million is to be spent on policing in England and Wales, I believe that the public would want it to go towards ensuring proper policing of our streets to prevent crime.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to give my hon. Friend and the House a stark example of what he has just been saying. On a Friday night, one patrol car patrols 500 square miles of the north Cotswolds. That is half the area of the Metropolitan police, which probably has 10,000 police on duty. That is the difference between some of our remote, rural areas and most inner-city areas.

Nick Herbert: Again, my hon. Friend is right. The areas created by some of the regional forces are huge—
 
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some thousands of square miles—which raises serious issues of accountability as well as adding to the difficulty in forces of deploying officers across such vast areas.

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said that it was

amalgamations through, yet the Home Secretary has dismissed out of hand the cheaper and less disruptive option of forces sharing services, in spite of the fact that that has been supported by the Association of Police Authorities and endorsed by the Prime Minister. The Minister mentioned the savings that could accrue through amalgamation, but he will know that the O'Connor report estimated that at only £70 million a year, and there were no supporting calculations to indicate how those savings might be arrived at.

The fact that North Wales police are not being allowed to consider merging with an English force, even though crime patterns would dictate that option, betrays the Government's true regional political agenda. The creation of a west midlands force announced in the statement today is not a merger at all. It is a hostile takeover of West Mercia police, which is one of the top-ranked forces in the country and wants to stand alone.

Before the effect of the amalgamations was taken into account, the Association of Police Authorities and ACPO expressed concern about the levels of funding being provided, as announced today. They estimate a revenue gap of £250 million. That is based on detailed research carried out by police authority treasurers, which shows that the service needs annual funding increases of at least 6 per cent. in 2006–07 and 2007–08, excluding any new costs of dealing with counter-terrorism, which the whole House would support, and police force amalgamations. The Association of Police Authorities and ACPO identified the cost pressures in a joint statement as follows:

Dr. Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire and chairman of ACPO's financial committee, said:

Police forces have already made significant efficiency gains and, indeed, they have been congratulated by the Chancellor on leading the way. However, the comments of the chief constable of Gloucestershire have been echoed across the country, as the Minister will know, by
 
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a number of police forces and authorities that are concerned about the settlement. My own authority of Sussex said:

That was echoed by the deputy chief constable of Sussex, who will shortly become chief constable:

Despite rightly making the savings that the Government have urged them to make, police authorities and forces still face financial difficulties.

Lincolnshire police authority's treasurer and clerk, Mr. Roger Buttery, said that the force is facing a £4 million shortfall and may have to make some police staff redundant. If that happened, police officers would have to fill staff positions. Mr. Buttery told the Police Review that the authority was considering completing only emergency property maintenance and might have to pull out of a successful community partnership with the local council and health authority. Derbyshire police reported that their central Government grant is to be increased by only 3.4 per cent., falling short of the £9.6 million extra that the authority believes is needed to meet current service pressures. Mr. Nigel Thomas, the treasurer of the North Wales police authority, compared its 3.7 per cent. funding increase with the 6.4 per cent. that it needed "just to stand still".

The problem faced by those police authorities stems from the additional costs loaded on to police forces. A major contributor to those additional costs is the ever- increasing central direction imposed by the Government. The police have been subjected to an ever-tighter central grip, with a plethora of targets, plans and agencies designed to regulate and direct them. There is a national policing plan and a police performance assessment framework, as well as public service agreements. Police forces are statutorily required to produce strategic plans and they are overseen by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the Audit Commission and the Government's police standards unit. There is a national centre for policing excellence, which shortly will be subsumed by a new national policing improvement agency as a result of the Police and Justice Bill, which has been laid before the House.

The centralisation of the police raises a number of issues in the context of the Government's proposals. First, on the cost of the centralised units, what will be the cost of the national policing improvement agency? Indeed, what is the cost of the police standards unit? Central spending on those units has increased substantially since they were introduced by the Government. Secondly, we must consider the cost of the bureaucracy with which the police must deal, and thirdly, with the opportunity cost resulting from the fact that police officers are not on our streets. It is well known that police officers, according to the Home
 
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Office's own figures, spend less than one fifth of their time on the beat, and that it takes six and a half hours to process an arrest.


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