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Amendments Nos. 2 to 13, tabled by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), relate to the election of police authority chairmen and vice-chairmen. I can assure the House that we have no
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intention of exercising the regulation-making power in schedule 2 to provide for the Home Secretary to appoint chairs or vice-chairs of police authorities. Our aim is simply to give a greater measure of flexibility in the legislation in relation to the appointment of police authorities as a whole. Our proposal is therefore very straightforward: we propose to exercise the regulation-making power so as to provide that the chair and vice-chair of police authorities outside London will, as now, be appointed by the members of the authority. In the case of the Metropolitan police authority, we have consulted on a proposal that the Mayor of London should appoint the chairman. We are considering the responses to the consultation and will announce our conclusions in the summer.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), now the Minister without Portfolio, said in Committee that candidates for chairmanships should have the right skills for the job. That was outlined clearly in the White Paper, “Building Communities, Beating Crime”. We intend that candidates for the role of chair should be subject to a competency-based selection process. As in other areas, we will consult on the detailed provisions to be included in the regulations. In the light of my assurances on this issue, I hope that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will agree not to press her amendments.

I turn now to amendments Nos. 14 to 20. I believe that the House is united in its ambition to ensure that recent improvements in police performance continue, and even accelerate. We all know that, in the real world, the prospect of outside intervention can be a great motivator for change.

12.45 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I realise that the Minister is new to his responsibilities, but can he tell us whether it is the Home Secretary’s desire to carry on the intention of his predecessor to merge our police forces? Will there be a review of that decision, particularly in relation to the merging of the police forces in the east midlands? Most people there think that the previous Home Secretary was wholly wrong to say that all five of the east midlands county forces should be merged into just one force.

Mr. Byrne: Amalgamations are not the subject of the Bill, but I will address the question of related powers in a moment.

Intervention powers are long-established, and they allow the Secretary of State to fulfil one of the most important responsibilities that he or she has, namely to address rapidly any failings in policing. The rationale for the Government’s revisions to the existing powers is based not on theory but on the reality based on our experience since the inception of the original powers, and on our work in supporting forces to enable them to perform better.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I have heard the Minister’s predecessor make that argument. Is not there a change of principle involved here, in that there will be no independent hearing under the new procedure? In fact, the powers are to be given directly to the Home Secretary, with no independent element at all.

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Mr. Byrne: I will come to the question of amalgamations shortly.

In Committee, many hon. Members accepted the principle that powers of last resort to intervene should exist, providing the Secretary of State with the means to take remedial action where significant and enduring performance failings had been identified. These revisions are about ensuring that the powers are quickly usable. Sometimes a measure of speed is essential if the public are to secure the protection that they need, and that they pay for. Intervention powers are, and will remain, powers of last resort, and the revisions are not intended to change that.

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green—who is not in her place—seek to insert a number of unnecessary obstacles in the legislation. For example, amendment No. 14 seeks to remove all the proposed changes to the intervention powers. This overlooks the key role that intervention powers play in driving up police performance, and the changes needed to make them fit for purpose. Amendments Nos. 15 to 18 seek to reinsert the requirement that intervention will be undertaken only following a recommendation from the chief inspector for justice, community safety and custody or, as the new legislation provides, a recommendation from the police authority responsible for maintaining the police force. Enabling the Secretary of State to draw on the advice of a wider range of sources when considering intervention will mean that a wider base of knowledge on which to base an intervention decision is possible. That might include a recommendation from the inspectorate, for example, but experience has shown that a wider range of sources of information exist, such as a public inquiry—on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) mentioned the Bichard inquiry. There is every expectation that the inspectorate’s opinion on whether to intervene would remain a central consideration. It is right, however, that other sources of information are not precluded from informing that decision.

Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 seek to remove the Secretary of State’s ability to intervene without delay when he is satisfied that the chief officer or chair of the police authority has been given sufficient information and time to remedy those failings. When a police force or police authority has failed to address problems of which it has been made aware, and it has already been given time to address them, surely a different solution needs to apply. Where a long-standing and known performance issue has persisted and gone unresolved, we therefore feel that it would be illogical, and possibly irresponsible, simply to hand back the problem to the force or authority without any stronger or more immediate requirement for its resolution. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will not press her amendments on those provisions.

Amendment No. 82, tabled by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), requires that referendums are held before an order can be made under section 32 of the Police Act 1996 altering police force areas. I appreciate that a process of permanent revisionism is now taking hold on the Conservative Benches, but the amendment ignores the adequate provisions already in the Police Act for
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merging force areas. Indeed, those very provisions were substantially revised by the previous Administration in the Police and Magistrates’ Courts Act 1994, when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What is the difference in principle between the Government wanting to discover the wishes of local people with regard to regional government—in relation to the referendum in the north-east—and their not wanting to listen to the wishes of local people with regard to the regionalisation of police forces as a result of mergers?

Mr. Byrne: As I shall explain in a moment, the provisions for merging force areas set out in the 1996 Act put sufficient protection in place and require deliberation in the House. In our constitution, referendums are typically reserved for issues of significant constitutional development, such as regional government, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and our relationship with the European Union. Under the 1996 Act, a merger may take place either if the police authorities concerned have volunteered or if the Home Secretary considers that a merger would be in the interests of the efficiency or effectiveness of policing. Therefore, there are three lines of constitutional defence.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Minister referred to the fact that the previous Administration provided the opportunity for police forces to merge. How many of those police forces have taken up that opportunity? I ask that question because mergers are now being forced on them.

Mr. Byrne: No, a number of mergers are currently under consideration, and we are in a period of reviewing objections.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is not the answer to my hon. Friend’s question that many police forces have undertaken their own market research surveys? In West Mercia, for example, more than 80 per cent. of local people do not want their constabulary merged with other forces. The reason the Government will not have a referendum on the matter is that they already know that the answer from the overwhelming majority of people around the nation is a resounding no.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but two issues need teasing apart. First, there is the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate that says that the current structure of forces does not provide sufficient resilience or protective services to deal with level 2 crime. As he will know, organised crime is at work in our communities, especially in relation to drugs, and that requires greater resilience. Secondly, one of the purposes of this place is to consider the sort of changes now proposed.

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Mark Pritchard: On that point, is not the Minister aware that there is already resilience in West Mercia and the west midlands generally, in the form of special branch, the regional taskforce and the advent of the Serious Organised Crime Agency? Why do we need all this change when such organisations are already in place? If the Government are serious about resilience, counter-terrorism and dealing with the global threat of terror, why does the Prime Minister still refuse to rule out appointing a Cabinet-level Minister to deal with those important issues?

Mr. Byrne: It is not for me to second-guess the Prime Minister’s motives on anything. [Laughter.] Let me return to two issues. First, as the hon. Gentleman would accept, if Her Majesty’s inspectorate has set out an argument that the current structure of 43 forces is insufficient to provide robust, effective and resilient protective services, it is surely incumbent on the Government to respond.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Byrne: I will just finish this point.

Secondly, on the role of the House, I want to answer directly the point about referendums. As the House knows, the process is that the Home Secretary must give notice of his intention to merge forces, and then there is a period of four months for the submission of objections. The Home Secretary must then consider those objections and respond to them before orders are made. Where a merger proposal is initiated by the Home Secretary—this is the most important point for the House—the necessary order is subject to the affirmative procedure, so that there is a debate and vote in both Houses.

I am not sure that it is the time to allow the new revisionism to run riot in the way proposed. I am a great advocate of direct democracy, probably more so than philosophers such as Michael Oakeshott or Edmund Burke. There is a place for referendums, and in our parliamentary system they should be reserved for major issues of constitutional significance, such as devolution and our future relationship with the European Union. It is for the House to deliberate and decide.

Mr. Ellwood: May I pose the same question to the Minister again? Since 1994, constabularies have been allowed to merge should they wish to do so, but how many such mergers have taken place?

Mr. Byrne: If the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I will focus on the object of the Bill.

Mr. Paterson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Byrne: I will do so in a moment.

The amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden contains a number of interesting features, which also compel me to urge the House to reject it. First, it would require a referendum even when the police authorities concerned have volunteered to merge. As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am a keen reader of the Yorkshire Post, and I therefore read with interest the article by Simon McGee on 26 April. I noticed that the North Yorkshire police
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authority, for example, had voted in favour of a merger. I understand that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is not in his place, supported that decision, and said that,

He continued:

The effect of the amendment, however, would be to deny that.

Secondly, the amendment requires that the Home Secretary, affected police authorities and the Electoral Commission must agree the wording, which leaves open the question of what would happen if they could not agree. Finally, the amendment requires majority votes in each of the affected areas, which is an odd form of democracy, because if two out of three areas said yes, but a smaller one, perhaps with the minority of the population, said no, it would effectively be able to exercise a veto.

Mr. Paterson: The Minister has mentioned the Home Secretary’s role a couple of times. As we know, the Home Secretary represents a Scottish seat, and has no remit for policing in Scotland.

Interestingly, a vigorous debate took place in the Labour party in Scotland. A party insider said:

The breaking up of Strathclyde police is being discussed where the Home Secretary has no remit. Then the Home Secretary comes down to England and tells our constituents, who massively oppose larger police forces, that they may be given them.

What is the Home Secretary’s real opinion? On his home patch, his own party is debating the breaking up of a very large police force. Now he has come down here—he has only been in power over the past few days—and I should like to know his real views. Is he going to listen to us? Is he going to listen to our constituents? Is he going to let people have a referendum where there is huge local opposition to this measure?

1 pm

Mr. Byrne: There are two voices in particular to which I would expect the Home Secretary to listen. One is the voice of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, which has tabled a report; the other is the voice of the House, which will be heard in the debates that are required for any amalgamation initiated by the Home Secretary.

I think that there are strong arguments against the amendment, and I hope that it will not be pressed to a vote.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I welcome the new Minister of State to his post, and congratulate him on successfully seeking political asylum from the Department of Health. I also welcome the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). I look forward to debating these issues with both of them.

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Most of the Government amendments are technical, and we are happy to accept them. The Minister, however, raised one issue in relation to the new power to appoint a deputy chief constable, which has been introduced at a very late stage.

I do not object to the principle that new strategic forces should be allowed to appoint additional deputy chief constables, but it gives rise to a serious question about the whole rationale for mergers—which, after all, was intended to secure savings that could be reinvested in protective services. The essence of the savings that were to be achieved was to result from the reductions in the number of senior command posts.

Page 18 of a Home Office document supporting the proposal to create a west midlands regional force—the Minister will know about that from his constituency—refers to cost savings that are quantified, and suggests that the principal cost saving would derive from a reduction in the number of senior command staff. Now we are presented with an amendment that would allow such a strategic force to take on additional command staff, thereby eating into one of the main areas of saving that have been identified as a rationale for merger.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his position, or rather his party’s position? Does his party support the idea of deputy chief constables within regions or not?

Nick Herbert: I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I said quite clearly that I supported the new provision that would allow strategic forces to take on additional deputy chief constables. My point is that the entire rationale for merger was that it would create savings. The savings have been poorly quantified, but one of the main sources of savings was to be the reduction in the number of command staff. It now appears that the Government are belatedly saying that there may not be the reduction in command staff that they at first suggested, and that forces will be allowed to take on an additional deputy chief constable, which will mean a significant cost. If that is the case, it undermines one of the key bases for the achievement of savings, and the basis for amalgamation.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is it not the case that police authorities may appoint, but such appointments will ultimately be subject to the decision of the Home Secretary? Although police authorities have a power, it will not be exercised in every case, so there may indeed be reductions in the number of senior staff.

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There may be reductions in the number of senior staff. It now appears, however, that in many cases there will not be the reductions that were originally suggested. That undermines the costings that were the basis on which the proposal was presented to local people and to the House.

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