Previous Section Index Home Page

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that Staffordshire police authority came to speak to Staffordshire Members of Parliament, both Labour and Conservative? Considerable doubt was
10 May 2006 : Column 328
expressed by Labour Members over the accuracy of their projections of the cost savings. The real fear is that police forces in Staffordshire will be diverted to the west midlands, where there tend to be more trouble spots. We have our needs, too.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend articulates precisely the fear expressed by police forces throughout the country that rural areas in particular will lose out as a consequence of amalgamation, and that resources will be diverted from the front line.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that there will also be an impact on rural market towns in Shropshire? Is he as shocked as I am that the cost of merging West Mercia police force into a new super-force for the west midlands is estimated at £57 million, an additional police precept whose cost will be borne by taxpayers throughout Shropshire?

Nick Herbert: I do find it shocking that mergers will cost so much. For several years, any savings that may be achieved—we now know that they are likely to be less than was initially suggested—will be outweighed by the costs. The Association of Police Authorities estimates that the cost of mergers will be about £500 million across England and Wales. The Government belatedly announced in a budgetary letter to the chief constables at the end of March that they would meet the costs of amalgamation, but it is clear that those funds are being raided from the existing police capital budget. Resources that should have been spent on improvements in policing will now be used to pay for management consultants, merged IT systems and new headquarters.

I should be grateful if the Minister asked for replies to be given to the questions that I tabled for written answer as long ago as January, asking about the costs of the employment of management consultants by the Home Office, police authorities and police forces themselves, as part of the police restructuring exercise. I have not yet received replies to those questions, and I am not surprised that I have not, but I think that months later replies are due.

With the Home Office budget effectively frozen by the Chancellor from 2008 onwards, the outlook for investment in level 2 services—a premise for amalgamation that is addressed by our amendment No. 82—and for other areas of policing is bleak.

Mr. Burns: Does my hon. Friend not find it rather bizarre that the Home Secretary is forcing on Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex an amalgamation that no one in Essex wants, and that the cost will be £29 million?

Nick Herbert: Again, I think it unacceptable that that amount will be taken from the police capital budget and used for an amalgamation that the local force does not want, the police authority does not want and people in Essex do not want.

In 2004, a leaked joint Home Office strategy unit report warned:

10 May 2006 : Column 329

In a letter published this week in The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and The Times, a group of cross-party chairmen of police authorities representing Cheshire, Cleveland, Northamptonshire, North Wales and West Mercia police authorities added to that warning, pointing out:

Mr. Stewart Jackson: My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that the Government could have met their financial objectives, which were set from the O’Connor report onwards, had they not so obviously set their face against federated arrangements such as those offered by Cambridgeshire and Suffolk police authorities, and that they could have made financial cuts without affecting front-line operational services?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Of course, the irony is that the federal option was proposed by the Prime Minister and the strategy unit, but the previous Home Secretary rejected it out of hand. In my own area, forces such as Sussex, Surrey and Kent have lost the option of going down the federal route. I am of course pleased that Kent is being allowed to remain as a stand-alone force, but I regret the fact that the impetus for such federal arrangements has been lost. Such arrangements could have met many of the cost-saving and reinvestment criteria for level 2 policing that amalgamation purportedly addresses, and without impacting on local accountability.

Serious issues have arisen from the speed with which these proposals have been developed; indeed, they have been a significant distraction from what the Home Office should have been doing in the past few months. Setting aside the obvious issue of whether sufficient ministerial and official attention was paid to the deportation of foreign offenders, the Home Office, as one chief constable remarked, has been moving the deckchairs around in driving through this disruptive and costly amalgamation, when it could have been focusing on other, more important aspects of police reform—not least driving up police productivity and work force reform.

The Prime Minister said in January that it


But only one amalgamation—Cumbria and Lancashire—has been agreed by both the police authorities concerned. All the others have been contested by at least one of the authorities involved. Now, as the Minister said, there is to be a consultation period, and the question is: what does that consultation really mean? In a letter to The Times of 12 April, 35 council leaders from across the parties and across the country condemned the Home Secretary’s merger proposals, arguing the following:

The truth is that the public have been shut out of discussion about the future of their own police forces. They must be consulted properly.

Mr. Paterson: My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. He knows that one of Peel’s nine principles was that the police’s ability to perform their duties is dependent on public approval of police actions. Some 96 per cent. of respondents to a telephone poll in West Mercia, which the police conducted in a thoroughly professional manner, wanted West Mercia to be a strategic force. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a real risk that, if we do not consult the public through a referendum, these huge new forces will not have legitimacy in the eyes of the public?

Nick Herbert: I agree with every word that my hon. Friend says. If they were wise, the Government, the new Home Secretary and his team would pause to reflect on whether this is the right thing to do in seeking to rebuild public confidence and to establish the right set of priorities for the Home Office, in order that it can do its job of contributing more effectively to public safety.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will my hon. Friend invite Ministers and Members to hold their own plebiscites? I am carrying out a survey in my Lincolnshire constituency, in the form of a plebiscite, to find out just how many people support these dastardly plans. If all Members did that, we could send the results to Ministers, who would then know once and for all that these plans are unpopular, unwarranted and unnecessary.

Nick Herbert: I like my hon. Friend’s idea, and should the Government reject amendment No. 82, which calls for referendums, the option remains for police authorities to hold their own referendums, as authorities such as Essex have proposed. I hope that they do so.

1.15 pm

The Government have advanced a number of arguments against amendment No. 82 and the use of referendums, none of which I find convincing. The first objection was articulated in Committee by the former Minister with responsibility for policing. She said that

That was her principal reason for opposing an amendment calling for a referendum. So the Government do not want to hold referendums because they know that they would lose them. Every single local opinion poll has shown that the public want to keep their local force.

The second objection advanced in Committee was that referendums were not held in the 1960s and the 1970s, when police forces were previously amalgamated. But in the debate on the Police and
10 May 2006 : Column 331
Magistrates’ Courts Bill in July 1994, to which the Minister referred—that legislation now provides the statutory basis for driving forward amalgamations—the current Prime Minister, who was then shadow Home Secretary, pointed out the following:

There is no public agreement to these amalgamations, which is why the public need to have their say.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Given that the hon. Gentleman is very keen on referendums, can he tell us how many the Tories have held at national or local level over the years? [Interruption.]

Nick Herbert: I am very sorry but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman’s question; there was some noise from behind me.

Mark Tami: That is probably because the hon. Gentleman’s colleague next to him was shouting. Given that the Tories are now very keen on referendums, can he tell us how many they held at national or local level over the years when they were in power?

Nick Herbert: No, I cannot.

The third argument advanced by the Government against local referendums—indeed, the Minister has just advanced it—was that one area might be able to block the proposal. For example, even if West Mercia was the only area that objected to the proposal—there is no polling evidence to suggest that that would be so—that could prevent a west midlands super-force from coming into being. But Labour’s own policy document, published in 1996, before Labour came to power, answered that very contention. It said:

Legitimacy is indeed the issue. If an area is to have amalgamation imposed on it—if it can be voted down by a majority vote of other areas—that is not a proper vote on policing for that area; rather, it amounts to a hostile takeover. That is why the Government’s argument is wrong.

The Minister also said that referendums should be reserved for issues of major constitutional significance and change. Yes, they should—that is probably self-evident—but Denis O’Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary on whose report the Government rely in order to push forward these amalgamations, stated in the introduction to his report that

What is more, in 1994 the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), described the proposed amalgamation of police forces without public debate as a “denial of constitutional principle”. If the Minister is relying on the argument that this is not a constitutional matter, he is on shaky ground.

10 May 2006 : Column 332

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is arguing the case powerfully. He will know that there is a move to force Surrey police to amalgamate with Sussex, and that every Member of Parliament for Surrey is against this, on the basis that it will mean less local accountability and less-efficient policing; indeed, virtually everybody in the county is against the idea. Can he think of any reason why the Government will not be prepared to listen to the people of Surrey, through one means or another, and to take their views into account?

Nick Herbert: As a west Sussex Member, I agree with my hon. Friend. It is our force that will be merged with Surrey and the proposal is deeply unpopular in the county. It is sad that the advice of the police authority—in particular that of the former chief constable of Sussex, who is now the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers—that a federal option should be investigated, was simply not taken. The Government failed even to consider that option properly, even though it was the Prime Minister’s preferred route.

The fifth reason advanced by the Government for rejecting referendums on police mergers is that they know what is best for the people. It is that contempt for public opinion that has led the Government to ignore the people’s vote on regional assemblies and proceed by stealth to build regional government in any case. Back in 1996, before the Government came to power, there was a rather different message. The Labour party document on regional government, to which I have already referred, claimed:

That must be the kind of active support and understanding that the public gave the Labour party in the recent local elections. However, when my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) asked the previous Home Secretary if he would accept the verdict of the people of Essex if they voted emphatically for a stand-alone force, he replied:

So that is what new Labour meant by

It meant, “We don’t want you to have a say and if, for some reason, you get a say, we’ll ignore you.”

I hoped that the new Minister might take a more enlightened view of local or direct democracy, which I know he supports. After all, he co-authored a pamphlet entitled “Power to the People”, so let us give the people some real power. Last September, he also co-authored a Fabian Society paper entitled “Why Labour Won”. That is now of course of only historical interest to readers. He might be planning a small but significant revision to the title.

In the pamphlet, the Minister argued for a manifesto to transform the choice and voice of the public in the services for which they pay. I agree with him, but he has fallen at the first fence in his new job by denying local people an important choice over the future of their
10 May 2006 : Column 333
police forces. Before the local elections and in his previous incarnation under the Deputy Prime Minister—as it were—the new Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made great play of what he called double devolution, in which citizens would have more choice. So where is the citizens’ voice in the future shape of their local police force? That is not double devolution: it is doublespeak. Their rhetoric is about localism, community empowerment and the citizen’s voice: the reality is a steady accrual of power to Whitehall.

Successive clauses in the Bill give more power to the Home Secretary and take it from police forces and authorities. This group of amendments also addresses schedule 2 to the Bill, which gives the Home Secretary sweeping new powers to intervene in police forces. ACPO has warned that by enabling the Home Secretary to act independently, the Bill

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about localism and local debate. I have great concerns about the proposed all-Wales police force, and local people in great volumes are saying that they want some form of localism. Schedule 2 will give local people the say that they need, so we are moving towards that. It is the duty of Members of Parliament to listen to what people are actually saying, and that is certainly what north Wales MPs have been doing. We are feeding it into the debate today and it is being taken on board.

Nick Herbert: I understand, from all the public opinion polls and surveys that have been conducted in Wales and debates in which I have taken part that there is considerable opposition in Wales to an all-Wales police force. There will be a substantial loss of accountability, because police force headquarters will be a long way from the people of north Wales. That is why there has been such resistance to the proposals. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to listen to the people, and they are telling us that they do not want these amalgamations.

Ministers claim that the powers in schedule 2 will be used as a last resort. That is what the Minister just told us and the explanatory notes to the Bill set it out in terms. But in Committee the Government refused to put the words on the face of the Bill. When they could offer no convincing reason for not including that uncomplicated safeguard, we became convinced that Ministers have every intention of using the powers more broadly. For that reason, we support amendments Nos. 15 to 18 tabled by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), which will go some way to restoring the balance by requiring that intervention is preceded by a recommendation from the new combined inspectorate, or a request from the police authority. Those are not unnecessary obstacles, as the Minister described them. They are the existing safeguards in legislation against the abuse of power by the Home Secretary and this Bill would remove them.

10 May 2006 : Column 334

The Association of Police Authorities has expressed alarm that the Bill

Next Section Index Home Page