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The association’s concern might well have increased if it had heard, as I have, a rumour of a new proposal to create a national policing board in the Home Office, to be chaired by the Home Secretary. There is nothing in the Bill about such a board; nor, to my knowledge, has it been suggested in Parliament. Perhaps the Minister will now confirm whether such a board is planned. If so, it should have been discussed when this Bill was before the House. It is especially relevant to the powers in schedule 2 and the amendments before us, because the concept epitomises the direction of Government policy and the increasingly central direction of policing. We will have half the number of forces, remote from their local communities, with chief constables effectively being appointed by and answering to the Home Secretary. The public simply have not been consulted about a fundamental transfer of power from their communities. That is what our amendment, requiring local referendums on the changes, seeks to address. It is right in principle and it is right because we believe in trusting people. I beg to move amendment No. 82.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot move that amendment at the moment. It is up for debate now, but it will be moved when we reach it on the amendment paper.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I must first apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who is attending to vital constituency business but who will join the debate as soon as she can.

I congratulate the Minister on his new responsibilities. It is very impressive to hear new Labour Ministers quoting Edmund Burke; indeed, it must be a first. I suggest that he leaven it with a little John Stuart Mill from “On Liberty”, which might be useful in this debate.

If I were optimistic, I would detect a slight softening of the Government’s position in new clause 4. The suggestion that huge super-forces may not be such a clever idea after all is a welcome development, as is the proposal to delegate some authority to deputy chief constables or area committees. If it is the beginning of backtracking on the super-forces, I am pleased to see it.

I notice that the Minister credits Welsh MPs with some of the arguments that have persuaded him on the new clause, but there are plenty of other examples from my area in the south-west.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I have been watching the debate from the comfort of my office—[Hon. Members: “You should have been here.”] Well, I was moved to come and compliment Welsh Labour Members who, like me, are uncomfortable with the suggestion of one super-force across Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that the Government need
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to listen to the cross-party consensus that opposes one police force for the whole of Wales? This is not about scoring points off the Government; it is about getting the right settlement for Wales. Behind the Minister are four good men and true who speak for Labour and for Wales. All of them support keeping the police force in that nation roughly as it is.

1.30 pm

Martin Horwood: I certainly agree with that. My hon. Friend must be pleased that he and his Welsh colleagues seem to have had a real impact on Government policy in this area, and that they seem to be moving the Government in a positive direction.

However, I was about to say that Wales is not the only area to which that principle could apply. In the south-west, my area, the most northerly point of the proposed super-force is to the north of Gloucestershire, around Tewkesbury, while the most southerly is the Scilly Isles. The distance between those areas is about twice the distance between the north and south of Wales. In a sense, therefore, the argument for the south-west is even stronger, and there are signs that the Home Office may be thinking twice about the implications of establishing such an enormous force.

The metropolitan model of a successful force is the basis of the O’Connor report and the Home Office’s response, but it is one thing to apply that model to a large metropolitan area such as Manchester, where there are many police officers, and resources can be reorganised and shifted around, and quite another to say that resources available in the Scilly Isles could resolve a problem in Gloucestershire.

Interestingly, Gloucestershire’s chief constable has continued to make a strong case against the merger of forces in the south-west. In January he wrote to the Minister’s predecessor and said that restructuring could cost at least £550 million. He offered shared services and collaboration as an alternative model, saying that it could

If the Government are beginning to pause for thought on these huge, inappropriate and expensive mergers, that is a welcome development.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned metropolitan forces, but we need look no further than London’s Metropolitan Police Service to see how difficult it is to police a metropolitan area with very different component parts. Outer London is very different from inner London: the policing needs are different, and there are constant pressures on budgets and the allocation of resources. Does he agree that the same will happen in the very large regional forces that the Government propose? They would face exactly the same problems, as they would cover both rural and more built-up areas, with their different policing needs. There cannot be a borough commander in the whole of Greater London who would not welcome more autonomy in dealing with his resources and budgets.

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Martin Horwood: I do not know the details of the Metropolitan force, but the hon. Lady and other hon. Members make a powerful case against a one-size-fits-all solution. What is needed is local flexibility appropriate to an area’s geography and the nature of its communities.

At first sight, Government new clause 4 seems to be positive but, as ever, the Government cannot resist increasing the powers of the Secretary of State at the same time. As a result, the new clause contains powers to impose limits on what may be delegated, and to direct police authorities and forces how and what to delegate to area committees or regional deputy chief constables. The Bill’s theme is one of interference and creeping centralised control, and it reappears just when it seems that the Government might be beginning to move in the other direction.

As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) pointed out, the Bill and its creeping centralisation have constitutional significance.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there appears to be a dichotomy between his party’s correct opposition to the proposals for police amalgamations and its consistent support for regional government in every form possible?

Martin Horwood: No, I do not. It is plausible to have a regional government appropriate to the community that it serves that is not based on the model that is emerging in this country. For the record, my party has always been in favour of elected regional government that takes power down from central Government. What we have is unelected regional government that takes power up from local communities—precisely the reverse of what we have campaigned for. There are good reasons, to do with civil liberties, and resistance to the undue centralisation of power, for not having a national police force, and for preserving a degree of independence for police forces and authorities.

Amendment No. 2, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, would provide for a police authority’s chair and vice-chair to be elected rather than appointed by the Secretary of State. Again, we are seeking to remove from the Bill a measure that increases centralisation and the Secretary of State’s power.

When he was considering the amendment, the Minister said that greater flexibility would be allowed and that police authorities and forces, and the Government, would not be constrained. In this Bill, however, the Government always seem to be seeking more flexibility for themselves and less for local people and communities. He said that the Mayor of London would be able to appoint the chairs of police authorities. If that is good enough for the Mayor, why is it not good enough for police authorities all over the country? Why does the Bill have to reserve that power for the Government?

Given that the support for amendment No. 2 may not be as widespread as we had hoped, we may not press it to a vote. However, I want to place on record our clear support for the principle that police authority chairs and vice-chairs should be elected and not appointed. Interestingly, the first Home Secretary to try to interfere
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in that process was the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), so it is welcome that the Conservative party is beginning to move away from that centralising instinct. It is just sad that the Labour party seems to have moved past it in the opposite direction.

Amendment No. 82, in the name of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), is based on good instincts. The Conservative party’s commitment to referendums has been questioned. That is rather uncharitable, although I remind the House of the trenchant opposition of the then Conservative Government to a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, but I am pleased that Conservative Members seem to have discovered the virtues of direct democracy.

The Minister said in connection with amendment No. 82 that there was good provision for the reorganisation of police forces. Certainly, existing legislation contains good provision for reorganisation, but there is no provision for the application of a brake on the sort of hasty and precipitate reorganisation proposed in the Bill. I am sympathetic to this amendment, which would apply just such a brake and make it possible for public opinion to exert an influence on what would be a hasty and unwise process.

However, the Minister identified a fundamental and practical problem with amendment No. 82, which I shall illustrate using an example involving the forces around Gloucestershire, Avon and Wiltshire. If referendums were held in each of those areas, and if Avon and Wiltshire voted in favour of a merger and Gloucestershire voted against, it is difficult to see how such a result could be resolved. The amendment would appear to give a veto to Gloucestershire over the other two areas. It is one thing to hold a referendum in a single area, such as happened with the devolution of power to Wales or Scotland, but it is much more difficult to hold one that involves the interlocking relationships between different areas.

I now turn to amendments Nos. 14 to 20, again in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. Amendment No. 14 is another attempt to remove the extraordinary powers that the Bill gives the Secretary of State. Not only will he be able to interfere when he feels that a police authority is failing but, as is made clear in schedule 2, paragraph 24, in proposed new section 40(2), he will also be able to interfere where he is

Added to all the Secretary of State’s many powers, therefore, is the psychic ability to predict when a police authority or force is going to fail. That is an extraordinary provision to include in the Bill.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs suggested that the amendment would command wide support. However, if it fails we have amendments Nos. 15, 16, 17 and 18, which offer alternative safeguards and checks and an independent voice against the power of the Secretary of State to intervene. The Minister says that checks will be allowed under the legislation, but we have to take his word on trust and hope that we will have an enlightened enough
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Home Secretary in office to allow those independent voices to be heard. If the Government are so happy for there to be independent checks and balances in the process, why will they not accept them on the face of the Bill? The Minister constantly wants flexibility for himself and his ministerial colleagues, but none for the people and local communities in respect of their policing. It seems perfectly reasonable to include measures in the Bill to put in writing safeguards against abuse of power, from which we must all be protected.

If the opportunity arises, we shall seek the opinion of the House on amendment No. 14. I commend it and our other amendments to the House.

Ian Lucas: I support the Government amendments, in particular new clause 4 and amendment No. 64.

The proposals to set up an all-Wales police force have been extremely controversial in Wales, especially in north Wales. North Wales Labour MPs have been listening closely to their constituents’ views about the proposals and were regularly in close and active discussions with the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), who is now the Minister without Portfolio, and the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). We look forward to continuing those discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister. I have already benefited from several talks with him.

Much of the reason for the strength of the controversy in north Wales is that we are extremely proud of our local police force. We have one of the lowest crime rates in the UK and one of the highest detection rates. A person who commits a crime in north Wales is more likely to be caught. North Wales police force is such a good force because of legislation introduced by the Labour Government. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was the most successful, far-sighted and effective legislation on policing since the second world war. It has made policing local.

If Opposition Members had an active and close relationship with their local police forces they would know that with the advent of community safety partnerships, co-operation between local authorities and police forces has developed hugely since 1997 under the Labour Government.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friends and I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it is important that police forces have an affinity and a closeness to local communities, so why are the Government trying to destroy that by merging police authorities into larger areas where they are divorced from the people?

Ian Lucas: It is essential that individuals and our constituents have links with the police at the most local level. Community safety partnerships enable that to happen. Basic command units in my area of north-east Wales have been extremely effective in linking local authorities and the police so that they can work together. I will give the hon. Gentleman a concrete example. In 2001, when I was first elected, if an individual came to me with a complaint about a police-related matter, I had no idea where in the police force I should refer the complaint. Now, every local
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authority ward in north Wales has an identified police officer whom I can contact on their mobile phone to deal with individual complaints. I can thus link individuals with concerns about crime in their community to their local police officer, which means that the police force can be much more effective.

None of that existed under Conservative Governments. The crucial link between the community and the police has been fostered and developed under a Labour Government and I am extremely proud of that. That is why I am campaigning to continue local policing, and the progress that has been made under this Government.

1.45 pm

Mark Pritchard: Part of the Government’s explanation of the reason for police mergers is that they will increase resilience and improve counter-terrorism and co-ordination between police force areas, so why are five special branch officers being removed from the important port of Holyhead, which has the fourth highest footfall in the country?

Ian Lucas: I have no detailed knowledge of that proposal, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) is in active discussion about it, so I have every confidence that the matter will be satisfactorily resolved owing to his intervention.

Michael Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Ian Lucas: I should like to make a little progress.

Albert Owen: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ian Lucas: I will give way to my hon. Friend—

Hon. Members: Oh!

Albert Owen: The port of Holyhead is in my constituency. There was concern about the transfer of policing from the port to the local area but no decision has yet been made. I raised the issue with the Home Secretary, who said that he would look into it. The important issue of resources will follow.

Ian Lucas: I think that I had better give way to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) now.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned basic command units and I agree with much of what he says, but when I have a problem with a constituent in Lichfield I can take them to police headquarters in Stafford, where they can talk to the top man. The hon. Gentleman knows that the drive from, say, Machynlleth to Cardiff can take as long as driving from London to Cardiff, and the drive from Wrexham to Cardiff takes even longer. Is not that why people in the north of Wales want to keep their own police force rather than being merged into a greater Welsh police force?

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