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10 May 2006 : Column 340

Ian Lucas: The previous Home Secretary was well aware that Members of Parliament representing north Wales had profound concerns about the proposals. The new Home Secretary will also be aware of that concern, which we have shown by our attendance in the Chamber today. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and I have been making them, too.

I was talking about the development of community policing in north Wales, which is a major achievement of the Government. Not all of that progress has been easy; there was resistance to community policing teams being established in north Wales, but we now have community beat officers who are in charge of policing in individual wards. The Police Reform Act 2002 introduced police community support officers—an excellent innovation. I was privileged to serve on the Standing Committee on it, and am well aware of the opposition to PCSOs expressed at the time by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which has now been withdrawn due to the success of scheme.

Mark Tami: Is my hon. Friend surprised that despite everything that the three Tory MPs in Wales have said about policing, none of them is bothering to take part in the debate?

Chris Ruane: What about Plaid Cymru?

Mark Tami: Indeed. Plaid Cymru Members are not bothering to take part either.

Ian Lucas: That is a matter for concern. A lot of heat has been generated, but Labour MPs in Wales have done an awful lot of work on this issue, and that will continue.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: On the precise issue of basic command units, are there not smoke and mirrors, and sleight of hand by the Government? What we are actually seeing is, yes, an increase in police community support officers, but the basic command unit in the northern division of Cambridgeshire constabulary has experienced a reduction of 58 full-time police officers over the past three years. That is not making an impact in terms of combating crime.

Ian Lucas: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman makes the point about police numbers, because I was going to say later that police numbers in north Wales have increased from 512 in 1996, under the last Conservative Government, to 836 under this Labour Government, in addition to the community support officers and neighbourhood wardens who have been introduced to the community policing team by the Government.

Not only is there resistance to community support officers from political opponents, but the chief constable of north Wales was resistant to them, and initially did not apply for the Home Office funding available to enable those community support officers to be introduced. I am pleased to say that the chief constable has now accepted that he was wrong, and we are seeing the widespread introduction of community support officers across north Wales. The development of community policing in north Wales has been very successful indeed. It has led to higher detection rates
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and less crime. For that reason, I have been working extremely hard to ensure the survival, maintenance and improvement of neighbourhood and community policing in north Wales.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I agree with the points that he is making—they are reasonable—and community policing has been helped by that initiative, and credit to the Government for it. Nevertheless, the great concern, which I am sure we share, about creating a single all-Wales police force is that it will cost us more than many of the benefits that he highlights. Does he share my hope that the new Home Secretary will revisit the issue of an all-Wales police force? Although I recognise that some improvements were made under the previous Home Secretary, the cost of a single all-Wales police force will more than outweigh all the good that he did.

Ian Lucas: There were enormous improvements to policing in north Wales under the previous Home Secretary. I am putting my case to my hon. Friend the Minister in my own way, but I will be very forthright in ensuring that neighbourhood policing continues to improve. I am therefore very disappointed indeed that the Liberal Democrat-led local authority proposes to abolish the neighbourhood warden scheme in Wrexham, thus undermining the progress that has been made to date. I would be delighted to know whether the hon. Gentleman supports that proposal. Perhaps he will intervene and let me know.

Lembit Öpik: I am conscious that we may be drifting a bit from the new clause, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman asks me a question and I will give him an answer. I assure him that the Liberal Democrats in his constituency have every intention of doing what is best for local policing. If he is suggesting a dialogue about these issues, it would be safe for me to say that the Liberal Democrats in his constituency would be happy to discuss the best way to police. However, they would agree that the big concern that all hon. Members have on a cross-party basis is that the single biggest threat is creating an all-Wales police force, because resources could be leached from his constituency and mine to high-crime areas. That is one of the reasons why we would have a bigger cost than benefit from that initiative.

Ian Lucas: I now turn specifically to the Government amendments that relate to the creation of an additional deputy chief constable and to allowing the delegation of police authority functions to a lower level. Those amendments represent progress. Clearly, the Home Office has listened to the strong representations from Members of Parliament in Wales and has acted as a result of those representations, for which I am grateful. Of course, I will therefore support those amendments.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): Although the amendments go some way towards helping with the situation that we foresee in north Wales under an all-Wales police force, does my hon. Friend agree that significant problems remain, and that the Government
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could do a lot more work to make a north Wales police force more viable? One of the other things on which he might want to press the Government is ensuring that the powers given under the amendments are enforced and used if—as, unfortunately, seems likely—we have an all-Wales police force.

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend presages many of the remarks that I intend to make. The amendments represent progress, but they are not the result that I, as a north Wales Member of Parliament, seek. I accept that there is a recognition that governance issues are extremely important in Wales, because of the peculiar geographical circumstances in Wales and the practical difficulties of improving level 2 policing in Wales, given the country’s identity and geography. However, the financing of policing in Wales is crucial.

Since 1997 there has been investment in creating the community policing teams that have been so effective in improving both the performance and my constituents’ perception of the North Wales police force. The concern is that if a reorganisation takes place, the progress that has been achieved will be undermined by the transfer of the funding that North Wales police currently receive away from north Wales to other areas of Wales, which currently have lower performance, lower detection rates and higher crime. An all-Wales police authority, most of whose members are likely to come from south Wales, will be tempted to shift resources away from north Wales to south Wales.

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend echoes the sentiments of the North Wales police authority and the fear that resources will go to other parts of Wales. He says that the amendments are important in the sense that they move towards what the North Wales police authority has been requesting. Does he therefore think it appropriate for the Government to pause and take that on board, so that we can find out how these important changes will impact on policing in Wales? Does he therefore agree that the Home Secretary should take some time out and extend the period, so that those authorities can meet to discuss the amendments?

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend the Minister has been in his current position for four days, as has his boss, the new Home Secretary. I am sure that there will be a period of reflection in the Home Office. I am sure that the difficult practical issues that I am raising will be looked at closely by the Home Office and that, to satisfy me, they must make proposals to ensure that the current financing for North Wales police is maintained.

Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising that important work was done with council tax payers to explain that extra money was being invested, with a higher precept, but that they were getting more front-line policing with those resources? It is important that we demonstrate to them that we are ensuring that that extra money is being protected and spent on policing in north Wales.

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Investment pays off in policing. Community police teams, of which we are very proud, have been created in
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north Wales. We are leading the way on that issue. We do not want the progress that has been made in north Wales to be undermined by any proposal being taken forward. I welcome the amendments and the continuing dialogue with the Home Office on this issue, and I look forward to receiving responses in due course from the new Minister to the concerns that I have expressed today.

Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the composition of the local teams that he has referred to should reflect the most local level? Whether resources are devoted to fully trained police constables, police community support officers or wardens, the decision should be made to reflect local need, and should not be made centrally.

2 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. One of the interesting innovations and developments that has taken place in north Wales is that there has been a large-scale devolution of budgets from the North Wales police to the basic command units. The crime and disorder partnerships—as they are called in Wales—in each area have been developed. They can see which particular areas have policing issues that need addressing and can allocate resources accordingly. It is important that that localism should continue.

I hope that the Home Office and the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, whom I wish very well in his new post, will listen to the concerns. I thank the Home Office for moving thus far, and I hope that it will be able to resolve the concerns that I have expressed.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): We have just had a 25-minute debate on community policing in north Wales in the middle of a debate on the reorganisation of police forces across the country. I would like to drag the debate back to that broader’ subject. I want to speak in support of amendment No. 82. I am not, in general, in favour of referendums. I take the points that the Minister made and I think that, on the whole, Governments should make those decisions and then be responsible to the House and to the electorate for them. However, in this case there has been so little consultation and consideration of the alternatives that a referendum may be one of the only ways in which we can air matters.

The former Home Secretary had made up his mind what he wanted to do. The regional agenda was at work and he was not prepared to entertain the concept of the federalisation of forces or of having multi-level, two-tier police forces. I was told that very early on by one of the Ministers concerned—I was told not to bother to write about that. Within days of the so-called consultation period finishing, the Home Office had reduced our options in the west midlands to two—and it made it very clear that it did not like one of them. There has not been a proper consultation.

On the question of referendums and the Conservatives, when police forces were last reorganised—this is a once in a generation thing and it is important that we get it
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right, because Governments of different political colours will have to live with the arrangement—there was a royal commission and all the different options were studied. I do not know whether we came to the right conclusion, but nobody could pretend that there was not a full consultation and examination of the alternatives, which there has not been in this case. [ Interruption. ] I was in favour of a referendum on the European constitution—that is perfectly true. So, in the end, was the Prime Minister.

I realise that there is a trade-off, which the Home Office is trying to deal with, between the need for high-tech intelligence-led modern policing to deal with the professional criminal gangs, serious crime such as armed robbery, and terrorism, and the need for local community policing, which is what most of our constituents want and feel that they do not get. I can see the argument that, at a big regional level, a west midlands police force with 15,000 police constables will be able to have dedicated units to deal with drugs, organised crime, armed robbery and terrorism, whereas that cannot be done on an amalgamation basis or by having one police force taking the lead. On the other hand, there is no doubt that a police force such as Warwickshire, with 1,000 policemen, will provide a far greater level of local accountability and community policing than would be the case if it were part of the west midlands force. I am concerned about that.

The good thing about the old arrangement was local accountability and community policing in rural areas. The bad thing was the lack of resilience. If a couple of murders occurred in Warwickshire, until they were sorted out, that was the end of about half of the community policing. Under the new arrangements, those good and bad aspects are reversed. The arrangements will be good for serious crime and resilience, but bad for local policing and accountability. We need to consider another way of dealing with the matter.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address my specific concerns when he sums up. First, the high levels of crime in the conurbation of the west midlands—the Birmingham conurbation—will suck police forces out of rural areas. That seems inevitable. The problems that are faced in the conurbations will always result in higher crime rates than in rural areas. I do not see how there will be protection. I would be grateful if he could reassure me about that.

Secondly, there is the issue of accountability. Warwickshire police force is accountable to one county council, five district councils, five crime and disorder reduction partnerships and five Members of Parliament. If I want to speak to the chief constable, it is very easy, and, to be frank, there are so few of us that he has to take my call, but in the case of the west midlands police force, there will be about 70 Members of Parliament, about 14,000 policemen and about 32 basic command units. He will be as far from rural Warwickshire, or rural Staffordshire, or rural Shropshire—both in his head and geographically—as it is possible to be. He is going to say, “Gee, they don’t have any problems in south Warwickshire. Crime there is half the rate it is in Wolverhampton. I am worrying about Wolverhampton.” There must be some accountability in relation to the basic command unit.

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Thirdly, we do not have the ability to manage forces of that size. I know that the Met is held up an example and I think that the police force is quite strong on leadership in some areas, but it is not particularly good on management. It is a feature of the public sector that it does not appreciate or put into operation a distinction between leadership and management. The management of a force of 14,000 policemen and probably 6,000 or 7,000 civilians is a really big task. We have not proved at all that we are up to that. I am concerned that the Government never allowed us to examine the two-tier option. We could have done, because it exists in many other countries. France and the United States are two examples. We could have had a west midlands police force that dealt with big serious crimes and strategic issues, built in the necessary resilience, and dealt with terrorism, intelligence, and serious and organised crime. We could also have kept a Warwickshire police force, and other county forces, to deal with community policing.

The police say that there would be a problem of interaction between the two forces. That is true, but that exists at the moment between head office and basic command units. That would be a small price to pay for getting the two objectives that we want. The Government want a high level force to work well, but are sacrificing the value of community policing and community accountability at a lower level. A two-tier force would at least have given us the best of both those worlds and it would have been worth examining the issue of the weaknesses in communication—often clues about big, serious, organised crime are picked up at local levels by community officers. That would have been a smaller price to pay than the one that we are paying in the Government’s reorganisation proposals. I bitterly regret that we were never given the opportunity to consult on that. We should have been, because, as I say, we are reorganising the forces for a generation.

I hope that the Minister can deal with the question of community accountability at a basic command unit level, or some other level that means something—rather than just having a dotted line that involves going along and talking to the district council once every three months. There should be a real obligation to take notice of what locally elected politicians and communities want.

The resources for community policing in rural areas should be protected from the demands and inevitable predations of policing and crime problems in urban areas. We all pay our taxes. The transition costs in the west midlands are estimated to be £50 million and the annual savings £30 million. When I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor, I was told that part of the police’s capital budget for those two years had been set aside to pay for that. I am glad that the money is not coming out of the current budget, because then it would be a long time before we saw the benefit of any savings, but I am concerned that the money is coming out of the capital budget. Will the Minister tell us exactly what that means? Does is mean that the police will not be able buy computers, fingerprint kits and police cars, or whatever else they need to buy out of their capital budgets, or that criminal justice centres will be set back?

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Finally, I would like some reassurance that the police precepts, which tend to be higher in rural than urban areas, will be allowed to find an average level without that being rigged. There will have to be one police precept across the west midlands under the new arrangements. Given that that will benefit rural areas—almost uniquely in the context of anything that the Government have done in that respect for nine years—I suspect that local authority finance will be rigged to take that benefit away so that we will lose grant to make up for the fact that we have had our police precept reduced. I would like some reassurance on that, too.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and I always enjoy doing so, but, in following him, I realise that I have to try to match his eloquence. That is somewhat difficult, especially as I approach this issue with a very heavy heart.

I apologise for arriving late in the Chamber. I had a huge backlog of admin work to do because I was in Committee all day yesterday, from morning until night, as the senior Chairman of the Standing Committee on the Education and Inspections Bill. I have to return to Committee very soon, so I will be making a bit of a breathless contribution to the debate. I want to complain not about policing standards, or police conduct and discipline, but the reorganisation.

The matter is nothing new to the House because I secured an Adjournment debate on it in Westminster Hall. It was probably the most heavily attended debate on any subject discussed in Westminster Hall, and I must say that I enjoyed it. I spoke for rather too long, but nevertheless the subjects were covered in adequate detail.

I point out to the Minister and the Government that ever since the topic came on the agenda and we were given three weeks in which to consider the proposal and come up with our options, I have consistently opposed it resolutely, in every syllable. I made the previous Home Secretary well aware of my opposition not only through the debate in Westminster Hall, but in private meetings with him and when he chose to raise the issue with me in the Tea Room—I did not chase him; he came to me. On each and every occasion, I had to make it plain to him and his then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), that I thought that the proposal was unjustified, unwarranted, illogical and unaffordable.

I am not against change to the structure of the police force. Modernisation is certainly needed, as are re-equipping and new methods of detection and pursuit, especially to take account of the changes that are occurring in not only terrorism, but drug and commercial crime. However, simply coming up with a set of proposals, giving people three weeks to consider them, stating that options could be put forward, but sweeping those options to one side without even considering them, was not only illogical and impolite, but verging on the insane.

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