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10 May 2006 : Column 353

In 1839, the royal commission on policing recommended that there should be a national police force, but that recommendation was rejected by Parliament, which understood that policing could work only with public support and co-operation.

Having cited the figures, how can the Minister possibly believe that a new west midlands force will have any support or legitimacy, given the strength of public opinion? On 14 February, the West Mercia police authority unanimously rejected the merger proposal, and it supported my calls for the local referendum that is the subject of amendment No. 82. Only yesterday, seven policy authority chairmen from all parties stated that opinion polls show overwhelming public opposition, and pointed out that only two police authorities have volunteered to proceed with mergers. Some of them have initiated legal proceedings to halt the process; West Mercia will pursue the legal avenues against the measure, and it will seek judicial review at every stage. Last night, the chief constable appeared on “HARDtalk”, and gave a robust defence in the face of probing questions from Stephen Sackur.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Is my hon. Friend concerned about something that has not been mentioned in our debate—the negative impact on the morale of police officers and other staff? He is fortunate to have one of the best performing police forces in the country. On the other side of the equation, however, my force is in the bottom 10 per cent, but the ill-thought-out proposals will have a massive impact on staff morale and performance in both the best-performing and worst-performing forces.

Mr. Paterson: My hon. Friend is quite right—there will be chaos when the proposal is introduced. On the television last night, my chief constable made the point that there will be only one winner. There will be only one chief constable and one deputy, so four good deputies and four good chief constables will be fired. The police will lose a huge swathe of experience across the country, as chief constables, their deputies and other senior personnel such as financial staff will go. It is an extraordinary act of vandalism to get rid of that talent, given that SOCA, which should handle level 2 crime, only began its operations in April, and that forces such as West Mercia have proved that they can handle level 2 crime.

This is a bizarre story, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North said. The measure was rushed through at a week’s notice on the basis of a bogus report and utterly false statistics that have been rubbished. It will be rammed through in my area in the face of extraordinary public opinion—I have cited opposition of 94 and 96 per cent. It lacks legitimacy and it has been rammed through in the teeth of professional advice from the most successful chief constable in the country and from police chairmen, who have made it clear that they will take legal action against the Government. To suggest that it can be introduced without a local referendum is insane, so I support amendment No. 82.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: This important issue has not received the airtime that it deserves. I shall confine my
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contribution to police structures. The Bill generally is a missed opportunity and will do nothing to tackle the underlying issue—the scourge of crime and disorder. The Prime Minister, we are told, is always looking for actions that will be his legacy. In the wake of the removal of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) from the post of Home Secretary, one could have been to listen to the massive opposition of people throughout the country to these ill thought-out proposals and to tackle the last bastion of restrictive practices, sclerotic working practices, bureaucracy, inefficiency and buck-passing. I am not speaking about ordinary policemen and women.

Under the Bill, we are moving, although the Government would no doubt deny it, towards a national police force, entrenching central control by the Home Secretary and the Home Office and reducing local accountability, not least by changing the role and responsibilities of members of police authorities. Some of the proposals in the Bill begin to infringe on operational police matters.

Through the Bill, we are embedding the general concept that senior police officers should be accountable upwards from their local area to the Home Office, not accountable downwards to residents, taxpayers, or even Members of Parliament and local elected councillors. We have strategic plans, police performance assessments, national policing plans, frameworks, the national policing improvement agency and so on. They are all part of a centralised, top-down, tick-box culture. The views of long-suffering residents are largely irrelevant. More importantly, the proposed reforms will have no discernible effect on the reduction of crime.

Nothing so perfectly sums that up as the obdurate disdain for the views of local people that we have seen from the Government over the past six months. In the teeth of opposition from hon. Members in all parts of the House, not least hon. Members from north Wales and other Labour Members, the forced police amalgamation plans are unwanted and unworkable and are being foisted on local authorities by the departed right hon. Member for Norwich, South.

I pay tribute to Cambridgeshire and Suffolk police authorities for refusing to be bullied into a so-called voluntary amalgamation. I commend to the House the views of Councillor Ian Bates, the leader of Huntingdonshire district council in Cambridgeshire, who challenged the Home Office unilaterally to submit its proposals for Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk to a plebiscite of local people, to gauge whether the Government have a mandate to wreck the police service in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. Like the councillor, I believe that the Government’s plans are hasty, intellectually incoherent, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said, and flawed.

Councillor Bates asked some pertinent questions of the Home Office, which bear repetition. He pointed out that the amalgamations will detract from the ongoing operational improvements that we have seen in Cambridgeshire, such as Operation Harrier, a major drugs operation in Peterborough three years ago. The amalgamations will have a major impact on operational and financial risk. They will undermine the concept of
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neighbourhood policing. It is interesting that the Minister fought his own successful by-election campaign in Hodge Hill on neighbourhood policing and other policing issues, yet there is a dichotomy between neighbourhood policing and the drive towards regional government and regional policing, which he must know is motivating many of his hon. Friends to oppose the proposals.

2.45 pm

As I said earlier, morale is a major issue. Cambridgeshire could be construed as a failing authority, but we are through the worst, things are improving and the force has the strong leadership of Chief Constable Julie Spence. Yet all the senior officers in the three counties are now engaged in a game of musical chairs to try to get the best position. They are, therefore, focusing not on crime, but on new badges, new management suites, new structures and new buildings.

Questions remain. Will the Home Office meet all the net costs associated with mergers? I listened to the Minister but I remain unconvinced by the damascene conversion. What will the impact be on my constituents’ council tax bills? Will democratic and lay justice representation be the same in Cambridgeshire as in Norfolk and Suffolk, under the proposals? Will the Home Office grant remain the same to fund more police, community support officers and other specialist police operational needs, in 2007 and in 2008? We know that the Government are obsessed with change, reform and altering structures. There will inevitably be consultancy costs for the amalgamations and reorganisations. Who will pay them? I do not want taxpayers in the Peterborough constituency to pay for the Government’s administrative folly.

I fear that the Bill focuses on structures and ignores people’s everyday experience of crime and disorder. Last week I visited South Bretton, part of the Peterborough Development Corporation development in the west of my constituency, where residents were plagued by youth crime and appalling antisocial behaviour. They were miserable about that and about the response from the police. I am taking the matter up with the chief constable. One lady who works on the night shift in a local factory told me in tears that she fears coming home from her shift. She knows she will not sleep because she is worried about criminal damage, harassment and youth crime. Is that any way to live?

What will be the outcome of the amalgamations? Will decent tax-paying people see a reduction in crime? Yes, we have action areas, a prolific and priority offender strategy, a joint working party locally, a safer schools partnership and a local respect action plan, and goodness me, there is a respect academy in the pipeline.

Jeremy Wright: Does my hon. Friend agree that in the scenario that he is describing, his constituents and mine are likely to find that not only are police management structures further away from them, but so is democratic accountability for the police? Larger police forces will have elected or partly elected police authorities, further removed geographically and in their thinking from the people about whom my hon. Friend and I are worried.

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Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am extremely concerned that we will see reductions in full-time police officer numbers in basic command units, as we have seen in Peterborough over the past three years. Fifty-two full-time police officers have been lost, and violent crime has risen from 2,761 offences in 2001 to 5,827 in 2005. In my basic command unit, detection rates are 15 per cent. for burglary, 28 per cent. for sexual offences and 20 per cent. for robbery. I worry that the democratic deficit that will be a consequence of huge regional police forces will mean that the particular policing needs of my constituency and other urban areas will be ignored, as will the specialist policing needs of rural areas under the new regional structure, as my hon. Friends have pointed out.

The changes will do nothing to stop the erosion of people’s faith in the criminal justice system. I make no bones about my views. In my maiden speech on 6 June last year, I called for an elected police official for Cambridgeshire. If such an official is called a sheriff, that is fine. I believe that that is important, because I believe that the democratic deficit must be filled.

Accountability is needed not only on policing, but on prosecutions at a local level. I know that that issue is slightly different, but it relates to people’s lack of faith in how structures work now. Council tax payers in the Peterborough unitary authority area now pay £46 a head for local policing compared with £20 a head in 1998, and I could entertain the House, if that is the right word, with many similar examples.

The Bill reveals the Government’s fetish for structures, rather than focusing on delivery of outcomes. The Government want to talk about structures and avoid real reform, and the police service needs real reform. We need proper accountability by means of an elected sheriff or similar official. We must reform the pay and conditions of police officers, which should relate to skills, competence and results in combating crime, rather than length of service, Buggins’ turn or the canteen culture. Incidentally, I speak as the son of a policeman and as the brother of two policemen, one of whom is serving and the other of whom is an ex-policeman.

We need to move away from situations in which policemen have two jobs.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have been fairly generous with the hon. Gentleman, but he is going very wide of the new clause and amendments under discussion.

Mr. Jackson: I am grateful for your tolerance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The proposals do nothing to tackle crime as it affects my constituents and others. There are many examples of best practice across the country, such as Middlesbrough and Essex. We must solve the epidemic of street crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has said, it is important that the police are supported and have the active sanction of local residents and local voters. For that reason, I cannot understand why the Government, who pay lip service to involvement and engagement at a local level, are afraid of the views of local people. They may have had their nose bloodied in the referendum in the north-east, but they may win the next referendum. Why are they afraid to put their views and policies to the vote and to trust the people, our constituents?

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Mr. Burns: I support amendment No. 2, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) in their impassioned plea for greater democratic accountability through a referendum on the Home Office’s extraordinary policy of merging police forces.

I had thought, perhaps naively, that, given last Friday’s change of regime in the light of last Thursday’s disastrous local election results for the Government, new Ministers might have had the nous to review whether it was sensible to proceed with a set of mergers that has united the vast majority in local communities against the Government’s proposal. As the Minister said in his introductory comments, however, the new regime at the Home Office is not prepared to think again, and it seems determined to continue the mistakes of the old regime.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire has said, we have a police service and police system that carries out its duties with the consent of the population. One criticism made over a period is that there is not enough communication and visibility between local communities and the local police force, which relates to the introduction in the ’60s and ’70s of motorised policemen rather than bobbies on the beat. Community after community and politician after politician have called for more bobbies on the beat, and in the past decade or so there has been a realisation that the needs and desires of the local community must be met. In my county of Essex, for example, the chief constable took over relatively recently, and we have seen a deliberate and successful policy to ensure that there are more policemen on the beat not only to reassure the local population, but to deter opportunistic crime. That approach has strengthened links between the local police force and the community, and the problem with mergers that create large police areas is that that local affinity will be broken.

Essex is one of the largest counties in the country geographically as well as one of the largest in terms of population, at just less than 2 million. To many people, Essex should, could and, I believe, must have a stand-alone police force, but we were told by the previous Home Secretary—this is being continued by the new Home Secretary—that Essex must be merged against its wishes and those of all national politicians in the county. Those politicians do not include the hon. Members for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), who, to be fair to them, are bound by collective responsibility as members of the Government and have not therefore voiced an opinion. However, the other Labour MP in the county, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), is totally against the proposal, as are Liberal Democrat MPs and all the Conservative MPs. The Prime Minister told us at Question Time that the Government would listen to the wishes of local people. The campaigns by hon. Members, local authorities, the police authority and the chief constable in Essex have made it plain that Essex wants to remain a stand-alone force and not be merged.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Burns: With respect, I will not. This debate has been going on for almost two hours, but the hon. Gentleman has hardly been present in the Chamber.

Despite all the representations and wishes of the local community, the Government refuse to listen and allow Essex to remain as a stand-alone force. That has confused many people in Essex, because the next-door county, Kent, has been allowed to remain as a stand-alone police authority, as has Hampshire. I would be grateful if the Minister reassured me that it is not because the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee happens to be a Hampshire MP and that there are a number of highly marginal Labour seats in north Kent that those counties have been allowed to have their way, while Essex has not.

Amendment No. 2 is particularly attractive, because the Government, despite the promises and rhetoric of the Prime Minister, are not prepared to listen. When the previous Home Secretary told the House that he would listen to the views of people in the next phase of the process, I asked whether he would listen if the overwhelming majority of people in Essex voted in a referendum in favour of keeping a stand-alone force, and he at least had the decency to say that he would not. That shows that the Government have paid lip service to listening to local people and consultations, which are a waste of time. They have no intention of listening.

3 pm

As was said earlier, the last Home Secretary put before the House a set of proposals that he was determined to maintain, come hell or high water, and for appearance’s sake he came out with all the usual platitudes about listening and consultation, but with no intention whatever of paying attention to what he was told or what he heard in the consultations. That is what is so frustrating, and it shows that we should have more referendums in this country, so that issues can be put to the people. If those most directly affected by proposals overwhelmingly support what the Government are doing—the evidence up and down the country seems to be that they do not—they can vote for the mergers in a referendum. If they are not supportive of what the Government are effectively ramming down their throats, they can vote no, and the Government would have to abide by the result, failing to continue with the mergers. That would follow as a result of the context set out in our amendments.

That is the best way forward and I shall certainly support my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs. I hope that anyone else who is disgusted, upset or disappointed by the Government’s attempt to create these large police forces, which so few people want, will join us, so that we can force the Government to listen to the people, if they are not prepared to do so voluntarily.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I apologise to the House for having missed the first part of the debate, but it was for the good reason that I was finishing the details of a letter that all 11 Surrey Members are sending to the new Home Secretary, begging him to review the proposals to merge the constabularies of Surrey and Sussex. I shall focus my remarks on amendment No. 82. The letter that I mentioned is now on its way to the new Home Secretary.

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