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10 May 2006 : Column 359

I have listened to the passionate arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who has led a fantastic campaign to try to save the West Mercia constabulary. He has built up an enormous level of public support, providing an object lesson to the rest of us. I can tell him that opinion in Surrey is equally resolute and determined to sustain the Surrey constabulary. We may not have had quite so many public meetings, but I have to say that, at the moment, we are both having precisely the same effect on the Government—none at all.

I was intending to begin by larding the new Minister with praise for his wisdom and intellect. When one is on a hook and an opportunity to get off it presents itself, it seems sensible for one to take it. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) say that the Minister had made it clear in his opening remarks that he was determined to remain firmly on the hook, which was immensely disappointing. Speaking on behalf of all Surrey MPs, I know that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends representing the county believe that the only reason for larding Ministers is to put them on a spit over a large fire, particularly if they are going to continue to ignore all opinion within the county.

I beg the Minister—I repeat, I beg him—to re-examine the proposal. He may have noticed one or two other changes in the organisation of public authorities over the last nine years. Those who represent people across the piece as MPs—I am speaking for myself and for hon. Members throughout the House—are left bewildered about exactly who is doing what as a result of the various reorganisations. There is always a price to be paid with any reorganisation. Of course there will always be arguments for improving things by better co-ordination and more effective organisation, but this particular reorganisation of the police is pitched at one particular type of policing—level 2 policing.

The former chief constable of Surrey was an outstanding policeman, but I am sorry to say that his report has been taken and extended far beyond the remit that he would have anticipated as inspector of constabulary. I can tell the Minister that the price that will have to be paid for the reorganisation is simply not worth the benefits that it will produce.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Before my hon. Friend leaves his encomium—stillborn—on the new Government Front Benchers, he might like to remind them that, particularly in view of the scant support for their proposals, they would not have so much difficulty with their own Back Benchers if they rowed back.

Mr. Blunt: My right hon. Friend puts the point extremely well. Far from there being any cost to the Government in withdrawing their proposals, there would be enormous benefits and great relief among the bodies that are going to have reorganisation imposed on them against their will. If police forces and police authorities believe that the reorganisation is a good thing, let them get on with it. I understand that there are one or two of them, and they will have to carry the people they represent on the police authority with them; that is their job.

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It has to be said that amendment No. 82 is a pretty desperate last throw of the dice as an attempt to rescue the position. I shall be voting for this desperate last throw, although I do not necessarily approve of the ideology of referendums and all the rest of it. The problem is that the official Opposition have nothing other than the amendment left to rescue the position.

The Minister should reflect on what has happened in other public authorities—health and social services, for example, with whom the police are expected to co-operate. Under the latest health reorganisation in Surrey, we are moving towards having just one primary care trust for the county, so there is an opportunity for the borders of the PCT and the police to be coterminous. Yet just at the moment that we get health and social services in one shape around the county, along comes the reorganisation of the police, blowing all the potential benefits apart. Once again, I beg the Minister to think again. I know that opinion in Surrey is united on the matter.

I finish by stressing the important issue of identity for the police force and the areas it represents. The county of Surrey has had a constabulary on a county level since 1851. Since then, we have seen other bits and pieces of constabularies representing towns or other communities as the area has developed, but only in the year 2000 was part of Surrey policed by the Metropolitan police. We have just gone through a reorganisation, affecting half of my constituency, whereby the Surrey police force has taken over from the Met and now, fewer than seven years on, we are facing yet another change to the senior management of the police force. I say again that the price of this reorganisation is simply not worth any conceivable benefit that will come from it.

I add that as a marriage partner for the people of Sussex, the police of Surrey are a complete nightmare because the enormous subsidy that Surrey council tax payers give to their police dwarfs anything happening elsewhere in the UK. We have moved from a position in 1997 where 86 per cent. of the Surrey police’s budget came from the Home Office vote to about 50 per cent. today. About half the money for Surrey police comes from Surrey council tax payers.

Surrey county councillors will wonder why they should vote taxes on to their council tax payers for a police force that is no longer theirs. The council tax payers of Surrey, led by their county councillors, have decided to protect their police force from the huge changes and swingeing cuts in funding that it has undergone since 1997. That determination on the part of Surrey county councillors has worked to the benefit of policing in Surrey and of the central Government budget, which has been significantly subsidised, in that respect and in many others, by the council tax payers of Surrey. The loyalty of the people of Surrey, through their police authority, to their police will disappear, along with any reasons for it, if it is no longer their police force. Yet that is what the Government propose to do.

I beg the Government, as do my 10 right hon. and hon. Friends who are writing to the Home Secretary today, to review this decision. I will support amendment No. 82 in the rather desperate hope that it will enable us to prevent this measure going forward, but it would be
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infinitely better if the Home Office took the opportunity of a new team reviewing the situation to pull this dreadful proposal.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I, too, support amendment No. 82.

I represent a constituency on the far east of the west midlands area, in the metropolitan borough of Walsall. The drift of modern politics is anything but local. We refer to local government, but Walsall is no more local than a fly in the air. We talk about local policing, but we are constructing great structures that are questionable as regards whether they will meet the tests of loyalty and a sense of time and place that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) mentioned.

If it would be a comfort to my hon. Friends and to my friends in Staffordshire, West Mercia or elsewhere in the greater west midlands, I would stand up for the principle of localism and the right to local policing. I note with regret that my own constituents in Aldridge-Brownhills—in Pelsall, Streetly, Rushall, and all the communities that form it, which are very much part of Staffordshire, historically and by linkage to the coalfields of south Staffordshire—have very little confidence, alas, in the policing that they are experiencing. We are divided between two command units based in Walsall and Bloxwich. They report, in theory, to central Birmingham, and a chief constable makes his dispensations. We are already some way down the line; goodness knows what would happen to Staffordshire or West Mercia if we were to go yet further down that line.

The sense of localism is important. The mantra is, “Let the people feel confident with their institutions and structures.” In all my political career, the attachment to those structures has shrunk. We should let the people speak. That used to be a cry of the Liberal party, and I would expect it to stand up for that localism and the rights of people as regards the things that most matter to them—education, a health service and policing. As I said, in the former villages now coalesced into Aldridge-Brownhills, there is little confidence in centralised policing .

The huge proposed west midlands area gives us even less confidence that Bloxwich and Walsall will manage with due diligence the affairs and protection of the people of Aldridge-Brownhills. In vast structures, people do not look laterally or downwards, but upwards. This Government can testify to that. My chief superintendents want to curry favour with the chief constable, who in turn wants the indulgence of the Home Office and the Home Secretary. We become so utterly centralised that it squeezes out the judgment as to who is competent and who is incompetent.

This is a question of how the way in which we govern ourselves through our central administrations—through the Home Office and through Whitehall itself—echoes what the people of the country want. We speak from our local perspective; we vote with the party machine. That reinforces the strength of the centre. Where we over-centralise—that is what the whole Bill is essentially about—in the health service,
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education and the police service, we see the decline and fall of public confidence in those institutions. I hope that the House takes the amendment seriously and votes for it.

3.15 pm

Bob Russell: I wanted to intervene on the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) to support the case that he was making, but he has not returned to his seat in the past 15 or 20 minutes or so. He expressed the view of all Essex Members of Parliament, the district councils, the borough councils and the unitary authorities. We now have an opportunity for the Government to get off the hook on which they have put themselves in defending a line that everybody acknowledges is unpopular.

I invite the Minister to explain why Essex, with a population that is larger than several sovereign nation states in the European Union, is deemed incapable of having its own police force, whereas Kent, on the other side of the River Thames, is apparently competent to do so. The people of Essex are perfectly entitled to ask why that is okay for Kent but not for Essex. If there were to be mergers in the six counties of the east of England, the logical amalgamation would have been of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. We are getting the worst of all worlds.

Mr. Gummer: Lest it go unnoticed, Suffolk does not wish to be amalgamated with Essex, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire. It is one of the best police forces in the country. The Government cannot find any support for any such amalgamations, so the hon. Gentleman should not tempt me on Essex.

Bob Russell: I think that the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my point. If there were to be a case for amalgamation—I am not accepting that there is—those three eastern counties would be more logical than the artificial creation of Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. A readers’ survey in the Colchester Evening Gazette showed that the solution that the Government have come up with is complete nonsense. There is absolutely no community of interest between the counties of Essex and Bedfordshire. A few communities on the Essex-Herts border may speak the same language, but if the Government are suggesting that there is a logical community of interest right across Essex, the most populous county in the east of England, and up into Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, they must have a different map of the United Kingdom—or rather England and Wales—from the one that I have.

I recognise that there is a requirement to hold the line on what has been inherited, but I urge the Minister and the new Home Office team to listen to what is being said by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. That would be to their advantage. I recognise that the Government will whip the vote through, no doubt with the assistance of Scottish votes. However, I hope that after a few days’ reflection they will say, “Is this right? What is more important—holding the line on what the previous Home Secretary proposed or what is right for the police forces of England and Wales?”

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Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for his warm words of congratulation and I sincerely look forward to debating many issues with him.

The hon. Gentleman ranged widely beyond the Bill, as is his right, to the subject of amalgamations, as did the hon. Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Colchester (Bob Russell), along with my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), in whose Disney epic I look forward to appearing.

Amalgamation is not the subject of the Bill, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I confine my remarks on the matter to only two points. First, there is a balance to be struck between accountability and effectiveness. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon put his finger on the nature of that balance. The Government are not the first Administration to be worried about the current structure of police forces. I recently read a Government report that was written not too long ago and stated:

of 43 forces—

It continued:

That is taken from the police reform White Paper of June 1993.

Governments of all persuasions have therefore realised for some time that effectiveness must be tackled. When Her Majesty’s chief inspector puts the question in such stark terms, surely it is right for the Government to respond.

Jeremy Wright: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Byrne: I shall not because we have debated the matter at length.

It is right to add accountability to the mix and that is precisely why the measure does so much to strengthen the basic command units by making them coterminous with local authorities and giving police authorities the right to devolve functions and powers to members of local partnerships. The Bill enshrines the community call for action and gives new powers to local police forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham was right to say that genuine affinity and real relationships are built with local forces and local officers. That is why 18,000 more police community support officers will be recruited in the months and years to come.

The second point is accountability for change. I am intrigued by the late conversion to referendums. I heard many of the arguments against and some of scepticism about them in the past. My political history is not especially strong, but I cannot remember Conservative
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calls for a referendum when the Greater London council was abolished. None the less, the conversion to referendums is a curious and interesting feature of modern political life.

We elected the House for a purpose and it would be wrong to abrogate responsibility for decisions such as the one we are discussing. Any proposal that the Home Secretary makes is subject to affirmative resolution, not only in this House but in another place.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs made one or two more points that I want to tackle. I am sorry that he has not received answers to the questions that he put to the Home Office. I shall personally try to ensure that they are forthcoming.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the ability to appoint additional deputy chief constables. We do not believe that that should be a free-for-all, which is why we seek the Home Secretary’s sanction should that development occur. He also mentioned the national policing board. We are considering the case for such a non-statutory national board, which would need to reflect the tripartite nature of current arrangements.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who is not in his place, mentioned the flexibility that we propose for the Home Secretary. I emphasise that it is devoted to one thing—securing the improvement of policing in this country. I hope that he would sign up to that agenda.

The hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon and for Peterborough mentioned restructuring costs. We said that we will meet 100 per cent. of the net costs of restructuring. That commitment covers capital and resources.

I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 5

Supply of information to police etc by Registrar General

‘(1) The Registrar General for England and Wales or the Registrar General for Northern Ireland may supply information contained in any register of deaths kept by him—

(a) to a police force in the United Kingdom,

(b) to a special police force,

(c) to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, or

(d) to a person or body specified, or of a description specified, by order,

for use in the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of offences.

(2) The power to make an order under subsection (1)(d) is exercisable—

(a) in relation to England and Wales, by the Registrar General for England and Wales with the approval of the Chancellor of the Exchequer;

(b) in relation to Northern Ireland, by the Secretary of State after consulting the Registrar General for Northern Ireland.

(3) A Registrar General may charge a reasonable fee in respect of the cost of supplying information under this section.

(4) The supply of information in the exercise of the power conferred by subsection (1) may be made subject to conditions, including in particular conditions as to—

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