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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 May 2006

[David Taylor in the Chair]

East Midlands Police Forces

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

9.30 am

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I start by welcoming the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to his new responsibilities. The police force is not yet in the same mess as the immigration service, and I hope that he will not allow it to get into such a mess. If he follows my advice and that of my hon. Friends, he will find himself on the way to ensuring that it does not do so.

I know that whoever is in the Chair has to be unbiased, Mr. Taylor, but it is worth pointing out that you are an east midlands Member of Parliament. In a recent Adjournment debate on police reform you said:

I hope that we can persuade the Government not to go down that road, as the merger has no local support. I am pleased to see a number of my colleagues from the east midlands on both sides of the House. In the main, I have yet to find anyone who publicly supports a police force of the size and nature proposed.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Is it not the case that there is not only no local support but no geographical coherence? On Friday I made an interesting visit to the constituency of the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt)—I gave him notice of my visit—and I then went to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). By the end of the day, I had travelled nearly 200 miles from my home, but I still had not left the east midlands. We could have journeyed on to Skegness to complete the picture.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief; an awful lot of Members wish to contribute to the debate.

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I often say that there is no such place as the east midlands. It is what is left over once the rest of the country has been divided up. I do not know of a place called “the east midlands” that is recognised as such. The idea that Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire have something in common with Derbyshire is for the birds—or possibly for the Government.

Mindful of what you say, Mr. Taylor, but wishing to allow a few interventions, I shall try to speak for only 15 minutes or so, so that others have an opportunity to contribute.

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David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Building on the point made by our hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), is the change not another part of the Government’s plan for regional government, which is deeply unpopular?

Mr. McLoughlin: I shall come to that aspect, because I think that the proposal is regionalisation by the back door. When the Government attempted to get regionalisation through in the north of the country, it was overwhelmingly rejected. The first area that they chose for such a referendum was one where they thought they would find sympathy and support for the idea, but it was rejected. If the Minister is going pursue the merger, he should at the very least let the people decide. He should put it to a referendum. I am keen for that to happen—I would be very happy about it. The Government were keen on referendums until they started going wrong for them, and they seem to have gone a bit cold on them since then.

Not all is lost, however. The idea was undoubtedly the driving ambition of the former Home Secretary, who has since departed the scene. In response to a question by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Prime Minister said:

I agree. That would be a sensible way forward. I do not say that there should be no change at all. What I am saying is that I oppose the creation of a super-regional police force, as it would have no coherence.

The idea behind the mergers was to enhance the protective services that combat serious crime crossing county borders. However, according to a confidential report drawn up by Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, the Government are aiming at a lower standard of co-ordination. He says that the project

Why are the Home Office and the Government insisting on it? According to Tim Brain, the implementation of the plan nationally will cost the equivalent of 25,000 police officer salaries. As the Government are refusing to commit additional funds to pay for the mergers, the effect would be a serious depletion of front-line policing. It is front-line policing, not protective services, that fights the crime that most concerns my constituents and those of my hon. Friends. Tim Brain concludes that

In the past, the Government have said that they are keen on neighbourhood policing.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Quite right.

Mr. McLoughlin: As my hon. Friend says, quite right. In some respects, we fear the Government’s plans in most respect of some of the rural constituencies. I do not believe that the system is broken, so why must
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we interfere with it? I hoped that the Government would have taken account of what has happened in the past when they have interfered with things, only to reverse them back to the state in which they inherited them.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): My right hon. Friend makes the correct point. Is he aware of the deep concern in Lincolnshire, where there are already worries about the lack of police visibility, that the east midlands merger will transfer resources away to big conurbations such as Nottingham, where there is serious crime? That is inevitable, and it will be greatly to the detriment of those who live in Lincolnshire.

Mr. McLoughlin: I agree with my hon. Friend. Although I do not have the exact figures, Nottinghamshire has far more police officers than Derbyshire, despite the fact that the counties are of similar size. I am not relying on this morning’s report about crime levels, but there is no doubt that crime levels are higher in the centre of Nottingham than in other parts of the east midlands. What will happen to the police force? It will be concentrated in that particular area. Perhaps that might please my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), but it is a problem.

We have not yet seen the details of the precept rationalisation that could come about as a result of the proposal. Since 1997, the people of Derbyshire have seen an increase of 165 per cent. in the police precept in the county, because we have been paying for extra police officers to try to catch up. Will that money just disappear into other parts of the region on an equalisation basis? Those are only some of the questions that have not yet been answered. That is part of the problem with this reorganisation and rationalisation: it is being rushed to far too great a degree.

It is interesting to note that the chairmen of the east midlands police authorities and the chief constables have already outlined their serious concerns to the Home Secretary. All five police forces voted not to volunteer for a merger on the grounds of affordability and the ability to enhance professional services quickly. They object not for narrow-minded political reasons, but because they want to deliver the best policing service for the local people. They are concerned that the new merger plans will hinder their ability to do so, and I think that they are right.

Despite objections from all the police authorities concerned, the former Home Secretary announced on 11 April that he still intended to proceed with the merger to a full east midlands police force. That was rejected by the five authorities on 7 April, but four days later the former Home Secretary said, “I don’t want to listen to what the police authorities or Members of Parliament say. I intend to push forward with the merger.” Opposing views were totally disregarded, and that is a serious issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry(Mr. Boswell) mentioned, the east midlands is not the easiest of areas through which to travel. It is not like travelling north-south, which is relatively easy in this
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country. The configuration of the roads means that travelling east-west is far more difficult. That is one of the problems that a large force such as the one proposed will face.

The east midlands police authorities have estimated the cost of a regional merger to be £101 million for its set-up plus £45 million in ongoing costs, with £15 million in potential efficiency savings. The Home Office has estimated the cost of a regional merger to be £80 million, plus £20 million in ongoing costs, with £16 million in potential savings. The big difference between what the Home Office and the regional police authorities say relates to the set-up costs, and I am more inclined to believe the regional police authorities than I am the Home Office, simply because they are the people on the ground doing the job. We have to listen to what they say.

Mr. Alan Duncan: Is not the lesson of past mergers—clearly, the same will be true of this merger—that there are very high transitional costs and no real economies of scale, and as soon as the merger has happened, sub-structures and divisional units are set up in an attempt to restore the local connection that was lost through the merger?

Mr. McLoughlin: Yes. There is also something to be said for a chief constable being accountable to local people. I am not sure that a chief constable overseeing five forces would be sufficiently accountable to local people. That is one disturbing element of the proposals. I have not always agreed with the chief constable of Derbyshire. In fact, before he retired the previous chief constable appeared on a Labour party political broadcast in 2001. I do not want to know the politics of chief constables; I want them to do their job properly.

Lord Denning said that a chief constable should be answerable to the law, not to politicians. One problem that may result from the size of the proposed forces is that we will get chief constables who are more directly accountable to the Home Secretary. At the moment, Labour Members may think that a marvellous idea—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe might have thought it a marvellous idea when he was Home Secretary—but I say to Labour Members that they should not be so arrogant as to think that they will always be in power. One day, they may not like chief constables being directly accountable to the Home Secretary.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): At the second generous reference to me, I thought that I might intervene. My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but he did say that he does not oppose all change. Does he accept that if the present system of local accountability in Derbyshire is a model of perfection, that may be the exception? We now have the opportunity to examine how to make accountability work more effectively on whatever scale. Certainly most inhabitants of my constituency are not aware of the existence of the police authority; they do not know what it does. It is hardly the strongest system of local accountability.

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Mr. McLoughlin: I totally accept that. I am not sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is not responsible for the present system of police accountability, but I shall put that to one side for a moment. In all seriousness, I am not arguing that the present system is perfect and does not need changing. He has just spoken about accountability and I agree with him about that. However, what is proposed will remove almost all local accountability. At the moment, imperfect as the system may be, we have 22 or 23 people serving on the Derbyshire police authority; under the proposals, it is likely that only four or five people will be appointed to serve on the regional authority. The present system may not be perfect, but what is proposed to replace it is wholly imperfect.

I do not mind some change, as I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I do not mind more collaborative services among police authorities—for example, it is ridiculous that every police authority has its own payroll system; such services can rightly be centralised. However, we do not need to centralise everything at regional level. The payroll could be administered nationally—it is ridiculous to have the sort of payroll systems envisaged under the new police structures. If the Home Office is seeking change for the sake of efficiency, there are many other ways to achieve that without disregarding local accountability.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Is that not part and parcel of the Government’s plan? There will be a complete disconnect between, for instance, the people of Leicestershire and their police force, because it will be an east midlands police force, based somewhere else. The problem is already to be seen in the East Midlands regional assembly: it is totally unaccountable to anybody, yet has been set up and will march in tandem with the new police authority.

Mr. McLoughlin: I agree. There a huge amount that I could say, but I see that I am coming up to the15 minutes I promised you, Mr. Taylor, and I am mindful of other hon. Members who have given up their time to be here this morning. I will therefore draw my remarks to a conclusion.

We have discussed accountability in some detail. I believe in accountability—in a Member of Parliament, a local council or a parish council being able to challenge a chief constable directly. I have talked to a number of my parish councils—I think that the modern term for them is stakeholders, but perhaps I will not become quite as modern as that—and have received a communication from parish council in Doveridge, which is right on the edge of Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in an excellent example of police-community relationships, Doveridge neighbourhood watch was fortunate enough to have the chief constable address its annual general meeting. It is difficult to imagine a chief constable of such a vast organisation as the proposed force taking the time and trouble to visit such a small community on the border of its territory.

I cite Doveridge not only because the parish council has written to me and expressed a view, but because it is not far from Sudbury open prison, and we know some of the concerns that have been raised about open prisons lately. It is therefore perhaps a good thing that the chief constable can go along and reassure people of
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the services that he will provide in Doveridge, because some of the absconders from Sudbury open prison have committed incredibly awful crimes.

Tissington parish council, which is very small council, has said:

Brailsford parish council writes:

Stoney Middleton parish council has said:

I could go on to quote Longford, Matlock and various other parish councils that have brought their concerns to me, but I will not, because other hon. Members wish to participate.

There are some salient questions. Where will the extra funding necessary for the plans come from? Can the Minister assure me that council tax payers in West Derbyshire will not have to foot the bill for a scheme that they do not want and that will not provide the level of service that they currently enjoy? How will the Minister justify the new regional authority’s ability to offer accountability with a ratio of only one member to every 200,000 people—in effect, three constituencies having one person as an accountable member on the authority?

The five police forces affected by the plan have severely criticised it and do not want it. In their professional judgment, they think that the plans will hinder policing rather than improve it. Local politicians do not want the merger to go ahead, as we feel that it will prove counter-productive in the fight against crime. Perhaps most important, local people do not want the changes. They want a local, accountable, responsive community service, not a large, unwieldy and remote one.

I have not yet met anyone in Derbyshire who wants the merger. The police do not want it, parliamentary representatives do not want it and local people do not want it. According to the answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, even the Prime Minister is lukewarm. So why on earth go forward with the changes? I ask the Minister, on the first day of his new job, to say that he will not embark on what will be a fiasco for the police service in the east midlands, but that he will reverse these crazy decisions and make a positive name for himself on day one in his new job.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. In line with the convention on debates on local and regional issues to which a substantial number of Members want to contribute, I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers 20 minutes before the end of the debate—at 10.40 am—and half of that time will be for the Minister. If the 10 Members who want to speak before then bear in mind that they have 50 minutes left to do so, I shall try to get everyone in.

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