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23 May 2006 : Column 387WH—continued

9.50 am

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire(Mr. McLoughlin) and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I also congratulate him on defying the convention that influential figures in the House should not speak on such issues; he spoke forcefully on behalf of his constituents. He accepted the case for change, although he has not told us what change is necessary. None the less, change is necessary, and it is important to recognise that the proposals before us come from the police themselves. We need change, and the notion that 43 police forces is the right solution for the present day is just wrong.

Although I have questions and doubt, there is a need for change, and I know that just from looking at my own authority in Nottinghamshire. A think tank report out today says that there are more crimes in Nottingham than anywhere else in the country, and high levels of homicide and serious organised crime—often related to drugs—have led to real policing problems in Nottinghamshire. There has been abstraction of police officers from rural to urban areas, and the Nottinghamshire police have had to call in resources from elsewhere. Members will also remember the chief constable’s comment that he had “lost control”. All that seems to indicate that, faced with serious levels of crime, we in Nottinghamshire need a larger, more strategic police force.

However, I have doubts, concerns and questions similar to those that the right hon. Gentleman expressed and I would like the Minister to acknowledge those questions and look for solutions. First, it is important that there is neighbourhood policing. The goal set out in the Labour party’s manifesto is to have neighbourhood teams in place by April 2008. The debate about police changes has focused very much on the regional level and the strategic police force, but it needs to focus on the locality and the neighbourhood, because people want police officers who understand and respond to their concerns. It is important that the commitment to neighbourhood policing is not lost in the debate about larger structures. It is important to accept and acknowledge that larger strategic police forces must work hand in hand with neighbourhood police teams.

Secondly, we need to ensure that the new authority is properly resourced. I shall not repeat the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave, but it is clear that there is always a cost to change, because change in itself is dysfunctional. I am concerned that police forces in the east midlands have been traditionally underfunded, as previous Home Office Ministers have acknowledged. There is a clear difference between local voices and local police forces on the one hand and the Home Office on the other about the cost of change, although figures are coming closer through discussion. One of the important things that we must do is set up a process to examine those figures and reach proper conclusions. Unless we have a firm financial structure, there is a danger that the new neighbourhood teams will be eroded by a lack of financing.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I amglad to see at least one Nottinghamshire Member on the Labour Benches, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that,
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with Nottinghamshire’s population growing by 4.1 per cent. between 1993 and 2003, compared with a national average of 2.7 per cent., Nottinghamshire’s case for extra resources and funding is overwhelming?

Paddy Tipping: There is a case for extra funding and resources for the Nottinghamshire police. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman, who takes a close interest in such matters, that police numbers are at a record level in Nottinghamshire. We need to talk not only about extra resources but about their good and efficient management. I am not confident that we have had the best such management in Nottinghamshire, and that view is also taken by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary.

Thirdly, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire talked about governance. If it goes forward, the new east midlands strategic force will cover an area larger than Belgium. It is really important that local people feel that they have ownership of the police. That may not happen sufficiently at a top, police-authority level, so it is important that a new strategic authority should have the powers and structures to involve people at a basic command unit level or through crime and disorder reduction partnerships. It is important that people have a say about the problems in their areas and a way of finding solutions, and I know that the Government are taking measures to enable that to happen. It cannot be right for there to be large strategic authorities but no say at a more local level.

Finally, I turn to council tax equalisation; again, it is a governance issue. I am far from clear about how it will be achieved. We need far more clarity from the Home Office about taking that forward.

Given the four concerns that I have mentioned, I believe that the timetable for change is far too rapid. Change is inevitable, but we need a timetable and framework for change that allows time for the problems to be not only discussed but resolved. I acknowledge that when a change is made, it is important to take its benefit quickly. However, on the face of it, the move to change in the east midlands is far too quick. There needs to be greater consultation so that we can find real solutions that will meet the needs and aspirations of people, not only in Nottinghamshire but across the east midlands.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Again, I urge hon. and right hon. Members to observe a self-denying ordinance. They should keep their contributions to less than five minutes to allow their parliamentary colleagues to be called.

9.58 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): On behalf of the people of Kettering, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this debate. I am 100 per cent. opposed to the abolition of Northamptonshire’s own police force and to its absorption into an east midlands police service. The absurdity of the Government’s merger plan
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is that Northamptonshire will end up paying more for a police service that will provide fewer police officers to patrol our local area.

I recently spent 22 days with the parliamentary police scheme in and around Kettering. It is my firm view that local people there do not want the headquarters of Northamptonshire’s police to be in Nottingham; they want more police officers, not fewer, to patrol our local area. A full regional merger would cost £100 million up front and a net additional £30 million a year. Where is the sense in that?

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposal to merge the police forces has resulted in the loss of the chief superintendent in Wellingborough, who is being sent to my hon. Friend’s constituency of Kettering?

Mr. Hollobone: My hon. Friend, as usual, is absolutely correct. Under the merger plans, we were promised greater emphasis on neighbourhood policing, but the constituencies of Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough now have one basic command unit instead of two, and Northamptonshire now has two basic command units instead of four. As a direct consequence of preparations for the merger plans, there is now less local emphasis on policing. I urge the Minister to allow the five forces, or some combination of them, to adopt a federated structure of inter-force co-operation and not impose a merger on them.

I impress on the Minister that we are talking about a huge area, stretching from the borders of Oxfordshire to the outskirts of Greater Manchester. When the county is divided up, Northamptonshire is always on the edge, and given the gun crime and gang crime that we have heard about in Nottingham, policing in Northamptonshire will not be a priority for the new east midlands police service.

The budget shortfall faced by the five police authorities in the east midlands is already £17 million for 2006-07. They are five of the most underfunded police authorities in the country. Over the past 10 years, in pounds-per-head terms, their income has risen by 24 per cent; that is compared to a rise in inflation of 28 per cent.In 2005-06, the average amount spent on policing in England was £174 per person. In the east midlands it was £143 per person, which is 82 per cent. of the English average. All five police authorities were underfunded on that basis, and in Northamptonshire the figure was £139 per person.

Steve Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, has written to the former Home Secretary, and I hope that the letter is on the current Home Secretary’s file. That letter, dated 28 April, says:

I shall go on with the letter, because this is an important point:

The merger proposals are not welcome in Northamptonshire; they would undermine local policing and they enjoy no local support. The Northamptonshire branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers is against the plans, as is Bill Dredge, who is the chairman of Northamptonshire neighbourhood watch, and Dr. Marie Dickie, the Labour chairman of the Northamptonshire police authority. The chief constable of Northamptonshire is worried about the loss of officers.

In conclusion, the new Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety is talked about as the great persuader; that is why he has been put into his present job. I urge him to follow the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire and on behalf of all the residents of Kettering I ask him to think again, before it is too late.

10.4 am

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): It is worth noting that the only reason why we are having a debate on police restructuring is that Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, senior organisations within the police such as the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales and, according to a poll in The Times today, the vast majority of senior police officers all want a restructuring of the police to make it more efficient and effective in the battle against crime, both strategically and locally.

The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire(Mr. McLoughlin) is right to say that it is simply not sustainable to have 43 chief constables, 43 personnel departments, 43 finance departments and 43 press officers, or to have all those constabularies using different technologies and protocols, and in some cases having real problems communicating with each other. The status quo is therefore definitely not an option.

There are two dimensions to the proposed restructuring, and I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman fell between two stools and did not give either of those the necessary importance. The first dimension is the strategic level, whereby organised crime operates not within localities—the towns and villages of our constituencies—but nationwide and regionally. We must have a system to fight organised crime and terrorism that is not locally based within divisions or even existing constabularies, but which has a bigger remit. That is why it is important to pool resources and strengthen the police at a strategic level.

The other aspect, which is probably more important for the current debate, is the local level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) has pointed out, within the existing divisional structures, police officers already have increased accountability through consultative committees and forums—certainly in Derbyshire—and even down to ward and beat level. In High Peak, we already have police officers whose text numbers and e-mail addresses are known to the people in their wards. They are directly accountable to the people they serve. That is a welcome development and I want more accountability—not at county level, but at division and ward level, and in localities. The good practice that already exists—
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Derbyshire is well advanced in neighbourhood policing—should be made more widely available and should be used elsewhere.

Will the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, on that understanding, join me in saying that B division of Derbyshire constabulary, which is the divisional command unit shared between our constituencies—it covers the whole of mine, and not quite all of his—should not be merged and should remain as the basic command unit? Does he agree that, if we are to take neighbourhood policing seriously, it is important that there should be no fewer divisions than there are at present?

Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. I agree about B division, and I have no problem in supporting its continuation. It is likely to survive if Derbyshire keeps its chief constable, but it is highly unlikely to survive if there is an amalgamated force of five different authorities. We, the two local Members of Parliament, can have an influence on the chief constable, because there are only 10 Members of Parliament in Derbyshire. A chief constable with 44 Members of Parliament in the area covered by his force might well ignore us.

Tom Levitt: One advantage of the debate is that the Minister is here to listen and has heard us, on a cross-party basis, say that the divisional structure in Derbyshire should remain as it is whatever the final outcome. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for that view.

The last word on accountability is that most people in my constituency would have difficulty in saying exactly where the police headquarters is. Perhaps that does not apply to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which is closer to it. However, it does not matter where the chief constable is based. The location of the communications room, which is the place that people phone up, does not matter. People want to know that the divisional commander is on the ball and that their local policeman is on the beat in their neighbourhood. That is the level of accountability that I want, and I believe that it can be retained and strengthened under the new proposals.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman did not show a very strong inclination to go down the road of federation. It has been proposed on some fronts that we should adopt a loose federation of constabularies, but that has all the disadvantages of the current system with few of the advantages of the new proposal. The most important thing about federating constabularies is that it makes long-term planning impossible. As long as the federation is loose, it will not lend itself to such planning.

Mr. McLoughlin: I did speak in favour of federation as preferable to what the Government are providing. There is a federation between Derbyshire and Nottingham: they share a helicopter, and I welcome that. It has been a useful part of the system and has not stopped long-term planning.

Tom Levitt: Of course it is sensible to share particular services, but that does not mean that the strategic decisions
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of the different authorities are necessarily being taken in line with each other. The debate has evolved already in that the two-county proposal that was on the cards a little while ago is no longer there. It proved deeply unpopular in Derbyshire, and it is right that the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire proposal has been taken off the agenda and that we should be talking solely about the five-county proposal.

I agree that there are problems, and I hope that the Minister will address them. They are to do with not just the different council tax precepts in the five authorities that will be brought together, but with the hugely different pension arrangements and pension scheme funding in the different constabularies. There is historical underfunding in Derbyshire, which is a much worse-funded authority than Nottinghamshire, for example. We need some equalisation. We also make a legitimate demand that the cost of the mergers should not either fall on council tax payers or result in reduced services. We know that it will take some years for the cost benefits of the merger to work through, but in the interim there must be no cost to other services or council tax payers.

Like the hon. Member for Kettering(Mr. Hollobone), I have taken part in the police service parliamentary scheme. We get a wonderful insight into how police operate and the huge diversity of services, and the scheme also allows us to see how well police officers are doing throughout the country. We have record numbers of police officers in Derbyshire and elsewhere, as well as falling crime. In Derbyshire, we have rising detection rates and some of the lowest crime levels in the country. We are proud of our local policing services. This is not an easy project to manage, and it must not be rushed. It is a year since it came on the timetable, and with a four-month consultation I think that it will take at least two years to put into operation.

I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is important to get things right, rather than to get things quickly. If the debate is centred on what people wantin terms of policing in their localities and neighbourhoods, and the quality of service that they see on the street outside their front door, and if assurances are given on that, there will be a lot more willingness to go along with different options for strategic organisations above that level.

I am pleased that the debate is taking place, as it offers us all an opportunity to put the issues on the record. I hope that the problems and issues that I have raised will help the Minister to guide and work with police authorities to reach a solution that we can all live with.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I urge hon. Members to stay within the five-minute limit.

10.12 am

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I am grateful to be called and will try to keep my remarks very brief.

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