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23 May 2006 : Column 392WH—continued

The Minister and I were first in the room this morning, and I said to him that his Department has traditionally been a bed of nails for Ministers. I know
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that he is on his first day. I will not betray confidences by saying what he said to me, but he did smile. One thing that I would have thought should be going through his mind is the fact that he is in a Department that is widely seen as absolutely chaotic: convicted criminals who should be deported are not, there are problems with the cleaners at the Home Office being illegal immigrants and there are difficulties with the Criminal Records Bureau recording innocent people as criminals. It is indeed chaotic.

I was looking at my hon. Friends the Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—gallant Members who have served in the armed forces—and thinking what they, as soldiers, might say to the Minister. They would probably say that he should try to shut down one of the fronts. The Home Office seems to be fighting on so many fronts, so surely this is a great opportunity for the Minister to get further promotion with his boss, and at the very least to adopt the Rushcliffe model. Rather than going the whole way, maybe he could reach an accommodation or solution with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the Conservative Chief Whip, whose debate this is—I am not looking for promotion—and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). There is common ground.

There is almost universal disapproval of the proposals; no one wants them. Even the chief constables who were so heavily influenced by the Home Office when the Terrorism Bill was before the House—who were strong-armed into coming up with a position and briefing us—have changed their positions. One or two may covet the job of super-chief constable or Metropolitan Police Commissioner of the shires, but even they have come round. They do not want this nonsense. No one does.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, accountability will be hopeless and it will suffer. The situation will be like the one in Hinckley. I have no chance of speaking to the chief constable for the west midlands, which is on the other side of the A5, but I have the mobile phone number of the Leicestershire chief constable in my pocket. I have had it ever since the Home Office gave it to me when it was trying to influence him, but we shall not go into that.

Members have spoken eloquently about the chaos and ridiculous costs of merger. I ask Members who have been in the House for a while—I have been here as long as some—whether there has ever been a reorganisation that has not cost more than expected. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) alluded to that. Such reforms—for example, health reforms—always cost more and there is always some difference.

This is completely the wrong tack, and we should take a leaf out of the New York police force book. That force works within certain precincts and uses sophisticated computer systems. In an age of information technology when communications are improving all the time, why are we told that we must accept vast, Stalinesque, monolithic structures that are totally unaccountable? Surely, with all the electronic wizardry around now, police force can talk to police force. It is not the case that the protocols are all wrong.

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I say to the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) that there may be some problems with Devon and Cornwall police communicating with Cumbria, but the West Midlands and Leicestershire constabularies use a good mutual aid system to deal with nightclubs in Hinckley and Nuneaton. There is no problem—the argument is complete nonsense.

Mr. Deputy Speaker— I am not supposed to call you that in Westminster Hall. It is Mr. Chairman, I know. We cleared that earlier on.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. The convention is “Mr. Taylor.”

David Tredinnick: Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

I ask any hon. Member of the House, who is more accountable to their constituents—Members of this old and honourable House of Commons or Members of the European Parliament? What is the answer? Who represents constituencies the size of Belgium? Is it us? No, it is not. It is MEPs, who have an impossible task in relating to anybody. The same principle applies in this case. Let us be done with the nonsense of vast structures and get back to some sensible local policing.

10.17 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing the debate, which is terribly important. I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. I am sure that he will handle it with the same aplomb as he has handled all his other appointments. I am pleased that there are three Nottinghamshire Members here today, as I believe that they will underline the importance of the issue to the county.

I shall not iterate points that have already been made about Nottinghamshire. The fact remains that this morning we have been told that Nottingham stands high—in fact, at the highest and most lamentable point—in the crime statistics for the country. Our constabulary is constantly under pressure: it is underfunded, understaffed and overtasked, and constituents in Sherwood, in Rushcliffe and certainly in Newark and Retford feel that they are not receiving the correct services from police officers whom they largely admire and who do a splendid job, but who do not have the resources to do what they are required to do.

I have already made the point about Nottinghamshire’s population increasing by 4.1 per cent. in the past10 years, as opposed to the national average of 2.7 per cent., and points about underfunding have been made more eloquently by others than they would be made by me. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) is dead right—the situation must change. If we are to deliver better policing to Nottinghamshire, the structure must be better.

I probably differ with the hon. Gentleman on one or two details. I believe that we can achieve some economies of scale, but it worries me very much that a large sum of money will be spent on a wonderful new police station in a place such as Newark, yet the city of Nottingham—and, I have no doubt, cities such as
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Leicester, Northampton and others within a large five-county police force—will continue to act as a magnet for police officers and the dreaded policy community support officers.

Many officers are abstracted from rural constituencies such as mine, as well as Sherwood and the Rushcliffe constituency, to go into the city to fight gun and drug crime, which mercifully have not yet struck the streets of Newark. None the less, we have all sorts of difficulties and we require our officers to be based locally, to have a local focus and to be accountable to local people in a local way. I believe that the scheme the Government are espousing will destroy that.

We have a federated police force structure in the east midlands and it has worked pretty well. I suggest that there is no better example of how police forces co-operate than the way that Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire co-operated on the prosecution of my Labour predecessor in Newark. The three forces worked splendidly to produce a wonderful result, at least in the short term, and showed how a federated police force can work particularly well. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, if we go down the Government’s suggested route, we will end up with a leviathan of five counties and, in theory, a single chief constable.

As sure as shooting, and in the same way that the national health service has turned itself inside out over the past five or six years, we will shortly see another restructuring of those large forces with less accountability at local level, more costs, lack of focus and lack of resourcing. There are bound to be changes because that is a law of nature. My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Sherwood alluded to that.

There can be economies of scale. Looking to my shadow responsibilities, when I first heard about the plans, I wondered what use they would have. They could be attractive in fighting terrorism, and in that respect they may make sense, yet the model that has already been adopted for terrorism stretches from the Welsh border to the North sea. It has nothing to do with the five-county structure that is being prepared. If we want more effective structures, let us consider what is in place: undoubtedly, there could be economies of scale and there are ways of doing things better, but I deeply resent the loss of local accountability and of local policemen serving local people.

I believe that the Home Secretary is seeing sense and that he is beginning to row back on the proposals. If anything that my right hon. Friend, my colleagues and friends on the Government Benches say today persuades the Government that this is the wrong course of action, the debate will have been worth while in spades.

10.22 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this important debate. We are geographical neighbours but not, I hasten to add, political neighbours. Our constituents share many common interests, and Derbyshire police are one.

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The objections to the creation of an east midlands super-force fall into three categories. The first is the undemocratic, rushed and sham way in which the proposal is being forced through and the consultation is supposedly taking place. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said that it is important to get these things right rather than to get them quickly. What has happened so far provides no assurance of that.

These changes in policing are the biggest in this country since the service was created in 1829, yet they are being rushed through in just a few months. On22 September 2005, the Home Secretary wrote to police authorities saying that there were plans to merge police forces to create super-forces. He said that within just five weeks he wanted police authorities throughoutthe country to come up with proposals for mergers. On 11 November, they were told to prepare their preferred options by 30 November—just 19 days later. At the start of December 2005, police authorities were toldto produce their final single preferred option by23 December—just three weeks later.

To force through such drastic changes in such a short time is undemocratic and rushed, allowing no time whatever for adequate consultation with the public. In that rushed time scale, the Government refused to consider federations and local forces, which we have discussed in the past hour. They refused to allow consideration of co-operation on wider issues—for example, combating serious and organised crime, terrorism and even common payrolls—yet the same Government who refused to allow consideration of federation have insisted that the fire authorities do precisely that—federate to run joint control rooms. There seems to be no logic in a system whereby one branch of the emergency services federates while another cannot consider it.

Finally, in the past few weeks the pace of rushed, sham consultation picked up speed, and on 20 March the Home Secretary announced that he intends to merge the five police forces into one east midlands force. He asked each police authority to inform him by 7 April whether it would like to proceed voluntarily to merger. Without exception, every force in the east midlands—like most throughout the country—said no, they would not like to proceed with a voluntary merger for all sorts of well thought out reasons.

Tom Levitt: Although I support the mergerin principle, it was important that Derbyshire constabulary and the others did not go down the volunteer route because had they done so there would not have been the four-month consultation. Even if they had been in favour of it, they still should have opted for the consultation.

Paul Holmes: That is exactly the point I want to come to next. On 11 April, having been told on 7 April that the five forces did not want to merge, the Home Secretary said, “Well, you’re going to anyway—I am going to force it on to you.” There is a four-month period for objections, which we are in the middle of now, but the Home Secretary had already made it clear that at the end of that period he would introduce a statutory instrument, using powers in the PoliceAct 1996, to impose a merger. Therefore, the whole consultation is a sham, and the whole thing so rushed it is meaningless.

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The second group of objections is to do with funding issues, which we have already had examples of from around the region. Derbyshire is traditionally underfunded, particularly since the dark days of the 1980s when a left-wing council leader, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), fought battles with a right-wing Conservative Government led by Baroness Thatcher.

In 2005-06, the average funding increase for police forces across England was 4.4 per cent., but in Derbyshire it was only 3.75 per cent. despite the traditional underfunding of the force. Over the next two years up to 2008, Government funding plans require a further £6 million of underfunding or cuts in Derbyshire police, which has led to the police authority writing to every Derbyshire MP to say in blunt terms that that means there will be a reduction in police officer numbers, less resources for neighbourhood policing and reduced opportunities to make full use of advances in forensic science that would otherwise improve detection rates.

That is a grim background to start with, but we must look next at the financial implications of this forced merger. We have had the details, so I will not go into them all, but the east midlands police authorities, which must be the experts on this, say that the set-up costs will be about £101 million and the ongoing costs £45 million. However, the Government—the Home Office—say, “No, we will fund this at £80 million on the set-up costs and £20 million on ongoing costs,” which is considerably less. That can mean only that there will be a reduction in the services provided as a result of this merger.

There are other issues such as pay harmonisation. It will cost £9.4 million each year to harmonise the different pay structures across the five forces. The Home Office has made a partial commitment by saying that it will fund the cost for the first three years only. What happens after that? Either the council tax goes up or police numbers go down. There is also precept equalisation, and again there are different levels across the five forces—there is a 30 per cent. differential. How will that be harmonised out, given the capping guidelines of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which would not allow harmonisation to take place in that time scale?

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): On precepts, my understanding is that it will take at least three to four years for them to merge, so during that time we will have the same police force but some areas will be paying significantly more than others, which is unacceptable.

Paul Holmes: Absolutely. That leads us to my final group of objections to this forced merger, which involves the principle of local accountability. The size and diversity of the east midlands have been referred to, so I will not go into that, but the geographical differences and communications difficulties in respect of a force running from Northampton at one end to Skegness at another, and to High Peak and Chesterfield at yet another, speak for themselves. However, there is local accountability for a force such as Derbyshire. Let me highlight that by referring to an issue that has been raised.

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In one or two of the previous four years, Derbyshire police authority has increased the council tax precept by well above the rate of inflation specifically to fund more beat police. I argued at the time—I have not received any comeback from my constituents to say otherwise—that my constituents would support that because they would see beat police on the ground making a difference. The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire says that his villagers have not seen a difference, and perhaps they are not so keen, but we have certainly seen a difference in Chesterfield.

However, would council tax payers in Chesterfield, West Derbyshire or High Peak be willing to pay extra council tax for more police if those police were going to Nottingham, Leicester or Northampton—or anywhere else in that giant super-region? It is not practical. For three different sets of reasons, I urge the new brooms at the Home Office to think again. Unfortunately, I do not have much confidence that they will.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I shall call the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), but I must point out that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) also wants to get in before 10.40 am.

10.30 am

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on raising this topic. It is a long time since a Government Department has produced a proposal for which there is less support in the House; more important, less support among those in the police service who will have to put the proposal into effect; and most important, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, less support among our constituents. It is worth pausing to reflect on why there is so little support in any part of the community for the proposals.

The fundamental reason is that the arguments advanced in favour of the proposal remind me of nothing so much as “newspeak”, as defined by George Orwell in “1984”. Ministers and their apologists have offered series of arguments that bear no relation whatever to what most of us, and most of those in the police service, expect to be the reality. We are told that the merger is important in order to improve accountability. Since when did a shift of authority from a largely county basis to a regional basis improve accountability? It stands common sense on its head.

We are told that the merger is necessary to improve cost efficiency in the police service. Never mind the fact that the police believe that the Government have underestimated the cost, the Government themselves admit that it will cost £80 million, and that one day, five years hence—perhaps—there may be a payback, assuming that the Government do not change their policy again. Hello? Which world do the Government live in?

Finally, we are told that the proposals are important because they will assist operational efficiency. I do not understand the logic of telling my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) that the efficiency of the commander in Hinkley in dealing with
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nightclub louts, shifting between Hinkley and Nuneaton, will be improved by bringing Nottingham into the loop. Will someone please explain that to me and, more important, to the policemen and women who fear that it is another scheme dreamed up by the Government that will undermine the efficiency of their service and the delivery of that service to local people?

When I reflect on why such a friendless proposal was driven so hard by the previous Home Secretary—we hope that it will not be driven so hard by the new one—I can draw only one conclusion. It is yet another proposal dreamed up in the bowels of a Whitehall Department that may look good on a bureaucratic organogram but simply does not reflect operational efficiency on the ground—or, more important, common sense.

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