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23 May 2006 : Column 399WH—continued

10.34 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who made a powerful speech. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing such an important debate; the number of Members here today is testimony to that.

I shall concentrate on something that affects my constituency of Wellingborough. I founded a campaign called “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden”, in which a regular survey is made of the constituency. Not only do we have a snapshot of people’s worries at any one time, but we can compare those snapshots, month to month and year to year. You might think,Mr. Taylor, that education would come top of the poll in Wellingborough, because a secondary school has been closed under the Labour Government; or you might think that it would be health, because many of my constituents must wait more than six months for an NHS operation; but neither of those issues are at the top of the poll. Law and order consistently tops the poll and, interestingly, in the past few months the gap between law and order and health and education in the survey results has been growing. The perception, at least in Wellingborough, is that crime is getting worse and people are more concerned about it. That is how things are under the current arrangements.

Further examination of the survey results, to see what specific concerns the people of Wellingborough have about law and order, shows that they are worried about vandalism, foul language, yob culture, arson and mugging. Those problems would, I believe, have a very low rating in a regional east midlands police force. The problems are so bad on some estates that one or two families are terrorising the law-abiding citizens of Wellingborough. I recently met a delegation from the Croyland ward in my constituency. They had put their heads above the parapet: usually people are too scared to say anything when there is vandalism and yob culture, but these people had said “Enough is enough; we want something done about it.” What they want is more local police on the street, catching criminals and deterring crime.

Let us think a little about where Wellingborough is. I had hoped, Mr. Taylor, to bring in a map to show hon.
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Members, but I understand that parliamentary procedure does not allow it. Perhaps I can describe it. Northamptonshire is right at the bottom end of the east midlands and Wellingborough is right at the bottom of Northamptonshire. Rushden, where I live, is the second town in the constituency of Wellingborough and is right at the bottom of the constituency. If I walk 100 yd I can be in Bedfordshire. That is where Rushden is. The new centre for policing will be further up the map, in Nottingham, and somewhere even further up the map will be the edge of the east midlands. To the people of Wellingborough, the proposal is ridiculous.

The basic command unit has already been changed to fit in with the new plans, so my chief superintendent has moved from Wellingborough to Kettering. At the moment I have meetings with the chief constable, and I used to have meetings with the chief superintendent. Those will disappear if we have an east midlands force.

We heard earlier in the debate that Nottingham has come out pretty poorly in the crime figures. Leicestershire has come top of the ranking for assaults. If there is an east midlands regional force it will be the duty of the chief constable to put his resources where there is most crime, so what will happen? Police officers will be taken from Wellingborough and moved to Nottingham and Leicestershire. That is the fear not only of the people of Wellingborough, but of the chief constable of Northamptonshire. We will lose policing, which will go towards Nottingham and Leicestershire. The people of Wellingborough will lose out.

At the moment my constituents do not have enough police out on the beat catching criminals and deterring crime. If there were an east midlands police force, any policing of that kind would disappear entirely and crime in my constituency would go up and up. In the “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” survey, law and order would become an even higher priority.

10.39 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing the debate. The issue is important and is likely to affect not only the east midlands but many communities in the country. I am sure that many of the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman has raised today are shared by police officers, residents and, indeed, Members of Parliament from south Wales to Suffolk. It is regrettable that several hon. Members have had to seek Adjournment debates on the issue as a result of the Government’s attempts to sidestep debates on the Floor of the House on such a hugely important matter.

I shall start by outlining the areas in which I and my party agree with Government policy. It is clear that in some instances small police forces do not possess the resources to deal effectively with some serious crimes. Several recent high-profile cases in which a particular force required assistance—Soham is just the most obvious example—have demonstrated that the Government were right to explore ways in which police forces could better co-operate and support each other; that much is not in doubt. It would be wrong to suggest that Liberal Democrats oppose closer co-operation between different forces and agencies. For example, we have called for a national border force to bring together the disparate agencies that deal with border security,
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including the relevant police, customs and immigration officers. We have also called for a new national body to deal with financial crime, which seems to be a low priority for the Government.

I do not agree, however, that the nuclear option, if I might use that phrase in this context, of axing entire police forces is a sensible way to deal with the issues. In my view, the answer is staring the Government in the face. The recently established Serious Organised Crime Agency gives the police a ready-made resource on which they can call if they need to. If SOCA could take responsibility for level 2 crime, as my party has suggested, we would have the ideal solution, because serious crimes and crimes that take up disproportionate resources could be tackled without, in effect, bankrupting smaller forces and, crucially, local communities in the east midlands and beyond would remain strongly linked to their local police forces.

My experience of local government in the past10 years has demonstrated to me in the clearest possible terms that, despite their rhetoric, the Government remain committed to centralisation. They seem to believe that an office in Whitehall can deal with community policing better than a local beat bobby can. One has only to speak to local police officers in a constituency to realise that much of their work is dictated by Home Office targets and politically inspired initiatives. Worryingly, that trend is replicated across a broad spectrum of services, including the NHS, where central mismanagement has led to local funding crises, and local authorities, which must somehow reflect local priorities while trapped in the central Government straitjacket.

In pursuing the regionalisation of police forces, we need to remember that current regional structures in the east midlands, as in the rest of the country, are the result of arbitrarily drawn administrative boundaries with no democratic structures underpinning them. The amalgamation of police forces would result in the abolition of police authorities and the loss of the link to elected councils through local authority members. Although the Home Office argues that new structures of accountability can be built around basic command units, that would create the worst of both worlds, because such structures would be too distant from local communities to provide meaningful discussion of neighbourhood priorities, and too fragmented to provide meaningful scrutiny of decisions that are taken at force level.

I turn now to the practical pitfalls of the mergers policy as it affects forces in the east midlands and elsewhere. Like all regions, the east midlands is diverse, with large metropolitan areas and distinct rural localities. Should the proposals be implemented, there is a real danger, as has been said, that officers and other resources will be drawn away from the quieter areas to police urban crime hot spots. Chief constables of smaller forces act as champions for their areas and can lobby for a fair share of resources, but that simply will not be possible under the new model.

In addition, there is precious little evidence that big forces perform better than small ones, which serves only to confirm suspicions that the real motive behind the policy is to save money. The HMIC baseline assessment in 2004 found that, regardless of size, all forces were classed as “fair” or “good” at tackling level
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2 crime. If the resources required for mergers come from the neighbourhood policing strategy budget, that would signal in the clearest possible terms that the Government’s priorities lie with centralisation, not local policing.

Amalgamation would also reduce police accountability and responsiveness by distancing force HQs physically and figuratively from the communities that they serve and by sacrificing coterminosity with local authority boundaries. However, it is not only coterminosity with local authority boundaries that is threatened, because the relationships between other agencies, such as—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I urge the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a close.

Mark Hunter: I shall do so, Mr. Taylor. The relationships between other agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the probation service could also suffer. The last thing we need to do now is to allow the gaps in knowledge between the police and the probation service to grow wider. If ever a Government Department was desperate to buy some good will it is the Home Office, and the new regime now has the opportunity to take on board the views expressed this morning and to put a stop to the plans.

10.45 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his new position. His predecessor as Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety lasted for two weeks; I hope that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) lasts longer. Commentators have described the mini-reshuffle that took place yesterday as reshuffling the deckchairs; I hope the Minister enjoys life on the deck of the Titanic. When icebergs appear, it does not make sense to steer the ship straight towards them, but thatis what the Home Office has been doing in relationto police amalgamation, in a totally unnecessary distraction from the job that the Department should have been doing. It is clear that the previous Home Secretary was too distracted by this process. I hope that the Minister and the new Home Secretary will think again—we hear that they are considering doing so.

My right hon. and hon. Friends raised a number of important concerns about the absurdly tight timetable for the amalgamations and the lack of consultation with local people. I shall wish to focus on three points made by the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), because I think he was wrong on all three counts.

First, the hon. Gentleman made some suggestions about local accountability and people’s ability to get hold of their divisional commanders and to have their e-mail addresses. He suggested that the survival of the basic command unit, although that is not assured in respect of the one he referred to in west Derbyshire, would be an adequate substitute for the loss of the chief constable. He said that nobody minded about where their chief constable resides, but actually, that matters a great deal, especially for a force that will cover an area of 6,000 sq miles and serve 4.2 million people. It matters,
23 May 2006 : Column 403WH
not only for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire suggested in terms of direct access on the part of Members of Parliament, but because power and decision making has to lie somewhere. Ultimately, somebody has to run the force and decide where resources will be deployed, and it would be a fiction to pretend that a BCU commander will be able to respond to people in the local community and say, “Yes, I will do this,” or “I will do that,” when in fact the force is run by the chief constable who is miles away. All Members will feel the loss when we find that our local communities are no longer able to have any influence at all over the proper decisions being made by the chief constable.

Secondly, the hon. Member for High Peak suggested that the federation of forces was not a viable option. I think that he is wrong. There is plenty of evidence in the midlands that federation, or the sharing of services between forces, is a viable alternative—look for example at the midlands counter-terrorism support unit, which operates in the east midlands. The option of sharing services was suggested by the Prime Minister, no less, as an alternative to amalgamation, which his own strategy unit warned would be a risky undertaking. It has not been properly considered by the Government. It was recommended by the Association of Police Authorities, but the impetus to achieve co-operation between forces has now been lost because there will be no incentive on the part of the strategic forces, some of them much smaller than the east midlands force, to share services.

Finally, on funding, I hope the Minister has seen a copy of the paper prepared by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ head of finance, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, which was reported in The Daily Telegraph last Friday. If he has not done so, he should read it. The ACPO conference will debate it this week. The report represents a salutary warning to those who believe that amalgamation will somehow allow a reinvestment of resources into enhancing protective services. We all agree that there is a gap and that protective services need strengthening; the question is how we do that. ACPO’s head of finance warns that because of the triple counting of services, and because amalgamations will cost money—£77 million in respect of the east midlands force—resources will not be available for investment into protective services and there will be an impact on neighbourhood policing.

I end by quoting the conclusion of the report:

If the Minister does not take account of that warning, he is making a severe mistake. I urge him to listen to what almost everybody has said this morning, and to think again.

10.50 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing the debate—something that the hon.
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Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on the Front Bench did not do, by the bye, in the rush to make his contribution.

Nick Herbert: Yes I did.

Mr. McNulty: None the less, it has been an extraordinarily useful debate, certainly for me, given my current circumstances. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire and others on both sides on the broad tone of the debate. It has been essentially non-partisan, or cross-party—whichever way one wants to view it—and it has been well informed. I would expect no less from the MPs of the east midlands.

As a London MP, I find that policing in London is different from policing elsewhere, but I do, and will increasingly, appreciate what policing means outside London and in other areas. By the bye, I do notthink that I heard the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), who speaks for the Liberals, congratulate the Government on leaving his Greater Manchester force alone, which I thought was a bit churlish.

The points that right hon. and hon. Members have made are important, but most—not quite all—of them started from the premise that the status quo is not terrible. Our broad position starts from that. As hon. Members will know, the Government’s plans for assorted forces up and down the country are clear. However, none of the speakers went to the ditch to defend, in absolute terms, where we are now with policing. I am enormously grateful that that is the starting point. The present model is some 30 years old and, purely in terms of the development of society since then, bears greater scrutiny.

I take on board all that has been said about merger being at one end of the scale—the nuclear option, I think it was called—and all sorts of collaborative work and other options on the road to merger being at the other end. We should be clear that the proposed merger model does not preclude that sort of collaboration,or a federated structure, beyond and outside regions. As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) suggested, there must be ever greater collaboration across the country and across regions, not least on counter-terrorism, as he says.

Before I come to matters of substance, let me say that I take on board what has been suggested about the timetable. If hon. Members feel that they have not had sufficient face time—for want of a better phrase—with Ministers to talk through the issues in detail, I am more than happy to ensure that that happens. I am not sure that I would welcome all 44 east midlands MPs in the same room, all barking and baying at me at once, but we can certainly look into the details of how that should happen. I would welcome that opportunity, too. However valuable the Adjournment debate is, we can discuss these matters in far more detail in much smaller groups. I am more than happy to do that, whether on a county basis or otherwise, and I will afford the same facility—because it would help me as much as anyone—to the Front Benchers; I will come and hear their concerns.

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Many of the complaints about what the Government are trying to do—quite naturally, in terms of hyperbole and rhetoric—involve attacking straw men and putting forward simplistic models. If all that the Government were offering was a rush to merge regional authorities, many of the concerns about accountability, remoteness and day-to-day operational policing would be well made.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: I will in a moment, because I am keen to understand the Rushcliffe model mentioned by some speakers.

What is on offer must be, and be seen to be, inextricably, all the three elements, which are neighbourhood policing, a redefinition of basic command unit accountability, and the broader strategic structure.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: Many years ago I encountered the same problem relating to force sizes and accountability. Will the Minister accept in this debate that the accountability and contact that mean most to many MPs and their constituents is at divisional level and local level, and that it will take much longer than the Government’s present timetable to explain how accountability and contact at those levels can be improved as we move towards a giant overall organisation covering five rather disparate counties?

Mr. McNulty: I am grateful for that intervention because in broad terms I agree with it. As I said at the beginning, I am not metrocentric. I appreciate that London is policed differently, but to return to the London parallel, I have never had cause, in specific local terms, to ring up Scotland Yard for anything. However, like the hon. Member for Newark, I have the numbers and other details of my local basic commander—borough commander, as we call it. That is where the accountability lies.

It is important to say that all three elements that we are discussing are significant. I take the points that people make about neighbourhood policing and wanting the police to be highly visible on the streets in their neighbourhood. That is part of the debate. Itake the point that the divisional level, the BCU level, must be the focal point for greater and enhanced communication among local communities, local representatives such as MPs and councillors, and local police forces. None the less, the case is made for forces to cover a wider area.

I ask hon. Members to take seriously what I say about seeing people and talking these issues through in far more detail during the objection period. Everyone can bandy about assorted quotes from chief constables. I accept that, so let me do it. The chief constable of Leicestershire says that merging five forces into one is going in

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