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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 June 2006

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Police Reorganisation (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr.Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Although there have been several opportunities in recent months both here and in the main Chamber to debate police force restructuring, this is the first time that we shall consider it purely in a Welsh context. It is an opportune moment to have the debate, given the recent decision—or non-decision—about restructuring following the change of leadership at the Home Office and in response to the crescendo of criticisms and worries expressed in recent weeks by chief constables in Wales, police authorities, Members of this House and the National Assembly and many others.

This debate also provides the first opportunity to discuss properly the findings of the inquiry conducted by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which reported in February on the proposed restructuring. Although the issue has moved on somewhat since then, the findings of the inquiry are still relevant and deserve a response from the Minister. Apart from the odd question at Welsh and Home Office questions, we have had little time in which to debate this important matter from a Welsh perspective.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we have discussed the subject in the Welsh Affairs Committee?

Mr. Crabb: Yes; I have just referred to the inquiry undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee and to the fact that it produced a report in February.

The proposal to create a single police force for Wales is the most far-reaching reform of policing in Wales for generations. What we shall be discussing goes far beyond purely overarching administrative and bureaucratic arrangements, which are of little interest to our constituents who care first and foremost about the delivery of high-quality policing in their immediate localities.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I, too, have worries about an all-Wales force, but several of them have been addressed. The issue of finance certainly remains outstanding, but does he agree that there are considerable savings to be made when there are four forces with four separate IT and administrative systems? Surely there must be scope for savings in those areas that can be transferred to front-line services.

Mr. Crabb: I think that a number of theoretical benefits on different fronts can be achieved from restructuring. The important point is how we achieve that and whether realistic plans are in place for
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realising those theoretical benefits. However, I have big doubts about whether such detailed plans are in place, as I shall explain.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that the attachment felt to the four existing forces in Wales is nowhere near as strong as the feelings experienced for local hospitals or schools that are under threat of closure or change. Even so, people will accept change to the status quo in respect of policing only if—it is a huge “if”—there is a convincing case for reform. I have never opposed police force restructuring in principle. Reform of policing is an ongoing necessity in the light of new risks and challenges that emerge—reforms in terms of how resources are deployed, achieving better efficiency, strengthening local accountability and so on.

No Member of the House could have credibly responded to the issues raised in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s report of last September by insisting on business as usual. It does hon. Members no credit when they wed themselves for eternity to structures that may or may not be out of date or may or may not offer the optimal arrangements for tackling the full range of law and order challenges, from local crime and antisocial behaviour through to serious and organised crime, terrorism and narcotics.

Three broad questions need to be asked at the outset regarding the proposal for a single strategic force for Wales. First, is the proposed destination the right one for Wales? Is an all-Wales strategic force the best possible option for meeting the evolving policing challenges in the years ahead, or could other arrangements do the job? My view is that, more than in any of the police force areas, the proposed restructuring for Wales is being driven by factors other than simply those concerned with tackling crime. Whatever Ministers currently say about whether the groundwork is being laid for the longer-term devolution of policing to the Assembly, I believe there is a strong political imperative driving the reform that may be overriding other factors and which may be leading us down the wrong path.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a fourth question, which is that what is needed is also a time to bed in the current changes that are taking place within policing in south Wales? In my constituency of Bridgend and in the hon. Gentleman’s neighbouring constituency of Ogmore, the South Wales force is bedding in community policing successfully with community liaison meetings and regular contact on the issues that communities want targeted. Would it not be more appropriate to bed in those processes first and get that confidence with community policing before we move on to the wider issues of an all-Wales force?

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Lady makes a good point and, as ever, expresses herself well. That is the second broad question that I wanted to raise, which is whether the pace at which we are being moved towards the ultimate destination is appropriate in terms of securing the support of relevant stakeholders, including members of the public, and in terms of maximising the chances of the project’s success so that the theoretical benefits can be achieved in practice. On this score, the Government’s tactics and approach have, until recently, been hugely counter-productive, alienating many in Wales who would advocate some kind of positive change.

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Thirdly, we need to ask whether the merger would have implications that would ultimately undermine and damage the quality of policing throughout Wales. So far, the unanswered questions over financial consequences, local accountability and the consequences for neighbourhood policing mean that to press ahead with the merger would amount to a reckless experiment which the people of Wales will be left to live with far beyond the life of this Government.

I welcome the current delay in forcing the merger in Wales, but only if this means that there can now be serious reflection on whether this is the right destination and if there will be a much more serious attempt to resolve the outstanding details regarding the implications of the merger. I have never doubted that police force restructuring offers potential gains on a number of different fronts. However, not once in the past 10 months have I come even close to being convinced that the Government have a realistic plan for achieving those benefits in practice.

The Secretary of State for Wales has been repeating the mantra that

but not once have I heard him offer a serious justification for this statement or explain why other arrangements might not be workable—a federated structure or some other kind of co-operative arrangement, for example. He has spoken of a single police force for Wales as being the only option to counter

These are big claims, designed I am sure, to tap into our worst fears. It is rather a distasteful approach and typical of those who cannot rely on the strength of their rational arguments. Those who oppose an all-Wales force, the Secretary of State for Wales claims, are not facing up to the real world.

An all-Wales police force has been the only reform on the menu so far. The all-Wales force has always been the preferred option, as the then Minister with responsibility for policing told the Welsh Affairs Committee at the start of the year, which suggests a less than open mind about what the alternatives might be.

We need to test the assumptions that lie behind the HMIC’s report as they apply to Wales. In particular, we should question the presumed relationship between size and effectiveness. The issue is by no means as clear cut as Ministers would have us believe. I am not convinced that the Minister’s preferred option for Wales has been tested thoroughly and nor am I convinced that a robust cost-benefit analysis of other arrangements has been undertaken.

The standard assessment model laid down by the Home Office for the evaluation of the different options for Wales was, in effect, a straitjacket which delivered only one outcome—the one desired by Ministers, namely an all-Wales force. We do not have anything like a consensus on the ultimate destination of this
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reform process and Ministers have been less than convincing on their own preferred destination.

In January I asked the Home Secretary in a written parliamentary question if he would place in the Library copies of the business plans and implementation plans received relating to police force restructuring so that Members could get a better idea of the kind of analytical work being done in assessing the merger proposals. I was told that would not be possible as the information about protective services was too sensitive. Could the Minister make available copies of any work done to evaluate the different options for Wales? Has the work been done? If not, could the Minister commit to doing it?

From discussions I have had with members of my own police force authority in Dyfed-Powys, I know that there is growing interest in the option of a federated police force structure, which would create new opportunities for co-workers while at the same time preserving some kind of local accountability and ensuring some flexibility.

In other parts of Wales, too, there is a feeling that all relevant options have not been properly assessed. The Welsh Affairs Committee’s report made the point that it is a pity

On the time scale for the restructuring, until the pause initiated by the new Home Secretary a week or so ago, Ministers had been driving this process along at what can only be described as a lunatic pace. Talented as they are, there is absolutely no way that Ministers, their officials, the chief constables and their authorities could have done all the necessary groundwork for such a massive reform in the few short months between the publication of the report “Closing the Gap” in September 2005 and the end of the year deadline for submitting business cases.

“Closing the Gap” referred to the importance of mature leadership in achieving successful structural change. I am sorry to say that in place of mature leadership we have had bulldozer tactics which, at times, have amounted to bullying and, in the case of the offer of extra money to forces volunteering to merge by the deadline, something akin to bribery. The Welsh Affairs Committee was very clear on the negative effect of the pace at which this reform was being driven. It stated:

As the report goes on to mention, the rushed process has had a negative impact on public opinion and served only to heighten the concerns regarding the restructuring. It states:

I sincerely welcome the relaxing of the timetable under the new leadership at the Home Office. Given the box of unpleasant surprises waiting for the new Secretary of State on his first day, it is entirely
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understandable that he should now take the view that police force restructuring is an unnecessary headache at this point in time. However, it is vital that the period before us is not just a breathing space for the new Home Secretary before he revisits the scheme and attempts to push it through in exactly the same way. What we need now is further meaningful reflection and dialogue and a reworking of ideas.

As Don Evans, the chairman of the Dyfed-Powys police force has said, further dialogue is welcomed

The Home Secretary has promised to spend the summer in “discussion, dialogue and listening” to the concerns of police force leaders. He will be held to that promise.

Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman makes it clear that there are a number of views on this subject. There are those who wish to stay exactly as they are probably for ever and a day, those who support a merger on the scale that is being proposed and those who are somewhere in the middle. Where does he stand?

Mr. Crabb: I am not opposed in principle to restructuring. I made that very clear at the start of my speech. However, I need to be convinced that the restructuring will deliver concrete benefits in terms of policing in Wales. My point throughout has been that so far, I have not been anywhere near convinced that the plans for creating an all-Wales strategic force will achieve the benefits that we are led to believe are out there to be gained.

Back in February the Secretary of State for Wales, very much with his head in the sand, insisted that all concerns had been listened to and met with regard to an all-Wales force: accountability had been dealt with through the proposed regional police board structure, and the issue of financing had been dealt with through the provision of

If that assessment by the Secretary of State were correct, I doubt whether we would be here this morning. Much more time needs to be spent on properly addressing the consequences and implications of the merger for police force financing.

There is widespread acknowledgement that the financial offer from the Treasury of £50 million in 2006-07 and £75 million in 2007-08 to help meet the huge upfront costs of restructuring throughout England and Wales is nowhere near big enough.

Mrs. Moon: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that part of the reason for the decision to delay is that local members can have an opportunity to engage with the process more fully? I attended the South Wales police force open day on Sunday and took the opportunity to discuss with senior police officers how they saw the process progressing and what their concerns were. Many of the concerns they expressed were on matters that have been acknowledged as needing further time, and the time now available is thanks to the work of Back Benchers in asking the Home Office, “Can we
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have more time? Is there not an opportunity here for more discussion?” We have that opportunity and we should welcome it rather than be negative.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Interventions need to be brief. There will be an opportunity to make speeches later.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) makes a valid point. Many Members from all parties have been active in the past 10 months in asking pertinent questions. We hope that that is one of the reasons for the current delay.

The Association of Police Authorities estimates the cost of mergers to be in excess of £525 million, and work done by Dyfed-Powys police authority indicates that the current plans would lead to an annual deficit of about £50 million for an all-Wales force by 2012-13. Those figures mean that a merger will create a financial black hole that can be plugged only by cuts in the service and the loss of uniformed officers or a large increase in council tax, unless the Treasury can deliver a much more attractive offer.

One of the key recommendations in the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report was that the Government should provide further detail and information on how the costs of the merger will be met. I understand that, assuming that police authorities do not cut services, the average police precept would increase by more than 20 per cent., meaning rises of between £15 and £37 on a council tax bill on a band D property. The police levy on council tax has already soared since 1997, and much of it has been wasted on administration and paperwork. Council tax payers in Wales have suffered enough in recent years as a result of the botched revaluation and rebanding exercises. They must not be asked to foot the bill for the creation of an all-Wales police force.

Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. There is quite a difference between precepts in north and south Wales, which is why north Wales Labour MPs have campaigned hard on the issue. Extra money has gone into policing to deliver extra police on the ground, which is why it is important that there is ring-fencing to ensure that that continues.

Mr. Crabb: The point has been made.

The other alternative—service cuts—is equally unpalatable. According to the Dyfed-Powys authority, the high price of the merger would almost inevitably lead to service cuts, which would

Drawing on work done by the Association of Chief Police Officers, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has previously mentioned a figure of up to 1,350 police officer posts that could be lost in Wales as a result of the restructuring. Last November, Unison said that 1,000 jobs could be lost, and others have put the figure between 800 and 1,000. That would be catastrophic for the quality of policing in Wales and the safety of our communities. Not one post should be lost as a result of the need to finance the restructuring. I, and I suspect other members, would like reassurance from the Minister on that point.

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