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I understand that a cross-Government working group, on which the Welsh Assembly is represented, is considering the ongoing transitional financial arrangements for the restructured police forces and the issue of precept equalisation. Will the Minister update us on the progress that that group is making, as a background to any assurances that he might give on council tax and service cuts?
For reasons of time I shall not go deeply into the issue of accountability, other than to ask the Minister to describe his current thinking on local authority representation on the new all-Wales police force authority. Will it have a regional structure, and what are the proposed structure and location of deputy chief constables and senior police officers?
There is a very real fear that a merged police force will lead to a reconfiguration of uniformed officers in some parts of the Principality, with the hot spots in south-east Wales having an increase and rural areas a decrease. That concern is heightened by the matter of costs, which we have just discussed. The Secretary of State for Wales said recently that restructuring will not result in any shift of resources away from neighbourhood policing. Will the Minister explain the basis on which such an assurance can be given? Does he feel able to repeat that assurance to allay the fears of my constituents in Pembrokeshire, who regard an all-Wales force as a step backwards in community policing?
any move to a more strategic organisation of policing needs to take place in a carefully planned and measured way which reduces the short-term risks as far as possible and keeps a clear line of sight on the benefits to be realised.
The approach taken thus far regarding an all-Wales force flies in the face of each part of that statement. It is no wonder that it has been rejected by the North Wales and Dyfed-Powys police authorities and has the support of virtually no Back-Bench Member in Wales, irrespective of party. I doubt whether the project can be rescued successfully, but I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he intends to do so and to his answer to the specific points raised.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, which I welcome. However, I take issue with the perhaps dismissive way in which he dealt with the Welsh Affairs Committee report, because a lot of work went into that and it has had an influence.
Mr. Crabb: Far from dismissing the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I have quoted from its report extensively and drawn on a lot of the evidence received during its extensive inquiry, which formed the basis of many of the comments that I have just made.
I suggest that that report has had considerable impact on the thoughts of the Government, as have individual MPs. We must give credit to the Minister without Portfolio for taking considerable time in listening to us way before the reshuffle; even then we were talking about an increased
time scale and looking into the financial issues. We were given assurances that things would not be going ahead at the speed that had first been suggested. It is important to give credit there, where credit is due.
We now have a new Administration. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety is here today and will be looking into the matter. The message that he has already conveyed to us is that he is willing to listen and to take into consideration time scale and cost, as well as the important issue of precept differences, which needs to be resolved.
What matters at the end of the day is that we build on the excellent work at local level. Llanelli is one of the most deprived areas in the Dyfed-Powys area, but in recent years there has been a considerable reduction in crime. A lot of work has been done at a local level to deal with crime when it is committed, help citizens to protect themselves betterhome safety mechanisms and so forthand provide programmes that help young people to overcome some of the difficulties that have led them to crime in the first place. In the reorganisation, keeping that local police force is very important. As I understand it, that is the plan.
I seek reassurance from the Minister again today that what the citizen will meet on the street will be the very high standard of service that we have nowindeed, an improved serviceand that we will not see any leaching out from the neighbourhood to a centralised system, as referred to by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. We must keep our officers on the street, doing the very good work that they are doing.
We are told that there are two main drivers for the change. The first is the inability of a smaller force to deal with terrorism in its modern form. I venture to suggest that that is not a sustainable argument. My argument is that there are several avenues of co-operation between the Met and the West Midlands force, together with other forces, assisting the North Wales and Dyfed-Powys police. We have seen it before. Unfortunately, 15 years ago there were terrorist incidents in Wales. There was a great deal of co-operation throughout the forces. For example, in Holyhead an anti-terrorist branch successfully combated some of the terrorist problems emanating from the troubles in Northern Ireland.
What has happened with terrorism? Lord Carliles recent report says that the smaller ports have scaled down their anti-terrorism protection to a large degree. I wonder why, if there is an immediate terrorist threat, which we have been led to believe is fundamental to the change, the cover of those ports has been scaled down? I also wonder why, if it is such a problem, our friends in Scotland have not bothered to address the issue.
The second reason that we are given for the reorganisation is that forces of fewer than 4,000 officers are unable to deal with organised crime. Operation Tarian was a recent successful operation mounted by Gwent, South
Wales and Avon and Somerset. It netted some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK, who were hell- bent on bringing crack cocaine into south Wales, having flooded the market in the Bristol area. They were heavily armed and ready to do whatever was necessary to avoid being apprehended. In large part, they are now behind bars. That was possible because of the excellent understanding between Avon and Somerset, South Wales and Gwent police.
For some months, I have been asking for a comment from the previous occupant of the Ministers post about the success of that operation. We are led to believe that there will be a review of it some time during 2006, well after it was thought that the reorganisation would have gone ahead. I wonder whether that timing should have been brought forward.
There is excellent day-to-day co-operation, both between the south Wales forces and over the border. I know it to be true of Dyfed-Powys and West Mercia. From my experience of dealing with legal matters, I have seen daily liaison between North Wales police, the Cheshire constabulary and the Merseyside force. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire asked whether we could have more co-operation. Of course that would be a good thing and it should be nurtured, but even now there is excellent swapping of information, even on an hourly basis between these forces. So it is going on. It is not as if suddenly officers have been told that they must start communicating with officers elsewhere. It is happening as I speak, and it has been happening for a long time.
Reference has already been made to the manner in which the consultation was mounted. I am afraid that it is a good example of the conceit of consultation by the Government. First of all, they set an unrealistic time scale. That seems to be important. We have seen it before. They set an unrealistic time scale and give a single option to those who are being consulted that paints them into a corner.
Secondly, they do not provide the pertinent facts and figures truly to inform the consultation. That has even been confirmed by the hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). We do not really know what the effect will be on the precept. We do not really know how much the reorganisation will cost. I have had answers from Ministers saying various things. So I am in the dark, even now, and more to the point, our local authority leaders are in the dark. We do not know exactly what the financial effects will be. They will drive any efficiency gains and will drive the performance of any force. That is important. The Government keep people relatively in the dark so that they do not have the facts during the consultation.
Then, the all-important onethe Government ignore the results if they are unfavourable. I pray in aid the recent National Offender Management Service consultation in which everyone who respondedI beg your pardon, Mr. Taylor, 96 per cent. of the respondentsincluding the National Association of Probation Officers, the Prison Officers Association, the police and social servicessaid, Do not make these changes, whatever happens. Yet the Government went ahead with NOMS. That is the ultimate conceit of such consultation.
The difficulty is that the Minister says that her right honourable friend Dr. Reid and her honourable friend Mr McNulty are now exploring ways forward whereas, as we said earlier, yesterday, on the Floor of the House in another place, the Home Secretary made it clear that the destination stays the same. It is all very well listening, but if one will not change one's mind about where one goes, what does it matter?
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it clear that on the basis of the information that we have, especially the HMIC advice, that road of travel is inevitable and the destination is absolutely secure. The question is how quickly can we go along that road and what do we need to do to ensure that that delivery eventually takes place?[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 728.]
There has been a partial reprieve, perhaps because the Government are listening to arguments, but for all I know because Cleveland has taken the Government to the High Court for a judicial review of the process. That would have an impact on all forces in England and Wales. I know not what the precise reason is, but I am grateful that we at least have some time to talk at reasonable length. However, we still do not know the basic answers.
Additionally, we have also stressed the need for clear and definitive information from the Home Office on a number of key issues, namely around finance, funding, precept equalisation, governance and accountability. It was due substantially to a lack of such information that the police authorities were not able to fully consider the issues around the submission of a preferred option at the end of December 2005. Unfortunately, the situation in respect of both timescales and a lack of necessary information continues.
While the Home Office has indicated that it is prepared to make provision for phased precept equalisation, there has been no definitive decision by the Home Office on this nor a clear decision on the exact period of harmonisation.
While the Home Office has tried to assure us that the cost of restructuring will not be borne by council tax payers, there is still much uncertainty regarding how the set-up and recurring costs of restructure will be met. The Home Office has stated that it would meet 100% of the net set-up costs. The exact levels of these costs, however, have yet to be determined between our Welsh project team and the Home Office. Significantly, the estimated cost of protective services submitted by the Wales project team has been reduced by 75% in the Home Offices assessment of our business case. This is an operational issue of grave concern to the chief constables and ourselves, as it strikes at the fundamental rationale behind restructuring.
Only a few months ago, Her Majestys inspectorate of police gave all four Welsh police forces a glowing report. They had improved in many ways, and they were good previously. During the past 15 years, Dyfed-Powys and North Wales in particular have consistently been in the upper quartile of semi-rural forces in England and Wales.
I pay tribute to Dyfed-Powys, for example, which at this moment is creatively opening police stations in villages throughout the area wherever there is an opportunity, even in the corners of chemist shops. It may be a volunteer who is involved, but a police contact is available. I went to Whitland not so long ago to see the situation for myself. The police are being as creative as they can about providing services locally, as they should be.
My late father was a police sergeant and my brother is a police chief inspector, so I have been versed in these issues for some time. In fact, I have lived in many police stations and I even had a train set in a jail cell at one time. Some people say that I should still be there, but that is another story.
North Wales police have made their points on the restructuring clear. They have canvassed widely throughout north Wales. All six unitary councils that were contacted responded and said that they were strongly against the proposed merger. Four of them said that there would be a loss of services in north Wales. The bottom line is that two thirds of the population of Wales live in the south and the south-east. That must be considered. We are worried that money and other valuable resources will be shifted to what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire described as the hot spots and that rural and community policing will suffer. I am sure that that is the last thing anyone wants. Four of the councils were concerned about loss of accountability. Three said that the merger was not justified. Three were concerned about the cost. Three were concerned about loss of local knowledge, and three criticised the consultation process. Mention was also made of the threat to community policing and to Welsh language policy.
North Wales police also wrote to the town and community councils in north Wales. Ninety letters were received: 34 from the western division, 34 from the eastern division and 22 from the central division. Of the 90 letters, 89 were against the merger and one did not express a view. Again, 24 councils gave the cost of restructuring as a reason; 20 referred to the loss of services in north Wales; 14 mentioned the centralisation of resources in south Wales; 14 talked about the threat to community policing; 12 referred to the loss of accountability; and 12 criticised the consultation process. Points were also made about the loss of local knowledge and it was said that the merger was not necessary.
There has been an overwhelming response in the North Wales police area, and I venture to suggest that the response is not limited to that area. We have heard what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said about the Dyfed Powys area. We know that Gwent is very unhappy. In fact, all the police authorities in Wales remain desperately unhappy because they feel that they are still in the dark.
A submission was made this month by the clerk to the North Wales police authority. He wrote to the Home Secretary and made telling points. He referred to the geography of Wales and the fact that it is unfortunately very difficult to travel from north to south. He said that there would be huge problems with travelling for a single police authority. In fact, the travelling distance between Holyhead and Cardiff is
slightly further than that from central London to Preston. That gives an idea of the likely problems. The clerk refers to the council tax equalisation problem and the likely capping criterion of 5 per cent., which will result in the black hole referred to by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. The clerk also refers to future funding and the annual deficit of £29.9 million in 2009, rising in 2012 to just over £50 million. We have to ask how that black hole will be filled.
The formula funding also concerns the hon. Gentleman, as do governance and the command structure. I remember asking the previous Home Secretary about the command structure when he made a statement about the matter, and he said that district councils would be the key to the command structurethe basic command unit. Unfortunately, we have not had district councils in Wales for many years, which goes to show that the merger has not taken any of the Welsh concerns into account.
I see that last week the other place passed an amendment that in effect says that the local police authorities will have to sanction any change. No doubt that will come back for further votes in this place, but I believe that it shows the great strength of feeling. In a fortnight from yesterday there will be a meeting with the Home Secretary attended by representatives of all the parliamentary parties in Wales. Clearly, when all parties in Wales come together round the table something is seriously wrong. I am sure that there will be further discussion, and I hope that we will get more information, because I have no doubt that the current situation is unhelpful. Proper decisions cannot be made because of the lack of basic information.
On 8 May, a letter from the chairmen of the police authorities representing Cheshire, Cleveland, Northamptonshire, North Wales and West Mercia was printed in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and the Financial Times. It stated:
The current proposals are being rushed through amid growing concern that they will lead to a damaging reduction in performance, a collapse in neighbourhood policing, and a significant loss of accountability. Serious questions remain about the costs and financing of mergers, the impact on council tax, the timescales for transition and the governance arrangements. Opinion polls show overwhelming public opposition, only two police authorities have volunteered to proceed with mergers...and some have initiated legal proceedings to halt the process.
There is, I am afraid, a lack of rigorous analysis of the issue. Indeed, the recent report by Policy Exchange even goes as far as describing the document, Closing the Gap, as another dodgy dossier. I will not go as far as that, but I echo what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has said and say that we are far from convinced of the need for restructuring. More to the point, we are far more convinced that it will impede the progress that all Welsh forces are making in all areas of policing.
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