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27 Jun 2006 : Column 12WH—continued

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not opposed to restructuring per se. My late father joined the old Caernarvonshire police force, and then went on to the North Wales police force. There had been two restructurings shortly before he joined. It is an ongoing process, as the hon. Gentleman says, and only a fool would say that it will be the same for ever. Of course, in human nature there is a tendency to doubt that changes will bring forth improvements. That, I think, is accepted. However,
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on the evidence that we have before us at the moment, it is inevitable that people will say that there is no need for this change.

When senior police officers, all police authorities and many people who are in the know about policing in Wales speak with one voice and say that the restructuring will be detrimental, it is time to listen. It is time to consider whether another form of restructuring is possible, and I hope in the coming months that there will be a dialogue with the Minister and his colleagues, as I am sure that there will be. The strength of feeling in Wales is extremely high at the moment. There is a genuine feeling that community policing will go by the board and that the rural police forces, as they were, will be hammered. There is genuine concern that council tax payers will pay huge increases, only to be met at the end of the day with the effects of a £50 million black hole that will mean either incredibly high council tax increases or a cut in services.

This is not a semantic debate such as sometimes occurs if one party feels obliged to raise points because the other one disagrees. It is not at all like that. As I said, all the parties that have Welsh representatives in this Parliament will meet the Home Secretary a fortnight from yesterday. I hope that the Minister will be there as well.

A further concern is that the National Assembly for Wales was not consulted at the beginning of the process. Yet it contributes to the tune of £144 million per annum to the Welsh policing budget. Why was it not immediately consulted when points were first raised? I hasten to add that it has been brought into the consultation now, but rather late in the day, considering that the whole thing could have been over—done and dusted—had police authorities not stood their ground in the face of some dubious tactics along the way and helped bring about the latest volte face.

The Assembly’s Social Justice and Regeneration Committee prepared a report which stated, in effect, that it preferred the status quo, but that if there was to be a change, a decent time frame for discussion and implementation was required. Its conclusions were that the merger process should be halted, that the consultation and time frame were inadequate, that everybody was in the dark on the finance and that regional police authorities might well be a way forward.

It is clear that the Committee was greatly concerned about local accountability. It stated that that was perhaps the essence of the exercise. It asked whether local authorities would be represented on an all-Wales strategic police authority, whether the authority would be restricted to elected representatives, whether the chief constable, the courts, the National Offender Management Service and the Police Federation should also be represented and what the constitution of regional boards should be.

The Committee was concerned about staff numbers and how the change would impact on community safety officers and so on. It stated that the effect on precepts and on Welsh language policy, and the size and geography of Wales required consideration. Also, it referred to co-terminosity and what it described as the failure of the Home Office to deliver. That was from an all-party Committee with a Labour majority.

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The Committee said that the manner in which the consultation process was pushed through was extremely damaging. It was seriously concerned about co-terminosity issues and the fact that part of police responsibility had been devolved—as I said, the budget is £144 million per annum—yet the Assembly was not consulted at the beginning of the process.

The Minister is a reasonable man. I am sure that, having listened patiently to all the arguments, he understands that there are grave concerns. Even Labour Members have raised concerns, although they believe that they will be met in the coming 12 months. That may or may not be so—I do not know—but I stress that an all-Wales force is the last option that the people of Wales require.

There will undoubtedly—one hopes—be movement, and other options could be considered that could enable change to occur, but only with the support of the people of Wales, for we must also remember that policing is by consent. If that consent breaks down, policing breaks down. As the Minister will know, 90 per cent. of crimes are solved as a direct result of information from the public. If the public feel alienated from the police, that all-important source of information will dry up and the police’s performance will be severely damaged.

The concerns that I have raised are bread-and butter-concerns about policing. I hope that the Minister will address some of them in responding.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the official spokespeople for the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition, I ask that they bear in mind the amount of time available for this debate and ensure that the Minister has adequate time to respond to the many points that have been raised.

10.21 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this debate. A number of hon. Members had wanted to have a debate, either in this Chamber or on the Floor of the House, to unwind the developments in the Government’s proposals. I congratulate him also on how he presented his case. He did not defend the status quo for its own sake, nor did he make party political points. I am sure that everyone here would want a police force that is fit for purpose and best designed to serve the people of Wales and its geography.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee on the issue, although opinions can sometimes change relatively rapidly. When I was a member of the Committee during the previous Parliament, we interviewed all the chief constables on antisocial behaviour. At that time, every one of them believed that amalgamation into a single police force was not the way forward for policing in Wales.

I also pay tribute to Labour Back Benchers, who are not here in numbers, although the Minister will understand that the Standing Committee that is considering the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill is sitting now. I am sure that many more hon. Members from Wales would have attended this debate were it not for that unfortunate coincidence.

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The delay that the Home Secretary announced last week marked the latest chapter in a long-running farce that has typified the consultation process on policing in Wales. Last year saw story after story of Home Office incompetence, and the proposed merger of the four forces is no exception to that. It is a poor policy that is being hammered through at an impossible pace, after a meaningless consultation process.

It is interesting that on Thursday—30 June—two by-elections will take place in Blaenau Gwent, and the one thing that unites all the candidates is their opposition to the proposal. They are reflecting the concerns of communities in Wales about what is happening to their policing. Policing is fundamentally important to their quality of life. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said that things were improving in her community. When we see those improvements, we are determined to ensure that they continue and are not lost.

The so-called consultation period lasted just under four months. I say “so-called consultation” because one month into it the Secretary of State said that there was only one option for Wales. That does not give people much confidence or enthusiasm about getting involved in the process. If the Government are to show a semblance of collective responsibility, when the Secretary of State says that there is only one option, it has presumably been agreed by the whole Cabinet, particularly the Home Secretary. It beggars belief that the consultation process, with all its expense and burdens on people to contribute and reply to it, and to attend meetings, was happening when it was fairly obvious that the decision had been taken already.

We need to think about the speed proposed for that process. The last reorganisation of the police force, in 1964—I think—took eight years to achieve, but before the inevitable delay announced last week, the Government had planned to complete the process this time within a year, and to appoint a new police authority by the end of August and a chief constable for Wales a month later. In such a rush of activity they did not give people enough confidence that they had suitably considered the best way forward.

That farcical process can only have a negative effect on police officers in Wales. Stability is vital in all walks of life, but particularly in high-risk jobs such as policing. Yet the Government have done nothing to aid stability in police forces. Instead, our police must contend with a whirlwind of Whitehall legislation and a dizzying number of missives, directives and law changes.

Last week, the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys said:

That draws attention to the fact that if we had a radical change in the structure of policing in Wales, it would have to be reflected in other elements of the criminal justice system.

The Government’s approach is introducing great uncertainty in Welsh policing. That is especially the case with their merger plans, which they have been
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trying to force through without giving anyone an accurate and realistic picture of how much it will cost, or of how many jobs will be lost. Already today, we have heard a number of different estimates of costs—both set-up costs and ongoing financial deficits. There does not seem to be any agreement on what those costs will be, or how they will develop.

The uncertainty surrounding the policy and the process can only have a negative effect on strategy and police morale. Every day, these people are on our streets making Wales as safe a place as possible, and they deserve better from their Government. How difficult must it be for them to do their job given the proposals, and the effects on jobs and personnel casting a shadow across the future of the organisation?

My constituents in mid-Wales are concerned about the continuing presence of the whole of the criminal justice system in rural areas, and worried that resources will be taken from rural areas and put into the more urban ones where there is a more obvious threat to people’s quality of life.

I mention in passing the proposal to close the police cells in Llandrindod Wells—there has already been a proposal to close the magistrates court—which will leave the only police cells in that mid-Wales area in Brecon in the south and in Newtown in the north. We will have a 60-mile stretch of countryside without a single police cell in which to hold a potentially dangerous person, and the expense of solicitors travelling long distances to interview their clients. The people in that area in rural Wales are concerned that they are losing the security that they get from the police and the justice system, and that that process will accelerate if the proposal goes ahead.

I was present in the Welsh Grand Committee in which the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), proposed a federated system, for which it seems that support is growing. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has already mentioned the Tarian operation that involved Somerset and Avon, Gwent and South Wales, in co-operation with Dyfed-Powys. It showed how police authorities can and will work together when they are given the right encouragement. A lot of crime in mid-Wales is carried out by travelling criminals—not that we do not have our own criminals as well. People come into the area and they think that it is so sparsely populated that their nefarious activities may go undetected. However, there is good co-operation between West Mercia and Dyfed-Powys, between Merseyside, Cheshire and North Wales, and between Somerset and Avon and Gwent. It happens, and we should encourage it.

A number of questions still remain unanswered. The council tax situation has already been mentioned—the precept convergence, as it is called. In a written statement on 11 May, Edwina Hart, the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration, said:

Will the Minister provide an update on whether any progress has been made since then, and could he enlighten the council tax payers in north and south Wales on whether they will pay more or less council tax if the merger goes ahead? The level of uncertainty
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surrounding the cost of the merger is extraordinary, and is evidence of how badly thought through, and rushed, the policy is. The four chief constables told the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee of the National Assembly for Wales that by 2012, on current Government calculations, a single police force would have an annual deficit of £79 million. Different figures have been mentioned today, but it would be interesting for the Minister to tell us the most up-to-date one. Meeting the deficit that I have mentioned without additional Government funding would mean an extra £71 on the bill of the average band D council tax payer, or 1,800 fewer police officers on the streets. That is the scale of the financial black hole that some police forces and chief constables have predicted.

The Home Secretary announced last week that the merger process will be delayed, and that is welcome. However, he gave no detailed estimate of how long the delay would last, or what the new merger timetable would be. Will the Minister provide the Government’s revised timetable?

There is enormous public opposition to the measure. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have conducted street polls in Wrexham, Merthyr, Cardiff, Newport, Maesteg and Llandrindod, all of which have shown overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposals. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has described how the consultation process produced exactly the same results on the streets of towns and villages in Wales. Many people throughout Wales—myself included—think that the merger will harm community policing, reduce local accountability and leach resources from low-crime areas. In short, it could seriously jeopardise the security of our communities, particularly in rural areas, and the largely excellent records of our four forces.

We urge the Minister really to engage on the issue with the people of Wales, with the stakeholders, and with the public. We are determined—as I am sure he is, in his own mind—that the solution we reach should not be the quickest fix but the best system for ensuring that the resources for policing in Wales are used most effectively, that communities in Wales have a level playing field of policing, and that some areas are not left out altogether. I ask him to ensure that the process is complete and not partial, and that the people of Wales get the police service that they so justly deserve.

10.35 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I intend to be brief, because I want to give the Minister plenty of opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), whom I congratulate on securing this debate and on making the case against the way in which amalgamations have been proposed and against amalgamations in Wales themselves so effectively.

I want to outline the Opposition’s concerns about the process. I shall start by saying that we welcome the decision of the Home Secretary and the Minister to place a stay of execution on the wave 1 mergers, which would include the amalgamations in Wales. That seems to make sense. The speed of the proposals has been roundly criticised both in and out of this House. The chairman of the Cheshire police authority, Mr. Peter Nurse, described the timetable as “absurd”. Mr. Steve
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Thomas of the Welsh Local Government Association, giving evidence to the Welsh Assembly’s Social Justice Committee, described the consultation process as

As hon. Members have pointed out, the Welsh Affairs Committee criticised the speed with which the process had been conducted. It was always unrealistic to expect that amalgamated forces could be in being by April next year. A pause for thought will be welcomed throughout the country, particularly by the police authorities who were facing impossible challenges in seeking to meet such a deadline. Part of the problem has been not just the speed of the process, but the lack of proper consultation, both with police authorities themselves and with the public who have largely felt shut out and who have expressed considerable concern about amalgamations. I welcome the fact that the Minister is now engaging in talks with Members and with the police authorities concerned, and the constructive nature of those meetings.

My second concern is about the absence of local accountability that would feature in larger forces. The arguments have been put powerfully before, but plainly in a force covering 8,000 square miles and serving 3 million people there is a grave danger that the leadership of policing will be much more remote from the communities that chief officers are meant to respond to and serve. There is also the danger of a democratic deficit, in that the formal representation on police authorities will be considerably diluted if there is a police authority in Wales of 23 members but there are already 22 unitary authorities in Wales, all of which should be represented if they are to have a stake in it.

There is a plainly a serious issue about the extent to which local people have any formal input in the direction of policing in Wales. That has not been sufficiently answered by the claim that neighbourhood policing will be developed or that basic command unit commanders will be responsive to local concerns. BCU commanders are responsible for tactical decisions, not strategic ones. Those will be set by the police authority and the chief constable jointly with the Home Office, which is exercising increasing control in the matter. It is influence over those strategic decisions that the community wants, not just good public relations on the part of their local police commanders or good neighbourhood policing, which they want too.

The democratic deficit, the absence of local accountability as a result of creating these larger forces, is one of the most powerful reasons why the Government should rethink. Another powerful reason, and my third concern, is the cost. Concerns about that and about the potential impact on neighbourhood policing have been expressed from all sides. The Home Office’s own business case estimates that amalgamating the four forces will cost around £27 million, and any savings that will accrue—which are not quantified but are merely asserted—will take some years to come through.

There is the additional problem of precept equalisation, which could mean precepts rising by up to 15 per cent. in south Wales, for instance, according to the Association of Police Authorities. The Minister will doubtless have something to say about that.

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The report of the Government’s own strategy unit warned:

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