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27 Jun 2006 : Column 19WH—continued

That warning should have been heeded better, and if he has not already done so I urge the Minister to read the report by Tim Brain, the head of the finance division of the Association of Chief Police Officers, whom I believe he has met. The Home Secretary said that he had not read the report, but it transpires that he has discussed it with the president of ACPO. I make the point seriously and constructively that the Minister should read the report, which points out that in three years’ time, against the background of frozen Home Office budgets, the effect of amalgamations on finance that will already be in short supply will result in serious funding shortfalls for the police, equivalent to 25,000 police officers. In Wales that would amount to 1,350 officers. The fear expressed in the report and shared by police authorities, chief constables and members of the public, not least in Wales, is that the costs that will have to be met directly from existing police budgets against a background of tight finances will mean cuts in neighbourhood policing. Does the Minister think that the figures given in that serious report by ACPO’s head of finance are correct? What proposals does he have to deal with the matter?

There is a stark contrast between the past few years—funding for police and community safety has increased by about 75 per cent. in real terms since 1997—and the situation at which we will arrive in 2007, when Home Office budgets are frozen. The contribution that £500 million of costs will make to that problem could be severe.

My fourth concern is that the Government have been reticent in considering alternatives. I hope that in the round of discussions that the Minister is having, he will be more open-minded about the alternative proposed by the APA that the Prime Minister himself seemed to endorse. That is the option of police authorities sharing services, which could yield savings that could be reinvested in protective services much more quickly than could any money through amalgamation, while preserving the local accountability that is so valuable.

The Home Secretary seems to be indicating that strategic forces are still the route that he wishes to take, albeit more slowly. I urge the Minister to consider not strategic forces but strategic capability: how it is possible to organise forces together more sensibly to close the gap, which we all agree must be done. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that there is no dispute that there is a gap in protective services that will require closing. The question is how that can sensibly be done.

I emphasise the importance of public consent in the process. The last time decisions of an equivalent scale were taken, back in the 1960s, there was a royal commission and full public discussion, and the process took a number of years. ACPO and the APA have expressed alarm about the general direction of policy as expressed in the Police and Justice Bill and shown by the increasing centralisation of policing. They make the point:

Against a background of such increasing central control, developments such as the national policing plan, and the proposal, not yet formally announced in the House, to create a national policing board with the Home Secretary as chairman, concerns about the loss of local independence and accountability are particularly amplified. The Government should have pursued a different agenda, and I hope that the Home Secretary and the Minister will now pursue it. It is one of police reform, of ensuring that the police service is equipped to meet the challenges against the background of much tighter finance in the future, of work force modernisation, of driving forward the process of neighbourhood policing and of meeting the public demand for a visible police presence on the streets. Amalgamations will threaten that agenda and not meet public demand. That is why we have such concerns about amalgamations. I hope that the Minister responds constructively to all the points raised today.

10.45 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I join those who congratulated the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate. I cast no aspersions on hon. Members because of the lack of attendance at the debate, not least because, as has been said, the Committee considering the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill is sitting at the same time. Apparently, there are some minor attractions down in Blaenau Gwent, which will also have taken away some of our Welsh colleagues. I do not come to the room and think, “Phew, there are only four hon. Members present; the subject of the debate cannot be much of an issue.” I do not take that view at all. I know that policing in Wales remains a very serious issue.

I also join those who congratulated the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire on the way he introduced the debate. I shall come later to the substance of the debate. According to my minor bits of research, the hon. Gentleman is clearly a born optimist. Apparently, he joined the Conservative party in 1997, which is almost a definition of optimism. He then became an officer in the Southwark and Bermondsey Conservative association. That is not, by any means, an area where there are rich pickings for Conservatives, so I am glad to see him in his place now as a Welsh Tory. Being a Welsh Tory is still, happily, a minority pursuit. I had to ask a colleague how many there were. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was on his own, but apparently there are three of them, which I am sure makes for good company.

Nick Herbert: Soon there will be more.

Mr. McNulty: Perhaps, but with the greatest respect I do not suspect that that will be the case after Thursday.

I commend the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire on the non-partisan way in which he introduced the debate. In making that point, I join the hon. Member
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for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who, having made it, went on to make some rather foolish partisan points, which detracted from our debate, about Blaenau Gwent and about the supposed incompetence of the Home Office.

It is clear to me—the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) finished his remarks with this point—that there is a serious and detailed debate to be had. I do not think that I will pre-empt where we are going if I say that my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary remains that the destination should be a strategic force. That is not to throw it down people’s throats, but it is our view. We have delayed things deliberately, in part because of the level of disquiet, but also because a range of issues remain to be answered fairly and because we want what I think everyone wants in the end—to render to Wales the policing and police force that it requires for the 21st century.

I am pleased that most if not all colleagues have not challenged the notion that there are serious gaps at level 2. We are really talking about how they should be filled. It should not be inferred that somehow we are moving to an all-Wales strategic force and then the border will go up, preventing any co-operation between that force and its English counterparts on the other side. To suggest that is rather foolish. I commend the progress, as outlined by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, by all four forces and their co-operation not only with one another and with immediate border forces but, on specific issues, beyond that.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said at the start that this was an important matter, and I agree. He said also, which may be a reasonable criticism of where we have been for the past couple of months, that a proper, detailed and mature debate on policing in Wales for the 21st century should not get lost in administrative and bureaucratic arrangements. We should not be locked into existing arrangements for the sake of it—I cannot remember who said it, but someone said that only a fool would be wedded to those arrangements if they could see that they were not the main way forward. However, in our concerns about moving towards a strategic force, we have lost sight of the debate, the narrative and the argument on the relationship between neighbourhood policing, basic command units, strategic policing and how those elements serve our communities in Wales, as elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman also agreed that there were a number of theoretical benefits. He was not opposed in principle and said that there was no credit in wedding oneself to certain structures, regardless of reality, and I agree. We have moved on. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said during Home Office questions that he would no longer be seeking to lay any Home Secretary-initiated amalgamation orders before Parliament before the summer recess. He also made it clear that we are still seeking to secure the voluntary merger between Lancashire and Cumbria constabularies, although that has not-dissimilar attendant issues that we are trying to deal with.

One minor point: Lancashire and Cumbria were the only two forces that voluntarily declared that they would merge with each other. It is not accurate to say that they were the only two forces that agreed to a voluntary merger—a pedantic point, but that claim is
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simply not true. For some of the others, three of the four forces in an area wanted to merge voluntarily but the fourth did not, whereas in another area two forces wanted to merge but the third did not. It is therefore not true to say that Lancashire and Cumbria were the only two forces in the country that sought voluntary merger.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his announcement because, in the few weeks that he and I have been in our new posts, we have been engaging with stakeholders and listening to concerns. As with the tone of this debate, time and time again people have said that, whatever the respective merits, there should be discussion about alternatives and more time in which to have those discussions, and we have responded to that.

If I may make a picky little comment about some of the remarks that we have heard today—rather like what my right hon. Friend said to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—it is that half the speeches were written as though last Monday’s announcement did not happen. However, I forgive people for that; they have their points to make and that is entirely fair.

The effect of the announcement is to extend the period for objection, thereby allowing us to work closely with the wider community on developing answers to some of the issues. If we are to have a proper and honest process, I cannot give a definitive response about what that will do to the time scale, because that would pre-empt all that we are seeking to do with that engagement. However, let me say in passing that, as I understand it, if whatever we end up with for each area is significantly different—that is an important phrase—from where we are now, there will have to be a new period of objection, consultation and all those assorted elements.

So I can say, with a degree of confidence, that the process is not about either kicking the proposal into the long grass for ever—“Closing the Gap” remains terribly important to level 2 services and other elements—or some sort of flim-flam to get ourselves out of a hole until September or October and then doing exactly what we said we were going to do now. I assure hon. Members that neither scenario is the reality that will prevail, but there is a lot of distance between those two points and that is why I want serious discussion .

I want those who suggest that a federated model might work in Wales to tell me, in substance and detail, how they think it will work. I want people whose main objection has been to the timetable to tell me what would be a better timetable for Wales. I freely admit that more work remains to be done—although most of it was laid out in the business case, save for the point about protected services. More work needs to be done on finance, council tax precepts and all the other elements. I freely admit that, but that is the work that we are seeking to engage in now.

I have already met the four Welsh chief constables and the relevant Minister from the Welsh Assembly to discuss those points. I have also met a group of north Wales Labour MPs—I was going to say “north London”, so apologies for being metro-centric—and I extend the invitation to come and talk to me about the issue in detail to the Liberals, Plaid Cymru and the Tories. As was said, the Front-Bench spokespeople are going to see the Home Secretary to discuss the issue,
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and I am more than happy to pursue that. I will have the pleasure, I hope, of appearing before the Welsh Affairs Committee on 4 July to discuss my relative independence, rather than that of the Americans. That is as it should be, because the Committee has done good work on the matter.

On 13 July, I am going to Cardiff to meet the four police authority chairs, whom I have not yet met. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), and our friend the Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government will accompany me, and that it will be more successful and productive than my last visit to Cardiff, which was entirely enjoyable until we lost on penalties and Gerrard scored that fantastic goal just as I was dozing off, waiting for the celebrations and for West Ham to lift the cup. None the less, it was an enjoyable day out. Because I popped in and out, I did not see all the glory of the development around Cardiff bay. I hope to see it, at least in passing, when I return.

We are serious about engagement and about the future of Wales. Let me scotch another conspiracy theory. It is not the case that the all-Wales force is the only thing on the agenda because we want in the end to devolve all policing matters to the Welsh Assembly Government. Policing is and should remain a national, UK matter, and as far as I know, it will do so for the foreseeable future. Of course we must engage with the Welsh Assembly Government—as hon. Members have suggested, they have a locus and a stake in the matter—but this is not some elaborate ruse to devolve all such matters to them in the end, and they know that.

We must give more consideration to how the national dimension—the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned a national policing board—the strategic dimension of every part of the country, the basic command unit areas and the neighbourhood policing areas interact and relate to each other in terms of governance and accountability. Those points are entirely fair, and I am not a million miles away from what the hon. Gentleman said about work force modernisation, police reform and all the other elements that should perhaps be bundled up together.

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The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire made three fair points about the questions that need to be answered. Is this destination the right one, or are there alternatives? I feel passionately that it is the right direction. There is time and scope to consider that now. He is right about not using it as a breathing space or a hiatus in which we do not think about the matter but hope that it goes away.

We need to engage properly. If there are alternatives, we should talk about them. The destination may well be the right one in the end, but to link to the hon. Gentleman’s next point about the pace of reform, some kind of confederation on the way to a potential all-Wales force may be the way to go. I simply do not know, and everyone here gets nervous when people start speculating what the direction might be.

Is the destination the right one? That is an entirely fair point that we need to address now. The pace of reform is also a fair point. Another question is whether the merger will have consequences for policing in Wales which we have not thought through. That was an allusion to financing, policing and governance. There is also the point about council tax precept equalisation. All those points made by the hon. Gentleman were fair. Whether in the Welsh context or the wider context, we must consider them in some detail. However, I do not accept the point—it cannot be right—that all this is about is eradicating all the advances that have been made in policing in Wales and elsewhere at other levels.

The strategic policing model that we are discussing, rather than undermining neighbourhood policing, will root it far more readily in communities. We will not have, as people know that we do now, abstraction any time there is a major incident or issues that go wider that the locality, when people lose their community policing focus.

Everyone agrees that community policing and neighbourhood policing are the right way to go and should be our focus. We have found that in our campaign in Blaenau Gwent, and I am sure that, if they were honest, others would say that they find that too. We are not creating strategic police forces to destroy interaction between police and their local communities. Such interaction must be central to all that we seek to do in 21st-century policing in Wales and everywhere else. I repeat that I am serious about discussing such things in detail. Now that we have the time and space, let us talk.

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Drought Order (London)

11 am

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I demonstrated my credentials just before the debate when I turned off a fast-flowing leaky tap in the gents just down the corridor.

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on the drought order for London. I oppose that order being granted, and the debate gives me the opportunity to explain why. The reason is Thames Water’s poor record of stopping leaks in London and its intention to have a drought order imposed. I was angry that despite the wettest May on record, during which time a hosepipe ban was in place, just days into June Thames Water said that it would apply for a draconian drought order. Such an order would let it restrict water use as it sees fit. At its very worst, residents could be limited to standpipes for their supply. I can see the restrictions starting in August when Parliament is not sitting, so that the matter cannot be raised then, and so I wrote to the Leader of the House demanding a debate ahead of any decision on the drought order. I also wrote to Mr. Speaker, who allowed me this hour-and-a-half debate. I am grateful to him.

Thames Water is a privatised monopoly. It has been allowed by the regulator to put up its prices by 24 per cent. on top of inflation, a rise that was supposed to take place between 2005 and 2010. Thames took the opportunity to do that nearly all at once, with a 21 per cent. price rise last year and another 4.3 per cent. rise from April. Its profits have soared, up 31 per cent. to £346 million last year. A £270 million dividend went to its German parent company RWE, which has taken £1 billion in dividends out of Thames Water in its five and a half years of ownership. The Evening Standard reports that RWE’s five-man board got £24 million remuneration last year, with them and other top executives also making multi-million pound share killings.

RWE bought Thames Water for £4.5 billion five and a half years ago and is looking to sell it for £8 billion, a tidy bit of speculation if it comes off. Despite those riches sloshing around, it failed to stop 894 million litres of water a day leaking from Thames Water’s pipes. That is enough to fill 350 Olympic-size swimming pools every day. Thames Water has failed to meet the target level for leaks set for it by the water regulator for five years running, and despite the targets set last year for leak losses being far too great at 860 million litres a day, Thames Water leaked 894 million litres. To put that into perspective, 2.8 million homes could be supplied by the leaked amount.

Thames Water wrote to MPs on 6 June and had the cheek to say:

Quite frankly, that is a fib. Ofwat’s chairman, Philip Fletcher, talking about leaks in The Mail on Sunday on 18 June, said:

Ofwat also said that

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That is an incredibly serious statement, and I do not believe that the Minister can ignore that warning. Ofwat also said:

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