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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 18(1)(a) (Consideration of Draft Regulatory Reform Orders),


Sustainable Development

11.48 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I beg to present a petition signed by my constituents and also
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by many constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). The preamble reads:

The petition has been signed by elected representatives from all political parties in my area, by members of Buckinghamshire county council, Aylesbury Vale district council, Aylesbury town council, parish councillors from Wendover, Stoke Mandeville, Watermead, Waddesdon, Oving, Aston Clinton, Whitchurch and Weston Turville, as well as by citizens from those places and from Haddenham, Stone, Bierton and Weedon.

Their common concern is that the Government, who are imposing upon those communities ambitious plans for large-scale housing expansion, should accept their responsibility to plan for and finance the public services and the infrastructure needed to make those developments truly sustainable.

To lie upon the Table.

Post Offices

11.49 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I rise to present a petition to the House which has been signed by 4,272 constituents, including a number from across the river in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). The petition reflects my constituents’ concern about the threats to their post offices posed by the intended cancellation of the Post Office card account.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Police Force Amalgamations (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

11.51 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): We have been told that the two main drivers for the proposed reorganisation of police forces were the inability of smaller forces to deal with, first, terrorism and secondly, organised crime, but I venture to suggest that neither argument is sustainable.

I base my view on the fact that there are several avenues of good co-operation between Welsh forces and those over the border in West Mercia, Avon and Somerset, West Midlands, Cheshire and so on. We have been told that the size of those forces means that they cannot deal with the worst organised crime. I pray in aid the recent operation between South Wales police, Gwent police and the Avon and Somerset constabulary, which netted some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK, who were hell bent on bringing crack cocaine into south Wales, having already flooded the market in the Bristol area. They were heavily armed and very dangerous people. In large part, they are behind bars, which is directly because of the excellent understanding between the Avon and Somerset constabulary, Gwent police and South Wales police.

We are meant to rely on the Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary report, “Closing the Gap”. Many people have criticised that report, and I shall quote its author, Denis O’Connor:

He goes on,

In December 2005, Anthony Lawrance, professor of statistics at the university of Warwick, was commissioned by West Mercia police authority to scrutinise the report. He said that the HMIC report based its amalgamation recommendation on the crucial statistical finding that in level 2 crime policing, bigger equals better. He questions the reliability of the scoring method used for each force, the statistical soundness of the claimed connection between size and effectiveness, and HMIC’s misleading presentation of its data. He goes on to say that the conclusions are not sound and that the graphs were not properly drawn and were hardly representative of anything. He says that one graph was uninformative and meaningless—

That is a pretty damning critique of the report.

I pay tribute to the Minister, who is new in the job and comes to this with an open mind, which is to the good. There is excellent day-to-day co-operation between the south Wales forces and over the border.
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Dyfed Powys and West Mercia liaise frequently. From my experience of dealing with legal matters, I have seen daily liaison between the North Wales police, Cheshire and Merseyside.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I, too, have major concerns about an all-Wales force. Equally, however, does the hon. Gentleman accept that we should not lose sight of the fact that there must be considerable savings to be made? Four separate forces means four separate IT systems, four separate personnel systems and so on. That is surely madness, and a lot of the money saved could be returned to front-line services.

Mr. Llwyd: That is probably right, but the figures that we have received from the Home Office suggest start-up costs of anything between £35 million and £50 million, and given the deficits projected, for example, by North Wales police it would take a devil of a long time to recover any savings.

There is concern about the way in which the consultation was rushed through. That is not this Minister’s responsibility, and I do not allege that it is. Many of the crucial questions, including those of financing, have never been properly answered. There may now be a partial reprieve, perhaps because of the Cleveland case in the High Court or because the Minister has taken stock of the situation. I am sure that he recognises that there are substantial debates to be had on this subject.

Only a few months ago, HMIC gave all four Welsh forces a glowing report. They have 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 for semi-rural forces in England and Wales.

North Wales police have undertaken a consultation and received 90 letters from community councils in north Wales. They made different points but all were against any forced amalgamation. There has been an overwhelming response in the North Wales police area and in every other area—Gwent, South Wales and Dyfed Powys. I venture to suggest that those are important submissions that need to be taken on board.

Earlier this month, a submission was made by the clerk to the North Wales police authority. One of the points that he made was that the travelling distance between Holyhead and Cardiff is slightly longer than that between central London and Preston. That gives some idea of the likely problems that might occur. He also refers to the council tax equalisation problem and the likely capping criterion of 5 per cent., which would undoubtedly result in a black hole. He refers to future funding, the annual deficit of £29.9 million rising to just over £50 million in 2012 and the funding formula. The other week, an amendment was passed in another place that made agreement a precondition of amalgamation and provided that it should not be forced through.

I am sure that the Minister will deal with some of those points when he responds. However, I do not believe that any rigorous analysis has been carried out, especially of financing, which must be a crucial factor in policing nowadays. When senior police officers, police authorities and many people who know about
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policing in Wales speak with one voice, it is time to listen. I am sure that the Minister will take that on board.

I hope that the dialogue that takes place in the coming months will not be one-sided—I appreciate that that may be a misnomer. However, there is genuine concern that there should be proper dialogue about the matter. Nigel Thomas, the treasurer of North Wales police, has referred to the recurring deficit of £51 million. I understand that the Home Office had earmarked £120 million towards the merger plans, but that leaves a shortfall of hundreds of millions of pounds in creating the regime that the Home Office tried to impose. The North Wales share of that would go a long way towards achieving the necessary improvements in protective services.

Everybody realises that policing changes as time passes because crime changes. Crime is becoming far more difficult to detect, criminals are becoming more adept at IT and so on. That is beyond argument. However, the arguments for an all-Wales police force have not been persuasive from the beginning.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Is it not strange that the motivation for reorganisation that the Government present is to do with operational matters—a response perhaps to triple murders in Holyhead or terrorist outrages—but that the arguments of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) were essentially financial? They have some force, but they are not the arguments that the Government present.

Mr. Llwyd: Yes. The other disappointing point is that the National Assembly for Wales was not brought into the debate, although it contributes £144 million per annum to the Welsh policing budget.

Last week, on the day that the Minister announced the Government’s latest position in Millbank tower, I raised a point of order to suggest that it might be better to make that statement in the House. That is the reason for the debate. The Home Secretary responded by saying that there was no policy change but that police authorities would no longer be forced to merge. If only two of the 41 current police authorities have volunteered to amalgamate, how is it possible to proceed with wholesale amalgamation in the face of such relentless opposition? The announcement amounts to a policy change.

I ask the Minister to tackle one or two points in his response. Doubtless he will confirm whether forced amalgamations have been ditched. If the planned mergers have not been shelved, where are we on the “destination” to which the Home Secretary refers so often? We deserve to know.

A huge amount of time, energy and cost has been expended in Wales on trying to make sense of the merger. It was made far more expensive by the fact that all the authorities remained largely in the dark about cost, council tax precepts, set-up costs, revenue and continuing costs. Those fundamental matters had to be guessed. That is no way to run a modern police force.

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I welcome the statement that there will be no forced mergers, if indeed that was the purport of the statement. Forced mergers could end up being the worst possible option—a shotgun marriage, to use an old and rather outmoded term. If the Minister cannot confirm that forced mergers are a dead duck, can he confirm that the Home Office will have a completely open mind on the issues of federation? I would not like this matter to arise again in 12 months’ time. The four authorities are working hard to produce a plan for federation, and it must not be dismissed out of hand.

Will the Minister deal with those points in his response? First, can he confirm that forced amalgamations are no longer the destination referred to by the Home Secretary? Secondly, if there is to be further change on a voluntary basis, will the Home Office keep an open mind on the question of plans for federation? Those are the points that I wanted to raise this evening, and I am sure that the Minister will deal with them.

12.5 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing this debate. I shall deal with each of the points that he has raised in his usual eloquent fashion, but I have to tell him that he is a bit behind the times, given the journey that we have travelled over the past couple of weeks. I shall return to that point later.

When my private office received the joyous news last Thursday that the hon. Gentleman had secured this debate, I was not in Westminster. I was in Cardiff, meeting the chairs of the four Welsh police authorities, members of the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee of the Welsh Assembly and members of the Welsh Local Government Association, precisely to talk about the future of policing in Wales, given that restructuring was not on the agenda. Sadly, following on from those meetings, the only matter of substance that Plaid Cymru could come up with involved a member of its committee suggesting that there had been chaos because the meeting with the committee had been on, then off, then on, then off again. That member made a rather petty and petulant point that was neither here nor there in relation to the serious issue of policing in Wales.

Before that, I had met the chief constables of the four Welsh police forces and the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration in the Welsh Assembly to talk about these matters. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a debate on this matter was initiated recently by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). I also gave oral evidence on this matter for the best part of an hour to the Welsh Affairs Committee. I have also liaised closely with the Secretary of State for Wales and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the issue. Welsh interests have therefore been uppermost in my mind in recent weeks. I have also met the Welsh group of Labour MPs and had a range of meetings—individual and otherwise—with Labour MPs from north Wales. I have been in my present post for only six weeks, but I have not had any requests for a meeting with members of Plaid Cymru.

Mr. Llwyd: The Minister seems to be finding opportunities to make political points, despite the fact
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that I went out of my way to say that the way in which he was dealing with this matter was not unreasonable. I am just asking for clarity. I spoke earlier to right hon. and hon. Members of his own party, who, like me, are in the dark as to what is going on. I am simply asking for clarification.

Mr. McNulty: That is what I am seeking to give the House, but it was important for me to put the context on record. I had very fruitful meetings with each of those bodies last week, and I shall tell the House precisely what I said to them in a moment.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening statement—in which he prayed in aid a statistician—that the essence of “Closing the Gap” in regard to the difficulties that we face, principally outside London throughout England and Wales, in terms of level 2 services, counter-terrorism provision and serious and organised crime, is somehow traduced by a statistician trying to demolish the substance of O’Connor’s report. Almost to a man and a woman, those with whom I have engaged on this matter, regardless of their position on mergers, accept as the starting premise that there are serious gaps at level 2, in counter-terrorism provision, which must be filled.

I turn briefly to the hon. Gentleman’s point about my speech to the Local Government Association at Millbank. It was not a change in policy. It could not have been a change in policy given that some two weeks beforehand my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had made it very clear to the House that we were not going to lay the orders for enforced mergers as outlined in the timetable, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, had Wales in the first tier. My right hon. Friend said on 19 June:

That was our position then, and it remains so. Enforced mergers are not on the cards, and we will not, as my right hon. Friend indicated, be laying those orders. Indeed, as a natural consequence of that announcement during Home Office questions, the notices of intention to lay orders to merge that were issued to the four Welsh police authorities and forces on 3 March were withdrawn on 13 July. That is a legal technicality, but those orders, on that timetable, are no longer on the agenda.

That has nothing to do with Cleveland and nothing to do with any amendment passed in the House of Lords. It is simply a sign of a reflective, listening Government who have taken into account objections. Any number of forces, in England as well as in Wales, have said, “Yes, we agree with the starting premise on level 2 protective services, but we think that there are other ways to achieve those ends.” In response, we have afforded police authorities and forces the time to establish whether they can achieve those ends.

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