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So why is there a need for more open-ended powers? I do not think that that case has been made.

Mr. McNulty: For the same reason as the 1994 powers were on the statute book but never used. They will be a method of intervention of last resort. I do not know, and neither does the hon. Gentleman or anyone else in the House, in precisely what circumstances—perverse or otherwise—a force or authority might go off the rails and resist an attempt to give it help, assurance or support. Any responsible Government would have these powers of last resort on the statute book.

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the words “last resort”, even though they are still not in the Bill. It is curious that he is saying that the Government have had these powers for five years and have not had to use them, yet they now feel that they will need greater powers over the next 10 or 15
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years, or even indefinitely. They still cannot persuade anyone that they might have to use them, or give a single example of where they feel that the existing powers have proved inadequate over the past five years.

Mr. McNulty: This is purely contingency planning by statute. Every statute in this area, and in many others, is littered with such powers, which are never used because whatever the Government of the day seek to do—short of using those powers—usually works, using exhortation or motivation, for example. I would also ask the hon. Gentleman not to misquote me. I made it very clear that we have had powers on the statute book for 12 years—and, happily, never had to use them—and not just since 2002.

Nick Herbert: I certainly do not want to misquote the Minister. I was quoting the Minister in the other place, who referred to five years. Now, however, it appears that the existing powers have not been used for 12 years. This is quite bizarre, and the more I hear about this power, the more I become convinced that it is unnecessary for the Government to take it, and the more I distrust them for seeking to do so. The Government’s métier has been to accrue power to the centre and to direct public services from the centre. We are particularly worried that that is what they are now attempting to do in relation to the police. They attempted to do it in relation to the proposed amalgamations, and they are now attempting to do it again.

The history of attempted interventions in the affairs of police forces has not been an entirely happy one for the Government. In February 2002, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), warned the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, that unless the Metropolitan police cut violent street crime levels within six months, he would send in his own management hit squad. Presumably, he intended to machine-gun recalcitrant officers in Scotland Yard. In June 2004, the then Home Secretary took on Humberside police authority and eventually succeeded in having the chief constable, David Westwood, sacked, against the wishes of the authority. In the new diaries of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, which I am sure the Minister has read, he says:

We are worried that there is a danger of politicising policing. There is a fundamental difference in perspective between our approach and the Government’s proposals. To whom should police forces ultimately be accountable? We believe that accountability should be primarily to the local community, and that policing should respond to the wishes and demands of local people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) pointed out earlier. The Government, by contrast, have a mantra of double devolution, but will not let go of the strings and, in this case, are attempting to tighten their grip on policing. Our primary concern about the powers is the danger of central political direction leading to politicisation of policing. In 2002, the then Metropolitan Police
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Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, responding to the then Home Secretary and his threat to intervene in the force, said that

In spite of the Government’s concessions, we still believe that the provision transfers too much power to the Home Secretary and upsets the balance that should exist between local people, a police force and Government. For that reason, we will support the Lords amendment.

Lynne Featherstone: It will come as no surprise that the Liberal Democrats will seek to retain both Lords amendments.

First, the extremely hostile reaction by police forces and local people up and down the land to the Government’s impossibly bullying and prescriptive—not to mention rushed and expensive—merger proposals was hardly surprising. The reaction was compelling, because it was a challenge not just to the future shape of our police forces but to the improper haste of the proposal, the consultation process, the cost and the consequences. In addition, the proposal to merge police forces threatened a double whammy for local communities. Undoubtedly, people recognised that they would be expected to fork out more council tax for the funding gap and for harmonisation between different councils, while having less of a say as to how their police force was run.

All hon. Members understood that there was a need to address gaps in the service, particularly with regard to level 2 crime, and recognised that smaller forces sometimes struggle with complex cases. Forcing a construct on them, however, was not the answer. The not so subtle carrot of the Government bribe—a share in the £125 million on offer for the good boys who volunteered to merge—was somewhat distasteful. The Government say that they are in favour of neighbourhood policing and local accountability. We support them in that. They say that they want a police service that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. We support them in that. Those are both laudable objectives. But then the Government’s merger proposals zoomed off in a direction that would not deliver those objectives.

The insistence that police forces should merge even where local opinion was firmly against that, where the results could have been damaging for effective policing, and when the Government had not given any alternatives an opportunity to be debated let alone trialled, resulted in forces that did not want to merge in the way prescribed by the Government, and some rebelled to the point of legal action. I welcome the move to discussing outcomes rather than structures, which I have always felt was a more productive approach, and the Lords amendment cleverly puts the decision to merge or reconfigure police forces back into the hands of police authorities. As the royal commission took two years to produce a report and legislation took a further year, I also welcome the Minister’s statement that he is open to all suggestions and will take his time to talk to people about the future.

The downfall of the Government’s proposals resulted from a previously cavalier approach to change.
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Merger is a serious business; any change in structure is. The eye is taken off the ball for many months as energies are put into change rather than front-line services. Mergers are more often unsuccessful than successful in the business world, and are not a panacea to paper over cracks. Targeted responses are more appropriate.

Research has shown unequivocally that about 80 per cent. of all mergers in the private sector either fail completely or perform worse than the previous individual organisations. One of the main negative consequences is that even if we get the merger right we create winners and losers, and while that dip in morale takes place, productivity declines. Even in the best of mergers, one can expect a minimum of 18 months to pass before efficiencies are recovered. If such a dramatic change is to be successful, buy-in is necessary from all stakeholders—local people, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, police officers, staff and local authorities. Otherwise, structural change has not a flying cat’s chance—

Mr. Walker: A cat’s chance in hell.

Lynne Featherstone: Thank you.

Another lunacy is that the Home Secretary would have imposed mergers disabling many police forces for a substantial period at a critical time in this country’s security.

7.45 pm

Mr. McNulty: Can the hon. Lady tell me precisely which police forces were disabled as she suggests, and how she knows that?

Lynne Featherstone: If the Minister will forgive me, I did not say that forces had been disabled, but that there was the potential for them to be disabled if the merger had gone forward.

If we want joined-up police forces, we must make them into partners, good neighbours and allies, by sharing information and best practice, and perhaps by restructuring commissioning of any gaps in service. In private industry, restructuring is the last resort—a phrase that will be bandied around this evening—but in government, apparently, it is the first. Ultimatums, threats, bullying and bribes do not demonstrate confidence in the dynamic of a good idea or a natural imperative. If we have to force something, we are not likely to get the results that we seek.

The Government have clung to the “Closing the Gap” report as the answer to everything, and yet that report has been pulled apart by academics. The Government rejected all the alternative proposals for a federated model put forward by police and police authorities. I am grateful that the Minister has now said that he is willing to consider those. I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that one is left suspicious of the motive behind the Government’s conversion. Their attempt to steamroller though the merger, and their deafness to alternatives, made me consider whether they wanted to move towards a national police force, or perhaps more control with less trouble—12 chief constables being less trouble than 43.

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Efficiency savings and economies of scale can be achieved in many ways. I have no doubt that several police forces would have been considering sharing back-office and payroll functions anyway, as the continual need to find savings sharpens minds as to the benefits of collaboration. Where there is to be merger, it should be voluntary and decided by the local police force in consultation with partners, and local people should be involved. It should be clear to local people what the costs are and who will be paying for them, and that information should be published.

Unless we receive assurances on the five tests that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs put forward, we cannot agree with the Government’s motion to disagree with the Lords amendment. We will oppose it. Whether we move forward in a more constructive fashion, with the element of compulsion thus reduced, is therefore in the Minister’s hands.

Mr. Walker: I am grateful for this opportunity— [Interruption.] I am sorry. Was the hon. Lady giving way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was giving way, but I suspect that she would like to add a little.

Lynne Featherstone: I am grateful, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for sitting down too soon.

Lords amendment No. 71 concerns intervention in a failing police force. When a police force is failing, people will indeed want to be protected by Government intervention to ensure that they are safe and have a police force that delivers. There is no dispute about that. However, although the Government talk of localism and local policing, the Bill proposes to centralise power in the hands of the Home Secretary by empowering him to intervene directly in any police force that he believes is failing, or—even more scarily—any police force that he believes may fail in the future.

The critical issue for us is the lack of objective criteria by which such a power would be invoked. I acknowledge that the Minister has made some moves, but there is no actual commitment or specific detail. Gone is the need for a negative report cataloguing and evidencing failure, although there has been a marginal concession in that consultation, or the opinions of the inspectorate, will be published. The Government have gone a little way towards limiting the powers. The changes mean that an authority must be failing before the Home Secretary can intervene, or the authority must first request an intervention. However, the new relationship will change the tripartite balance and, given the constitutional implications, I do not think that the Minister’s offer goes far enough to provide adequate safeguards.

The Home Secretary will direct the chief officer and/or the police authority to undertake specific measures to correct and address any failure that he perceives. That power goes beyond anything we have seen to date, and despite assurances in Committee that it would be used solely as a “last resort”—that appeared only in the explanatory notes—or when forces were failing, the Bill still contains no explanation or definition of “last resort” or “failing”.

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Not only can the Home Secretary intervene if he believes that a force is failing but, as I have said, he can intervene if he believes that it may fail. The Home Secretary may be very talented in many ways, but I do not think that he is a clairvoyant. I do not understand how he can predict whether a force will fail. According to what criteria will that prediction be made?

The Liberal Democrats entirely support the idea of the police and police authorities being able to request help, but although the Government have moved somewhat and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary will now have some involvement, the Government have not said how, why or to what degree. The definition of that safeguard is far too unspecific, and the Government have given no commitments other than their commitment to publish the inspectorate’s opinions.

Without independent scrutiny and examination, and without the oversight of a specialist agency making an assessment and a judgment, the way is still open for inappropriate intervention. The only rationale for such intervention—its sole basis—must be proper assessments of the performance and operational ability of a force. We are told that the triggers for intervention will be broadened because the Home Secretary will be able to look at national performance assessments of police forces, or ask the new chief inspector of inspectorates for an opinion. I hope that that would happen in any case, but I am not reassured that it is in itself a safeguard.

No one is saying that the Government do not have a duty to intervene when things are going wrong. What we want is a definition of “going wrong”. We must have objective criteria in the Bill so that we can judge what “wrong” is, and there must be a genuine and evidential base for intervention. There is a danger that the Home Secretary will find himself micro-managing the police. It would be better to ensure that intervention occurs only when a force itself asks for help, or when a force is measurably and irrefutably failing to meet its performance and operational standards.

It is a great shame that the Government appear to have so little faith in the professionalism of the police, police authorities, inspectorates and chief officers. Unless and until we can be completely assured that objective criteria will be used to evaluate “failure”, and unless and until we have a definitive and measurable quantum for what constitutes “last resort”, we still cannot support measures that would compromise the operational independence of our police forces.

Mr. Walker: I fear that the House may have already heard the best of my speech, but I shall plough on regardless.

It is a great privilege to speak in the debate, not least because I have the almost undivided attention of the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, which I am delighted to have. I have not had a chance to look at the performance table—not the league table—and establish where Hertfordshire resides in it, but I am sure that Hertfordshire is doing an excellent job. I regularly meet our chief constable and chief superintendent, and I know they are very much committed to the safety of my constituents. They could
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do with more resources, but I have yet to meet a public servant who does not demand more resources, and they are managing very well with what they have.

The debate has raised the vexed question of accountability versus independence. In principle I very much like the idea of an independent Hertfordshire police force, free to make its own decisions and pursue local objectives and concerns. However, I also understand the Government’s wish for a level of accountability. I think that if a police force is clearly failing, there is good reason for some form of intervention to address that failure if the police authority is struggling.

Two contradictory forces pull me in different directions. In Hertfordshire there is a drive for local accountability; meanwhile, understandably, the Government and the Home Secretary seek to ensure that most police forces deliver to a uniformly excellent standard throughout the country. The Government clearly need to be protected from persistent failure. I am delighted that since 1994 the Home Office has not felt the need to intervene in the running of a police force, and I hope that that continues for a long time, but I am sure that if a reason for intervention arose in the future, we who are here in the Chamber—and those in the many House of Commons bars and restaurants—would like to know the basis on which the Home Office and the Secretary of State would intervene. I do not consider that concern unreasonable, and I am sure that the Minister will take it into account.

The merger of police forces created a great deal of angst in Hertfordshire, as it did in many counties and constabularies. My constituents feared that mergers would cause forces to focus on issues that were not of local concern. Like many of my constituents, I watch police programmes in which, accurately or inaccurately—I know that it is fiction—we see many policemen making their careers by chasing international criminal masterminds, pulling down Mr. Big, securing an audience with the Prime Minister and having well-deserved medals pinned on their chests. However, although it is important, international crime does not keep my constituents awake at night. What keeps them awake at night is the fear of low-level thuggery and persistent antisocial behaviour. Let me add, at the risk of sounding repetitive, that they feared that a more “global” police force would view issues on a global rather than a local basis.

That is not to say that the people of Hertfordshire would turn their backs indefinitely on future police mergers if a good case could be made, but I hope that if the circumstance arose there would be full and proper local consultation: not a three-month consultation, but a consultation allowing a period of reflection and consideration, allowing the Home Secretary and his Ministers to devise a cogent argument and allowing us, the elected representatives of Hertfordshire and the local people, to respond.

I hope that as the Bill proceeds, the Minister will keep in mind the need for accountability. It is required at all levels, and I know it will ensure that the people of Hertfordshire sleep more soundly tonight and in the future.

Mr. McNulty: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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