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We have had a reasonable and reflective debate, rightly looking at some of the contextual issues around mergers in the summer. I do not deprecate thatit is perfectly reasonable in that context. It seems rather strange that I have prayed in aid the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has prayed in aid my right hon. Friend the Prime Ministerand long may that continue in one way or another. I take seriously the points raised and also some of the offers suggesting what I need to do to resist a vote, at least on the first set of amendments. First, though, I shall look at the general context of the points raised by hon. Members.
I commend the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for his honesty. He saidand I think that it would resonate with all of usthat his local constituents could not care less about protective services and level 2 crime. I accept that and it is part of our difficultymine as Minister with responsibility for policing, hon. Members as responsible MPs, and the police forces. The only time they have concerns about level 2 provision is when it is needed but is not there. Beyond that, their immediate concern is volume crime, neighbourhood policing and whether local police are visible and accountable, as they should be, on our streets. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his honesty, and it goes to the heart of the debatea debate that we are not planning to have in the near future, but one that I have had since I assumed this role last May, at the tail end of the mergers debate. I have certainly tried to deal with those matters since July when the mergers fell awayor whatever description people want to use. We then got into serious discussions about wither public protective services, if not through the mergers route. It is one of the dilemmas that we face.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): On level 2 protective services, does the Minister agree that one of the benefits of closing the gap was raising the focus within all constabularies on the need to provide such services? One of the perverse benefits of the decision not to proceed with mergers was that many forcesmy own of West Mercia includedhave gone a long way towards addressing the perceived shortfalls in providing those services and are now, of their own volition, putting in even greater resources in order to meet those shortcomings.
Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says, although if I were pedantic I might dispute the notion of it being perverse. Some hon. Members have suggested today that all the effort put into the discussions over mergers were a complete distraction, a complete waste of time and got in the way of seriously trying to address the problems raised by OConnor, among others. I am with the hon. Gentleman, however. If we leave perversity to one side, most forces seriously engaged with those discussions during the merger process and since its demise.
I have also said to many forces that, perhaps because of a shorthandthe speed of it allmuch of the merger debate was carried out on the premise that such
collaborations and discussions had not happened beforehand. There had not been enough, but there certainly had been some, so there was no total vacuum in respect of discussions, collaborations or actions.
Mr. Heath: The Minister is absolutely right that collaborations and discussions did happen. It seems to me that what has emerged from the merger process is a realisation of how multi-dimensional these relationships have to be. If we take the example of my own force, Avon and Somerset, it was looking into collaborating not just with other police forces, but with other local government agencies and even the private sector in respect of the provision of some back-room services. The Avon and Somerset force was looking to collaborate with neighbouring forces on some provisions, not just within the region but, for example, with those in proximity such as Gwent across the Bristol channel, which is part of the same crime pattern area, and also with West Midlands, Merseyside and other forces that have the same sort of crime problems and are facing the same enemy and need to co-operate.
Mr. McNulty: Much of that work is at least under way, if not developed, in some parts of the country. Avon and Somerset force is developing a very interesting model that does not go the strategic or operational service level, but to back-office services, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It is looking across the public sector to secure some degree of rationalisation. That makes perfect sense, whether it be about pay, human resourcesperhaps not IT, which goes to the operational sector of policingand generic business, back-office functions. Why should the local health authority, the local council and local police forces have different and distinct systems with all the incumbent directives? Avon and Somerset will be first, and part of the model of investigation may be broadened out to the public sector across the south-west region. I commend that as it is worth pursuing. I take the hon. Gentlemans point about the other dimensions, both operational and strategic.
Mrs. Lait: Moving on slightly from that point, does the Minister accept that the mergers discussion postponed precisely the sort of [Interruption.] I do not wish to disagree with the Minister while he is still sitting, but I have to declare an interest here as my husband is the chairman of the Sussex police authority, so I am aware that before the mergers debates started the sort of process mentioned by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) had already been discussed by police authorities, and even some local authorities. The mergers discussions postponed it all for a long time and it cost people, including the Home Office, money.
No, I disagree with that, and I think that the hon. Lady will find that she meant to refer to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), not the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). I believe that I have met the hon. Ladys spouse and he is doing a very good job, too. She is right to the extent that Sussex was doing much of that with Surrey, but not much beyondjust partly, but not terribly much, with Kent. People are right to point out that a huge matrix is emerging, which is far more
elaborate than simply back-office or operational service or strategic service sharing.
Where we are at now is that most forces recognise, as we recognise across the House, that counter-terrorism operations are probably not best done at the local basic command unit level. The substance and strategic nature of terrorism suggests that. Most forces recognise, merger aside, that a degree of authority needs to be ceded up to the regions at least, and in some cases up to the national level. It is still an issue to see how local level neighbourhood policing and BCU commanders are folded into the counter-terrorist effort, as they have a role to play from top to bottom. There is recognition of the need to cede some authority and sovereignty up the chain of command to the regional and national level. That is recognised in respect of expertise. I believe that Sussex has an excellent reputation and teaches many other forces about firearms. Why reinvent that wheel, assuming that we can talk about wheels and firearms at the same time, of course?
Mr. Walker: I hope that the Minister accepts that it was not my intention in my brief speech to diminish organised crime. Clearly, people trafficking, international terrorism and drug dealing are hugely important. Is the Home Office looking at a different formula for tackling those issues beyond the idea of merging police forces? It may be slightly off the point, but I would grateful if the Minister answered that question.
Mr. McNulty: I want to make two points on that issue. First, what I said on counter-terrorism rightly does not prevail in respect of serious and organised crime, which belongs more readily at the regional or more localised level, albeit under the umbrella of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. However, we have taken out of that, almost sideways, our centre for human traffickingalthough the hon. Gentleman will understand that we are against such trafficking rather than promoting itand other elements such as the European action plan, so that runs alongside, though very much with the grain, what police forces are doing locally and nationally.
I repeat that I am hugely impressed and enthused by the co-operation and enthusiasm of police forces, services and authorities in taking this matter forward. I give a little to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs Lait) in allowing that Sussex is ahead of the gameas are some other forcesbut others are way behind in even thinking about filling the gap or protecting services. They have come on in leaps and boundsperversely or otherwise, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne)and we are already in a healthier position in terms of filling the gap that OConnor recognised than we were before mergers were contemplated. We can argue cause and effect, but that would be like counting the angels dancing on the head of a pin.
Even given that context, it is right and proper that we have the ability to enforce merger if necessary. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned five tests and I shall answer as sincerely as possible. He asked whether amalgamations would be a
last resort, and I confirm that they would. My colleague in the other place has already made that clear and I am happy to do so, too. His second question was whether a proper case would have to be made for amalgamation, and the answer is of course yes. The Bill requires the Home Secretary to set out the case for merger and, having learned the lessons from the summer, we recognise that the case would have to be made very clearly.
The hon. Gentleman asked about adequate public consultation beyond the statutory period. That is what we tried last time, perhaps feebly. The four-month statutory period came right at the tail end of the process, which started last September and finished in July, which is somewhat more than four months. We will learn the lessons about the method of consultation. As a democrat, I would resist the call for local plebiscites, because I do not think that they are very democratic.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, Hertfordshire was enthusiastic about a merger, just not with Essex. It would have been happy to merge with Bedfordshire and there is still a strong desire for the two to work strongly together. Naturally, they look more to Thames Valley than to Essex for further help, assistance and collaboration. The picture that has been painted of the Government on one side and 43 forces railing against merger on the other is not accurate.
Any merger order would be subject to the affirmative procedure, and we have learned the lessons about exploring options for additional parliamentary debate and scrutiny above and beyond the orders at the end of the process. We must of course carefully consider the financial implications and have a proper resolution of issues such as precept equalisation, capping and others. Therefore, with a skip in my heart and in all humility, I think that I may give a broad yes to all five of the points raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.
Nick Herbert: I thank the Minister for the reassurances that he has given on four points. I also asked about the issue of proper parliamentary scrutiny and consultation. In that context, can he tell us whether the Government will set out any compulsory mergers before the end of this Parliament? Or will the issue of protecting services be settled by voluntary co-operation?
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman missed it, but I did say that any merger order would be subject to affirmative procedure. I will ensure that we learn the lessons of the summer in terms of exploring options for additional parliamentary debate and scrutiny. I will do all I can, working with ACPO, the Association of Police Authorities and the forces, to ensure that the present process fills the gaps and obviates the need for compulsory merger. After that process has finished, I cannot promise that some forcesnot just Lancashire and Cumbriawill not decide that the only way forward is merger. If forces want to merge voluntarily, that is fine, but given the present situation I can confidently say that no enforced mergers are on the agenda in the near future. I cannot give an absolute guarantee, however, and I suspect that
a Conservative Minister would say the same in my position. We need to retain the ability to compel mergers just in case.
People have the wrong end of the stick on intervention. The Bill is not meant to introduce a centralising regime. Some of the contributions made me dig out my parliamentary pass to check whether it read Honecker or Ceausescu instead of McNulty. The 2002 legislation provides that forces must comply with direction, and the changes in the Bill involve broadening the source of information so that the Home Secretary can draw on HMIC and bring police authorities into his scope.
If we may uncouple the Bill from the bad faith in the merger debate, I ask hon. Members to judge us by our actions, not policy or legislation changes. Even though we had the powers to intervene, from both the 1994 and 2002 legislation, we have not done so in all the years since 1997. That is not to say that there have not been opportunities to do so or even the need to do soI have mentioned the eight forces we have dealt with, three of which we are still working withbut we have taken non-statutory, voluntary measures, working alongside the chief constable and the force involved. As a last resort, however, we need the ability to intervene in a failing force or police authority. There is no malice aforethought in the provisions. It is not in the interests of the Home Office or the Home Secretary to force or cajole intervention in a police force. We want to reach a stage at which we can work alongside police forces, in the interests of local council tax payers. The Bill is not Stalinist or government by a big stick. Statutory intervention would be a last resort, if fundamentally necessary in the case of an irresponsible or capricious chief constable or police authoritynone of which we have at present.
Mr. McNulty: Because that is not necessary, and has not been since 1994that is, over the course of two Governments. Ironically, the undue specificity involved in defining last resort or failure means that statutory intervention may be triggered sooner than people want. The more vague the definitions, the more scope there is for non-statutory intervention.
I want to make two more points. First, the Government have made some movement on these matters, so I hope that the House will accept the words that we propose in lieu in respect of Lords amendment No. 71, and reject the amendment itself. Secondly, people can be flippant or gloating about the mergers, but the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs impliedand the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said so more explicitlythat there had been a diminution in the independence or integrity of HMIC as a result of the OConnor report or what happened during the course of the mergers. I will have none of that: it is very important that the House understands that HMIC remains full of integrity and utterly independent. It is not appropriate to make sharp and unnecessarily party political points attacking the inspectorates integrity and independence, and both hon. Members should feel duly admonished.
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