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In Committee, on 20 June at cols. 721-23, I said that it is essential that before the Home Secretary forces the merger of police forces, he should ensure that the changes are certain to be both cost-effective and accepted by the communities affected by the merger. The amendment would help to give the public the confidence that, should mergers once again arise on the agenda, these matters have been properly considered in an independent, transparent and accountable manner.

We had a detailed debate in Committee, to which I certainly shall not return because on Report it would not be appropriate to do so, when we considered the Government’s assessment of the costs of the proposed mergers, an assessment that was not recognised by the police authorities and police forces as being anywhere near the real figure.

Over the summer it has emerged that £6.1 million has been spent on preparing for the Government’s failed merger scheme by just 27 out of 43 forces. The total financial cost to police forces alone could be well over £10 million, and many have made claims to the Home Office for the funds that could have meant 271 extra police employed on the beat. It is a staggering waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, all for a programme of merger that Moira Wallace, the director-general of crime, policing and counter-terrorism at the Home Office, admitted two weeks ago when she spoke at the Police Superintendents Association conference was “not well enough planned” and,

We certainly agree with that.

With the Home Office budget effectively frozen by the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2008 onwards, we on these Benches remain concerned that forced mergers would put pressure on other parts of police expenditure. I believe that the revelations over the summer have only highlighted what a disaster police regionalisation would be and have shown that the preparation costs have already dented local policing capability. It is important for the Minister to bring the House up to date with the Government’s policy regarding forced mergers.

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There have been many press reports over the summer saying that Ministers have scrapped the plans to force mergers. There have been reports of speeches by Ministers in which they have allegedly given commitments that they will not require forces to merge unless they have demonstrated positively that they wish to do so. Yet the language in Parliament has been less clear, until today perhaps. It has been couched in terms that imply that Ministers will return to the fray when they think that attention has been diverted away from this matter.

Earlier this evening we heard of a little progress. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that it was not just a matter of these plans being kicked into the long grass but that—he used the words—they are in the deep freeze. Are the Government going to bring a blow torch to that deep freeze in the near future and let loose on the enforced mergers again? I made it clear to the Minister when we met to discuss these matters about a month ago that I would table this amendment, not to press it today but to give the Government the opportunity to put on the record, in as clear terms as any government Minister is able, what their plans are regarding police mergers. My colleagues in another place can then properly reflect on the Minister’s answer when the matter on which we won a Division earlier this year returns shortly to another place for debate. I beg to move.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, we most definitely support this amendment. It is absolutely essential that we never again get into the ridiculous state of affairs we were pressed into which ensure that police officers and police authority members spend ludicrous amounts of time trying to work through the Government’s proposals. The cost of all this ill thought-out enforced activity has been enormous, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has so rightly pointed out. In my own force alone it amounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds. In future whenever any government feel the need to be radical it should be imperative that a cost benefit analysis is undertaken before proposals are brought before Parliament. We support very strongly this amendment.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, are very helpful. I recollect a considerable amount of time being spent by noble Lords on all sides of the House trying to work out what precisely the Government had in mind when police mergers were being discussed. At one stage there was not adequate time for consultation. People were crying out for a timescale within which the decision should be taken. We were told that certain police forces up north were likely to be merged. A new Minister was then appointed who has come along and said that the matter has been put in the long grass or the deep freeze—or whatever expression one wants to use.

Considerable time has been wasted on this matter, not only by Ministers and others, but there has been pressure on a number of noble Lords with police authorities making representations and wanting a

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clear answer. It would be very helpful if the Minister were clearly to indicate whether the merger plans will still be enacted at some stage. If not, what went wrong and why were the plans stopped?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for giving me this opportunity to clarify the situation. Her generosity beggars belief on occasion.

On 19 June my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it clear that he was not going to force through mergers where they were not wanted. As a corollary to that clear statement, the notices of intention to merge which were issued on 3 March and 11 April were withdrawn on 13 July.

That is not to say that the issues in Denis O’Connor’s report, Closing the Gap have gone away; far from it. There is a widespread recognition that the status quo is not an option. We need to make progress in enhancing forces’ capacity and capability to protect the public from the threats posed by terrorism, serious and organised crime and civil emergencies. We now need to focus more on the outcomes that we want to achieve and less on structural questions. Earlier today, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, gave us an example of her local force working energetically with other forces in the locality to address some of those issues. Collaboration and co-operation are obligatory for all of us.

We want to work with police forces and police authorities to see how best we can deliver the required improvements in protective services while preserving neighbourhood policing. To this end, the Minister for policing and security, my honourable friend Tony McNulty, has written to all chief constables and police authorities seeking their views on how best to narrow the protective services gap in the absence of mergers. He has followed up that letter with a series of meetings with forces and authorities to listen to their views at first hand. As part of that dialogue with the service, we have made it clear that we are open to all possibilities ranging from collaboration to federation and to the lead force model. We are ready to do what we can to facilitate any innovative solutions to the issue.

What matters is what works and what delivers real improvement in the quality of level 2 policing while protecting neighbourhood policing, rather than details of structure. The public want their local force to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. They also want and deserve to be properly protected from threats posed by serious organised crime and terrorism. We are no longer looking to mergers to deal with that issue, but the merger option must remain available as a last resort. We cannot say that we will never have to use it. No responsible Minister and no responsible Government could ever give a guarantee such as that, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred. But I reiterate that enforced mergers are off the agenda. We shall return to that only if it is clear that none of the other options being considered could produce worthwhile results.

As in all our debates, there did not seem to be any disagreement between us that we had to improve; the

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question is simply how. How do we deliver the change that everyone has identified as needed? It is for that reason that we must preserve the existing provisions in the Police Act 1996 which enable the Home Secretary of the day to initiate mergers where that would be in the interests of policing and protecting the public. Such a provision has been on the statute book for many decades and was retained and, indeed, updated, by the previous Conservative Administration in 1994. That is why we shall invite the other place to reject the amendment made by this House in Committee.

I turn briefly to the amendment. Its effect would be to outsource decisions about whether to alter police areas to an unidentified and unaccountable independent body. Any merger needs to be supported by a well founded business case, but it is ultimately for those who advocate change to put the case for it. In the case of initiating police mergers, Section 33 of the Police Act already effectively provides for that by requiring that the Home Secretary of the day must set out his or her reasons for the proposed alteration of police areas.

I hope that the House will be satisfied that the Home Secretary's decision to withdraw the merger notices issued in the spring has settled the issue. What matters now is how we work with the police service to strengthen the protection of the public against the threat posed by terrorism and organised crime. All the conversations that we have had have addressed that issue with a degree of urgency. That is the debate that we need to have now. The provisions for amalgamating police force areas in the 1996 Act are perfectly adequate as they stand and should be left on the statute book as a back-stop but, as mergers are no longer on the agenda, it is time for us to move on.

On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, will be content to withdraw her amendment, having given me a delightful opportunity better to explain where we now find ourselves concerning force mergers.

5.45 pm

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. My colleagues in another place will study her words carefully. I certainly agree with her, as we always have, that the outcome of better and strengthened policing, supported by Government and police authorities, is something that we are all trying to achieve at a time when level 2 policing is under severe strain. We all seek to assist the police better to serve the public—that is what the police wish to do themselves.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government would not seek to return to forced mergers until all the other viable options had been tried and had been shown not to deliver worthwhile results. That implies a lack of haste in returning to mergers and a willingness at least to try alternative methods.

One problem was that we and, I know, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, felt that the Government had been proceeding with forced mergers without giving the federated model or the other alternative

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routes to improvement an opportunity to operate first. I accept that the Minister does not agree with the result of the Division and the will of the House earlier this year, but she will not be surprised to hear that I rather expect that the Government might try to overturn our victory when the Bill returns to another place. It will be for another place to consider her words, not for me to pre-empt the decision of another place. For the moment, the amendment was tabled to elicit her statement rather than to force it to a Division. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 37:

“(a) the Association of Police Authorities, and (b) the Association of Chief Police Officers.”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Harris of Richmond moved Amendment No. 38:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment, I first welcome the amendments moved by the Minister. They go some way towards limiting the powers of the Secretary of State to intervene in police forces, so that the inspectorate will be involved in deciding whether a force is failing. Unfortunately, they do not deal with the underlying problem with this part. I shall explain that. It is the power of the Secretary of State to give directions to chief officers of police. That is completely unconstitutional and represents a radical unbalancing of the tripartite relationship. It is also potentially a very dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. In fairness, the Minister's amendments suggest that in most circumstances the Secretary of State's directions should be made through the police authority, but there is a sting in the tail of the amendments, which renders them almost meaningless. The Secretary of State may direct the chief officer where he deems that the authority is failing. There is no independent judgment built into the process. It is the Secretary of State who decides what “failing” means. It is widely drawn, covering any functions of an authority whether generally or in a particular respect.

In theory, that means that if, say, a police force was not very good at clearing dead dogs off a motorway or a police authority was not very good at keeping hard-copy archived records—which, I understand, have to be bound on green paper of a particular quality—going back for ever, the Secretary of State could give directions to the chief officer. I do not suggest that the current Secretary of State would use such a power injudiciously or unfairly; I merely observe that it would be easy for a Secretary of State whose motives may be more questionable to misuse such a wide power at some point in the future.

In addition, the government amendments do nothing to ameliorate the concerns expressed in Committee about the Secretary of State being blessed

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with foreknowledge about when a force or authority will fail. Again, this could be open to misuse. I accept that a role envisaged for the inspectorate with regard to forces should provide some comfort in this respect, but there is silence about any equivalent role with regard to authorities. This is the key issue in the direction of chief officers. Amendment No. 38, which would leave out paragraphs 26 to 28 on “Power to give directions to police authority or chief officer”, would dispense altogether with what could be a dangerous part of the Bill. That would be my preference. However, I am a realist and I recognise that it is always sensible to have a plan B. The other amendments would provide an alternative that would prevent the Secretary of State giving directions to chief officers but would allow him some intervention powers through the authority. Crucially, however, it would place sensible limitations on what “failing” means. This is an important matter that goes to the heart of the balance between central and local powers and between chief officers, police authorities and the Secretary of State—the tripartite balance. The other centralising measures in the Bill are a grave cause for concern, but these proposals must be where the line is drawn.

I also ask the Minister to say how the Government think they will find the capacity and the expertise to intervene in police authorities. To date, the Home Office’s policing support unit has used a few civil servants in its intervention work with forces, but it has relied mostly on seconded police officers. Given that most police authorities run an extremely tight ship, it is unlikely that they will be able to find some spare people to undertake these duties.

Finally, I return to the nub of my concerns: if the Secretary of State can tell chief officers what to do, all the other arguments about exactly how the balance will be shared between the tripartite partners are simply whistling in the wind. I beg to move.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I remind the House that if the amendment is agreed to, I will not be able to call Amendments Nos. 39 to 48.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I strongly support all the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia; indeed, I have added my name to them. We on these Benches believe that the Bill would give Ministers greater powers to interfere in operational policing matters than is acceptable. Policing should not be politicised. The police must be able to investigate crime independently and to apply the laws passed by Parliament free from party-political pressure. The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness reflect the deep concern expressed about the powers to be conferred on the Secretary of State to direct the chief officers of the police. ACPO put it concisely:

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We believe that the Home Secretary should not have the power to intervene in a way that interferes in failing police forces and police authorities, as it so clearly would under the Bill. That is where the difficulty lies. It looks as though the Government are trying to get through the back door the provisions that they failed to get through the front door in our debates on the Police Reform Act 2002. What was important at that stage was that the Government agreed to think again. They stepped back from the position that they had taken on the intervention powers of the Secretary of State in policing matters, and they were right to do so. The Home Secretary is mistaken in seeking to go forward now.

In our debate on these matters on 20 June, the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, tabled amendments that sought to describe more carefully and narrowly the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might exercise his extended powers. I said that if it were possible to find an appropriate way of including in the Bill a very narrowly defined set of circumstances in which the Secretary of State’s extended power could be exercised, that might prove acceptable. I accept that the Minister has used the summer to try to achieve that. She has tried to make progress in drafting amendments that more narrowly describe the route by which the Secretary of State could exercise his powers. The difficulty is that the route to taking a decision may be slightly more hampered by the odd building brick in the way, but the result could be the same.

I should say in passing that, when I read the government amendments last week, I noted that Amendment No. 45 refers to a chief inspector for custody, among other things. I merely put on record the fact that I have noticed the reference to that. I do not seek to debate whether it is appropriate for that reference to be in the amendment, because we will have a substantive debate on that tomorrow.

The problem remains that, despite the Government’s amendments, a Secretary of State who is determined to issue directions and extend his authority over the police could do so in a manner that would distort the tripartite relationship that we all hold so dear. My colleagues in another place and I have looked very carefully at the Government’s proposals, and they believe that we should stick by our principles on this matter—principles that were tested in Divisions on the Police Reform Act in 2002 when the Government agreed to withdraw their plans. I hope that they are prepared to think again today. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond.

Baroness Henig: My Lords, before my noble friend replies, I should say that the matter has already been referred to; indeed, I raised it in Committee. I was extremely concerned about these issues and I welcome the fact that my noble friend has tried to narrow down the basis of intervention, in a way that I welcome.

I hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, says about police authorities. Both she and I know that some police authorities, although probably only one or two, might well have problems and be in some

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disarray. She and I have had experience of that. There is a way through the point that she makes: we know that police authorities will be inspected in the near future, and I take her point that the Secretary of State should not take his decisions on any grounds other than established fact and objective assessment. It seems that if police authorities are to be inspected, as indeed they are under the legislation, there will be an objective basis on which to categorise them. Therefore at least that objective could be met, because there will be ways in which one can determine where the police authorities are doing their job and where they are not. To that extent, the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, could be addressed through police inspections, and the Secretary of State could reasonably take note of those inspections when coming to a view about police authorities. As I say, although I recognise the anxieties that have been expressed, I feel that the Government have made progress on trying to narrow the basis on which direct intervention would be made, which I welcome.

6 pm

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris of Richmond and Lady Anelay of St Johns, and my noble friend Lady Henig for welcoming the government amendments to the extent to which they each did. Perhaps I may ask for a little more generous welcome from the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for the following reasons. We understood the import of the concern expressed. In our previous debates, it was clear that Members of this House wished these powers to be used as a matter of last resort and that the direction to the police force or the police authority would be given when they failed to provide the standard of service that we all expect. I do not think that there was any dissent on that. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and my noble friend Lady Henig were particularly concerned that there should be no inappropriate, improper, heavy-handed, not-thought-through interference, and we agree.

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