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Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, in my turn I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, on
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securing and so ably introducing this highly topical debate. I also feel very privileged to take part in a debate in which so many experts have already spoken. The debate is topical because matters of law and order are always at the forefront of the public's mind, and topical because only a month ago there was an extremely lively Opposition day debate on police restructuring. It is topical, too, because the Home Secretary is about to begin laying forced orders for mergers in certain areas of the country. But it is also topical in that the reaction to the Government's chosen methods of achieving a changed police organisation are surfacing in the week that we see the publication of the Power report, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shawsa report whose leitmotif is that people feel that they have no say or part in the democratic process.
There must be broad consensus that a new look at the structure and organisation of policing is due. It is some 30 years since the last major reorganisation and, since then, crime has become more organised, more mobile and more international. There is self-evidently an increased threat of terrorist attacks, and there have been huge changes in society. There is broad agreement within this House and among the public that the ability of the police to provide the so-called protective services dealing with murder, terrorism and cross-border crime needs to be strengthened. There seems disagreement about whether that strengthening should be achieved by mergerindeed in some cases it seems to be forced mergeror by federation, as seems to be the view of the Association of Police Authorities.
There is certainly anxiety that larger forces will be less accountable and less accessible. What cannot be denied, howeverand there seems to be a consensus on this matter, in this House todayis that the way in which the Government have gone about achieving this change, in haste and with scant regard to local views, has been counter-productive to say the least. Instead of arriving at useful and locally acceptable solutions by consensus, the Government's approach has caused local upset, given the impression that they do not know how things work currently and, in the words of the Power report, has reinforced the view of people that their,
No one would pretend that the current pattern of 43 separate forces owes its existence to logic, rather than to historical accident and the consequences of a number of local government reorganisations. But neither should anyone pretend that the process of achieving change, so far anyway, has been in the best tradition of involving communities in decisions about their future. The Home Secretary received the HMIC report on 16 September last year, and within three days he had written to authorities and forces saying that he accepted the findings, giving them three monthsin other words, a deadline of 23 December 2005in which to submit a business case. He gave them three months in which to plan changes to a 30 year-old system. Of course, events proved the initial reaction right: no authority or force was able to submit a final business case, or to volunteer to merge by that date.
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We have been told that there has been extensive consultation, but I am not sure with whom that consultation has taken place. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to enlighten the House on that matter.
During this debate, we have had many vivid examples from around the country about the effects of restructuring. I add an example from East Anglia. In our case, the Home Secretary made no secret of his preference for a merged force based on the current "East of England" so-called region, which encompasses Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire. Those of your Lordships familiar with that part of the world will immediately grasp the difficulty of policing an area which stretches from Epping in the south to Wells-next-the-Sea in the north, and of embedding credibility, accountability and accessibility in such a force.
The Home Secretary's preference found no favour but, eventually, the following attitudes emerged. Norfolk would accept a merger with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Cambridgeshire, on the other hand, did not want a merger, but a looser federation retaining its own cap badge and county allegiance. To prove the point, it has just appointed a new chief constable. Suffolk, on the other hand, would prefer to merge with Norfolk and Essex; unkind tongues suggest that that might be because Suffolk would lie in the middle and thus attract the smart new super-police headquarters that would ensueobviously there would have to be one. Essex, on the other hand, has rejected any idea of a merger, as it considers itself large enough to go it alone. Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire seek other alliances. So far, Suffolk, but not the others, has published a business plan. I suppose that, with all those things considered, it is not surprising that the deadline of 23 December was missed.
There is a host of other, practical considerations which, if they had been thought out and properly presented by the Government in making these proposals, might have helped their case. Not least are the financial implications. Norfolk will not be the only police authority this year to have had to break official guidelines by imposing a preceptin its case, an increase of 5.9 per centthus attracting the possibility of capping. Not far from the authority's mind, no doubt, will have been the financial implications of a merger, if that is what is finally achieved. According to the Association of Police Authorities, there will be a gap of some £400 million between the set-up costs of the new arrangements as the association calculates them, and the funding that the Government seem prepared to offer. I realise that that always happens with local government and police authorities, and so on. But it is clear that the public will be a touch reluctant to foot the bill for a reorganisation which many will see as making policing more remote and less accessible than it is now.
Also, newly merged authorities will encompass areas which hitherto have paid a lower police precept than they will have to pay under an equalised precept. To anyone seeking to explain this to the losers, rather
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than the gainers, in any area, I would say, "Don't even think about trying". It would also be a waste of time to advance the argument that savings accrue from mergers. That flies in the face of all local and national government experience over at least the past 50 years, and possibly for centuries. If the purpose of the whole reorganisation is to strengthen the role of the protective services, how much of the money to be spent on the exercise itself would be better spent on extra policing? I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House more detail on the financial implications than she was able to do, understandably, in the House on Tuesday.
I am bound to say, on accountability, that it is a fairly difficult concept even with the way in which police authorities are organised now, but at least people can identify with a county or a slightly larger organisation than they would be able to in the case of the south-west, for example, where there might be an authority spreading from north Gloucestershire, which is closer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall.
The whole episode has a number of regrettable aspects, not least that the Government, by their handling of the matter, have missed the opportunity to have the involvement and the interest of the publicnot to mention the police establishmentin the need to regroup and modernise police organisation to meet the new crime challenges that the country faces. With less haste and more concern for local circumstances, the Home Secretary might have had co-operation from police authorities instead of the deep reluctance that he now faces, not to mention the muddle and uncertainty. He would have been in a position to give more financial detail, reassuring authorities at the precise moment that they set their precepts. Had he been prepared to involve the public a little more, the hands of the authorities themselves would have been strengthened.
The Government's aims, in their desire to make a police structure fit for the challenges of the 21st century, should be supported by everyone. Yet in their approach, alas, they have missed the opportunity to involve our citizens, to whom these matters are of consuming interestand for which, of course, they pay. However, it may still not be too late.
I feel sure that Ministers will have read carefully the Power report, published earlier this week. That independent report seeks to explain how it is that, when people have more politicians than ever before in this country's historyand more opportunities to vote than ever before, what with devolution and the development of the EUthey still feel that they have no say. The report states,
It is still not too late for the Government and the Minister to indicate that this is not the impression they wish to leave in the minds of the public about how they have handled this important reorganisation, which is vital for the future of our country.
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