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Baroness Harris of Richmond: Most of the debate at Second Reading, both in this House and in another place, focused on the reorganisation of police authorities. This new clause seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State will not exercise his power arbitrarily or inappropriately.

The Police Act 1996, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred, states very clearly at Section 32(3):

The amendment would ensure that amalgamations were driven primarily by the police authorities themselves.
 
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At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Dholakia said:

That is worth repeating again today in Committee. Artificially structured policing areas with vast geographic boundaries entirely remove the concept of communities. I disagree wholeheartedly with the Government's view that making basic command units, or BCUs, more important and embedding neighbourhood policing—which, incidentally, I support—will be all that is needed to bring policing closer to the people. Having a remote chief constable whom hardly anyone will ever see, and senior officers who will be for ever driving cars around a region as big as mine unable to make contact with BCU commanders on any meaningful eye-to-eye level very often, will only harbour the resentment already felt by many that this idea is absolutely preposterous.

It may be appropriate for some mergers to take place—I do not dispute that—but there are other ways of forging partnerships and ensuring best practice than going hell for leather, if that is not an unparliamentary term, down the merger route. I beg the Government to look again at cross-border alliances. Geographically they can make much more sense. There is not a magic number for a strategic force size. We have seen how big forces can fail. There is much excellence in smaller forces, which can outperform their big brothers in many areas. Will the Government look at the possibility of allowing flexibility for forces to come together naturally, as federations, so that they can overcome the gap in protective services? I have to say, however, that mutual aid was always there in the past to address those very problems, as were the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad.

A real debate on policing, rather than the tinkering of successive Acts to bring us up to date, needs to take place and all the players need to be involved. Using one inadequate report to kick-start a huge and costly reorganisation is not the best way of getting the changes that the Government require. This new clause would encourage the Secretary of State to stop, think and ruminate on how best that could be achieved.

I was very privileged at lunchtime today to sit with a number of the most senior police officers from the United States of America, who have very carefully looked at what the Government are proposing here. They were absolutely adamant that we are going in the wrong direction. Please listen to what people are saying and make sure that we look again at this proposal.

Lord Dholakia: I am delighted to add my name to the amendment. It is a cleverly crafted amendment which meets the concerns of all those who spoke on Second Reading against the hastily devised police mergers. This is not a wrecking amendment; it would help to tighten the criteria by which the Secretary of State could merge police forces. In other words, we are
 
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not saying that the Home Secretary cannot proceed to merge; we are saying that there are better ways of doing so.

There was the undue haste to merge police areas without adequate consultation. Then there was the threat by the previous Home Secretary that he would proceed to merge in any case. The amendment proposes that we place the matter firmly in the hands of police authorities to make such a request and that the Home Secretary decides if it is necessary in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness.

A statement was issued yesterday, which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, quoted, saying that plans have been delayed until the autumn. I cannot understand why something that was so important and urgent a few weeks ago that the Home Secretary was not even prepared to wait has suddenly been put on the back-burner. But there has been a public outcry about the mergers. There are legal challenges in the courts and there is a lack of a proper response to alternative arrangements, such as a federal structure.

I thank the Minister for arranging a briefing meeting last week. I am sure we all benefited from the contribution of Sir Ronnie Flanagan. The question remains: are the Government ultimately proceeding to create a national police force, where the ultimate control remains with the Secretary of State? We have again and again seen centrally directed executive action to tackle local problems. Policing is essentially a local matter. The further away the decision-making process is, the more difficult it is to resolve the situation. I suspect that to achieve the best possible performance, which we all aspire to, the Government have gone overboard in demanding powers that are best left to the police authorities.

The case for better performance through wider powers for the Home Secretary has not been proved. I received a letter today—I am sure that many other noble Lords also had it—from the West Mercia Police Authority. The chair of the authority, Paul Deneen JP, has this to say:

There goes the Home Office's argument for efficiency.

It is time now, rather than waiting until late summer, for the Home Office to come up with further proposals. I suggest that the best way to proceed is to give the police authority the power to determine whether mergers are necessary and let the Home
 
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Secretary decide whether, in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness, that is an appropriate course of action. That is why we support the amendment.

Lord Hylton: This is a very important amendment. I support the noble Baronesses, Lady Anelay and Lady Harris of Richmond, in what they were saying about having a federal model of police forces and services together with specialised agencies. In the context of specialised agencies, have the Government given any thought to having the control and supervision of whole motorways under a particular body, on the analogy of the British Transport Police, who control the whole railway system?

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Tenby would have wished to be here for this debate. All I can say on my own behalf is that April 2007 is far too soon for the beginning of police mergers, particularly if they are to be compulsory. I fear that, where that happens, there will be disorganisation and demoralisation and a less effective police service.

I am not at all sure that the Government have appreciated that the risks facing us now from terrorism, national disasters or major civil emergencies are variable from one place to another. Obviously, they are most concentrated in the Greater London neighbourhood and are not the same in the rest of the country for very obvious reasons.

Finally, is it still intended that there should be just one police service for the whole of Wales rather than two as at present?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I fully appreciate that this is an issue that, although not addressed in the Bill for the purposes of this amendment, has greatly exercised a lot of attention. I therefore understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, tabled the amendment—so that we can more comprehensively tease out the issue. This is the first of three separate groups of amendments that relate to police force amalgamations. Before I get into the detailed response to the comments on the amendment, it may assist the Committee if I say a few words about where we are on restructuring.

The Committee will be aware that, following publication of the Closing the Gap report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the previous Home Secretary announced proposals to establish strategic forces in Wales and seven of the English regions. I am sure that many Members of the Committee are aware that a great deal of work was done prior to that report and indeed after it was issued. I know that the process has not been easy. Many of our county forces have long histories and are rightly a source of great pride. Therefore, I can understand the local attachment to these forces. Members of this House and of another place are properly raising issues around the funding of mergers, the equalisation of precepts and the governance of the new strategic police force.

The new Home Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for the police rightly want to take time to consider these issues before deciding how best to
 
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proceed. Before doing so, my honourable friend Tony McNulty has been taking the opportunity to speak with many police authorities and chief constables throughout the country. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that it is a little hard when the Government take time to listen and to respond, and then are criticised for having done so.

5.15 pm

I respectfully suggest that it was right for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, coming newly to this post, being seized of a new brief, to take a moment or two to consult those who had been most closely connected and to take the temperature as to the speed and nature of change. My right honourable friend has made it clear that strategic mergers are the right way in which to improve protective services, but he acknowledged in a Statement in another place yesterday that more time was needed for discussion and dialogue on the best way of getting to that destination. As a consequence of this decision, no strategic forces—other than the voluntary merger in Cumbria and Lancashire—will come into existence on 1 April 2007. But I remind your Lordships that there are many in the police world who believe that mergers of this sort are a necessary step to bring us to a better informed and better position—not least as demonstrated by the voluntary merger of Cumbria and Lancashire.

We know that there are continuing concerns about a number of issues, including cost, council tax and local accountability. We touched on all those when we discussed this matter at Second Reading. These issues need to be properly resolved. That is what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my honourable friend Tony McNulty are working towards. To allow time for this, the period of formal objections to the proposals already announced will be extended. We want to ensure that people are given a proper opportunity to comment and raise objections once all the outstanding issues of relevance are resolved and communicated. That will now determine the deadline by which objections have to be lodged.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, spoke about reductions in numbers of police officers. I am sure that I do not have to remind her that since this Government came into office, police numbers have gone up substantially. We currently stand at 141,270 police officers, as of 30 September 2005, which is an overall increase of 14,112—11.1 per cent—since March 1997. Police strength fell between 1997 and 2000, but we have made those numbers up and police officer numbers have stabilised and are doing well. So there has been a massive improvement.

Our absolute commitment is to ensure that we have a police force that is visible, accessible and focused on the needs of the community that they are set to serve. I think there is total agreement around the Committee that the neighbourhood policing model is one with which we all are content and would wholeheartedly support.
 
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Amendment No. 14, with Amendments Nos. 60 and 61, which we will come on to later, seek in different ways to alter the process for making changes to police force areas. There are already perfectly adequate provisions in the Police Act for amalgamating police areas. Indeed, those very provisions were substantially revised by the last Administration in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. Under the 1996 Act, which was part of the last Administration's work, a merger may take place either if the police authorities concerned have volunteered, as in the case of Cumbria and Lancashire, or if the Home Secretary considers that a merger would be in the interests of the efficiency or effectiveness of policing. It was understood by the last Tory Government that that was a necessary tool for the Home Secretary to have because of the need to secure long-term security for the people of this country and, quite frankly, because the final responsibility for these issues always lies with the Home Secretary. We know the cost of what happens when others get it wrong. The Home Secretary pays the price.

In the latter case the Home Secretary must give notice of his intention to merge forces to the affected police and local authorities, and give them a minimum of four months to submit any objections. He must then consider those objections and respond to them before an order is made. Moreover, with the mergers initiated by the Home Secretary, the necessary order is subject to the affirmative procedure, so there must be a debate and a vote in both Houses. That accountability is embedded in the process. The period for submitting objections ensures that police authorities have plenty of time to consult their local communities and take their views before deciding whether to submit any objections.

The new clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 14 would remove both those routes, voluntary and initiated by the Home Secretary. There would not be an opportunity to make those changes. They are the two routes by which police areas can be changed. Instead, the amendment would require both that the police authorities volunteered and that the Home Secretary considered it in the interests of efficiency or effectiveness. I have no difficulty with the proposition that the Home Secretary must be satisfied that the voluntary merger will promote the efficient or effective policing of the affected area, but this new clause would also remove the ability of the Home Secretary to initiate changes to police areas where the authorities concerned have not requested them. The Home Secretary would be impotent to introduce any change, notwithstanding the fact that that change may be deemed the most appropriate for the safety and security of this country.

It is the function of the Home Secretary to take strategic decisions about policing. That is his traditional role in the tripartite relationship. Decisions about the extent of police areas are clearly strategic in nature, and it is therefore right that the Home Secretary is able, after proper consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, to make those decisions. The Home Secretary has stressed the need for proper discussion and dialogue. Of course it would be
 
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preferable if all mergers could go through on a voluntary basis, but provision for mergers initiated by the Home Secretary has been on the statute books going back to the Police Act 1964, and indeed before that. There remains a place for such provision. I therefore invite the noble Baroness to consider whether it would be appropriate to proceed with this in any way.

There are some specific issues—the noble Baroness raised the issue of federation—and aspersions have been cast on the quality of the report, Closing the Gap, which was undertaken by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. I disagree with the criticisms of that report. It is important to recognise that this is the first time HMIC's report has been criticised in this way. In a short time I am sure I will have the reports of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of any description praised to the skies as being unimpeachable. We would say that this report is sound and has real resonance. Although a small number of forces below the 4,000 threshold score relatively well for their size, that does not guarantee future resilience, especially against the increasingly sophisticated nature of criminality. None of those forces currently meets the acceptable standard for protective services.

In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I assure him that we have looked very carefully to ensure that we can meet the needs that have been identified regarding both terrorism and the other issues—maintenance of neighbourhood and appropriate frontline policing—at the same time as responding to strategic needs. Historically, collaboration has not on the whole been effective enough. Sir Ronnie Flanagan, head of HMIC, describes existing collaborative arrangements as "woefully inadequate" and notes that they fail to deliver sustained resourcing for preventive or development work. That is the advice that we are given by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and we take it very seriously indeed. The real risk of federation or collaboration is that these solutions would merely create additional layers of bureaucracy and lines of accountability with no appreciable benefit to the public, and potentially considerable extra expense. Any federation or collaboration option must demonstrate that it can overcome those obstacles and deliver the same or greater gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

It is worth quoting Sir Ronnie Flanagan's full comment as Members of the Committee have prayed in aid Professor Lawrence's work. Sir Ronnie says:


 
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That is trenchant advice which any Home Secretary would be ill advised to ignore. I should make it plain that the current Home Secretary does not propose so to do.

Strategic roads policing is one of the protective services considered by HMIC in its report, Closing the Gap. Roads policing cannot be detached from the wider day-to-day policing. Therefore, we have no proposal for a separate police force along the lines of the British Transport Police. In the case of Wales—another issue that I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised—we have put forward proposals for a single all-Wales force. We will want to consider carefully the objections received to those proposals before deciding how best to proceed. I understand the anxiety about this issue, but I respectfully suggest that this is not the moment for us to consider the restructuring of these forces, because there is other legislation which was produced by Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. On this occasion we are content to say that they were right, and we are content for that to be the legislation which holds sway.


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