I have had many discussions with a wide range of interests and organisations on the subject of police reform. I intend to produce firm proposals for change and I shall consult widely on those proposals before final decisions are taken.
Will the Home Secretary say clearly whether he intends to move towards larger police forces? If he does, how does he propose that local communities should have an influence so that the police are sensitive and responsive to their needs? When he makes his statement, will he bear in mind the representations that he has had from people in different parties in his county of Nottinghamshire?
As I said, I shall bring forward proposals in due course. Obviously, I need time to work on them and then I shall go out to consultation on them. The aim is to produce stronger police forces with strong local police authorities that can improve further the effectiveness of the protection that the police offer against crime.
When I produce the proposals I shall consult widely on them, including the people in Nottinghamshire with whom I have already had general discussions. I have floated openly the fact that I am looking at all these matters and ideas are already pouring in. I shall formulate my own proposals and then go out and have discussions on them in due course.
The Home Secretary must be aware of the public concern at the huge increases in crimes such as burglary. Does he accept that to deal with such increases we need effective partnerships at local level between local authorities, the police and the general public? Against that background, if restructuring is necessary, why does not he approach the matter as a joint exercise with the local authorities and the police, rather than ploughing on with his own agenda, which is undermining local partnerships and confidence?
I am very concerned at the high level of crime. That is why I am looking closely at how we can improve the effectiveness of the police force in making its contribution to protecting us against it. As Home Secretary, I am expected to produce proposals for strengthening the police force. Then I shall discuss with local authorities and others the implications of those proposals. But I cannot be expected to put my whole job into commission and not even to make proposals until I have cleared them with all the relevant interest groups. Interest in the police and crime goes beyond local authorities; the public as a whole are interested and I am sure that they are all waiting for my proposals.
If the Secretary of State met the chief constables, did he by any chance discuss with them one of the recommendations in the Sheehy report—that the post of chief superintendent be abolished? Is he aware that certain chief superintendents in the Greater Manchester area and other urban areas are responsible for a far greater caseload than those in police forces in other areas? Will he take that into consideration before he makes his final decision?
I meet chief constables all the time and I have discussions with them on all the matters that we are now discussing, including police structure, police financing and pay, how to reward good performance and how to organise commands more effectively. In due course, we shall produce proposals. So will Sir Patrick Sheehy. It is pointless debating proposals before we have them. In due course the Sheehy group will make proposals and we shall consult on them before we put them into effect. Meanwhile, the Superintendents Association, having given its evidence, is undoubtedly waiting, like the rest of us, to see what proposals Sir Patrick and his colleagues make.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need a police structure across Britain that is fully accountable and response to local needs? Is not responsiveness best achieved by beefing up local liaison and community policing panels, which were successfully introduced under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984? Does he also agree that accountability works both ways? The police have to be accountable for what they do and the money that they spend and local authorities have to be accountable if they do not properly support the police. The worst local authorities have not done so.
I agree that the local liaison arrangements are extremely good in many places. I strongly approve of the move towards neighbourhood policing which is being made throughout the country. It will give more power and discretion to local commanders and keep them in one place for longer so that they get to know the patch for which they are responsible and the people within it. We also need to improve the effectiveness of the police authorities. When people talk about the local accountability of their police force, they do not always automatically think of the police authority. They are more likely to complain to their Member of Parliament or to the Home Secretary than to the police authority.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend understand that there is urgent need for reorganisation? The Government keep telling us that they are putting more money in. The police keep telling us that there is not enough money. Those of my constituents who are not exactly involved in crime say that they are not getting value for money.
My hon. Friend puts clearly the question that every sensible member of the public asks. We are spending much more on policemen and Britain has more policemen than ever before. They are higher paid and better equipped, yet there are constant voicings of dissatisfaction, despite the fact that the police face rising demands on them. That is why we need to look afresh at strengthening the way in which we lay down national and local standards and compare the effectiveness of different police forces. We need to have proper structures in place to ensure that the performance of all police forces is brought up to the standard of the best.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the experience of Thames Valley shows that it is perfectly possible for the police service to provide a good service to the public across more than one county area? Given that spending on the police has increased by about 74 per cent. since 1979, is not it common sense to seek the best possible value for every pound that is spent?
We have police forces that cover more than one local authority, police forces such as the Metropolitan police in which the local authorities are not involved, and police forces that are covered by one local authority. The pattern is determined by history rather than logic. I am looking at that history at the same time as looking at the important things—how strong and effective the police authority is; how clearly it lays down local standards and demonstrates that it is delivering them; and how well it helps the police to communicate with their local population. I shall produce proposals that address all those questions as soon as I can.
Does the Home Secretary understand that, with crime apparently out of control in many parts of the country—a crime is now committed every six seconds every day—what people consider important is that institutional change should help the fight against crime and that there should be no break in the connection between policing and the local community? Whatever other changes the right hon. and learned Gentleman may make, will he undertake not to remove the right of local representatives—Conservative, Labour or whatever—who have been elected by local people, to have a say in local policing and an influence on it? Many consider that central to the fight against crime.
First, crime is not out of control, although it is an extremely serious matter. The level of crime is rising: that is the reason for our proposals for secure accommodation for juvenile offenders and for dealing with people who offend on bail and those who organise rave parties. The Government are known to be working on various proposals. At the same time, we are encouraging the process of making the police more effective and the local liaison mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).
Of course, the structure is also important, as I have just said. But, with the greatest respect, I do not think that the public would lay as much stress as do the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and his party on whether local councillors dominate the police authority.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend, like me, feel a certain scepticism when he hears Opposition Members—especially those on the Front Bench—talk of support for the police? Over the past decade, they have voted against the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the Criminal Justice Acts and the Public Order Act 1986, not to mention the prevention of terrorism Acts.
My hon. Friend is right. The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Sedgefield, is one of those who are changing the rhetoric of the Labour party. It is becoming closer to that of President Clinton, who advocated the restoration of the electric chair during his campaign in America. The fact is that the hon. Member for Sedgefield advocates no new proposals and his party has a history of voting against each and every proposal that we have presented to strengthen the fight against crime.
The hon. Gentleman does not yet know what my proposals are, but, the moment that it is suggested that I might change the organisation of the police force, he is plainly prepared to oppose those proposals, just as he has opposed all our improvements in the past.