I beg to move,
That this House
notes the Home Secretary's proposals to create regional strategic police forces in England and Wales;
further notes the Association of Police Authorities' estimate that amalgamations could cost £600 million to implement;
further notes that none of the proposed amalgamated forces has the unanimous agreement of the police authorities concerned;
expresses concern about the implications of mergers for local accountability, neighbourhood policing and the level of police precepts;
regrets the unnecessarily tight timetable for consultation;
recognises that the potential changes are the most significant for over thirty years;
and calls on the Government to consider alternative proposals to strengthen the ability of forces to deal with serious crime, including sharing services, as recommended by the Association of Police Authorities.
This is an unusual Opposition debate. Usually, we have a few hours of political combat and knockabout, all of which is very enjoyable, but the Government then carry on as they did before. Today, I shall try something a little different, and offer the Government a serious chance of achieving their stated aim of finding a better way of dealing with serious crime with the wholehearted and consensual support of all the parties in the House. That is appropriate, because the structure and accountability of our police forces and the decentralisation of law enforcement is a constitutional issue that should be resolved on a cross-party basis.
Let us start with what we agree on. We agree that we want to improve the ability of our police forces to deliver the so-called protective services that deal with murder, terrorism, cross-border crime and so on. We agree that the current organisation may be weak in some police forces on some of those issues. We agree that the policing teams—not necessarily the forces—that deal with those major issues should have the skills and resources to deal with them. Where possible, they should be able to develop experience in dealing with them.
We do not agree that the organisation that is best suited to deal with terrorism is necessarily the best suited to deal with shoplifting, mugging or burglary. We do not agree that bigger is better for most aspects of policing. Indeed, other issues including the quality of management and leadership, technical skills, proper resourcing and local knowledge are far more important than any imaginary police force-wide economies of scale in the delivery of better policing.
We do not agree that regionalism is a good model for emergency services in general or police forces in particular. We believe in localism. Regionalism is pseudo-localism, with all the disadvantages of centralisation masquerading under a local label. Most of all, however, we do not agree that this is a policy that should be analysed and proposed in a few months, barely debated, then imposed in a rush on an unwilling public and a number of unwilling police forces and authorities.
Let us start with the analysis, the so-called O'Connor report entitled, "Closing the Gap". It is subtitled, "A Review of the 'Fitness for Purpose' of the Current Structure of Policing in England and Wales". The phrase, "Fitness for Purpose", is one of the many pieces of managerial jargon that afflict modern policing. The question is, fit for what purpose? No one could seriously believe that ever bigger and ever more remote police forces will deliver more responsive, effective and accountable policing of the local robberies, muggings, burglaries that intrude into too many people's lives.
Nevertheless, the analysis in the O'Connor report implies that bigger is better when dealing with major crimes under the umbrella of protective services. The report and the Government response to it are flawed at three critical points: the original analysis; the plan and costing of proposals, such as they were; and the decision and timetable for implementation.
Frankly, the best thing that I can do is to repeat the House the coruscating opinion of Professor Lawrance, a professor of statistics at Warwick university. He addressed the analysis, which claimed that police forces need to be 4,000-strong to do their job, and found that the quality of the statistical information was questionable and that the statistical treatment of the data and the use of computer-produced statistical elaborations unjustified. In his opinion, there was minimum professional statistical science input in the planning stages, the data analysis, its presentation and the conclusions that were drawn. He concluded by stating:
"It cannot be presumed that there is a causative relation between protective service effectiveness and force size from rough trends on simple graphs.
The conclusions drawn in respect of a 4,000 minimum force size almost totally ignore the variability of protective services performance in each force size, and no evidence is provided that this will be small at the 4,000 level.
In short, there will be an unknown number of good and poor performers in re-formed larger forces."
In the last debate that we had on the subject, I gave way over 30 times. Today, with an 8-minute rule, I shall restrict the number of times I give way, but I will do so on this occasion.
I shall try to be brief. The Essex constabulary has considerable experience of fighting terrorism, not least because, as my right hon. Friend and the Government know, there are special facilities at Stansted. Also, on 7/7, the Essex police provided substantial assistance to the Met. Does my right hon. Friend agree, with respect to colleagues from East Anglia, that the Essex constabulary does not need to merge with other forces to learn how to fight terrorism?
Yes. My hon. Friend is right and, if I remember correctly, he is supported in his views on the matter by Members representing Essex constituencies from all the major parties in the House, which is an important indication of the concern about the proposal. He raises another point. The Essex force, as he says, has special skills in dealing with terrorism. Other forces in other parts of the country have special skills in public order defence, or in dealing with border-related issues such as international crime. On the regional model proposed by the Government, we cannot be sure that any particular region has these special skills.
One of the great advantages of a looser federated model is that a force could take advantage from one area of one set of special skills and another area for another set of special skills. Rejecting a one-size-fits-all model will help us get better policing across the board, not least at the high levels of protective services that the Government are concerned about.
I am more grateful than usual. If the right hon. Gentleman is making the point that for a force of a certain size, there are a number of other factors as well as its size that determine whether it is good or not, of course that is true. Everyone would accept that. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, quite separate from the O'Connor report and that analysis, Sir David Phillips, chief constable of Kent and then president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, produced a position paper three or four years ago, adopted by ACPO, which reached almost exactly the same material conclusions as O'Connor about the optimum size of police forces? Is it not the case that that is not a one-off report, but a reflection of the dominant professional consensus in policing in Britain about the ideal size of police forces?
I accept one point from the right hon. Gentleman. He is right that there are various views from leading senior police officers. My conversations with many members of ACPO indicate to me that that is not their current collective view. We will see what happens in the course of the debate in the coming days.
I did not read the whole of Professor Lawrance's critique. I dispute the idea of an optimum size for a police force. That differs around the country. The right size of police force will be different in a big urban area such as Manchester from what it would be in East Yorkshire. A one-size-fits-all model is just plumb wrong. I am sure Mr. Denham has read the Lawrance report, as he is an assiduous Select Committee Chairman. He will have seen that if one took three of the bigger forces out of the 43 in the analysis, there would be no correlation whatever for any optimum size. The whole statistical analysis is based on a flawed concept, flawed data and a flawed analytical approach. The right hon. Gentleman's Committee will no doubt consider the matter again in the coming year or so and reach a similar conclusion.
I have broken my stricture about interventions, but I shall try to make progress. The other concerns that arise are manifold. Let me go through them one by one. The first concerns accountability. Regional forces would cover a huge area. A south-west regional force—some Members from the south-west are present—would cover a massive 8,187 square miles. People living in the north of Gloucestershire are nearer to Scotland than they are to the south of Cornwall. The proposal is madness, if the aim is local identification and local accountability. Chief constables will be hundreds of miles away from many towns and villages. As I said last time, Kent officers could be closer to Calais than to their proposed regional headquarters. Inevitably, regional police forces will become more remote from the communities they are meant to serve.
Not for the moment. [Hon. Members: "He is one of the dimmer ones."] Exactly. The hon. Gentleman does not realise the temptation he places before me with respect to the concept of dimmer Labour Members. However, I will go to another one, the Prime Minister, and the House can make its own judgment. When he was shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield argued that
"wholesale amalgamation of the smaller police services . . . will remove local policing further from local people when there is no evidence that it will create a more effective police service."—[Hansard, 5 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 273.]
Not at the moment, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. [Interruption.] Yes, another dimmer one.
Let us move to the issue of cost. The O'Connor report calls itself "Closing the Gap", but far from closing the gap, it will open a gaping black hole in the finances of our local police forces. Based on the submissions made by police authorities, the Association of Police Authorities estimates the cost of mergers to be over £525 million across England and Wales. As is the way with IT-based costings, I suspect that that is a grotesque underestimate. Indeed, the APA itself says the cost could be double that—£1 billion—when the associated costs of police restructuring are taken into account.
Let us consider that conservative estimate, which is based on the submissions of individual authorities. The sum of £525 million represents an average of £12.5 million per police force. The Home Secretary belatedly offered just £125 million, less than a quarter of the funding necessary, to pay for amalgamations. What is more, the Home Secretary's promised funds are in any case being raided from the existing police capital budget, not new money. So resources that should have been spent on improvements to policing will be used to pay for management consultants, merged IT systems, new headquarters and the like, none of them making a contribution to better policing.
More than £400 million must still be found by police authorities to finance amalgamations. There are only two places that they can get £400 million; they can borrow it or raise it through a higher precept on the council tax. We know where it will come from, don't we? Either way, in the end, the cost of the exercise will fall on the council tax payer. Assuming that police authorities do not cut services, the average police precept would rise by 21 per cent.—up to £37 on a band D property—on top of increases already planned and on top of the fact that the police precept has more than doubled in the past eight years in most cases.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Given that West Yorkshire police has calculated a cost of £50 million for the amalgamation, given that the force already meets the criteria set down by the Home Office and given that the merger is opposed by the local police authority and by hon. Members from both sides of the House, including Mr. Truswell, who made an excellent speech in a previous debate on the matter, does my right hon. Friend agree that the £50 million cost would be much better spent on real policing than on an unnecessary merger?
I agree with everything my hon. Friend said. The model is repeated throughout the country. I should, perhaps, explain to the House my softness in giving way to my hon. Friend. He is a namesake, he used to be a constituent of mine and his wife was my agent, so I had to give way.
Huw Irranca-Davies has none of those qualifications. Even if he keeps moving around, he will not fool me. I still recognise him.
Let us remind ourselves what the exercise was meant to do. The exercise was meant to strengthen protective services—the ability of police forces to tackle serious crime—but not one penny of the £500 million spent on amalgamation will be invested in them. The numbers do not add up, which is one of the reasons why the Association of Police Authorities opposes the Government's plan.
Last week, the APA asked the Government to consider the option of forces sharing services as an alternative to amalgamation, and at a recent Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister seemed to agree:
"We have to listen to what people are saying and, obviously, there are different views about police reform. One possibility is for strategic coming together on certain issues, rather than mergers, but that has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis . . . The aim should be the most effective way to police local communities with the greatest amount of accountability and effectiveness. Obviously, we will listen carefully to what people say."—[Hansard, 25 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1426–27.]
"Some people think that a form of federation would be a more effective way of dealing with aspects of the situation than strategic forces. I take the view . . . that that is not the right approach".—[Hansard, 19 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1583.]
The Chief Whip may not be the only one who makes a career-changing decision in the next few days.
The Prime Minister is for sharing services, and the Home Secretary is against, so what is the Government's policy? Is the Home Secretary looking at federations with an open mind? The Prime Minister is often accused of wanting to associate himself with popular initiatives, and if he is successful in persuading the Home Secretary that the federated option is worth considering, this will be the one occasion when he will have our full support, whether he turns up or not.
The Government are attempting to drive through the biggest reorganisation of the police for 40 years with little debate or consultation. Police authorities were given just three months to prepare their cases before Christmas. When police forces were last restructured in the 1960s, a royal commission was formed. It took two years to report, and there was then another two years of debate on the report before legislation was enacted. Denis O'Connor, the author of the report, believes that this process should take longer:
"This process looks like five years and not 18 months to me".—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 29 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 8WH.]
The Home Secretary has already been rebuffed by the police authorities, which will not submit to his absurdly tight three-month deadline. He must realise that more time is needed to assess the costs of restructuring, the implications for accountability, the objections of local communities and potential alternatives to amalgamations, many of which are strongly opposed by police authorities, chief constables and local people.
For the sake of party fairness, I should make one concession. At a party conference, I once described the Liberal policy of tough liberalism as an oxymoron with the emphasis on the last two syllables.
The right hon. Gentleman is tough with a generous heart. He has made an important point about consultation. Does he agree that in many cases the people who oppose the Home Secretary's proposal do not have vested interests? If the Home Secretary listened, he would realise that serious crime is a consideration, but not the only consideration. Many people think that the proposal will seriously harm local crime management. For example, an all-Wales police force will pool resources in high-crime areas, leaving relatively low-crime areas to experience an increase in crime.
I agree with almost every word the hon. Gentleman has said, despite his opening accusation of kindness, which is very dangerous for a Home Secretary.
Returning to my opening remarks, even if we were not in this new age of consensual politics, I would still believe that every hon. Member wanted to ensure that our police forces are adequately equipped to tackle the myriad threats faced by the people of this country.
The Home Secretary has already admitted that the widespread objections to the proposals have forced him to implement them in two stages. He has said that those forces happy to proceed will start in April 2007, while for those that object it will be April 2008. All the indications are that few, if not none, of the forces will agree to April 2007, so we are discussing April 2008, when most of the forces will be cajoled into submission with doubts about costs and accountability still rampant.
For that reason, surely we should spend the next year on a proper period of consultation, which we should have had in the first place. During that time, precise costings could be made and other options, such as a federated structure, could be properly considered, just as the Prime Minister has suggested. Proper local consultation could be undertaken, with local referendums—I know that the Government do not like them any more—where appropriate.
If the Home Secretary does that, in most cases—the Home Secretary has a point in some parts of the country—the option that will deliver the greatest ability to fight serious crime is the federated option of enhanced co-operation and sharing services between neighbouring forces. Indeed, 23 Labour Members have signed early-day motion 1393 to that effect.
My proposal to the Home Secretary will enable him essentially to keep to his projected timetable while allowing us to exercise our constitutional obligation to ensure that our country's police forces are "fit for purpose", which is fit for all purposes. If he chooses to dismiss it, he must explain why he has chosen to implement uncosted, unpopular, ineffective and undemocratic reforms with undue haste and inadequate consideration. Why has he chosen to spend £500 million to take half a step backwards?
I will listen to the Home Secretary very carefully. If he is reasonable, we may not even force a vote. If he is not, however, we will revisit this issue time and time again in the coming weeks, months and, indeed, years until the serious inadequacies in the Government's proposals are dealt with in the interests of the British people.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"welcomes the excellent work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in clearly setting out the case for reform of the current structure of policing in England and Wales;
thanks police forces and authorities for their hard work in responding to the HMIC findings;
congratulates the Government on its commitment to delivering excellent policing at all levels, from vandalism to terrorism, through strategic police forces equipped with dedicated capacity at the neighbourhood level;
and endorses the need for reform to move swiftly to minimise uncertainty and damage to morale within a service which has over the past eight years shown itself dedicated to continuous improvement in delivery of a truly locally responsive service."
Labour Members have no aversion to votes, despite recent experience. I was excited when David Davis described the constructive approach that he was going to adopt, but we did not hear a lot of it in a speech that consisted of a series of attacks of the traditional variety. As ever, I shall attempt to respond constructively.
The issue concerns professional policing, and the process is not driven by politics or, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, a regional agenda. Everyone with a serious professional interest in policing accepts that the provision of protective services is deficient. The Association of Police Authorities has acknowledged that point, pointing out that the current 43-force structure is not strong enough to tackle organised gangs and nationally mobile criminals.
"ACPO has long recognised that there is a need to restructure the police service to meet the threats and challenges of at least the next thirty years."
Paul Scott-Lee, chief constable of the west midlands, has said that it would be better to serve the region with one force. Jon Stoddart, the chief constable of Durham, has said:
"Politics aside, the chief constables of Durham and Northumbria are united in their belief that, from a purely professional point of view, a regional force would reinforce and improve community policing as it now exists. At the same time it would enhance our ability to tackle terrorists, extremists, major emergencies and the 'Mr. Bigs' of serious and organised crime."
Only yesterday, the chief constable of North Yorkshire said that
"there is a powerful and persuasive case indicating that, far from being diminished, the quality of neighbourhood policing, and the status of the local Basic Command Unit will be significantly enhanced by regional amalgamation."
Let me go through the different regions. In the west midlands, three of the four forces think that some form of amalgamation is necessary, while one is very concerned. In the north-east, two are in favour and one is concerned. In the north-west, a form of amalgamation is supported by most of the forces in the region. In Wales—
I will give way in a moment.
In Wales, many forces accept the idea of a national force to deal with these circumstances.
The point that I am trying to make is that it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that there is total opposition to these changes or that the policy is politically driven. It is professionally driven: professional police officers think that it is the right way to go.
I assure my right hon. Friend that representatives of the Association of Police Authorities in south Wales, whom we met last week, and the chief constable of the South Wales police force and her colleagues not only accept the main thrust of these proposals but recognise that local and democratic accountability will come through the neighbourhood policing model, which was not mentioned at all by Mr. Davis. Does my right hon. Friend think it somewhat unfair that the Tory Front-Bench spokesman has as a motto, "Tough on crime, tough on interventions by the Member for Ogmore"?
I want to make a little more progress before I give way again.
I want to emphasise that the professional view that we need change to deal with serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism and major stretches of forces is not new. My right hon. Friend Mr. Denham made the case about Sir David Phillips' report. The "Closing the Gap" report was a consequence of a large number of similar proposals in the past. Even under the previous Conservative Government, a White Paper was published in 1993, which said: "This pattern"—of 43 forces—
"is partly the result of historical accident and the merging of organisations which were established haphazardly over more than 100 years . . . The result today is a patchwork quilt of forces of widely varying sizes and types."
"It is questionable whether 43 separate organisations are now needed to run police operations and whether the maintenance of 43 parallel organisations makes the most effective use of the resources available to policing."
Those are very similar to Sir Denis O'Connor's words about being "fit for purpose", which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden criticised.
I will give way in a moment, as I said.
We must be clear that it is our duty—certainly my duty as Home Secretary, but also our duty across the House—to find the most effective way of enabling the professional views of our police service best to protect the public and then to go ahead and implement them without delay. The problems addressed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary are problems that we face now—they will not go away, as they have not gone away in the past. In fact, the inspectorate was clear in its report that they would get worse if we failed to act.
Last week, Bedfordshire MPs from all parties met Bedfordshire police authority, which believes that the cost of the Home Secretary's reforms will affect the number of officers on the ground. I tabled a written parliamentary question on that matter last week. Can the Home Secretary enlighten the House about it?
There is absolutely no reason to say that. In fact, I quoted a chief constable making exactly the point that neighbourhood policing will be strengthened, not weakened, by this approach. I will return to that later in my remarks.
A week ago today, Mr. Barry Roper, the independent vice-chairman of Leicestershire police authority, lobbied Leicestershire MPs, including me. Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that there can be a dichotomy of views between an area's police authority and its police force? Would he care to comment on how he intends to react to that?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. There is a range of views about these questions within policing. There are different views between professional police officers, as there sometimes are between chief constables and police authority members. That is part of the debate that we should have. I do not argue that there is a uniformity of view that this is the right thing to do, because that is not so. I do argue, however, that serious professional policing opinion at the level of the inspectorate and others has taken that view consistently.
Has not the Home Secretary identified part of the problem? The police forces that support this proposal are by and large metropolitan police forces covering large metropolitan areas. In the west midlands, for example, West Mercia, which covers Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, has real concerns. Rural communities are in danger of losing out, because resources will go from relatively low-crime rural areas into higher-crime urban areas. Is not that why so many rural forces are concerned about his proposals?
I think that that description is completely wrong. In the west midlands region, for example, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, which have many rural areas, support the changes. Northumbria, a force that has great swathes of rural population, some of which is very sparse, supports the changes. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would categorise County Durham as a rural or an urban force, but it certainly has substantial rural areas, and it supports the changes. He rightly says that there are issues in West Mercia, but it is not the kind of area that he describes.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal by Mr. Davis for a loose federation of constabularies combines the worst of all possible options, first, by not delivering economies of scale at the delivery end and, secondly, by bringing in an additional tier of bureaucracy that can only make things worse?
I agree. That gives me the opportunity to make some progress in addressing precisely that point.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan describes existing collaborative arrangements as "woefully inadequate" and adds that they
"fail to deliver sustained resourcing for preventive or developmental work".
At a different level, Rick Naylor, who leads the Superintendents Association, says:
"The present structure gets in the way of co-operation and working across boundaries. We have tried collaboration and it has not worked."
There are instances of useful collaboration—for example, in providing training for officers, often in reactive response to civil contingencies. Mr. Francois, who is no longer in his place, rightly mentioned Essex's support for the Met after 7/7. Mutual aid can be very strong and effective. It was required, for example, during the recent fire at the Buncefield oil storage facility, where the Metropolitan police service and Bedfordshire constabulary provided support for Hertfordshire in an effective operation.
I do not in any sense decry the view that collaboration can offer solutions and benefits—it can. However, the "Closing the Gap" report demonstrated that that was not a good enough basis for the continuous intelligence and preventive work that is essential for good protective services. The common element of the types of crime that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden described is that in the modern 21st-century police service we must not only predict and prevent but recognise and react. Intelligence gathering and preparation are absolutely critical, and we need resources dedicated to proactively gathering intelligence and making links that deal with that in a variety of ways.
Many of the business cases submitted by forces and authorities state that, under the current structure, if their forces were to experience sustained demand on protective services, local policing would suffer. We need solutions for each area. I agree that it is not a one-size-fits-all model, which is why the regional picture that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden described is not correct. We look at each case and consider what to do in the light of the professional advice that we receive. We are going through options case by case. The first crucial hurdle that every option, whatever it is, has to clear is to demonstrate operational viability in terms of delivering protective services. I hope shortly to be in a position to make an announcement on those options identified as operationally viable, and we will then discuss with forces the best way to proceed.
The west midlands was mentioned earlier. West Midlands police responded tremendously to a bomb scare, for want of a better term, in Birmingham. It showed how well a police force can operate when it gets it act together. However, one of the biggest fears about a merger is that in some areas—for example, Coventry, although we have a big police force—it is often difficult to find somebody in charge on a Saturday, or Sunday, when incidents occur in neighbourhoods. The public expect Members of Parliament to be able to get through to a senior police officer, but it is difficult. Will my right hon. Friend look into that?
My hon. Friend is right. That is precisely why we have made the development of neighbourhood policing teams central to our policing strategy. The strategy at basic command unit level—for example, at the level of the city of Coventry—is for the police to work with other agencies to tackle crime in the locality. A key test is whether such a strategy will help or hinder neighbourhood policing and the development of a proper basic command unit structure. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that.
The Home Secretary said that there was support in Wales for the proposals in the report. A parliamentary written answer from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety suggested that there had been a joint submission from all forces in Wales. However, the North Wales police authority appears to favour closer collaboration with Cheshire. Will my right hon. Friend take that on board?
I certainly shall. My hon. Friend is correct. There are doubts in the police force and among parliamentary colleagues from different parties in north Wales about the wisdom of an all-Wales basis for policing, and serious issues have been raised. As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and I have discussed how best to tackle them with the police force and Members of Parliament. We are therefore listening. I emphasise that, in the rest of Wales, there is a view that an all-Wales force is the right way forward, but we shall take account of my hon. Friend's point.
I want to establish the Home Secretary's good faith, having listened carefully to his response to Albert Owen. Cheshire has made it clear that intelligence as well as crime economy—for want of a better phrase—arguments favour putting north Wales and Cheshire together, rather than putting Cheshire with others in a region called the north-west. If the Home Secretary is truthful about listening, he should wipe away all the administrative boundary constraints, within which North Wales and Cheshire police must fit, and get them together.
The hon. Gentleman is right in an important respect: the crime marketplace runs from Liverpool to north Wales; in south Wales, it runs down the M4 corridor. Examples could be given in every part of the country of the need for collaboration to tackle such circumstances, wherever the border falls.
However, the hon. Gentleman asked me why regional boundaries were important. The reason is that they are important—[Interruption.] Let me be clear. The police will tell all hon. Members who ask that collaboration with other public services—health, education or any other service—is central to improving policing and reducing crime. Increasingly, such collaboration is the way to reduce crime and it is therefore necessary. Other services recognise regional boundaries and that is why I said that police structures should consider that. I said previously that it is not an absolute requirement that one should not cross a regional boundary because there may be cases of the sort that have been mentioned. However, I said publicly in September that the case for not respecting the regional boundary in our work would need to be powerful. That is a reasonable position for a Home Secretary to adopt.
Terrorism and other such subjects have been mentioned. However, residents in Essex are genuinely worried that, at a time of increasing antisocial behaviour and violent crime, the reorganisation will distance policing from local people. That is the key concern, not only in Essex but other parts of the country. At the same time, the reorganisation threatens to increase cost when the police levy in the council tax has already doubled since 1998. What would the Home Secretary say to my constituents?
The hon. Gentleman is right about the concern that exists. I believe that people's major anxiety, reflected in the earlier debate on the proposals, which come from professional police but are supported by the Government, is that policing will move away from the local community. I shall now deal with that precise point.
Let us consider the levels of policing. First, there is neighbourhood policing, which roughly covers a local authority ward. There should be a neighbourhood policing team, with police officers and police community support officers working with the community, so that a force serves its specific needs and cannot be abstracted from it. That is a central policy. It was part of our manifesto in the election and it will be driven through. I shall give an example shortly.
Secondly, the level above the neighbourhood or ward is the local authority area, which the basic command unit covers. A structure should exist at that level for the partnership that I described earlier, whether we are considering Coventry, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Cunningham referred, or any other community in the country. For example, in Essex and, in my case, in Norwich, there should be a relationship between the basic command unit—the BCU—and other services.
Given the anxieties that Mr. Baron expressed, I want to explain how we ensure that neighbourhood policing happens. He is right that his constituents are worried about that. First, we will provide ring-fenced funding, whereby we can ensure that the money is spent on implementing neighbourhood policing. It totals approximately £80 million this year, rising to more than £130 million in 2006–07 and nearly £390 million the year after that to help forces with the costs of moving towards our target of 24,000 police community support officers. A condition of receiving the funding is that police authorities and forces have to sign up to fulfilling the criteria of the neighbourhood policing programme, which the chief constable of Leicestershire is leading. Police community support officers are vital to those teams. We therefore have ring-fenced funding to provide neighbourhood policing.
Secondly, the Government, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, are providing a programme of support and guidance, to ensure that all forces have effective police teams. The Association of Chief Police Officers is leading a programme of support, evaluation and programme management to ensure that the programme is delivered in every police area in the country. As part of that, it provides professional guidance for neighbourhood policing teams and BCU commanders, and training to ensure that all officers are committed to implementing the target. If forces fail to implement the programme effectively, the programme team will intervene to support and help drive progress.
If, after such support, forces continue to fail to deliver the neighbourhood policing that the constituents of the hon. Member for Billericay want—for example, knowing the names, addresses and phone numbers of local officers whom they can contact about any problem that arises—we have the power to intervene. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will begin to conduct specific inspections of neighbourhood policing later this year. If it is not being performed according to agreed national standards—agreed with and by the police—the inspectorate will develop an improvement plan with the force, as happens when any force fails an inspection. If the force continued to underperform—that is extremely unlikely—it could lead to engaging the police standards unit. Ultimately, it is possible for the Home Secretary to intervene directly.
I am trying to stress that the neighbourhood policing element, which the hon. Member for Billericay rightly raises, is the key concern. I believe that we have a substantial programme in place to implement the policy. Every chief constable in the country is committed to developing neighbourhood policing. I therefore hope that the sanctions that we have discussed will be unnecessary. The policy is essential.
I thank the Home Secretary for his verbal commitment to the principle of neighbourhood policing. However, has not the trend under the Government gone in the opposite direction? Sir Denis O'Connor's report states:
"When HMIC started the current BCU inspection process there were nearly 320 BCUs in existence, but in only three years the pressures to achieve resilience, financial efficiency and co-terminosity have seen this figure fall to approximately 230."
The BCUs are becoming bigger and less accountable. That is the reality of community policing under the Government.
Actually, I do not think that that is the reality. If we look at neighbourhood policing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, we can see it developing much more. I will respond to the point about BCUs in a moment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire is probably a good example of what he has been describing? We have a large rural force combined with a metropolitan force. The chief constable is based down the road at Stafford, some miles removed from Stoke-on-Trent both geographically and in terms of the local environment, yet in Stoke-on-Trent the chief superintendent, John Wood—who was recognised in the new year's honours for his outstanding work—is putting in place just the kind of local policing that my right hon. Friend describes, through the systems that are in place in Stoke-on-Trent, and working at community level.
One of the exciting things about doing this job is that, when I go to communities such as Stoke and meet the borough commanders and local inspectors who are dealing with these issues, I can see that their commitment, engagement and excitement in delivering these programmes is real. This is not something that we are having to put in place against the wishes of the policing professionals; exactly the reverse is the case. They want to deal with these problems more effectively; my hon. Friend is right.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that coterminosity is important? In Surrey, it is therefore important for the Surrey police to stay where they are, coterminous with Surrey county council. If the police force were merged with that of Sussex or Kent, it would be coterminous with nobody.
The key issue is coterminosity with the local district council area, and that is how it should be.
I will take the hon. Lady's question as a cue to talk about the BCU relationship, which has rightly been identified as extremely important. I want to emphasise that, through the Bill that was published last week, we are significantly strengthening accountability, so that the BCUs and the crime and disorder reduction partnerships—the CDRPs—will be more accountable to local communities. It will therefore be much more difficult for forces to ignore the BCU-level demands of those communities.
First, we are introducing national standards, to which the CDRPs must adhere, to provide a minimum quality of service. Secondly, we will ensure that elected councillors responsible for community safety take a personal lead in setting community safety priorities. One of the problems has been that elected local authority councillors have not always been able to give this work the priority that their constituents would wish. The key strategic issues will be set by the CDRP's members, the elected councillors, rather than by officials.
We will also ensure, through the national standards, that the CDRPs continue the consultation with their communities and develop it so as to reflect the concerns of local people. There will be scrutiny of the work of the CDRPs by local authority scrutiny committees—again, in the classic way, through local government—and inspection by the inspectorate in the relevant area. All of this will make it much more difficult for a chief constable or a police authority to circumscribe or weaken the discretion of a BCU commander.
Beyond that, we are introducing measures to ensure that, even where they do not succeed, communities will still have the ability to get their particular problems addressed, even if the overarching force is not involved. To deal with circumstances in which issues are not being addressed, we are legislating in the Police and Justice Bill to provide a mechanism—which we are calling the community call for action—whereby people living or working in a particular area can initiate action by the BCU commander or the local authority chief executive. The new legislation will give the Home Secretary the power to intervene to force the police authority—and, through it, the police force—to take BCU-level issues seriously and to give the BCU-level commanders the support that they need to get the job done.
The concern expressed both by Labour and Opposition Members that this reform will lead to the police being distanced from the local community is, I accept, a well-founded fear, in the sense that it is a description of the state of affairs that exists. However, it is not founded in reality. The process that we have set out to promote neighbourhood policing and to develop the basic command unit will apply throughout the country in ways that will materially change the situation.
The right hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous in giving way. He is right to say that some change is necessary. Will he at least acknowledge, however, that the police authorities were right to resist the Home Office deadline before Christmas, and that they acted in the public interest in so doing, because they have facilitated a fuller consultation that will deliver better solutions for neighbourhood policing and enable the Home Secretary to consider Her Majesty's Opposition's proposal to work together to get the answer right?
I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. What actually happened was that just about every force in the country—all but one or two, I think—submitted proposals to me as requested. There were a number of authorities that did not make a proposal, although the force in their area did. The Association of Police Authorities then put out what was, in my opinion, an extremely ill-judged press release shortly before Christmas, suggesting that people were not responding when in fact they were. We had very good responses. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to suggest that the key element is neighbourhood policing.
In regard to the communication that exists at the moment, Dorset MPs have a very close relationship with the chief constable. If we create a super-force for the south-west, that relationship would change fundamentally. The worst case scenario would be that the power, influence and responsibility that we have in regard to the police force would be transferred from the House to the regional assemblies. In the case of the south-west, that would involve the most undemocratic, unrepresentative and unelected body in the entire area.
At the risk of intervening in difficult debates about regionalism, I think that I can say with some confidence that the prospect of an elected regional assembly in the south-west region is some little way away. The accountability of neighbourhood policing that we want to achieve is certainly to the House but, even more importantly, to the local community. That accountability should exist at the level of the basic command unit, the district council or the unitary authority, directly to the people in that area by the means that I have described. If the hon. Gentleman believes in accountability, I hope that he will agree that the police in Dorset should be accountable not only to the House—important though that is—but to the people in his constituency in the direct way that I am establishing.
I will not give way. I want to conclude my speech.
The problems that we face today are stubborn, persistent and serious, and no one should try to hide that fact. That is the view of policing professionals in this country—[Interruption.] And it is the view of the Home Secretary. It is the view of the Home Secretary as advised by policing professionals. I am not just making a political point for a political reason. I am looking at the professional policing needs of the country.
Present policing structures have shown themselves to be very able to deliver in terms of reducing volume crime and providing a good local service. However, the present structures have failed to deliver a dynamic, forward-looking and strategic response to the problems of organised criminality, terrorism, and nationally mobile criminals. On the basis of the assurances that I have given, particularly on neighbourhood policing and the basic command units, I hope that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden will urge his colleagues not to vote for his motion today. I should be interested to see how things go if they do.
I should be very happy to take the Home Secretary up on his offer. I have said that, if he is willing to have an open consultation on this issue—in some cases involving referendums, in the parts of the country where people have concerns—we shall not press this point. However, the intervention by my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien made it clear that people feel inhibited even from making submissions, because they believe that the Home Secretary will not pay attention. Cross-border policing is just one example of the issues involved. If the Home Secretary will now tell the House that the Government will hold an open consultation in the time that he has available—after all, he is not going to be able to implement this until nearly 2008—and look at all the options, including federation, with an open mind, we will not press this matter to a vote.
All that I will say on that is that we have had an open consultation—[Interruption.] We certainly have, and many submissions have been made by policing professionals. By the way, we have also had quite a large number of debates in the House and elsewhere on these questions—some in Opposition time, some in Government time. I therefore urge colleagues on both sides of the House to support the amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and to help us to take forward this important reform of policing, which will improve the security of people throughout the country.
I am grateful to David Davis for selecting this subject for debate. It is an enormously important matter. I also congratulate him on the tone in which he introduced the debate. This matter should not be fought on strictly party political lines—it is too important for that. I freely admit that in the many years that I have spent speaking about policing matters in the House, I have often found myself in agreement with him, as I have with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety on some of the things that she has been trying to achieve in the police service. We would often share an agenda, for instance, on neighbourhood policing.
That is not to say that I agree with the proposal today on amalgamation. If, as the Home Secretary has declared, we have had an open consultation, it must have been some time over the Christmas holidays, I guess—[Interruption.] Yes, we did not notice it at the time. A police restructuring of such a massive scale must have a real question mark against it. Even those who support it wholeheartedly—there are some who will—cannot deny that a reorganisation of structures of this sort will be costly and difficult, and will divert police attention away from their core duties at, I believe, a critical time for the country. It will also be divisive because different views will be expressed.
None of those is a decisive argument in itself against making changes in the police service—not if there is an overwhelming case in support of the Government's proposals. However, there is no overwhelming case. Even if there were, none of that would suggest the sort of precipitate action that the Home Secretary suggests, given his time scale for developing a structure that suits the country, which would normally take a great deal of consideration both by the House and, more importantly, by those outside the House. To have bypassed that whole procedure in favour of a consultation that was brief to the point of cursory, followed by a decision that I do not believe to be in the interests of the country, is not the way in which we should approach such a serious matter.
In the spirit of cross-party consensus, may I share with the hon. Gentleman the views of Dr. Marie Dickie, the Labour chairman of the Northamptonshire police authority, which, together with the four other authorities in the east midlands, has been considering the potential impact of the proposals? She estimates that the up-front cost will be £100 million, and that all five authorities involved will end up with fewer police on the beat if they are to provide the level 2 services that the Home Secretary wants to be provided.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know Dr. Dickie well, because she was chair of the police authority when I was chairman of my police authority in Avon and Somerset, and we worked on the same committees together. I am sure that she will take a sober and sensible view of the cost to her authority.
What the hon. Gentleman says underlines the fact that the Home Secretary makes great play of the professional consensus that he believes exists—but no such consensus exists. Across the country, only 13 forces want to take part in a merger. Police authorities and forces are not voting with their feet to embrace the new structure, they are rejecting it. Thirteen of them say that they want to stay as stand-alone forces and another 15 have not expressed a preference. It is simply nonsense to suggest that there is a clear professional view that the proposals are the way forward.
Even the O'Connor report, as my hon. Friend Martin Horwood pointed out in an earlier debate on the issue, was not conclusive. It stated:
"To conclude, the answers to the two questions that prefaced this section are: The current structure of policing probably does not support the efficient and affordable provision of protective services and support services; and yes, there is evidence that changes in that structure might provide a more efficient basis for service provision."
That is an invitation to open a debate. It is not an invitation to settle the structure of police forces for the next half-century.
One other area on which the debate has not so far touched is recruitment. I know police officers in Hereford—I was at school with three police officers who serve in my local division—who have said to me that they would not have joined a west midlands force, had one existed, for fear of being transferred from Herefordshire, not to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire or similar rural communities but to Wolverhampton, Birmingham or wherever. They believe that there is a future recruitment problem, especially for small rural forces, as people would not join such a force if there was such a danger.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
If we return to the underpinning of the whole argument, which is how we effectively fight international and national crime, we must examine the Government's rhetoric. No so long ago, we discussed the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Bill to bring it into effect. However, that agency does not come into force until
In relation to the lack of foresight, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the idea of amalgamating basic command units into a regional structure is untested and highly vulnerable? In West Mercia, which Mr. Keetch discussed, we have six basic command units. If amalgamated into a regional structure, the chief constable will have 30 basic command unit commanders. In virtually any other sphere of endeavour, maintaining the relationship for direct reports with 30 people, rather than six, is almost impossible. The chief constable will have a much less direct relationship with what is going on in local areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know that he has experience of management structures and speaks with some authority.
If we are considering alternative structures, particularly for dealing with major, national and international crime, we should return to our consideration of the legislation that introduced the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I advocated an expanded role for that agency, so that it would be the clear vehicle for fighting national and international crime. I also called for chief constables to re-concentrate efforts on local policing, keeping the peace in their areas and fighting local crime. I still believe that that is a better structure for this country's police forces.
Regional police forces are neither one thing nor the other. They are a nationalised police force, but we have 12 of them. Why? Where is the logic in that? I could understand more easily if the Home Secretary were to say that there would be a national police force and that that was the end of it. A national police force based in Scotland Yard would be just as relevant to people in Penzance as a national police force based in Gloucestershire. We should recognise that.
May I put to my hon. Friend a point to which the Home Secretary seems unwilling to listen—the political equivalent of the point that he just made about the operational side? The question is, what is the long-term future for police authorities in a world in which they are becoming increasingly remote and unrepresentative, and in which, as the Home Secretary made clear, accountability is shifting to district councils and to neighbourhood level? In the long term, will not that reduction of the police authorities' role undermine the legitimacy of their taxation role, which is currently the basis of their overall role?
My hon. Friend has made an important point about the governance of the new authorities. I have not yet heard a satisfactory explanation from the Government of how that governance will work and how it can be in any way representative. I have heard some interesting ideas about local accountability at basic command unit and neighbourhood level, which I am willing to entertain. That is one matter, but governance of the force—ensuring that its resources are appropriate to the areas that are policed—has not been considered so far.
There are different ways of approaching issues relating to the future of policing, and some operations do not make sense at force level any more. I am entirely unconvinced, for example, that it makes any sense for there to be 43 special branch departments across the country, given the realities of the threat that we face, and I should be happy to consider a change in that arrangement. However, the kernel of the Government's case is that we need better co-ordination, better communication and better sharing of resources, and we know that that is possible without huge structures that may, in fact, militate against effective use of those resources.
I want to make a little more progress.
I do not think that the Home Office is taking account of what has happened in local forces over recent years. No doubt the Home Office was shaken by the events in Soham and the subsequent inquiry, which revealed serious deficiencies in some small forces. We cannot get away from that and it is right for the Home Secretary to deal with the position. We clearly need better co-ordination—but the idea that that can be achieved only by means of large regional structures is, I think, quite wrong.
As has often been pointed out, the problem with regional structures is that they are not consistent with patterns of crime. Regional boundaries do not map the areas where criminal activity takes place. North Wales and Cheshire have already been mentioned, but the position is replicated in South Wales. For that matter, Avon and Somerset and Gwent form a single crime area, but no one has yet entertained the possibility of a merger between them.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that there is obviously a strong case for a federation in our south-west region, and most of us consider that that would be the best solution. I hope that he also agrees that there is a second option that should be considered—a merger between Dorset and Hampshire. Common sense suggests, as any police officer in Dorset will confirm, that that is the answer if the Government continue to insist on mergers.
I entirely agree. I speak as a Somerset man with a constituency bordering on Dorset, but I know that the patterns of crime do not extend from Bristol or Plymouth to Dorset; they extend from Southampton and Portsmouth. The logic of sticking to the Government's office boundaries escapes me; it just does not make sense in operational terms.
I will make some more progress, if I may.
The Home Secretary is absolutely right about local policing. Those outside the cosy world of politics or policing see their local police force as something that belongs to them. They are already worried about the remoteness of policing and the fact that, particularly in rural areas, they are less likely to see police officers than they were in the past. They worry about the possible retreat of the entire criminal justice system from their localities.
My hon. Friend David Howarth made a valid point about the size of basic command units. The trend in recent years has been to merge BCUs so that a single unit covers perhaps an entire county in administrative terms. That runs entirely counter to the Home Secretary's objectives.
Even all the assurances that the Home Secretary is able to give can be given only in the context of his policies at the present time in the present Administration. Once the new structures are in place, they will be capable of being enormously remote from the people whom they serve.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of people's concern about whether local police officers will be able to serve their communities. A serving police constable told me that when he wants information from an adjoining force, he must rely on telephoning and hoping he will be able to contact an officer in the department with which he is dealing. He can only hope that the officer is on duty, and is not on holiday. If the officer is available, the constable must ask him to log into his computer system and call up the information that will enable the constable to deal with the case that he is handling. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what people want is for police forces to work together properly, and that the present system does not achieve that?
Order. Before Mr. Heath answers that question, may I point out that many Members have not yet learned the art of the short intervention? Long interventions—particularly on a day when a great many Members wish to speak and there is a limited amount of time—eat into the time rather badly. Interventions must be brief.
I can only tell Mr. Flello that if his police commander in Stoke-on-Trent is encountering such problems with Stafford, one wonders what problems he will encounter when he has to ring Birmingham.
As has been established, the estimated initial costs will be up to £600 million. We must add to that the cost of restructuring all the other parts of the criminal justice system, including those that are coterminous and consonant with the present police authority boundaries. All of them will have to be changed. I think that the £1 billion estimate is not unrealistic for the total cost of the exercise. Then there are the capital costs, which it seems will have to be met by the council tax payer. We are talking about a significant amount, which could be better spent on more police officers for our streets and lanes.
Let me end by describing some personal experiences from my time as chairman of Avon and Somerset police authority. I should say at the outset that Avon and Somerset was a merged force. Many people in Somerset strongly resent the fact that they are policed by something called the Avon and Somerset police force, based in Portishead rather than in their own area. There is already some resentment about the potential remoteness of Avon and Somerset. Now it may become part of a south-west regional force which it has been suggested will cover 8,000 square miles—although it is nearer 9,000 if we include the Isles of Scilly—and whose northernmost point is nearer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall. There are huge demographic variations in a region that runs from the St. Paul's area of Bristol to Exmoor, where policing problems are very different. This is, therefore, clearly a difficult and dangerous course to follow.
When I was chairman of the Avon and Somerset authority, we were able to make links. We shared a helicopter with the Gloucestershire force. That was a very good idea because we did not need two helicopters, one in Gloucester and one in Bristol. Links of that sort make sense.
I will have to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that no one shouts at me afterwards that I have taken too long.
Three or four years ago, when I was the Minister responsible for policing, air support for police services was held back throughout England because in most places forces insisted on bidding for their own helicopter or light plane—which they could not afford—and refused to co-operate with neighbouring forces. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the evidence on that issue, he will see that it runs against the point that he is making.
Perhaps I was extraordinarily progressive in my police authority area, but are these not lessons that can be learned by other police authorities without scrapping the entire structure of British policing in the process? I think that they are.
Members may wonder why my authority is still called the Avon and Somerset police authority, given that Avon has not existed for some time, thanks to a ghastly Conservative creation and the process of local government reorganisation. The reason is that my police authority colleagues and I refused to spend money on providing new cap badges and new headings on stationery. I thought then that the money could be better spent on policing, and I think that now in respect of this restructuring.
The issue is not keeping rigidly to the current structures—anyone planning policing in Britain from the start would not devise the current structures—but asking sensible and intelligent questions about those structures, making mergers where appropriate and where supported by local communities and police forces, and improving co-ordination, sharing and communication. However, the issue is also how we go about retaining the basic principle of British policing—that it is by, with and for the community, not by, with and for the state. There is a saying that all politics is local. I should like to say that all policing is local but, sadly, in the modern world it is not. We have to make appropriate arrangements to deal with national and international crime, but a lot of policing is local and is best done locally.
In my contribution to this important debate, I want to distinguish between the process that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is following during this reorganisation, and the aim that we should have in terms of a future force structure.
One problem with the debate in this House and in the country is that criticisms of how the reorganisation is being carried through are being used to justify opposition to change itself. That poses a serious threat to our ability to deliver the right policing structure for fighting crime and delivering law and order at all levels—from the most local to national and international. It is very important not to make the mistake of saying that, because some Members do not like the way in which the Government are going about the process, the case for change is therefore wrong. The case for change is very powerful indeed.
As most people have recognised, no one would try to design the current police force structure to meet the needs of policing in England and Wales. This curious mixture of Anglo-Saxon boundaries, with bits of 1960s and 1970s local government reform thrown in, belongs to an age when crime was less mobile and more local, and when the patterns of urban deprivation and rural crime were quite different from today. We have to face up to a fundamental problem: in trying to meet the challenges that policing faces today, our existing structures cannot simply be adjusted by a series of minor and incremental changes.
Because this issue concerns many of our constituents—people whom we respect, such as those serving on police authorities, do indeed have genuine concerns—and because we are all politicians with an ear to what our constituents are telling us, the danger is that we will respond by saying, "The case for change isn't made—here is an alternative." That is not the right approach. We need to recognise that it is very difficult for smaller forces to make their full contribution to all the types of policing that need to be carried out in our communities, from dealing with antisocial behaviour to counter-terrorism.
The police performance results show clearly that many small forces do well—often, it must be said, in not the most challenging of circumstances—on volume crimes such as car crime, burglary and antisocial behaviour. However, few small forces can also make the necessary full contribution to more serious, regional and national crime. That presents a real difficulty. We cannot have a policing pattern in England and Wales that means that only some forces can make their full contribution to dealing with all types of crime.
The Government could have chosen, as Mr. Heath proposed, to adopt a case-by-case approach by mopping up a few weak forces, and so on. There is fine balance to be struck between proceeding in that way and in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has chosen. In terms of the politics of introducing such change, the case-by-case approach would have been a great deal easier. However, it does present the difficulty of painting oneself into a corner: one changes this bit here and that bit there, only to discover that three quarters of the floor is painted and there is no way out of the room. At least the Government's approach has the advantage of trying to paint a rational overall picture.
The two major alternatives to the Government's approach are federation and the FBI model, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome did not push with half the strength—he was very wise not to do so—that Mr. Oaten previously did. As a step from where we are to somewhere a bit better, federation has some attractions, but no sensible person would design a system based on an incoherent pattern of police forces that one then urges to work together more effectively. That would not be a logical approach.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the incoherent pattern of forces several times in his speech, but in fact, the pattern in rural areas is very consistent and involves only one or two county forces; indeed, the model is straightforward. Gloucester constabulary supports the idea of a shared services model, an option that has not been costed or properly explored in this headlong rush toward amalgamation.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the pattern is incoherent in terms of its ability to deliver forces of the minimum size required. I agree with David Davis, who picked me up earlier on the use of the phrase "optimum size". There is a minimum size of force necessary to deliver the range of services required for all types of policing, but it is clear that the optimum size will vary according to the geography and social nature of the area concerned.
Federation is really a sticky, messy compromise, reached in order to avoid taking some difficult decisions. Asking police forces to co-operate on what will inevitably be an ad hoc, investigation by investigation, crisis by crisis basis will never be as effective as establishing forces that are sufficiently large to deliver, most of the time, the necessary services to the local population.
The Liberal Democrats previously argued very strongly that all policing should be local, with a national force to deal with everything from level 2 crime upward. That does not make any sense either. Such a national force would have to be huge to deliver serious work against level 2 crime at local level. We need forces that are big enough—as my own Hampshire and Isle of Wight county force is—to deliver the required range of services. Operation Phoenix, a co-ordinated drugs raid carried out in Southampton a few months ago, involved well in excess of 600 officers. In a smaller force, such an operation might have used up 60 per cent. of all available officers in the entire area. Generally speaking, such operations are sustainable in larger forces, but not in smaller ones.
I recognise that county forces such as Hampshire are already of sufficient size to provide the required level of service. Changes to the Hampshire force may be necessary—we will have to wait and see—not for its own needs, but to ensure that all forces can deliver the required services; I hope not, but I am open to examining the conclusions of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. But forces that are not big enough to deliver on combating everything from antisocial behaviour to the most serious crime will be letting down not just their own constituents, but people across England and Wales as a whole.
I conclude by making a few points to my Front-Bench team about their handling of this matter from here on. First, they are right to push the case for change, and it would be a mistake to retreat into the short-termism of the federal option. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced what the Government are doing from the top down to secure the development of basic command unit neighbourhood policing, but there must also be some bottom-up guarantees as to how that will be delivered.
The idea of elected police commissioners is silly and dangerous. The last things that we want are the politicisation of the police and direct elections. However, as BCUs fit with local authorities, we need to ensure that there is a democratic route to action. The public need to know that the people whom they elect in their normal local elections have the power to hold the police to account for the quality of service at a local level.
Secondly, the Government need not move to forces that are too big. I was challenged on that point earlier by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. Forces should be big enough to offer the optimum range of services, but there should be no artificial drive for forces that are too big.
I have made my final point before, and it concerns a matter about which I agree with other hon. Members. It is that there is no need to be dogmatic about regional boundaries if the arguments about localism or crime patterns outweigh the case for fitting with regional boundaries.
I rise to speak on behalf of my local police force in Wiltshire. In doing so, I know that I am also speaking for other Conservative Members with constituencies in the area, my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who is in his place behind me, for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison).
I want to speak about my local force as it is one of the smallest in the country. Mr. Denham spoke about a force's "optimum" size, but then corrected that to its "minimum" size. My point is that size does not matter, but delivery does. The Wiltshire force may be small, but its standards of performance are among the highest in the country. It achieves excellent levels of public service and satisfaction, as is shown in the baseline and police performance accountability framework assessments. The force has invested appropriately and prudently, in line with the professional threat assessments, and it has been able to meet demands in respect of major crime, firearms, public order and—as I know from my own past—very important person protection and air support. The force is small but it is effective.
I do not claim that the Wiltshire force is perfect. No force in the country is, but the merger proposals would throw the baby out with the bathwater and that is the wrong way to go.
As my right hon. and learned Friend says, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Wiltshire force was founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1832. Since then, no murder has remained unsolved. Its detection and safety rates are among the best in England. It is an excellent police force, so why on earth is it being done away with?
My hon. Friend makes my point for me very effectively. No Conservative Member is suggesting that change is unnecessary or that all police forces work as well as they can. We are talking about what needs to be done, and as I listened to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I found that I agreed with almost everything that he said. The same is true for the speech of my right hon. Friend David Davis.
The matter can be dealt with in ways other than merger, such as the co-operative arrangements that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary set out. We need the flexibility to develop structures that best serve the needs of local communities. Those needs will differ between communities and areas. Certain overheads can be shared, and joint operations can be more efficient than those undertaken by individual forces.
I have also looked at the federal model and I am surprised at how that is dismissed by the Government. I have spoken to the Wiltshire police authority about it and was told that the federal approach is less disruptive than mergers, and would be less likely to impact negatively on police performance. Moreover, it was suggested that a change to federalism would work with the grain of local communities and incur lower start-up and associated costs, and could be put in place quickly. If we were starting with a clean sheet of paper, of course, the federal model might not be the best design, but we must begin with the police forces that we have. In that context, the federal model is a good answer that the Home Secretary should study carefully.
Neither of the two options that I have put forward—the co-operative and the federal models—appears to meet the criteria set by the Home Secretary. I listened carefully to what he said about Opposition accusations that the Government had a regionalisation agenda, and I confess that I am sceptical about his denials. Ever since the Government came into office, they have pursued a regional agenda in all sorts of ways. Suddenly, we find that police reform is moving towards a regional agenda and that is clearly a stalking horse for something that has been a major plank of this Government's policy since they were elected.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is proved by the fact that the Government are inflexible when it comes to crossing regional boundaries? If they were not pursuing a regional agenda, would they not be more flexible in that regard?
That was very much the impression that I got from the Home Secretary's body language. I heard nothing to suggest that he has moved away from the regional agenda that he and the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety have been proclaiming on the radio over the past few months.
The Government's proposals are bad news for Wiltshire. That is why they are opposed by our police authority, the chief constable and local people. They will undermine the important sense of local identity that is very much part of the force's success. They will make even more difficult the already unsatisfactory degree of accountability in our police service.
I have spent many years in politics, and have seen many attempts to centralise, under Conservative as much as Labour Governments. The argument has always been that centralisation would reduce costs and improve services, but never once has that been the result. On every occasion, the push for centralisation has ended up costing more and providing a worse service. I do not believe that this will be any different.
For four years in the 1980s, I was the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for the police force. I saw the results of the regionalisation of local government. The policing of remoter areas of Scotland became much more difficult, and that worries me now, given that my constituency is so rural.
I have a good local test. I live near Pewsey, a large village that some people call a small town. It has two resident policemen. What would happen if police forces in the south-west were merged? My answer is that we certainly would not have two policemen resident in that village.
If the Government continue with these proposals, the result will be that policing will cost more than at present. As some hon. Members have said, the cost will be met, not by the Government, but by the local taxpayer, through the precept. We will end up in the extraordinary position of paying more and getting less. That is a very good reason to oppose what the Government are trying to do.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Wiltshire police force is not broke. I have watched the Home Office over the past few years and I get the feeling that it is suffering from a form of ministerialitis. Ministers always want to be seen to be active and with purpose. That was evident last night, when they were defeated in the House, and it can be seen in many other policy proposals. It is right to be active with purpose if the purpose is correct, but I remind the Government that the charge of the Light Brigade was full of both purpose and action. If Ministers are not careful, they will be embarking on a similar road.
Why is the Home Secretary so determined to plough ahead, even after what the Prime Minister told us today at Question Time? The key test for the Government is to produce the best standards of policing with the best local delivery at the best value. Their proposals fall short on all those counts. The Home Secretary should climb down off his obsessional hobbyhorse, listen to the people of this country, and think again.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety is aware of the concerns in West Yorkshire. She recently met me, other MPs in the area and various other people, and an Adjournment debate was also held on the issue. However, I make no apology for taking this further opportunity to raise our concerns with her and her team.
I understand that the Minister is caught between a rock and hard place. Obviously, the Government cannot ignore the advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary about protective services, or the fact that many smaller forces are unable to meet the challenges involved. However, the HMIC report focused narrowly on only one aspect of policing, albeit an important one, without considering how its conclusions might dovetail with issues of neighbourhood policing, community engagement, governance and cost. Those questions remain unresolved and continue to cause great concern.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and her colleagues have yet to make a clear and cogent case for why West Yorkshire needs to be merged, especially given that the force meets the criteria of the HMIC report. It appears that its future is being determined not by what is best for our area but on the force's convenient proximity to three smaller forces, which I must add are three smaller and lower-achieving forces. With 5,700 police officers, West Yorkshire easily meets HMIC's minimum size of 4,000 for a strategic force. It demonstrated its capacity to deal with the challenges of terrorism during its recent work on the London bombings.
A Yorkshire and Humberside amalgamated force would be artificially large, to use the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham. Under the Home Office's criteria, the option of retaining a single force easily represents the best approach for West Yorkshire, which achieved a combined score of 809 for protective services and organisational impact. That compares with scores of 732 for the merger with North Yorkshire and 713 for a four-force regional merger.
There are also significant differences in performance across the region. In the protective services assessment recently carried out by HMIC, West Yorkshire was the highest-scoring force in the region. Its combined score was 53, compared with scores of 42, 35 and 32 for South Yorkshire, Humberside and North Yorkshire respectively. There is therefore an understandable fear that there would be a levelling down of services, especially in the early years, rather than West Yorkshire's maintaining its present standards.
Some collaborative and lead force arrangements with neighbouring forces already operate effectively. I appreciate that HMIC has concluded that such arrangements are not the way forward, but West Yorkshire contends that the perceived shortcomings of such arrangements could be overcome if they were properly structured and formalised, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability. It surely is not logical to dismiss the idea of a more structured federal approach simply on the basis of a critique of existing informal collaborations. Such an approach would provide protective services without incurring the huge costs and the disruption associated with amalgamation. It would also allow West Yorkshire to retain its identity, and to maintain the great progress it has made on local policing priorities and reduction of crime.
It is difficult to get one's head around what a regional force covering the whole of Yorkshire and Humberside would look like, as policing has never been delivered on such a large organisational scale outside London. Thanks to the record number of police officers under this Government, West Yorkshire has made enormous strides in reducing crime. My own division, Pudsey and Weetwood, has probably made the lion's share of the contribution towards that achievement. The fear is that creation of a huge regional force will inevitably have a downwards knock-on effect, increasing basic command unit size. The costs associated with merger have been calculated at something like £50 million in West Yorkshire, although a great many figures have been bandied about globally and for individual forces.
The other problem with a major structural change is that people have to relate not only to their local BCU but to the area in which it operates, simply because many important decisions taken at a strategic level have a direct impact on what BCUs and their commanders can deliver.
Without financial safeguards, the effect of a merger on Yorkshire and Humberside would be to equalise Government funding in the new police region, and the police precept paid by residents. Under a crude equalisation without any smoothing, which would be expensive in itself, both amalgamation options would raise the precept in West Yorkshire by 20 per cent. That is clearly grossly unfair to my constituents and the other people in the area.
There are other organisational considerations, which time does not allow me to go into in detail. Policing boundaries in West Yorkshire are coterminous with crime and disorder reduction partnerships and other community safety organisations. Each district council has representation on the police authority. The number of councillor members per district means that they are able to engage in conducting their police authority responsibilities as well as the original purposes for which their electors elected them. That simply would not be possible under either amalgamation proposal.
I hope that the Minister will see from what I have been able to impart in digested form, from the Adjournment debate, and from the discussions and meetings that we have had and no doubt will have in future, why we in West Yorkshire are opposed to an enforced merger. I should like a commitment that she and her colleagues will genuinely look at the case being made by West Yorkshire to retain its present boundaries and operation.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Truswell, who, in a thoughtful speech, challenged the thinking behind the merger of his force into a much larger regional authority. The arguments that he deployed will have struck a chord with many hon. Members.
It is also a pleasure to welcome back to the Back Benches my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram after some 14 years on the Front Bench. The loss to the Front Bench is counterbalanced by the gain for the Back Benches.
I want to make two points, one general and one local. The general point is that public service reform, wherever it comes, is not cost-free. The Prime Minister has talked about the scars on his back, and reform requires the investment of political capital and financial capital. It means taking on established interests and short-term turbulence. It means the diversion of energy from the delivery of front-line services, and it is expensive in set-up costs, relocation, harmonising systems and working practices. It is also destabilising for those involved, many of whom have to bid for their own jobs and then, if successful, move.
That is not a killer argument against reform, but it is an argument for embarking on reform only after due consideration and proper consultation, and after, where possible, building political consensus behind it, having not only convinced a suspicious public that they will benefit, but convinced oneself as the instigator that it is worth the candle. It also means looking across government to phase in a particular reform along with others. It means dealing first with those with the greatest need and the greatest public support, while putting the others in the in-tray for further reflection.
The case against the Government is not that it is not possible to construct a case for police amalgamation. One can. The case against them is that their argument simply is not strong enough, as currently proposed, to include amalgamation in their programme. With health and education, there is consensus that investment of extra money needs to be accompanied by structural reform, and there is an appetite for reform of those public services. The pitch has been rolled, not least by Conservative Members as well as Labour ones.
That is simply not the case with the police forces. There are ways to improve them, and I shall say a word about them in a moment. But they are not along the lines suggested by the Government. My first point, then, is that what the Government propose is a strategic political mistake, as well as wrong for the service under discussion.
My second point concerns my county, Hampshire. Many of the county's Members of Parliament met the police authority last week, and we listened to what it had to say. The authority put forward a sensible case for leaving Hampshire—a large well-run force—alone. Its size is above the minimum standards for grouping proposed by the Government. The total staff is more than 6,000 and likely to rise to more than 7,000 by 2007.
Hampshire is very different from Thames Valley, with which the Home Office plans an arranged marriage for us. We have a long coastline, unlike Thames Valley. We have a large number of military establishments, unlike Thames Valley. We also have some major ports. But crucially—to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Pudsey—we are a high-performing force, ranked either third or fifth out of 43 forces, depending on which performance table one uses, compared with Thames Valley which is, unfortunately, 34th.
The cost of merging with Thames Valley would be £27.1 million, but it would cost nothing to remain as a stand-alone authority. The judgment of the police authority is that protective services may be diluted across the areas of major crime and serious organised crime, causing a decrease in performance or a requirement for extra funding. The Hampshire precept could be increased by 6 per cent., or £10 million per annum. How does that sit with the imperative of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to keep a cap on the local council tax?
Additional front-end funding would also be required to facilitate the reconfiguration and change management processes. As if that were not enough, the assessment of a merger between the two authorities showed that the ongoing increased costs from year three would be £12.2 million, compared with savings of some £8 million. Any local MP, confronted with such evidence from his police authority on a service as sensitive as law and order, has to stand up and ask the Government where they are going. It is also clear that the policing methodologies in these two forces are different, and the work needed to evolve a coherent strategy across such a diverse area would be complex and protracted.
I spent 30 days on the police parliamentary scheme—all credit to Neil Thorne for pioneering it—and saw the workings of the Hampshire constabulary from the inside. We have higher standards. We reject those who would be accepted by other forces, and if officers switch to Hampshire they have to be retrained to our standards. We will inevitably be confronted with a dilution of the high standards that we enjoy and pay for.
The administrative centre is currently in Winchester, which is the centre of the county, but the likely location of a merged service is Kidlington, some way away. There is legitimate staff concern about travelling time and the remoteness of management. Hampshire is a good force, and I saw that at first hand when I patrolled the streets of Southampton a few months ago. Of course it could be even better, but what frustrates officers includes form-filling, frustration with the Crown Prosecution Service and the magistracy, the constraints on how they do their job, and out-of-date buildings. Our energy should be spent freeing them up to use their skills, not on trying to reorganise them.
On this issue I agree with the Prime Minister, who said at Prime Minister's questions last week that there is an argument for a federated approach for certain services. Hampshire already does that, being one of the greatest exporters of services to other forces in the country. We can do that without amalgamation.
On Tuesday last week the Home Office sent two independent consultants to meet the authority's strategic forces. The consultants said that Hampshire's stand-alone case was better than any other authority's and that we had made a strong case for staying as we are. The chief constable's professional advice is that the stand-alone option guarantees the best level of service to our communities at minimum cost. I agree with my chief constable, and I hope that the Minister will too.
I listened with some amazement to the comments by David Davis about neighbourhood policing. As a councillor in an inner-city authority for most of the time that his Government were in power, I had to cope with the reduction in police on the streets, rising crime levels and the total inability to find mechanisms by which the local people could engage with their police force to ensure that their local priorities prevailed. That has changed. I do not claim that there are no longer any problems, but since this Government came to power we have seen a coherent attempt to introduce neighbourhood policing that is beginning to have an impact locally.
I also recall the Opposition's position on the introduction of community support officers and other valuable and valued parts of the local policing scene, so I wonder what they can bring to this debate on neighbourhood policing. I caution the Minister that while we all want to see a consensual approach, priority should be given to the views of those who have actually implemented neighbourhood policing, rather than of those who singularly failed to do so when they had the opportunity.
My second point concerns the O'Connor report—
No, because I have only a short time and I want other people to be able to participate in the debate.
I accept that some people will have views contrary to the thrust of the report, but the gestation of the report goes back to 1993, under the Conservatives. It is clear that the overwhelming balance of professional police opinion supports the O'Connor report's conclusions. I rather regret the attempt by the University of Warwick to rubbish the statistical basis and the credibility of that report. It has a good pedigree and I shall make my judgment on the balance of professional police opinion, rather than on the opinion of university professors in Warwick.
My third point is about the arguments on process. I was in local government for a long time and I know that public services will always object to a process when they disagree with the intention behind it or the outcome is likely to involve hard decisions that nobody wants to face. The last police reorganisation took between 1960 and 1974—almost 15 years. We cannot afford to reproduce that process. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ignore those complaining about the process and get on with it. The O'Connor report reveals that 94 per cent. of gangs are not targeted every year by our police. Those criminal gangs will be rubbing their hands in glee with every year's delay in the implementation of the proposals.
The proposals have to be judged against three criteria. The first is their impact on neighbourhood policing and accountability. The second is their impact on level 2 crime and the third is affordability. On the first, people in local communities relate to their local police at their local station, not to their police authority. Local people want mechanisms by which they can communicate their views and priorities to the local police command unit, so that policing habits in the area reflect those priorities. That is being done under neighbourhood policing and I am glad to say that it will be implemented in my area from April.
The idea that there is no connection between neighbourhood policing and level 2 policing must be dispelled. It is essential to have more effective targeting of criminal gangs if we are to reduce the problems in local communities. It is those criminal gangs that are not targeted and put behind bars that feed in the drugs that cause so many problems in local communities. The one complaint I get, even in a large, well organised and well resourced police authority like the West Midlands, is that all too often local bobbies are taken away to deal with major crimes in other areas. If we can set up larger structures that minimise such disruption of local policing, it will be of benefit. The proposals will complement neighbourhood policing, not destroy it.
The arguments for more strategic forces with specialised units were well made in the report, but there are issues of affordability. Economies of scale have a certain logic but I have seen other reorganisations in local government and public services and, as we all know, translating the theory into reality can create difficulties. The Government need to ensure that the savings that accrue are ploughed back into front-line policing.
My fear is that, as in all restructuring, the new structures will tend to reflect the priorities of the professionals involved rather than the wishes of the community, so I urge the Minister to ensure that the economies that accrue reflect the priorities of the community, not of the professionals. In terms of affordability and economy, the federal structure suggested by the main Opposition would be a nightmare. There would be an extra layer of bureaucracy, blurred lines of accountability and no savings. We would have the worst of all worlds.
I urge the Minister to go ahead with the reforms, taking account of the strictures, but to make sure that they work.
The Home Secretary made much of neighbourhood policing in his opening remarks. Neighbourhood policing is not the community police officer, not the police support officer, not the bobby on the beat—the romantic vision. It is all those people, working with the milkman, the postman, the professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and nurses, the greengrocer, the butcher and the baker. They are the eyes and ears of the community by day and by night, waking and sleeping. It is only by harnessing all those energies that the community—the neighbourhood—stands a chance of beating the antisocial behaviour, vandalism and drunken violence that beset every neighbourhood in the country.
The neighbourhood policing initiative is vital; it is the cornerstone in the fight against crime as most people experience it in their everyday life. The Home Secretary said that his proposals would not damage that project. Well, a week ago, the all-party group on policing was addressed by Jerry Kirkby, the neighbourhood policing programme director for the Association of Chief Police Officers, and by Mark Burns-Williamson, the lead member on neighbourhood policing with the Association of Police Authorities. Both were absolutely clear in their view that if the time, money and energy of the police forces of the UK were diverted into doctrinaire reorganisation, mergers and amalgamations, neighbourhood policing would go out of the window, because the resources will not be there.
The Home Secretary has yet to explain where the £600 million will come from and how it will not be a burden on the money currently paid for the neighbourhood policing programme and other initiatives. If the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Andy Burnham, challenges that figure of £600 million, perhaps during the winding-up speech, either he or the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will put a figure on the proposals, because to date there has been none. The bottom line is that the Government proposals will undermine the one police initiative that they—or to be more exact, the police—have introduced that is actually beginning to work.
The Home Secretary prayed in aid the current president of ACPO, Sir Chris Fox. He received his knighthood in the new year's honours list, so one assumes that he is probably fairly well-known to the Home Secretary. Ministers on the Treasury Bench need to understand that Chris Fox has said that although he believes in bigger police forces, he does so only if the mergers are fully funded by central Government and if sufficient time, energy and thought go into the process. At present, there is no indication of any such funding or that time and thought have gone into the process. In those circumstances, I think we can take it that it is unlikely that even Sir Chris Fox will support what is suggested.
Mike Fuller, the chief constable of Kent, my county, is one of the country's best senior police officers. He and Ann Barnes, the chairman of the Kent police authority, are as one in their opposition to Kent being merged with Sussex, Surrey or any other grouping of forces, in the interests of regional or any other form of government. We have already seen the ambulance and fire services go. School reforms will take governance away from schools, and the health authority is going regional. It is clear that the proposals are a regional initiative. The chief constable of Kent has made it plain that he believes that the process, as determined by the Home Secretary, will damage policing in Kent.
We do not support what Ministers believe to be federation. We need to be extremely careful when using that word. When we say federation we are talking about co-operation, not merger by the back door, so let that not be a Trojan horse. It is fine for police forces to co-operate; in many instances, in emergencies, they already do so. There is scope for more of that co-operation, but there is no scope for the merger of strategic forces such as Kent, with its seaports and airports—the front line to Europe—with any other force.
Finally, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a special constable with the British Transport police, so you would expect me to mention that service. The BTP is not a Home Office force, but it is subject to a parallel review undertaken by the Home Secretary. There are suggestions that all or part of it may be merged with one or more of the Home Office forces. That would be a disaster. The BTP is a national police force. It is already strategic; it is free-standing and it works. Of course, there is room for improvement but it ain't broke; please don't try to fix it.
The debate confronts us with a twin challenge: to tackle level 2 crime, as it has been described, while not merely not damaging but improving local neighbourhood policing.
"Closing the Gap" made several observations about level 2 crime. It noted:
"Only 13 out of 43 forces have fully resourced specialist murder units.
Less than 6 per cent. of over 1500 big organised crime gangs are targeted by police in the course of a year" and that
"some forces' ability to deal with terrorist or domestic extremist incidents would be strained within a matter of hours."
Some Members say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I am saying not that the system is broke, but that the report indicated serious problems that the Government have to address.
The challenge for Ministers is to propose a configuration of forces that meets the gap and tackles serious and organised crimes such as drug trafficking, terrorism and murder without damaging local policing. Those types of serious crime move across county boundaries, but there are also recognised "crime markets"—the phrase used by the Home Secretary—which may inform the configuration of forces.
The proposed merger in the west midlands is supported by three of the four forces but, as was pointed out earlier, not by West Mercia. A couple of important questions are posed about what such a merger might mean. Opponents say that it will harm local policing. That is a serious charge, because if it harms local policing it should not be pursued. Neither the public nor police forces should be forced to choose between tackling serious crime and tackling local neighbourhood crime. The public expect the police to be able to do both. Week in, week out in our constituencies we hear about antisocial behaviour, graffiti and under-age drinking. There might be some merit in the arguments of those who oppose mergers if this was the Government's only proposal on policing, but it is not.
With the basic command unit structure and, crucially, with the enormous expansion in police community support officers—I understand that the new total will be 24,000—there will be significant expansion in local community policing. In addition, the Government have funded additional police officers in recent years. We do not simply have a proposal to merge forces; we have also placed huge additional emphasis on developing neighbourhood policing, as the Home Secretary said in his opening speech, with individual contacts made much easier between officers and their local communities.
Of course, there is the question of costs. I accept that there will be start-up costs, as in any proposed merger or reorganisation, but that is not the end of the picture. Certainly, the West Midlands police authority expects that significant savings will be made over about 10 years. However, I would ask the Minister to reflect on the police precept, which varies in different parts of the country and in different parts of the west midlands. I believe that the public will accept the argument that we need to reconfigure forces to tackle serious crime, but that Ministers must be very wary about imposing additional costs on local people to pay for the change.
These proposals have merit and can go forward. I do not believe that the current situation can be defended in all its forms, because we sometimes force the police to make a choice: when a serious incident occurs, community policing can suffer because officers are pulled away from the community to deal with it. With the twin emphasis on tackling level 2 crime and on neighbourhood policing, we can deal with that problem and move to a form of policing that not only tackles the serious 21st-century crime that the country faces, but gives people the neighbourhood and community policing that they want.
May I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister who will respond to the debate and my hon. Friend Nick Herbert, because, unfortunately, for the first time in 19 years, I will not be able to be present to hear the winding-up speeches in a debate in which I have taken part? I apologise profusely for that.
I pay tribute to the fantastic work done by police officers and their back-up staff in the Essex constabulary on behalf of the people of Essex. We are extremely fortunate in having a dedicated, hard-working group of men and women who work day in, day out, often in thankless circumstances, to police our streets and countryside and to provide a service to the people of the county that I represent. However, we in the county have grave misgivings about the proposals, which are almost being forced on us against our wishes.
The Prime Minister speaks about the Government listening to the people. We do not get the impression of any sincerity in that statement, given the Home Secretary's comments whenever the subject is discussed. We must take into account the fact that, over the past 20 years or so, policing has changed radically, as have the public's expectations of what they want and expect from their police forces. Sadly, in this day and age, there is a need for more intelligence gathering, whether in respect of terrorism or organised crime. Increasingly, at the very local level, people are demanding that the police take action against vandals, graffiti and other antisocial behaviour.
We make other demands on our police, whether because of increasing vehicle crime or crimes against homes and property, and we expect them to respond. The police have a very difficult task to carry out, and we politicians make it more difficult if we distract them with unwanted, unnecessary and unjustified plans to modernise them, by reforming them in ways that they do not want to be modernised or reformed.
Such things are crucial because policing in this country, whether we like it or not, must be done by consent—the consent of the people—and to gain the support of local communities there must be an affinity and relationship between the police and the public whom they serve. I fear that one of the dangers that we face with the reorganisation is that the Government seem hellbent on the philosophy that big is better, but that divorces local people's affinity from the police force that should serve their needs.
In Essex, we were originally told by the Home Secretary that he would not accept a stand-alone Essex police force option: it had to be a merger, whether an arranged marriage with the Norfolk and Suffolk forces, or with the forces to the west of the county in Hertfordshire or the other surrounding counties. Essex police force is large, like the county of Essex, which is one of the largest counties, geographically, and in terms of population, with just over 1.5 million people.
We have a bigger population than the already-merged police force of Devon and Cornwall. We also have special features. Of particular relevance in this age of heightened terrorism, we have the third London airport at Stansted. We have a port at Harwich and one of the longest coastlines, where the police constantly try to minimise and prevent illegal immigration. We also have urban areas, mixed with significant rural areas, whose policing needs differ radically from those of urban areas.
We are being told that we must join forces with another police force—possibly two—thus creating a huge, super-police force that would have no affinity with the local community. The financial impact on Essex council tax payers would be significant, and there would be even greater conflicting policing needs between those of the rural community and the demands of an urban society. That circle cannot be squared by putting us with other counties.
If the Prime Minister is sincere in saying that he and the Government will listen to the people, let them listen and let them listen closely—if the Minister would be kind enough to stop listening to his Parliamentary Private Secretary. He is not listening; he did not even hear me say that, so I hope that he will read Hansard tomorrow and get the message that way. If the Minister is prepared to listen to the arguments, he will find a consensus in Essex against any proposal other than one that allows Essex police to continue as a stand-alone force.
The consensus goes from the chief constable, who is a fairly crucial element in the equation, to the police authority and to 15 of the 17 Members of Parliament who represent the area. Only 15 of them have voiced an opinion because the hon. Members for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) are Ministers, and whatever they may think personally in wanting to represent their constituents' interests, they are bound by collective ministerial responsibility, so they cannot voice an opinion. Among the 15 Members of Parliament who are united, there is a Labour Member—Andrew Mackinlay, who is the only Labour Member for the county, other than the Ministers—and a Liberal Democrat, Bob Russell.
Essex county council is root and branch against the proposals. Most of the borough and district councils in the country are against them, as are the vast majority of members of the public in the county who have voiced an opinion on the subject. So the Minister and the Prime Minister should not pay lip service and use the platitude that they will listen to the arguments—they should act on them. For once, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Gale, instead of driving something forward and pressing for regionalised government, which underlies many of the Government's reforms, they should listen to the people and leave Essex alone to get on with the job of fighting crime without being distracted by other measures.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a speech because I sat through the debate on police restructuring before Christmas and noted that not one Yorkshire Member spoke. I was thus pleased that my hon. Friend Mr. Truswell made a speech earlier, although my comments will be slightly different from his. I want to talk about the Humberside police force in the context of what has happened over the past eight or nine years—since we have had a Labour Government. All hon. Members know that crime and community safety are key issues for our constituents, so I am proud of the Labour Government's record of putting them right at the top of the agenda.
I am going to carry on and make some progress, if I may.
We have already heard about the additional 14,000 police officers, the introduction of police community support officers and the extension of CCTV in major towns and cities. I support the neighbourhood policing initiative, and we know that crime rates are going down in general, so obviously we should welcome that. We must also realise that steps have been taken to try to cut back on the bureaucracy with which the police must deal. There are now fewer forms for our officers to fill in. There are Crown Prosecution Service lawyers in police stations, which helps to ensure that charges are dealt with quickly, which means that cases can go to court far more rapidly than before.
I am going to carry on.
If we consider policing in 2006, we are all aware that there are local issues and more strategic national issues that we must address. We have already examined the jobs that we ask some of our police officers to do to find out whether they could be civilianised. We have considered establishing non-emergency telephone numbers so that the public can access the police more quickly than they can by dialling 999, to ask them to address problems that need not be dealt with immediately. I have already mentioned the police CSOs, and Hull has excellent community wardens who are about to be introduced throughout the whole of the city from April.
Against that background, I read "Closing the Gap", the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, with an open mind. I also drew on my experience as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority in London. It is worth pointing out that the authority covers 32 London boroughs with basic command units that feed into the commissioner. The fact that there is such a large force does not mean that there cannot be effective management.
The Humberside police force has just over 2,275 officers, just over 1,200 staff, 354 special officers and only 22 police community support officers. Many hon. Members will know that we have had a chequered past in Humberside. We were involved with the Soham inquiry and the Bichard report. Our previous chief constable had a bit of a spat with a Home Secretary a short while ago, and we were the last police force in the country to get police CSOs. Our new chief constable realised that that was a mistake, so we are now well on the way to getting many more CSOs to serve our communities.
The options available to Humberside are either joining South Yorkshire police to form a force of about 5,500 officers, or forming part of a much larger regional force for Yorkshire with 12,000 officers. The chair of the police authority and the chief constable wrote to the Home Secretary on
I was heartened to hear what the Home Secretary said about neighbourhood policing being at the heart of the policing agenda. The basic command unit will stay. It will be where most people recognise it—the local police station for their area. People in Hull talk not about the Humberside police force, but about local bobbies on the beat and the local Hull police. That would not change under a regional structure. In addition to community wardens and special constables, Hull has the excellent HANWAG—the Humberside association of neighbourhood watch groups. The groups play a key role in community safety in our area and they would all remain local.
A regional force would allow specialisations to develop. I was struck by an earlier comment about the fact that officers might not want to move to a different area or could think that larger forces would not give them the opportunities to develop their career. That is not the case for the Humberside police officers to whom I have spoken because they would relish the opportunities that would be available in a regional Yorkshire force.
No, I am going to carry on.
The Humberside police force does not have sufficient officers to deal with the major incidents and level 2 crime with which it is sometimes called on to address. A regional force would be better able to deal with cross-regional crime, especially crime that moves up and down the M62.
Operation Sapphire, which is run by the Metropolitan police, has the resources and staff that it needs because it can call on the resources of all 32 London boroughs. It creates havens for people who have been the victims of sexual assault. The Humberside police force has considered creating such a structure in its area, but it does not have the resources or staff to do so. If we had a regional force, we might well be able to set up structures such as Operation Sapphire, which would be of great service to people in Yorkshire.
On counter-terrorism, although Hull has one of the country's major ports, I do not think that Humberside's existing number of officers can deal with some of the possible threats to the Humber estuary. We must also consider the duplication of services because great savings could be made by addressing the 43 human resources and payroll departments. All in all, I support a regional force for Yorkshire.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety makes her winding-up speech, will she address the problems with the precept because they are of great concern to many of my constituents? Will she ensure that people on our police authorities will be geographically accountable if we move towards a larger regional force? We should try to encourage a more diverse group of people to become involved in the accountability process. Young people are more likely to be the victims of crime than anyone else, so we should try to get them involved. We do not have to rush and do everything at once, so may we consider following a programme lasting for 18 months, two years, or three years so that we do not have to rush to change the badges on police officers' helmets and the signs on cars all at once? All in all, I support a regional force and think that Humberside would benefit greatly from a Yorkshire-wide force.
I am pleased to follow Ms Johnson, who gave a speech that was suitable for an ambitious Labour Back Bencher. She said that she supported a regional force for the whole of Yorkshire. She was in the Chamber when Mr. Truswell made his thoughtful speech, so I hope that she—and, indeed, Ministers—listened to it. He gave reasons that are grounded in the west Yorkshire community that he represents to explain why he does not believe that a regional force for the whole of Yorkshire would be appropriate.
I represent a rural constituency in east Yorkshire that contains just four towns: Beverley; Hornsea, which is on the coast; Hedon, which is just to the east of Hull; and Withernsea, which is on the coast. Those communities are a long way from Pudsey and the problems that beset metropolitan areas with which a Yorkshire police force would want to deal. Our fears, which have been expressed already today, can be best summed up by saying that the rural needs of those communities would be left behind because of the draw of metropolitan areas. In fact, the chief constable of Humberside police recently said:
"Experience suggests that the larger metropolitan forces inevitably exert a strong draw on resources often to the detriment of surrounding areas."
A full Yorkshire force would be too large, too remote and too distant from local people.
Already, as many hon. Members have shown in this debate, there is fantastic frustration. Anyone who came with me to the Kirkfield estate in Withernsea and knocked on door after door would see that the Government are right to talk about law and order and the challenges of antisocial behaviour, but that they are not right to move structures that can be influenced even further away from those frustrated people. They elect people such as me as Members of Parliament and others as councillors to whom they talk about their No. 1 issue—the daily challenge of needles, antisocial behaviour and disorder in their community. They feel that, year after year, despite who they vote for and the rhetoric that they hear, nothing is done about that. They are suffering from cricked-neck policing—the police, senior and junior, have a leash around their necks that is being pulled by central Government. That is the nub of the problem.
The Home Secretary was right to address the issue of accountability, but I wonder whether many Labour Members were convinced by what he said. I hope that the Minister, in summing up, will come back to the subject. When the Home Secretary said that there needed to be local accountability, he first mentioned national standards. One could laugh about that if it were not so symptomatic of this Government's approach. Their idea of local accountability is greater enforcement of national standards. The right hon. Gentleman then talked about roles for overview and scrutiny committees, but they have not worked in the health service. They have been unable to exert influence or to address the threat to local health services in communities such as Hornsea and Withernsea. The Home Secretary finished his piece on how he would drive local accountability with the point that there was always his intervention.
Of the four key points that the Home Secretary made, two were about intervention at national level, which will not give any reassurance to people in Withernsea and Hornsea, or in villages such as Patrington, where I attended a meeting of the parish council last week specifically on the subject of policing. The local police inspector told us what we already knew—that very often there are just two officers serving the whole of the area. The prospect of unfunded, large-scale mergers, with costs possibly as high as £1 billion, dragging even more resources away from front-line policing and leaving rural communities even more denuded of cover is frightening to those who are already frustrated with the political process.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about my experience in my constituency. He and I have similarly rural communities. The police put an ASBO on the whole village of Mid Calder because they had had problems with a small minority of youths for five or six weeks. There was much violence and aggression, and an attempted murder. Over the past six weeks, that community has had peaceful weekends. Perhaps the police in the hon. Gentleman's area should follow that lead.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We must use whatever tools are available, and I would not rule out the fact that ASBOs, whatever their chequered record, have a part to play.
I completely agree; the difficulty is getting police to attend. In rural areas, proactive policing no longer occurs. The key question for us in this reorganisation is why would the creation of a huge Yorkshire force make accountability at local level more likely. The answer is that the likelihood is that it will not. There are issues about cost, and we have heard from the chairmen of the police authority that reorganisation will lead to fewer police on the beat.
I am astonished at the experience of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North of talking to police officers in Hull. It differs greatly from my experience of meeting officers from the same force in my constituency. They have told me that they would be distinctly put out at the prospect of being used in a whole-Yorkshire force, which would remove them from the communities that they joined the police to represent and protect. Sending them elsewhere in Yorkshire without any safeguards—I would be interested to hear about that in the summing up—could have a big impact on recruitment. That point was well made earlier.
The Government will be pleased that Mr. Denham came out with some support for the policy; it sounds as though he will be supporting the proposed legislation. However, there were elements of scepticism and doubt in his speech. Following so closely the political disaster of last night and so many ill-thought-through bits of legislation, I say on behalf of the rural communities that I represent that the Government have not answered our questions about accountability and empowering local people so that they feel that they can control the police force and that we can escape the curse of cricked-neck policing, under which police officers who are supposed to represent my constituents appear to be representatives of Whitehall and the Minister.
I would like to take hon. Members on a brief tour of County Durham. It is a largely rural area with low levels of crime. In fact, I think that we have the lowest level of crime in the entire country. Of course, I get complaints from my constituents when there are serious problems and about antisocial behaviour, but in general the level of crime in the county is very low.
Moreover, the police force is very efficient when compared with those facing similar issues. On all seven Home Office performance measurements, County Durham performs well. On reducing crime, investigating crime, promoting safety, providing assistance, citizen focus, resource use and local policing, the delivery is fair, good or excellent, and the direction is either stable or improving.
The proposal in our part of the world is to bring together the police forces of Durham, Northumberland and Cleveland. One would therefore think, given that picture of a county force, that that circumstance would fit precisely the stereotype used by Conservative Members to criticise the Government's proposals. The area falls into all the categories that Conservative Members have said will be worst served by the Government's proposals. In fact, the local community is united in supporting the Government's proposals. The previous chief constable, Sir Paul Garvon, supports it, the new chief constable, John Stoddart, supports it, the county council supports it, the police authority supports it and all six Durham MPs support it.
The hon. Lady is drawing out the fact that one size does not fit all—what is good for her area is clearly not good for my area of Surrey. Does she therefore agree that an approach that allows areas to make their own decisions about how their communities are best served is the right way forward?
I was not agreeing with the hon. Lady. I was disagreeing with her. I was saying that the characteristics of areas that Conservative Members have said will be ill served by the Government's proposals are not considered a problem. The concerns that Conservative Members have expressed have not been raised in County Durham. Clearly she is so surprised by that that she does not believe what she is hearing, but it is indeed the case. One might, for example, be concerned that resources will be dragged into Cleveland, but again, that concern has not been raised.
The hon. Lady does not seem to appreciate the scale of the merged forces proposed. Her constituency is closer to mine than the far end of the Isles of Scilly with which Gloucestershire is supposed to form a south-west force. Would she be interested in a merger between Gloucestershire and County Durham to see whether we can shift resources between the two?
That is a patently ridiculous suggestion, as there is no proposal to unify County Durham with Gloucestershire. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at a map, he will see that the proposed geographical region for the north-east is large, comprising Durham, Northumberland and Cleveland. County Durham is united in support of the Government's proposal because the force is too small to deal with the new challenges of organised crime and terrorism. We would be in a similar position to the Cambridgeshire force if we had to resolve an extremely difficult or complex problem.
I feel that I have accepted enough interventions in a short speech.
The view in County Durham is that, as long as we retain local neighbourhood policing and the basic command units, which are not threatened by the Government proposals, the change will be a positive step. A counter-proposal in the north-east would have unified south Durham and Cleveland and north Durham with Northumberland, but it would have cut across the coterminosity of other services, so we did not wish to accept it in County Durham. Opposition Members have criticised the Government for introducing proposals that would increase bureaucracy. That is patently ridiculous. The proposals will reduce bureaucracy, unlike their proposals, which would introduce a new layer of bureaucracy in the system. I therefore support the Government amendment.
I was surprised that Helen Goodman found the Conservative proposals patently ridiculous. In doing so, she attacks my local community, my local residents, my police authority and my local policemen, who all support the views that my hon. Friends and I have expressed.
May I respond to a point made by Ms Johnson? I could hardly believe my ears when she said that police bureaucracy had gone down. In Surrey, an estimate earlier this year was that one third of police time was taken up with police paperwork, which has risen a great deal in the past few years. I fear that, yet again, the Government are trying to re-provide, reorganise and, in this case, restructure their way out of inherent problems in the public sector. In Surrey, restructuring is an attempt by the Government to solve chronic underfunding problems. If one talks to people in my Guildford constituency about restructuring, their eyes glaze over. I am sure that that is the case for many residents in other constituencies. All my constituents want to do is go about their business. They want to be free, both of crime and of the fear of crime. In Guildford town, Cranleigh and all the surrounding villages in my constituency, fear of crime is a significant and, at times, disabling issue for many local residents. They would therefore put crime and the fear of crime at the top of their list of priorities.
Surrey is a low-crime area, so it is easy to dismiss such fears, but they are genuine even if they appear disproportionate in the light of the figures. They stop people going to the local shops after dark and prevent parents from allowing their children to walk to school. They stop people going into Guildford at night, because 4,000 to 5,000 kids from the local area go into town to drink in the bars and clubs. They stop people getting on with their lives, so they are socially disabling. Although the crime figures are low in Surrey, there are worrying trends, including an upward trend in violent crime, which gives considerable cause for concern. Villages are not immune to the problem. My hon. Friend Mr. Stuart talked about rural crime, which is an increasing concern. Farmers have to go to significant lengths to secure their property, farm gates and vehicles.
When my residents' eyes glaze over, it is because restructuring of the police is not their main concern. They want to know what the changes will do for them. Will they feel safer? Will crime and antisocial behaviour go down? Will the police be more accountable and will they be able to respond to their problems? My instinctive belief is that that any measure that makes Surrey police more distant from my local residents or which makes the police more distant from anyone is the wrong thing to do. The proximity of the police and their association with the local area are important. The Home Secretary talked about neighbourhood policing, which I applaud. However, my hon. Friend Mr. Gale cited Jerry Kirkby, who piloted neighbourhood policing in Surrey and believes that the restructuring will knock neighbourhood policing on the head.
Is the hon. Lady aware that Cumbria police authority is the only authority in Britain that has received an excellent charter mark for citizen focus? People throughout Cumbria and in my constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale are concerned that, if decisions affecting our area are taken in Preston or Liverpool, that focus will be removed from our communities. I am sure that she will agree that the widening scope and centralisation of police decision making will have a negative effect on her own area and on citizen focus.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Local residents need to identify with their local police. If that association is taken away from the local community, particularly in areas where fear of crime is a major concern, the problem will be compounded, as people will know that the police are further away.
In a letter written in January, the Association of Police Authorities made it clear, as the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will know, that it had serious concerns about restructuring and was alarmed about the speed with which the Home Secretary was rushing the changes through. It wanted more time for the police and communities to be consulted. It was concerned about the costs of restructuring, which cannot be met from already overstretched police budgets. For Surrey, that is a serious issue. I am convinced the Government are restructuring their way out of huge problems of police underfunding.
We in Staffordshire have grave concerns about centralisation if we were merged with the west midlands, because the problems in society are totally different. Does my hon. Friend accept that it would be a disaster for Staffordshire to be merged, for Treasury-driven reasons, with a body as big as the west midlands?
I thank my hon. Friend. With reference to the comments of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, it is important to realise that every area is different. She painted an entirely different picture from the one that I will paint and the one that my hon. Friend Mr. Cash has painted. We do not need a one-size-fits-all model.
Surrey has the worst grant settlement of any force in the country. According to the police, the funding gap can be reduced only by reducing costs, which means decreasing services. Surrey police authority considers that restructuring will be not only expensive but disruptive, and of little overall benefit. Analysis by the police locally reveals that the real issue is not structure, but how the police resources are used and the removal of red tape, which constrains chief officers. Surrey has long been underfunded, creating, as the police authority recognises, an unreasonable council tax burden for Surrey's residents.
A Surrey-Sussex merger, which is one of the options that Surrey police have considered, would cost £29 million. The police admit that although such a merger
"would increase resilience in providing Force level protective services, for example major crime investigation, strategic roads policing, counter terrorism capabilities and other services, the same level of resilience could be built into the Surrey Force at a similar cost but without the upheaval of a merger", and without the loss of focus. The police go on to say:
"To achieve full resilience (avoiding abstracting local police resources to deal with anything but the most critical events) would require an additional £26 million of funding per annum in Surrey alone."
The police authority has not offered to merge with another police authority because it is deeply unhappy about the proposal. As Surrey police have said, merging Surrey and Sussex forces would bring two poorly funded forces together to create one larger poorly funded force.
I shall conclude my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak. Like many of my hon. Friends who represent Surrey constituencies, I remain deeply unhappy about the plans to restructure our Surrey force. My local residents' fears about their safety and about crime will not be dealt with by the proposals. I urge the Home Secretary and the Minister to say not just to Opposition Members, but to Surrey police authority, to Surrey police and to Surrey residents that the restructuring will not go ahead, and that there are better things to do with the £29 million that will be spent on the exercise.
I acknowledge that the O'Connor report identifies failings in the current system. It refers to organised crime as
"widespread, vibrant and growing", and says that
"very few forces meet the required standard".
It also says that
"vulnerability was evident in relation to counter terrorism and domestic extremism, serious and organised crime and public order".
It is understandable that the Government want to do something. One can be critical of a Government who have been in office for eight years—nearly nine—when that is the verdict of the report that they commissioned.
The question is: what does the O'Connor report recommend, and is that the right course of action? Mr. Heath pointed out that the conclusions reached by the report are not quite as conclusive as the Government like to make out. If one looks at the analysis of the various parts of protective services—the initiative is being driven by protective services—again, things are not quite so clear-cut.
Of the seven elements identified, the report found that capability in road policing was entirely independent of size. On civil contingency, the report acknowledges that
"every force outside the Met would require mutual aid very early into a multi-site chaotic event".
On critical incidents, it states that forces, including smaller forces such as Dorset and Leicestershire, that have suffered a significant critical incident demonstrate a high degree of capability. I cite a local example at Buncefield in Hertfordshire, where the police handled an incident very successfully, with mutual aid. According to the report, forces that perceive themselves to be low risk tend to take a less structured approach—in other words, forces that do not see much of a problem do not prepare to the same degree. That is understandable.
The O'Connor report also notes that not all forces have profiled their communities to identify vulnerabilities. There is just a hint in that section that larger forces are slightly more politically correct. I do not want to over-egg that argument, but perhaps larger forces are doing more analysis of the make-up of their communities and as a result become slightly more politically correct and less focused on the matter in hand.
Individual forces have developed expertise in particular aspects of public order—for example, party conferences in Dorset and Huntington Life Sciences in Cambridge. There is also evidence that expertise is passed from force to force, which is perhaps an example of the federal approach working better. On public order, the O'Connor report says that there is a rough correlation between size and reactivity, but it also says that an establishment of 2,200 officers is the minimum size for preparedness, rather than 4,000 officers—the figure that the Government often quote.
The O'Connor report identifies failures in the way in which all forces deal with major crime, and states that success is to some extent dependent on whether forces have dedicated major investigations teams. In a recent written reply, the Minister revealed that 13 forces have got major investigation teams. A force does not require 4,000 officers to have a major investigation team, because while there are only six forces of that size, 13 forces have major investigation teams, which once again suggests that the 4,000 limit is unnecessary.
I acknowledge that serious organised crime is an issue. However, the O'Connor report says that we know very little about it and that insufficient analysis has taken place.
One would have thought that the Government would take all sorts of steps on counter-terrorism, but in a recent written answer, the Minister said that the current regional and national counter-terrorism structures were appropriate. I do not have time to go into that matter in further detail, but the point had to be made.
Mr. Denham has said that Hampshire have the necessary protective services, but it has 3,800 officers. Furthermore, if Hertfordshire police authority were to merge with Bedfordshire police authority, the new force would not meet the 4,000 mark, but its protective services capability would be greater than if Cambridgeshire were involved, too. I hope that the Government will consider such matters on a case-by-case basis and not stick rigidly to the 4,000 limit.
I shall make one brief point and one substantial point. First, the Home Secretary has discussed accountability and the link between crime and disorder reduction partnerships and district councils. In my area, for example, the basic command units are the Forest of Dean and Gloucester, which cover a district council area and a city council area. Those areas are distinct and different, and it would not be satisfactory if they were served by a single BCU.
Secondly, I want to discuss the alternative to mergers, which is collaboration between independent forces. As the Minister knows, the chief constable has provided examples of services that are currently shared in the south-west, where independent police forces are already co-operating on regional tasking and co-ordinating special branch intelligence and air support, which, as Mr. Heath said, Gloucestershire has shared with Avon and Somerset since 1996. Indeed, a new regional arrangement has been implemented on the provision of helicopter pilots. The implementation of Airwave, procurement, drug-testing services and forensic physicians have also been shared among services, saving the region £1.4 million per annum. The success of joint procurement shows that the approach outlined in Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary's document "What price policing?" can work. Collaboration and sharing require commitment and belief, but they provide results without the up-front cost of amalgamation.
There is another example of shared services between the emergency services in Gloucestershire. Since 2002 a joint police, fire and ambulance control room has operated from Quedgeley in the constituency of Mr. Dhanda, who is sitting on the Front Bench now. The facility is one of three nationally, proves its worth every day, and is popular in the county.
Shared services and the collaborative model offer the Government a way out. As has been said, mergers are popular and professionally supported in some areas, but where they are not popular, I urge the Minister to consider the collaborative model. The chief constables and the police authorities in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset are working on a proposal to retain those forces' independence and have them make a great commitment to working together, which is a good alternative model. I urge the Minister to examine that alternative, and hope that she concludes that it is right for those three counties.
The Home Secretary began by suggesting, incredibly, that the majority of police authorities support his position, so it is worth reminding the Minister of the facts. By the
The Home Secretary also prayed in aid the comments of several chief constables. However, for every chief constable who has publicly spoken out in favour of restructuring, others have opposed it. Opinion is divided. I could quote the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys, who said that the Government's plans were
"verging on a shambles" and
"Alice Through the Looking Glass stuff".
"Restructuring will be a highly risky undertaking, financially, operationally and organisationally".
The Home Secretary signally failed to deal with what my right hon. Friend David Davis said about the cost of the proposals, which the Association of Police Authorities estimates to be £525 million and rising. The Government have so far offered only £125 million to defray those costs—less than a quarter of the amount—and we know that that is not new money. There is a £400 million shortfall. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to tell me how that shortfall is to be funded; perhaps she will tell me now. It is clear that local taxpayers are going to pick up the bill. That means that police precepts will rise by, we calculate, 21 per cent. to meet the £400 million gap. That is against the background of rising council tax and a police precept that has already doubled since the Government came to power.
The last time that I raised this, the Minister said that she did not accept the APA's estimates. I have to tell her that we will be sceptical about the Government's figures—when they finally get round to publishing them—in the light of the National Audit Office's refusal yesterday to sign off the Home Office's books because it could not properly account for its £14 billion annual budget. I remind the Minister that in some parts of her region, the north-west, the £47 million cost of restructuring will result in council tax bills rising by as much as £32, while in the Home Secretary's region they will rise by as much as £30.
At Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his support for the option of sharing services. Today the Home Secretary repeated his opposition to that solution. We might have known that that was the Home Secretary's position, because he has written to us all; we received the letter today. He has published a glossy leaflet about what he intends to do with the police. When he is asked how serious crime is going to be combated, he replies:
"Establishing larger forces with greater capacity to investigate serious crime".
It is a done deal, is it not? No sooner had the Prime Minister made his comments in support of sharing services by police forces, than the Minister—who is the Minister for respect—gave a briefing to the lobby to say that that was not the case. I suggest that that was not very respectful to the Prime Minister.
The Home Office appears to be in a state of confusion about what is happening. In a briefing from Home Office officials to members of local authorities earlier this month for a conference entitled the "Innovation Forum", page 2 begins:
"This is not about mergers".
If it is not about mergers, what is it about? Do the Government have a coherent view of whether they are willing to consider sharing services? The Association of Police Authorities has asked them to consider that. Perhaps we could have a straight answer to that question.
When the Prime Minister was asked about amalgamations, he said:
"It is not a question of forcing them through".—[Hansard, 25 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1426.]
Clearly, that is exactly what the Home Secretary plans to do, because amalgamations do not have the unanimous support of police authorities in any region of the country. If the Government are determined that amalgamations are the answer, they can only proceed by compulsion. They should stop pretending that some sort of voluntary arrangement is possible, because police authorities do not want it.
The Government's reluctance to allow mergers across regional boundaries, which they confirmed again today, reveals their agenda. The Deputy Prime Minister's plans for regional government were defeated overwhelmingly in the first referendum in the north-east, but the Government are proceeding with regionalism by stealth. That happens with planning decisions, the replacement of local fire control rooms with regional centres, in the national health service and now with the police.
I am sorry that Home Secretary is not here, because I wanted to emphasise to him that big is not always beautiful.
The Home Office's performance assessments show that three of the top-performing police forces have fewer than 4,000 officers. As my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram said, size does not matter. Why are the Government so dismissive of the option of sharing services? Several points that Labour Members made were wrong. No additional bureaucracy will be created by forces sharing services, as shown by the fact that no primary or secondary legislation is required to achieve that.
Agreements to share services would be legally binding, not ad hoc. Sharing services would enable police authorities to achieve the economies of scale inherent in a merger without the additional costs. Police forces could preserve their local identity and accountability, and implementation would be quicker and less disruptive. Existing arrangements show that the sharing solution is practical. That is apparent when one considers the midlands counter-terrorism support unit or the West Midlands central motorway patrol group, which operate across forces.
Sharing services works well in other public services—for example, the Army, in which brigades undertake operational and support functions while the regimental structure is retained.
The Government could have pursued a police reform agenda. Only one in four crimes are detected, and the Minister knows that detection rates have been falling. Police officers spend less than a fifth of their time on the beat. It takes three and a half hours for every arrest to be processed. The police reform agenda should cover modernising working practices, cutting paperwork and making police properly accountable to local people. Instead, the Government are obsessed with reorganisation. That often happens in their dealings with public services.
Constant interference and change is good for only one group of people—the management consultants, who already charge a great deal of money, at the taxpayers' expense, as they advise on changes in the Government's constant public service reorganisations. For everyone else, the process is disruptive.
Chief constables and police authorities should spend time on policing our streets. Instead they spend too much time, as my right hon. Friend Sir George Young said, worrying about headquarters moves, how to merge IT systems, and their jobs.
We made the Government a serious offer. We said that if they considered alternatives to amalgamation, costed the options properly and consulted local people, we would be constructive in reaching agreement on how to shape policing in the future. However, the Government are clearly blindly determined to press ahead. They have lost the support of police authorities and are losing that of increasing numbers of chief constables. They never had the support of local people and they will not say how the £500 million will be financed. They have no serious proposals to ensure local accountability of the police. They will not allow amalgamations to cross regional boundaries, but the proposed police force amalgamations will leave local taxpayers with a £400 million bill.
Vast regional forces will take chief constables hundreds of miles from the local people whom they are meant to serve. Regional forces will weaken the link between police and their communities, and strengthen the Government's grip on the police. This is exactly the wrong way to strengthen the fight against crime, so we ask the Government, one more time, to think again.
I was about to say that we had had an excellent debate; I genuinely think we have. We have heard some really good contributions, and the tone of the debate, when it was opened by David Davis, was very different from that of some debates that we have had. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was seeking consensus. He was trying to be constructive and to find a way forward. He agreed that there was a need to deal with protective services, and that services might be weak in some police forces. He also agreed that teams needed to acquire skills and expertise, and that there was a need for major incident teams. There appeared to be a huge degree of consensus between us, and I wondered what I would have to talk about.
Then, however, we heard the speech of Nick Herbert, who, in the past 10 minutes, has managed to provoke me to the point at which we really can have a good and proper debate on these issues. It is important that we share some of the concerns, however, and I was also heartened by Mr. Heath, who recognised that there were serious gaps in the police forces' ability to deal with some of the serious challenges of 21st century policing. That feeling has been echoed across the Chamber today, and I am grateful for that.
As always in these debates, we can all recognise the problems, but we do not always agree on, or even recognise, the way to deal with them and the decisions involved in doing so. I have to say to Members on the Opposition Benches—where we sat for a very long time; far too long, in my view—that it is easy to say what one is against, but it is far more difficult to say what one is for. We need to develop constructive proposals that will strengthen policing in this country.
I want to put one fact clearly on record from the outset; this is not about a regionalisation agenda. It is not about changing structures or re-drawing the map of policing for the sake of it. Our proposals are about trying to ensure that our police service, which protects the people of this country, is fit for purpose and able to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour at a local level, to deal with volume crime and serious and organised crime involving drugs, money laundering and people trafficking, and to deal with international crime and the threat of terrorism.
It is the Government's responsibility to grapple with those issues, no matter how difficult they are. We face difficult issues of accountability, governance, finance and responsiveness—it is perfectly legitimate to raise those issues—but at the end of the day, our top priority must be to ensure that the police service in the whole country, not just in one particular area, has the capacity, the capability and the resilience to deal with the pressures that we face.
If this is not about regionalisation, why has the Home Office laid down that the police in my area of North Wiltshire on the M4 may not amalgamate with the Berkshire police, even if they want to, because they are in different Government regions? Why has the Home Office laid down that absolute stipulation about the regional boundary?
At the start of this process, we set out certain criteria that we thought would help police forces to draw up proposals to submit to us—[Interruption.] Again, I say that it is the Government's responsibility to set a framework, and to establish the broad parameters. The alternative would be a free-for-all in which no one took responsibility or made the necessary decisions. We said that the criteria would include looking at Government office boundaries, although we did not say that that was an absolute given. We said that if there was a compelling case for crossing such a boundary, we would consider it. I hope that Mr. Gray would accept that, in relation to a range of services, it is necessary to have relationships, coterminosity and people working together to ensure that we have the resilience to deal with all these issues.
No, I have dealt with the issue.
I also want to emphasise some of the facts that relate to our proceeding in this way. Although we have talked about structures, accountability and governance, which are important issues, I would not want us to neglect the real policing imperatives. Only 13 out of 43 forces have fully resourced specialist murder units. Fewer than 6 per cent. of the more than 1,500 big organised crime gangs are targeted by police in the course of a year. Only seven out of 43 forces deploy special branch, together with its neighbourhood policing teams, providing that essential community intelligence to enable us to prepare for and counter terrorism. Those are real, substantive policing issues, and that is the agenda at stake.
I want to deal with some of the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that we shared some common ground. He is keen to sustain neighbourhood policing, as are all my right hon. and hon. Friends. But he should think carefully; unless there is some coming together, so that we have larger forces with capacity and resilience, we will not be able to sustain neighbourhood policing for the long term as we want to do. We need to consider the whole of the police force's business; otherwise, neighbourhood policing will sit on top of our current organisation, and it will be easy to strip out in years to come. I mean to make sure that that does not happen.
I very much welcome the support of my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham. I particularly welcomed his analysis about federation leading to blurred lines of accountability and the possibility of even more costs and bureaucracy if we have to have an extra layer on top of our existing forces.
Mr. Ancram said that he could ascertain from the Home Secretary's body language that he was about regionalisation. I have never seen regionalised body language in my life. We have already agreed that big is not necessarily beautiful, and that size does not matter.
My hon. Friend Mr. Truswell, in a thoughtful contribution, set out his genuine concerns. I assure him that I will examine extremely carefully the case made in relation to West Yorkshire. I have met him and other colleagues, and I will continue to give that issue extremely close attention.
My hon. Friend Mr. Bailey, in an excellent contribution, also spoke about support for neighbourhood policing, and urged us to get on with taking action. It is important that we do not have an extended period of blight and uncertainty, which will provide an opportunity for morale to dip, and I do not want that to happen. When we make our decisions, there is a need to press on with our action.
I welcome the support of my hon. Friend Mr. McFadden, who knows the challenges involved in "Closing the Gap" to tackle serious crime. He thinks that the public should not have to choose between tackling local crime and serious crime, and he is absolutely right. The mission for the police service is now extremely wide. We therefore need an organisation that is fit for purpose, so that we can deploy our resources to tackle all the threats that face us.
I welcome the support of my hon. Friend Ms Johnson, who brought her experience in London to the debate. As she said rightly, the community's relationship is with the BCU commander, and not necessarily with the larger force. That relationship will be key in making sure that local people have the ability to set priorities.
My hon. Friend Helen Goodman gave us some tremendous support. I am delighted that, while her area has a high-performing force and low crime, she still recognises the sense of coming together, sharing resources and considering a collective framework.
Several other Members have made contributions. I recognise the concerns about rural areas. As Members will know, I do not represent a rural area, but I am concerned that every part of the country—rural and urban, market town and inner city—should have a neighbourhood policing team made up of police officers, community support officers, special constables and neighbourhood wardens that is not abstracted when there is a double or triple murder, a major demonstration, or, heaven forbid, another terrorist incident. At the moment, with small forces, the pressure to draw those officers away from the neighbourhood is intense, and that will get worse as serious crime is more of a threat. The way in which to sustain neighbourhood policing in rural as well as urban areas is to ensure that we have large enough forces to maintain that strategic capacity and resilience.
We will of course consider the ideas that have been advanced about federation. I am not convinced that it can provide the solution that we seek, but we will certainly examine the cases that are put to us. However, I say this to Members who see federation as a magic bullet to deal with the problems that we face: it could produce blurred lines of accountability, a chief constable who was not responsible for all areas of crime, an extra layer of governance and another command team. It could cost each area £1 million if a separate command team had to deal with serious and organised crime.
There is no simple solution. These are complex issues that require a complex response. We are determined, however, that the steps we take will improve policing in every part of the country, so that we can protect the people to whom we owe a responsibility. I hope that Members throughout the House will recognise that the responsibility of us all, not just Government, is to consider not only individual forces but how to secure the best possible system, which will serve us now and also in 15 and 20 years' time and will take account of the real challenges of 21st-century policing.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the excellent work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in clearly setting out the case for reform of the current structure of policing in England and Wales; thanks police forces and authorities for their hard work in responding to the HMIC findings; congratulates the Government on its commitment to delivering excellent policing at all levels, from vandalism to terrorism, through strategic police forces equipped with dedicated capacity at the neighbourhood level; and endorses the need for reform to move swiftly to minimise uncertainty and damage to morale within a service which has over the past eight years shown itself dedicated to continuous improvement in delivery of a truly locally responsive service.