Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 12:06, 2 March 2006

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate. It is always helpful to hear his views on policing matters because of his distinguished service. Like him, I would like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for initiating the debate, which is very timely.

I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, in his place. He knows full well that I am a great admirer of the police and am certainly not in the business of dishing out criticisms. But I have some important points to make today.

The police do a splendid job. For instance, we should all congratulate Kent police on the skill and professionalism they have shown following last week's £50 million robbery. However, there are occasions when actions of the police cause public concern. The best way to keep those occasions to a minimum is to have effective public accountability. No sensible person advocates interference with the operational independence of the police, but a number of controversial police actions in recent times would not have occurred had the police chiefs concerned been more formally accountable to the local communities—perhaps through police authorities that are directly elected.

I think that the public are entitled to question whether those in command have got their priorities right when a minister of religion is prosecuted for preaching that homosexual acts are wrong, while those assaulting him for expressing those opinions are not even cautioned. I think the public are entitled to question the wisdom of police resources being used to question a bishop of the Church of England for comments he had made on the same subject, and to ask how it can be right to spend police time investigating alleged anti-Welsh remarks made by Anne Robinson at the very time when another police force was saying that it had not the resources to deal with cases of shoplifting. I think that Londoners are entitled to question why recently there have been so many arrests of peaceful demonstrators, including a woman doing no more than read out the names of those killed in Iraq.

I do not know whether in those instances senior officers were trying to implement what they thought were government policies and priorities or were following Home Office advice—following, in particular, advice in a booklet called Hate Crime: Delivering a Quality Service which was recently published jointly by ACPO and something called the Home Office standards unit. Whatever the explanation, the fact that those incidents happened surely strengthens the case for a larger public input into policing, for strengthening the powers and composition of police authorities, and for less rather than more Home Office interference. I am sorry to say that in the main the changes in the offing point in exactly the opposite direction—to less public input and more political interference.

If one were starting from scratch, of course one would not plan for 43 police forces. On the other hand, Mr Blair, when in opposition, was surely right when he said that,

"a wholesale amalgamation of the smaller police services . . . will remove local policing further from local people".—[Hansard, Commons, 05/07/94; col. 273.]

He said that quite a long time ago, back in 1994, but it was blindingly obvious then and it remains blindingly obvious today. If you create a police force that is responsible for an area twice or three times as big as the area covered by each of the forces it replaces and you increase the size of the police authority from 17 to, say, 23, many local communities, some perhaps with special policing needs, will be completely unrepresented on the authority and there will be less public accountability. There cannot be any doubt about that. It is equally obvious that a few regional forces are far more easily controlled by the Home Office than are 43 forces. The fact that the Home Office relishes the prospect of more control is clear from the terms of the Police and Justice Bill. I invite noble Lords not to forget that in this debate. When that Bill becomes law, it will give the Home Secretary sweeping powers such as he has never had before to give orders to chief constables on how to run their forces.

I shall deal briefly with a few of the other concerns. The first is money. According to the Association of Police Authorities, the present proposals will cost more than £525 million and could work out at double that when all the associated costs of police restructuring are taken into account. The Home Secretary has offered just £125 million towards the cost of restructuring, but I am told that even that will not be new money. Most of it will either have to be borrowed or come from the existing police capital budget. It is no wonder that some forces have already put all their planned investment on hold.

The Government talk vaguely of economies of scale, but they have been unwilling or unable to give any estimate at all of such savings. I therefore ask the Minister to explain why the end of this process will not be cuts in services or higher taxes or both. Was the chairman of the Cleveland Police Authority right or wrong when he said that, in Northumbria, the council tax precept could well rise by as much as 40 per cent?

There is also concern at the speed with which the Home Office is proceeding. Announcing on 6 February his decision about the north-east, the West Midlands and Wales, the Home Secretary gave the chief constables and the police authorities only a few weeks to respond. In default of agreement, as we all know, the whole thing will be wrapped up in four months by an affirmative order. The HMIC report Closing the Gap certainly did not advocate that sort of timetable. It is worth remembering that when restructuring took place in the 1960s, it did so after a royal commission and about two years' debate. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs was surely right to comment in its recent report:

"the very short timetable . . . has limited the scope of the debate and impeded consultation with the police forces and police authorities. Furthermore this has removed the possibility of full consultation with the public".

In the police and in police authorities, there is widespread opposition to what is afoot. Only one in three of the amalgamations which the Home Secretary proposed earlier this month has been approved by the police authorities involved. Lancashire and Cumbria have agreed a merger in principle, but there is no agreement in the north-east, where the chairman of the Cleveland Police Authority has described the Home Secretary's proposals as,

"ill-judged, deeply-flawed—and exactly the opposite of what local people want".

Cheshire has decided against merging with Merseyside. West Mercia, in expressing its opposition to being embraced in a monster regional force, has demonstrated in its submission that it is well able to develop both protective services and neighbourhood policing at no additional cost to taxpayers in the force area.

I do not believe that the public have any liking for this business; they certainly do not regard it as anything like a top priority. With fewer than one in four crimes detected and street crime rampant, they do not want reorganisation. What they want, as the noble Viscount pointed out, is the police spending less time filling in forms, meeting Home Office targets and taking account of performance criteria, and more time out on the streets. I feel that, in his haste, the Home Secretary may have botched this exercise. The least he can do now is slow down a little so that at least people will feel that their concerns have been considered properly. He should get the Treasury to agree that the costs of restructuring are properly covered so that no cuts will be made to existing programmes and no additional burdens will be placed on the shoulders of the long-suffering council tax payer.