Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:17 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Police), Home Affairs, Whip 12:17, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I too begin by congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, on securing this important debate today. He and I enjoy talking about policing, and his long experience as a magistrate and police authority member in Hampshire has illustrated his great knowledge of, and continuing interest in, the policing service of our country. I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Minister back to the Government Benches. We have missed her very much.

I begin by declaring my interest. I was a member of my local police authority for 20 years, and I chaired it for almost eight years until 2001. I was also a member and deputy chairman of the Association of Police Authorities. I sat on several national committees, including the Police Negotiating Board and the Police Advisory Board, and I was a member of the National Crime Squad Service Authority—itself an amalgamation of regional crime squad committees, one of which I also sat on and which is shortly to be superseded by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. Finally, I was a magistrate for 16 years, and I am still on the supplemental list for north Yorkshire. I make no excuse for using this debate today to concentrate on the proposals for the future of policing. I shall therefore concentrate mainly on the merging of many police forces into what the Home Secretary calls strategic forces, but also on other changes proposed in the Police and Justice Bill, which will shortly receive its Second Reading in the other place.

Many years ago, when I first joined my county's police committee, I well remember the then chief constable's words as he battled to persuade us to spend a huge amount of money on our first computer. He said:

"It will make paperwork obsolete".

I know that police officers will agree that that never happened. Since those days, policing has been in a state of constant change. First there were computers that took up whole rooms, then there were massive road-building schemes, which changed the face of traffic policing for ever. Police officers did not wear protective vests, carry state-of-the-art batons, or wear the plethora of necessary paraphernalia that they are expected to wear now, let alone have first-class communications to aid them. No one had heard of CS spray or imagined that so many of our police officers would be armed. The use of DNA in crime scenes and automatic fingerprint recognition were but dreams. So it is appropriate that we look more closely at how policing should "fit", in modern parlance, into our fast-changing, technocratic and unstable world.

The driver for the changes that we are likely to see shortly in our policing service is an interesting and important report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, HMIC, indicating how fit for purpose the service is for the future. It makes grim reading. It says that,

"changes must be made not only to the structure, but the whole configuration of policing", to deal primarily with what is known as level 2 crime. This type of crime deals with cross-border issues, usually organised crime and major incidents. Apparently, we no longer have the ability to deal with that level of crime within most of our local forces. As we have heard, the basic command unit, BCU, usually commanded by a chief superintendent or superintendent, focuses on level 1 crime, local criminality and volume crime, and simply does not have the capacity to deal with more serious crime. One wonders how the police have managed to hold things together for so long, or how managers within the forces have done so.

One would have thought that in order to address those concerns, a huge information and consultation process with the public would have been essential. That is not so. The HMIC report was handed to the Home Secretary on 13 September 2005, just six months ago. Within a few days, the Home Secretary had made up his mind. He wrote to police authorities on 19 September and gave them but three months, until 23 December, to decide the future shape of policing. The Home Secretary wrote to them all again on 15 December, saying that only police authorities which volunteered to merge their forces by this deadline would receive some money for doing so, if they indicated to him, by that date, that they were willing to merge.

Police authorities—the statutory bodies that are charged with setting the budgets for and strategic direction of their local police forces on behalf of the community and are responsible for their forces' continuous improvement—had but a few weeks rapidly to contact each other and decide their futures. They had little time even for involving those for whom policing is of the utmost importance—their local communities, local councils, the voluntary sector, crime reduction partnerships and so on. I maintain that the timescale for implementing these momentous changes has been ludicrous.

This is a wholly unacceptable way of moving forward an extremely complex and expensive organisation, which costs us all a phenomenal amount of money. How do we know that these hastily put together new arrangements will work? In the private sector, you would never find captains of industry completely redesigning their multibillion pound businesses in that space of time. How will this be achieved in that timescale? On what basis does the Minister claim that a complete restructuring of the service will improve things for the majority of people in this country?

Let us turn to the costs of this restructuring. These are estimated to be between £400 million and £500 million in total, a figure based on the draft submissions by forces and authorities on 23 December. Since that time, the Home Office has had these business cases analysed by independent consultants. The consultants' final figures, however, have yet to be discussed with partners. Despite these projections, the Home Office has made available only £50 million in capital funding for 2006–07 and £75 million in capital funding for 2007–08. That is a huge difference—at least £275 million.

So how should our police forces look in the future if we accept that change must take place? There are a number of models, of course, which HMIC's report addresses. It is right to highlight the problem of level 2 cross-border crime. A gap always existed between local forces, which focus on level 1 volume crime, and the national structure, which focuses on level 3 and serious and organised crime. It was ever thus. I vividly remember the angry discussions we used to have about the level of support we had or otherwise from the regional crime squad and later the National Crime Squad. It felt to us in the local force that the national body wanted to deal only with exciting headline-grabbing cases and treated local police forces with a measure of disdain. Rightly or wrongly, that is how things were perceived. Do not take my word for it—it was the leaders, the professional officers of my force at the time, who complained the loudest. The truth is that criminality is all around us all the time. The top criminals have to live somewhere among us; and who is better placed than the local force to monitor them? They may need help from the specialist forces, and so far they have received that help. It is called mutual aid; and it has benefited all the forces in our country on many important occasions without us having to merge into huge regional forces.

When necessary, the National Crime Squad has been called in to deal with those large and time consuming operations and been highly successful, which I hope will be the same for SOCA. But the crime that affects the majority of our communities is local volume crime, which is what police officers have to deal with day in, day out. Neighbourhood policing is rightly popular with the public, but there must be a danger that redirecting focus and resources into mergers means that neighbourhood policing will suffer and that public confidence will be lost. That is doubly so if public expectations are raised, and the new proposals seem to encourage everyone to assume that neighbourhood policing will solve all our problems. But we know that if regional forces, or even amalgamations of forces, do not have a good local accountability base, they will simply not function properly.

I maintain that should North Yorkshire police be forced into regionalisation between all the forces in Yorkshire, the focus will be on the huge conurbations of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. My guess is that officers will be pulled out into those areas, thereby denuding the vast number of small villages and towns that go to make up the geography of my region, which will be paying a great deal for a level of policing that they could only wish for. Why can we not build on the already excellent exchange of information, training, procurement, air cover and so on that goes on now between forces? Why do we need to throw everything up in the air at huge cost to us all without considering possible alternatives?

Why cannot some forces merge, if that is what they want, and leave others to work out the best way that they can deal with capacity and provide better value for money? What about a federation of forces, as prescribed by the Police Federation of England and Wales? The Home Office argues that new structures of accountability can be built around basic command units, but that is not the point. Using BCUs as the basic unit of accountability would be too distant from local communities to provide meaningful discussion of neighbourhood priorities, and too fragmented to provide meaningful scrutiny of decisions taken at force level. Loss of force level accountability equals increased centralisation, a problem highlighted further in the new Police and Justice Bill. That Bill proposed powers for the Secretary of State to prescribe by order or regulation nearly all the main elements relating to the membership and functions of police authorities. Currently that is enshrined in primary legislation, which sets out the balance of power between the Home Secretary, chief police officers and police authorities. That is known as the tripartite relationship, and its purpose is to ensure that there is equilibrium between central and local power. The Bill will undermine that balance and lead to a greater concentration of power at the centre, as surely will restructuring.

Of course we recognise that policing has changed because of the terrorist threat, but that will not be dealt with by local police forces, which will still be expected to shoulder the responsibility for the vast number of crimes, petty and otherwise, that will be committed day in and day out by local criminals. It is simply unacceptable for the Government to use the threat of terrorism as an argument for dispensing with open and democratic debate about such a fundamental change in police delivery. The debate should be informed by an independent peer review of the HMIC paper, together with a full risk assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of any mergers, and an assessment of the consequences for other agencies. There must be an opportunity for academic input and a resolution of genuine concerns about the solidity of HMIC's arguments.

I too pay tribute to the thousands of men and women who look after us and who often put their lives in danger to protect our democracy. We owe them more than we can say. During my years of involvement in policing matters, I have come across the most harrowing incidents, dealt with in a professional and calm manner by police men and women who should never have to witness such carnage. It is the front-line troops who take the flak and who have the most difficult jobs to do. We must not let them down by siphoning off valuable resources to implement a restructuring so vast that no one will know to whom they are ultimately responsible. The real answer to that lies with the people of this country. If we ask them, they will tell us loudly and clearly, "Don't mess with our policing structures".