Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:10 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 1:10, 2 March 2006

My Lords, although I was for a year Minister for police at the Home Office, I am the least-qualified person here to speak, because the Home Secretary at the time was Willie Whitelaw. He made certain that I had so much other responsibility to discharge that he could carry on doing it himself. It took the arrival of my noble friend Lord Hurd at the Home Office to begin to change that attitude.

The police live in difficult times, not only for all the reasons that have been deployed, but because it is now 30 years since the great recruiting bulge took place in the mid-1970s. Consequently, a considerable turnover of personnel is in process. The Centrex prediction of the recruitment necessary to maintain a national level of 136,000 to 138,000 policemen runs at around 9,500 per annum until 2012. That throws great responsibility on those who train the recruited policemen. In passing, I should say a word of commendation, to the extent that the police have managed to absorb that considerable turnover of new blood into the system without weakening it.

However, one must look at how training is carried out and that is being changed. The principal agent is Centrex. I was startled to discover that in 2004–05, its budget was cut by 17 per cent—in real terms it was 26 per cent, because apparently they lost the ability to reclaim VAT in that year. I apologise for not giving the Minister warning, but can she say what the budget is now and what it is projected to be for the next financial year?

Training is changing. It used to be centred at places such as Hendon and Cwmbran. I cannot resist saying that it is exactly 23 years to the day that, in my temporary position as Minister for the police, I visited Cwmbran. I was impressed by what was going on there, but more by what happened when I was about to leave. I was detained by the officer in charge, who asked if I could wait for a minute or two more—I had finished my sandwiches—because they were not quite ready for the next thing. I wondered what that might be. Suddenly the double doors burst open and a great column of singing Welshmen came in bearing a cake and singing, "Happy birthday to you, Lord Elton". The coincidence of dates was such that I could not forbear from mentioning it. I still tingle with gratitude.

What surprises me about Centrex is that it is not a validated teaching organisation, which means that, first, it does not have an academic institution overseeing the way that it carries out its instruction, which could be valuable to it; secondly, those who receive qualifications through Centrex do not have accredited qualifications that, if they change careers, they can wave in the face of a future employer. That needs urgent attention and is recommended in the HMIC report on Centrex—recommendation 6.2, I think.

As training is brought into local police forces, the difficulty of obtaining an equal standard throughout the country increases and may be relevant to the present hunger to enlarge police forces. I would have thought that a Centrex is needed that can deliver in every force a standard unit of training and interoperability between police forces. I know that in his contribution to the Politea report, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said that one need for an overall, national force of some sort arose from the difficulty of pursuing criminals from one area to another where the equipment and the training were not interoperable. The Army manages to be interoperable between all arms. Any regiment can fight next to any other regiment, or be interpolated with it without difficulty, because they have common equipment, training and language. That should be achievable without amalgamation.

Whatever the merits of amalgamation, I share the affront felt by my noble friends and others throughout the House at the rapidity with which, and the manner in which, the current proposed amalgamations are being carried forward. I asked the noble Baroness a Starred Question, just a couple of days ago, regarding what consultation had been carried out. Her reply was:

"My right honourable friend Hazel Blears, the Minister who has led on the matter, has consulted widely up and down the country to try to ensure that we properly understand people's needs".—[Hansard, 28/2/06; col. 128.]

My noble friend Lord Rotherwick asked her for more on that. She repeated, that,

"my right honourable friend Hazel Blears undertook a series of consultations with stakeholders and others".—[Hansard, 28/2/06; col. 129.]

The Minister said that she was happy to write, and I hope that she will. I do not take exception to not yet having received a letter, but I look forward to it. But that is not the way to consult—sending the Minister out to obtain information. The noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the Minister spoke almost exclusively to police forces and police authorities. We live in a democracy. As has been said again and again, "The police are the servants of the community"—those are the words of the noble Lord, Lord Imbert—not of the state and not of the Government. That is desperately important. It touches the whole fabric of our nation. I and most noble Lords here are old enough—although I congratulate the Minister on not being anything like old enough—to remember how Europe went under a series of dictatorships; in Spain, Italy, Germany, the Russian Federation, Austria, not Portugal, and France when it was overrun. The agency of despotism was always the police, the Gestapo, OGPU or whoever. Once a government get control of a police force, it is a lethal weapon against democracy.

From 1688 and beyond we have realised that that must not happen. At one time we would not have a standing army. That is now under control. It is an instinct in the British people that the policemen are there to protect them, not to keep them in order on behalf of a great central power. Every increase in the size of forces is an incremental step towards the bogey that we all instinctively fear. If you then set beside that fear, which already has our antennae quivering, the Police and Justice Bill that will come from the other place, which devolves from Parliament to Secretaries of State the detail of not merely the composition but the responsibilities of police authorities, you begin to see that the hand of the state is reaching right down into the policing system.

We already have examples where the police apparently—and it may be coincidental—have started behaving in a political way on certain issues such as homosexuality. My noble friend Lord Waddington quoted another quite different example of the ladies who read out names on the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall. We suddenly have people springing to the defence of No. 10 against two, not quite middle-aged women.

What my noble friends say in distrust of what is being done is well founded in instinct. It is also well founded in democratic politics. It would seem elementary sense to take to individual voters a decision such as this, which affects so many of them, to get their opinion and to win their support. This has not been done and that is a great pity.

Turning from amalgamation, because it is a subject much better discussed by others already, I ask the Minister one other question. I see that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary has, over the past two years, changed the basis of annual inspection to what is now called "baseline assessment", which works on a three-year cycle. That is pretty important, and I would hope that we might hear at least her initial views on whether the change is resulting in a more effective inspection, and clearer insight into what is going on in Government and the Home Office. I ask the Minister and her colleagues to be aware of civil servants, who are in power always and who regard Parliament as an obstacle to legislation. They are urging that bigger is better and units of policing should be closer to the hand of the Home Secretary. They should not.