My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, on securing this debate at what is obviously an extremely important time for the police service. I declare my interest as a member of the Thames Valley Police Authority since 1993, save for a couple of years. I have served, and still do, on the Association of Police Authorities. I am the chairman of the basic command unit in Oxfordshire and a member of the Police Performance group there, which perhaps gives the lie to the fact that there is a separation between operational policing and the role of police authorities. I am a member of the Crime and Disorder Partnership in the Vale; I belong to the Local Strategic Partnership and Public Services Board in Oxfordshire; and I am a member of our local area policing board.
So I have comprehensive knowledge of the way policing is conducted and of the Government's attempts, following the Green Paper in 2003 and the 2004 White Paper, to—in their view—bring policing closer to people and involve them in the process. However, the Government's proposals in their Closing the gap paper and the subsequent Police and Justice Bill are thoroughly insensitive, impatient, illiberal, uncosted, and likely to increase bureaucracy and weaken substantially the democratic accountability of, and local involvement in, policing. I say "impatient" because many changes have been and are being made in policing following the reforms initiated by Mr Blunkett when he was Home Secretary. Those reforms have not even been completely implemented, and we are faced immediately with another series of reforms before those of the former Home Secretary have been put into place.
Much improvement in policing is taking place as a result of the previous series of reforms. We have reduced the number of basic command units in my authority, Thames Valley, by half, and we have made their boundaries coterminous with the local authorities in our areas. We have set up the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. Where they work, they are comprehensive bodies involving local authorities, health authorities, the police, those responsible for housing, who are now mostly outside local authorities, those responsible for dealing with drugs and alcohol abuse, and those responsible for tackling domestic violence. All those people are being brought together and we are beginning to make progress, but we have only just started. We have had about three full meetings of the CDRP, and already someone is trying to change the procedures.
Our local area policing board is only just getting its people. Some of them are coming to their first meeting in May next year, because it has taken that length of time for the whole process to go through. There are plans to strengthen the protective services. We have relied rather heavily on mutual aid between forces, but that aid has been forthcoming.
I quote now from West Mercia, a police force that is efficient by any measure. It is the cheapest police force, and almost one of the best police forces in the country. It has just agreed, following the review of protective services, to have more staff involved: 21 more people on major crime; 20 additional posts dealing with serious and organised crime; and 19 new posts on intelligence. It will gladden the heart of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, to see that there are 21 new posts in road policing in West Mercia, backed up by automatic number plate recognition, which considerably enhances their capability. There are six new posts for civil contingencies and eight new posts for critical incidents. I give those examples to show that people are not complacent. They have taken on board what the Home Office has said about the need to strengthen protective services. All of that is being added in West Mercia without additional cost, because that force is extremely efficient and has made considerable savings elsewhere.
We have been mindful of the criticism of the response of the public inquiry centres. The criticism was that we had established the single non-emergency number but we were slow to answer, and the answers were not followed through by police. Both issues have been addressed in Thames Valley and the authority has committed substantial extra resources to ensuring that the phone is answered very quickly and each incident is followed through until we have had some satisfaction from the users. All of that has been achieved against some very tight financial settlements. Our sanction detection rate has gone up in the past 15 months from 16 per cent to 30 per cent. The Minister may acknowledge that we have almost choked the Crown Prosecution Service and the Court Service with the work we have rendered to them to take through the criminal justice system. So the police force, in terms of actually arresting criminals, is very efficient, but it needs the Court Service and other people to see that those people get their just deserts.
That is a result of a huge focused effort by people, and it is all being put at risk by what I can only describe as an ill-researched, uncosted plan of enforced mergers of police authorities, which in my view is bound to lead to a complete diversion of effort to organisational issues. Those issues have to be addressed; you have to make large parts of the workforce redundant and then offer them posts in any new emerging organisation. It creates huge uncertainty and will take away the focus from catching criminals and delivering local services.
I turn to the issue of democratic deficit. At present we have one representative of each council—except Oxfordshire, which has two—on the police authority. If we expand as proposed, it will not be possible to provide the essential democratic link to elected authorities unless they are made unacceptably large, which would be inefficient. It is no use saying that accountability can be delivered at basic command unit level, at crime and disorder reduction partnership level, or through community scrutiny committees because none of them will be able to see the strategic picture or have an influence on such vital areas as training, call handling, property services, and so on. Those are necessarily delivered at force level and through the medium of the Association of Police Authorities.
The most objectionable and illiberal aspect of the Police and Justice Bill is the power that is transferred to the Home Secretary in respect of police authorities. Enacted by negative instrument, in which Parliament has no say, particularly objectionable is the power to appoint the chair and vice-chair of police authorities. The privilege of appointment rests with fellow members who make such judgments based on their experience of the competence of people rather than the whim of the Home Secretary of the day.
What of the people? The West Mercia force is efficient and cost-effective. The authority has already made so much by way of plans to strengthen its protective service. In a consultation exercise 123 out of the 126 organisations consulted supported the present structure and unambiguously said that large-scale reorganisation such as that envisaged would not realise the cost savings and efficiencies, and that large organisations soon lose touch with their customers. What professional research was done that has given such compelling evidence to the Home Secretary that only such a monstrous upheaval will deliver what is needed. We see no sign of such evidence and conclude that this is a hasty and ill-judged attempt at reorganisation without thought of its effect, the economics and purpose of police forces, and the way in which they interlink with local communities and democracy.
Obviously some mergers are welcome. We volunteered at Thames Valley to merge with Bedfordshire, which volunteered to merge with us. But, because we go across a regional boundary, which is a sort of line in the sand, that rules it out. The Government's expansion plans for Milton Keynes go between the two counties, and it makes absolute sense to merge them, but that has been ruled out by the Home Secretary without considering the effects.
I want to say a final word about the British Transport Police, which has a long and historic association with the railways. It is a specialist force which concentrates its efforts on keeping the railway open, minimising delay and disruption, protecting passengers and staff and reducing vandalism or other forms of anti-social behaviour. It has transformed itself under its present chief constable, and following recent terrorist outrages, is now equipped to get to incidents quickly and safely because it gives them a high priority.
When incidents occur involving the Metropolitan Police on railway property, they clear them within 126 minutes; the British Transport Police do it in 64 minutes. They are focused, and because of that the railway is kept open. Although it is not the Minister's responsibility—I know that the issue rests with the Department for Transport—there seems to be no valid reason for burying that highly professional specialist force, which is the policy that the Government have hastily concocted.