My Lords, I join all those who have commended the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for instigating this excellent debate, led by his exemplary introductory speech. As the Minister responding, I am given a certain difficulty because of the breadth of the issues covered, but I very much welcome them. I also welcome the very kind words of welcome home that I have received during the debate.
I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that I fear that his long experience in this House and his position as Front-Bench spokesman is likely to mean that he will never win the competition in which he wishes to engage with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. Indeed, those two will fare no better. I think that they should desist from trying to enter a competition that they are not fitted for and cannot win.
The issues with which we have dealt this morning are of the utmost importance and I wish to reassure noble Lords on a number of matters. Through active engagement, talking to our stakeholders and listening directly to communities, we have made substantial progress in enhancing the police service, very much in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, set out—I thank him for his compliments to the Government on the strides that we have taken and I agree with him. We have strengthened local accountability, introduced measures to monitor confidence levels within communities, instilled a new culture of proactive intelligence-led policing and significantly improved partnership arrangements with criminal justice service agencies. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, was right to refer to the crime reduction partnerships, the local strategic partnerships and the local criminal justice partnerships. That working together has brought amazing benefits to the criminal justice system as a whole.
We must look at the new provisions in that context of reform. We have a shared five-year vision for improving criminal justice services, as set out in our strategic plan, Cutting Crime, Delivering Justice. We have established a means to achieve enhanced performance, which is why we have been able to meet our target of bringing 1.25 million criminal cases to justice two years earlier than the target date of 2008. These are significant improvements.
I very much commend the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, in his quite exceptional speech. He outlined how dramatically issues have changed. The context and nature of the problems that we face now are significantly different from those that we have faced historically. I have been comforted by the fact that, in each speech, noble Lords have accepted that the current structure of 43 forces needs to be changed. We cannot continue with that structure if we are to meet the real challenges with which we are jointly faced today.
I understand the comments made about the speed with which the change has been undertaken, but I think it only right to remind noble Lords that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary did not just write one report; as many noble Lords have remembered, there were in fact two. The first, which was called Mind the Level 2 Gap, came to my right honourable friend Hazel Blears in early 2005. It very much set out the direction of travel in identifying that there was a big problem in the lack of police service capacity to deal with level 2 crime. It recommended that there should be another report by HMIC, which turned out to be Closing the Gap. It is that second report that has recently been received. The issue of police restructuring therefore arose at least six months before the publication of the current report in September 2005; the discussions had really been going on all that year.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, is right about the separation between the Government's role and the independent role of the police and the police authorities to operate and protect us. However, that separation meant that, in consulting them, we relied on their fulfilling their proper function of consulting stakeholders and the public, which they did. I commend the work that the police and the police authorities did in that regard. I am confident that both noble Lords who have spoken from the Liberal Democrat Benches will have been engaged in those public consultations with others in their areas to ensure that the public understood what was being talked about. This debate must therefore be considered in the context of the substantial consultation on these matters that has been continuing for a long time.