New clause 9 - Amalgamation of police districts

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 11th March 2003.

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'.—In section 20 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (police districts) insert after subsection (2)—

''(2A) The Chief Constable may, for operational reasons and with the approval of the Board, amalgamate two or more police districts''.'.—[Mr. Wilshire.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Let us see whether I can win one. Again, this is something very different. Section 20 of the 2000 Act relates to police districts. Section 21 states:

''Each district, other than Belfast, shall be a police district.''

That seems hopelessly inefficient in theory. A Chief Constable, who is appointed to run the police service efficiently, as the Minister argued—let us leave aside whether that should include economy—may, as circumstances change, time goes by and techniques alter, decide for entirely operational reasons that the districts of Northern Ireland are too small for his management organisational structure.

One thing about Northern Ireland that always strikes me is that we have considered the boundaries of local government units in GB, but Northern Ireland

has managed to escape that process, and there are probably rather too many districts by GB standards. I know that that point is controversial, but we may well have to return to it. I have always argued that there is an alternative to devolved arrangements, which is to have a two-tier structure, involving a county council and a district council, that we would recognise in rural England.

The Chief Constable has no choice whatever but to have one police district for one local government district. It seems silly to be so restrictive. The new clause would merely give the Chief Constable, for operational reasons, the power to merge police districts if he thought that that was in the best interests of effective and efficient policing in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I am pleased to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I just want to let him know that the Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, in discussions a couple of weeks ago with me and some of my colleagues—members of the parliamentary Labour party Northern Ireland committee—expressed concern that there were far too many policing districts. Does the hon. Gentleman consider that that might best be addressed by reorganising local government, rather than through a unilateral amalgamation by the Chief Constable?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

It might be. I would not count on a reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland happening in the foreseeable future, but if the Chief Constable thinks that that is a good idea—[Interruption.] By saying that he agrees with me, the hon. Gentleman tempts me to push this to a Division to see which way he votes.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 4:45 pm, 11th March 2003

Several months ago, well in advance of suspension, we launched a review of public administration in Northern Ireland, part of which involved a review of local government with a view to considering—I choose my words carefully—the possibility of a reorganisation of local government. Precisely the sort of changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers might result from that review. He may like to bear in mind that it would have the rather curious consequence that if we decided to make some changes to local government structures we would as a side effect reorganise the police's internal structures. Those changes may be for reasons completely unconnected with operational policing decisions, yet the police's operational structures will change as a consequence whether they will it or not. That might not necessarily be in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the answer that I should have given to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart. He is absolutely right. It would not necessarily be sensible to tell the police that they must structure along the existing lines if the politicians in Northern Ireland decided to have, let us say, only four districts outside Belfast. The Chief Constable could then say that he

wanted more than four districts for his practical, efficient and effective policing. I would have to turn the argument back on itself and say that the Chief Constable ought to have the powers to subdivide a district. I am tempted to table another amendment on Report that the Chief Constable should be able to subdivide districts, knowing full well that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart will be in the same Lobby as me.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

A chill has just run down my spine at the prospect of being that much in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I should point out for the record that I suggested an alternative proposal to what he proposes in the new clause.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

The hon. Gentleman is rowing back from his support of common sense. I am sorry to hear that. I believe that I have said enough—some might say more than enough—to make my point. I am always worried about the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland losing the will to live. He might just be doing that. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Amess, for calling me to speak on this important new clause. From my earlier remarks about the proliferation of accountability bodies in the policing of Northern Ireland, you will have gathered, and the Committee will have inferred, that I would be much relieved by a diminution of this proliferation and if amalgamations could reduce the number of DPPs, I would be greatly in favour. I certainly would not presume as an Englishman to say what those amalgamations should be. I fancy that with good will in Northern Ireland and under the supervision of the Chief Constable and with the approval of the board, this is a useful facility. It could reduce the DPPs to a much more manageable number. I express my support for the new clause in those terms.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Nobody would be more delighted than I to see the right hon. Member for Upper Bann return with colleagues from other parties represented in this Committee to the Executive in Northern Ireland through a re-established Assembly. That would mean that the need for a security Minister would be diminished to the point of own redundancy. Even more importantly, the right hon. Gentleman could then pick up the important task to which he has referred, which is the review of the effectiveness of public administration. That might even encompass a review of local government. The responsibility, quite properly, would rest with local Ministers in that event.

The primary consideration should be the need for robust accountability arrangements at a local level. Patten clearly recommended one district command for each district council area as well as one district policing partnership board for each district council and police district. Patten illustrated how the relationship between the police and the community could be enhanced and strengthened as well as made more effective by creating greater links between local government, local police and local policing partnerships.

Patten acknowledged, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart said, that the arrangements might not be ideal for resource management in smaller police districts, and the Chief Constable takes that view. However, the transparency and accountability of the new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland are our primary focus of concern at this stage. I cannot accept the new clause because it would dilute the level of local accountability, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I have listened carefully to the Minister. I shall accede because I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart further. That is the real reason for failing to pursue the new clause. The Minister also makes a convincing case, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.