– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 23rd May 2006.
I start by welcoming the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to his new responsibilities. The police force is not yet in the same mess as the immigration service, and I hope that he will not allow it to get into such a mess. If he follows my advice and that of my hon. Friends, he will find himself on the way to ensuring that it does not do so.
I know that whoever is in the Chair has to be unbiased, Mr. Taylor, but it is worth pointing out that you are an east midlands Member of Parliament. In a recent Adjournment debate on police reform you said:
"We have a similar situation in the east midlands, where there is no support for an east midlands-wide force but that seems to be our fate."—[Hansard, 30 March 2006; Vol. 444,c. 1078.]
I hope that we can persuade the Government not to go down that road, as the merger has no local support. I am pleased to see a number of my colleagues from the east midlands on both sides of the House. In the main, I have yet to find anyone who publicly supports a police force of the size and nature proposed.
Is it not the case that there is not only no local support but no geographical coherence? On Friday I made an interesting visit to the constituency of Tom Levitt—I gave him notice of my visit—and I then went to the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan. By the end of the day, I had travelled nearly 200 miles from my home, but I still had not left the east midlands. We could have journeyed on to Skegness to complete the picture.
Order. Interventions should be brief; an awful lot of Members wish to contribute to the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I often say that there is no such place as the east midlands. It is what is left over once the rest of the country has been divided up. I do not know of a place called "the east midlands" that is recognised as such. The idea that Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire have something in common with Derbyshire is for the birds—or possibly for the Government.
Mindful of what you say, Mr. Taylor, but wishing to allow a few interventions, I shall try to speak for only 15 minutes or so, so that others have an opportunity to contribute.
Building on the point made by our hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, is the change not another part of the Government's plan for regional government, which is deeply unpopular?
I shall come to that aspect, because I think that the proposal is regionalisation by the back door. When the Government attempted to get regionalisation through in the north of the country, it was overwhelmingly rejected. The first area that they chose for such a referendum was one where they thought they would find sympathy and support for the idea, but it was rejected. If the Minister is going pursue the merger, he should at the very least let the people decide. He should put it to a referendum. I am keen for that to happen—I would be very happy about it. The Government were keen on referendums until they started going wrong for them, and they seem to have gone a bit cold on them since then.
Not all is lost, however. The idea was undoubtedly the driving ambition of the former Home Secretary, who has since departed the scene. In response to a question by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Prime Minister said:
"We have to listen to what people are saying and, obviously, there are different views about police reform. One possibilityis for strategic coming together on certain issues, rather than mergers".—[Hansard, 25 January 2006; Vol. 441,c. 1425-26.]
I agree. That would be a sensible way forward. I do not say that there should be no change at all. What I am saying is that I oppose the creation of a super-regional police force, as it would have no coherence.
The idea behind the mergers was to enhance the protective services that combat serious crime crossing county borders. However, according to a confidential report drawn up by Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, the Government are aiming at a lower standard of co-ordination. He says that the project
"will not do what it says on the tin. If restructuring does not significantly improve protective services, the question must be asked: 'Why are we restructuring?'".
Why are the Home Office and the Government insisting on it? According to Tim Brain, the implementation of the plan nationally will cost the equivalent of 25,000 police officer salaries. As the Government are refusing to commit additional funds to pay for the mergers, the effect would be a serious depletion of front-line policing. It is front-line policing, not protective services, that fights the crime that most concerns my constituents and those of my hon. Friends. Tim Brain concludes that
"the impact of such a cut would destroy any realistic hope of developing neighbourhood policing".
In the past, the Government have said that they are keen on neighbourhood policing.
As my hon. Friend says, quite right. In some respects, we fear the Government's plans in most respect of some of the rural constituencies. I do not believe that the system is broken, so why must we interfere with it? I hoped that the Government would have taken account of what has happened in the past when they have interfered with things, only to reverse them back to the state in which they inherited them.
My right hon. Friend makes the correct point. Is he aware of the deep concern in Lincolnshire, where there are already worries about the lack of police visibility, that the east midlands merger will transfer resources away to big conurbations such as Nottingham, where there is serious crime? That is inevitable, and it will be greatly to the detriment of those who live in Lincolnshire.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Although I do not have the exact figures, Nottinghamshire has far more police officers than Derbyshire, despite the fact that the counties are of similar size. I am not relying on this morning's report about crime levels, but there is no doubt that crime levels are higher in the centre of Nottingham than in other parts of the east midlands. What will happen to the police force? It will be concentrated in that particular area. Perhaps that might please my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, but it is a problem.
We have not yet seen the details of the precept rationalisation that could come about as a result of the proposal. Since 1997, the people of Derbyshire have seen an increase of 165 per cent. in the police precept in the county, because we have been paying for extra police officers to try to catch up. Will that money just disappear into other parts of the region on an equalisation basis? Those are only some of the questions that have not yet been answered. That is part of the problem with this reorganisation and rationalisation: it is being rushed to far too great a degree.
It is interesting to note that the chairmen of the east midlands police authorities and the chief constables have already outlined their serious concerns to the Home Secretary. All five police forces voted not to volunteer for a merger on the grounds of affordability and the ability to enhance professional services quickly. They object not for narrow-minded political reasons, but because they want to deliver the best policing service for the local people. They are concerned that the new merger plans will hinder their ability to do so, and I think that they are right.
Despite objections from all the police authorities concerned, the former Home Secretary announced on
As my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell mentioned, the east midlands is not the easiest of areas through which to travel. It is not like travelling north-south, which is relatively easy in this country. The configuration of the roads means that travelling east-west is far more difficult. That is one of the problems that a large force such as the one proposed will face.
The east midlands police authorities have estimated the cost of a regional merger to be £101 million for its set-up plus £45 million in ongoing costs, with £15 million in potential efficiency savings. The Home Office has estimated the cost of a regional merger to be £80 million, plus £20 million in ongoing costs, with £16 million in potential savings. The big difference between what the Home Office and the regional police authorities say relates to the set-up costs, and I am more inclined to believe the regional police authorities than I am the Home Office, simply because they are the people on the ground doing the job. We have to listen to what they say.
Is not the lesson of past mergers—clearly, the same will be true of this merger—that there are very high transitional costs and no real economies of scale, and as soon as the merger has happened, sub-structures and divisional units are set up in an attempt to restore the local connection that was lost through the merger?
Yes. There is also something to be said for a chief constable being accountable to local people. I am not sure that a chief constable overseeing five forces would be sufficiently accountable to local people. That is one disturbing element of the proposals. I have not always agreed with the chief constable of Derbyshire. In fact, before he retired the previous chief constable appeared on a Labour party political broadcast in 2001. I do not want to know the politics of chief constables; I want them to do their job properly.
Lord Denning said that a chief constable should be answerable to the law, not to politicians. One problem that may result from the size of the proposed forces is that we will get chief constables who are more directly accountable to the Home Secretary. At the moment, Labour Members may think that a marvellous idea—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe might have thought it a marvellous idea when he was Home Secretary—but I say to Labour Members that they should not be so arrogant as to think that they will always be in power. One day, they may not like chief constables being directly accountable to the Home Secretary.
At the second generous reference to me, I thought that I might intervene. My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but he did say that he does not oppose all change. Does he accept that if the present system of local accountability in Derbyshire is a model of perfection, that may be the exception? We now have the opportunity to examine how to make accountability work more effectively on whatever scale. Certainly most inhabitants of my constituency are not aware of the existence of the police authority; they do not know what it does. It is hardly the strongest system of local accountability.
I totally accept that. I am not sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is not responsible for the present system of police accountability, but I shall put that to one side for a moment. In all seriousness, I am not arguing that the present system is perfect and does not need changing. He has just spoken about accountability and I agree with him about that. However, what is proposed will remove almost all local accountability. At the moment, imperfect as the system may be, we have 22 or 23 people serving on the Derbyshire police authority; under the proposals, it is likely that only four or five people will be appointed to serve on the regional authority. The present system may not be perfect, but what is proposed to replace it is wholly imperfect.
I do not mind some change, as I have said to my hon. Friend Nick Herbert. I do not mind more collaborative services among police authorities—for example, it is ridiculous that every police authority has its own payroll system; such services can rightly be centralised. However, we do not need to centralise everything at regional level. The payroll could be administered nationally—it is ridiculous to have the sort of payroll systems envisaged under the new police structures. If the Home Office is seeking change for the sake of efficiency, there are many other ways to achieve that without disregarding local accountability.
Is that not part and parcel of the Government's plan? There will be a complete disconnect between, for instance, the people of Leicestershire and their police force, because it will be an east midlands police force, based somewhere else. The problem is already to be seen in the East Midlands regional assembly: it is totally unaccountable to anybody, yet has been set up and will march in tandem with the new police authority.
I agree. There a huge amount that I could say, but I see that I am coming up to the15 minutes I promised you, Mr. Taylor, and I am mindful of other hon. Members who have given up their time to be here this morning. I will therefore draw my remarks to a conclusion.
We have discussed accountability in some detail. I believe in accountability—in a Member of Parliament, a local council or a parish council being able to challenge a chief constable directly. I have talked to a number of my parish councils—I think that the modern term for them is stakeholders, but perhaps I will not become quite as modern as that—and have received a communication from parish council in Doveridge, which is right on the edge of Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in an excellent example of police-community relationships, Doveridge neighbourhood watch was fortunate enough to have the chief constable address its annual general meeting. It is difficult to imagine a chief constable of such a vast organisation as the proposed force taking the time and trouble to visit such a small community on the border of its territory.
I cite Doveridge not only because the parish council has written to me and expressed a view, but because it is not far from Sudbury open prison, and we know some of the concerns that have been raised about open prisons lately. It is therefore perhaps a good thing that the chief constable can go along and reassure people of the services that he will provide in Doveridge, because some of the absconders from Sudbury open prison have committed incredibly awful crimes.
Tissington parish council, which is very small council, has said:
"The proposed merger is hastily drawn up, lacks accountability and has no known community support. It would be unwieldy and inefficient in management and there are no local perceived benefits."
Brailsford parish council writes:
"We see no...reason to make such extensive and important changes in what seems undue haste. We foresee that a merger of this size would mean resources were channelled to the larger cities and leave the rural communities with very little support."
Stoney Middleton parish council has said:
"The proposals seem to be expensive, ill thought out and detrimental to effective policing in the county. They will also make the police force less accountable".
I could go on to quote Longford, Matlock and various other parish councils that have brought their concerns to me, but I will not, because other hon. Members wish to participate.
There are some salient questions. Where will the extra funding necessary for the plans come from? Can the Minister assure me that council tax payers in West Derbyshire will not have to foot the bill for a scheme that they do not want and that will not provide the level of service that they currently enjoy? How will the Minister justify the new regional authority's ability to offer accountability with a ratio of only one member to every 200,000 people—in effect, three constituencies having one person as an accountable member on the authority?
The five police forces affected by the plan have severely criticised it and do not want it. In their professional judgment, they think that the plans will hinder policing rather than improve it. Local politicians do not want the merger to go ahead, as we feel that it will prove counter-productive in the fight against crime. Perhaps most important, local people do not want the changes. They want a local, accountable, responsive community service, not a large, unwieldy and remote one.
I have not yet met anyone in Derbyshire who wants the merger. The police do not want it, parliamentary representatives do not want it and local people do not want it. According to the answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, even the Prime Minister is lukewarm. So why on earth go forward with the changes? I ask the Minister, on the first day of his new job, to say that he will not embark on what will be a fiasco for the police service in the east midlands, but that he will reverse these crazy decisions and make a positive name for himself on day one in his new job.
Order. In line with the convention on debates on local and regional issues to which a substantial number of Members want to contribute, I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers 20 minutes before the end of the debate—at 10.40 am—and half of that time will be for the Minister. If the 10 Members who want to speak before then bear in mind that they have 50 minutes left to do so, I shall try to get everyone in.
I am delighted to follow Mr. McLoughlin and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I also congratulate him on defying the convention that influential figures in the House should not speak on such issues; he spoke forcefully on behalf of his constituents. He accepted the case for change, although he has not told us what change is necessary. None the less, change is necessary, and it is important to recognise that the proposals before us come from the police themselves. We need change, and the notion that 43 police forces is the right solution for the present day is just wrong.
Although I have questions and doubt, there is a need for change, and I know that just from looking at my own authority in Nottinghamshire. A think tank report out today says that there are more crimes in Nottingham than anywhere else in the country, and high levels of homicide and serious organised crime—often related to drugs—have led to real policing problems in Nottinghamshire. There has been abstraction of police officers from rural to urban areas, and the Nottinghamshire police have had to call in resources from elsewhere. Members will also remember the chief constable's comment that he had "lost control". All that seems to indicate that, faced with serious levels of crime, we in Nottinghamshire need a larger, more strategic police force.
However, I have doubts, concerns and questions similar to those that the right hon. Gentleman expressed and I would like the Minister to acknowledge those questions and look for solutions. First, it is important that there is neighbourhood policing. The goal set out in the Labour party's manifesto is to have neighbourhood teams in place by April 2008. The debate about police changes has focused very much on the regional level and the strategic police force, but it needs to focus on the locality and the neighbourhood, because people want police officers who understand and respond to their concerns. It is important that the commitment to neighbourhood policing is not lost in the debate about larger structures. It is important to accept and acknowledge that larger strategic police forces must work hand in hand with neighbourhood police teams.
Secondly, we need to ensure that the new authority is properly resourced. I shall not repeat the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave, but it is clear that there is always a cost to change, because change in itself is dysfunctional. I am concerned that police forces in the east midlands have been traditionally underfunded, as previous Home Office Ministers have acknowledged. There is a clear difference between local voices and local police forces on the one hand and the Home Office on the other about the cost of change, although figures are coming closer through discussion. One of the important things that we must do is set up a process to examine those figures and reach proper conclusions. Unless we have a firm financial structure, there is a danger that the new neighbourhood teams will be eroded by a lack of financing.
I amglad to see at least one Nottinghamshire Member on the Labour Benches, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, with Nottinghamshire's population growing by 4.1 per cent. between 1993 and 2003, compared with a national average of 2.7 per cent., Nottinghamshire's case for extra resources and funding is overwhelming?
There is a case for extra funding and resources for the Nottinghamshire police. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman, who takes a close interest in such matters, that police numbers are at a record level in Nottinghamshire. We need to talk not only about extra resources but about their good and efficient management. I am not confident that we have had the best such management in Nottinghamshire, and that view is also taken by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary.
Thirdly, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire talked about governance. If it goes forward, the new east midlands strategic force will cover an area larger than Belgium. It is really important that local people feel that they have ownership of the police. That may not happen sufficiently at a top, police-authority level, so it is important that a new strategic authority should have the powers and structures to involve people at a basic command unit level or through crime and disorder reduction partnerships. It is important that people have a say about the problems in their areas and a way of finding solutions, and I know that the Government are taking measures to enable that to happen. It cannot be right for there to be large strategic authorities but no say at a more local level.
Finally, I turn to council tax equalisation; again, it is a governance issue. I am far from clear about how it will be achieved. We need far more clarity from the Home Office about taking that forward.
Given the four concerns that I have mentioned, I believe that the timetable for change is far too rapid. Change is inevitable, but we need a timetable and framework for change that allows time for the problems to be not only discussed but resolved. I acknowledge that when a change is made, it is important to take its benefit quickly. However, on the face of it, the move to change in the east midlands is far too quick. There needs to be greater consultation so that we can find real solutions that will meet the needs and aspirations of people, not only in Nottinghamshire but across the east midlands.
Order. Again, I urge hon. and right hon. Members to observe a self-denying ordinance. They should keep their contributions to less than five minutes to allow their parliamentary colleagues to be called.
On behalf of the people of Kettering, I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin on securing this debate. I am 100 per cent. opposed to the abolition of Northamptonshire's own police force and to its absorption into an east midlands police service. The absurdity of the Government's merger plan is that Northamptonshire will end up paying more for a police service that will provide fewer police officers to patrol our local area.
I recently spent 22 days with the parliamentary police scheme in and around Kettering. It is my firm view that local people there do not want the headquarters of Northamptonshire's police to be in Nottingham; they want more police officers, not fewer, to patrol our local area. A full regional merger would cost £100 million up front and a net additional £30 million a year. Where is the sense in that?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposal to merge the police forces has resulted in the loss of the chief superintendent in Wellingborough, who is being sent to my hon. Friend's constituency of Kettering?
My hon. Friend, as usual, is absolutely correct. Under the merger plans, we were promised greater emphasis on neighbourhood policing, but the constituencies of Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough now have one basic command unit instead of two, and Northamptonshire now has two basic command units instead of four. As a direct consequence of preparations for the merger plans, there is now less local emphasis on policing. I urge the Minister to allow the five forces, or some combination of them, to adopt a federated structure of inter-force co-operation and not impose a merger on them.
I impress on the Minister that we are talking about a huge area, stretching from the borders of Oxfordshire to the outskirts of Greater Manchester. When the county is divided up, Northamptonshire is always on the edge, and given the gun crime and gang crime that we have heard about in Nottingham, policing in Northamptonshire will not be a priority for the new east midlands police service.
The budget shortfall faced by the five police authorities in the east midlands is already £17 million for 2006-07. They are five of the most underfunded police authorities in the country. Over the past 10 years, in pounds-per-head terms, their income has risen by 24 per cent; that is compared to a rise in inflation of 28 per cent.In 2005-06, the average amount spent on policing in England was £174 per person. In the east midlands it was £143 per person, which is 82 per cent. of the English average. All five police authorities were underfunded on that basis, and in Northamptonshire the figure was £139 per person.
Steve Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, has written to the former Home Secretary, and I hope that the letter is on the current Home Secretary's file. That letter, dated
"The current offer from the Home Office does not provide the necessary financial support and...without substantial additional funding, this region cannot achieve the minimum standard of Level 3 in protective services, let alone any prospect of future improvement to Level 4."
I shall go on with the letter, because this is an important point:
"It is equally clear from the Home Office analysis that the relatively small amount of additionality that would eventually be released through efficiency savings would not become available for investment in protective services until 2014. This situation fundamentally undermines the principal case for amalgamation. Dennis O'Connor's report clearly asserted that the East Midlands represents the area of greatest risk in the country".
The merger proposals are not welcome in Northamptonshire; they would undermine local policing and they enjoy no local support. The Northamptonshire branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers is against the plans, as is Bill Dredge, who is the chairman of Northamptonshire neighbourhood watch, and Dr. Marie Dickie, the Labour chairman of the Northamptonshire police authority. The chief constable of Northamptonshire is worried about the loss of officers.
In conclusion, the new Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety is talked about as the great persuader; that is why he has been put into his present job. I urge him to follow the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire and on behalf of all the residents of Kettering I ask him to think again, before it is too late.
It is worth noting that the only reason why we are having a debate on police restructuring is that Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary, senior organisations within the police such as the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales and, according to a poll in The Times today, the vast majority of senior police officers all want a restructuring of the police to make it more efficient and effective in the battle against crime, both strategically and locally.
Mr. McLoughlin is right to say that it is simply not sustainable to have 43 chief constables, 43 personnel departments, 43 finance departments and 43 press officers, or to have all those constabularies using different technologies and protocols, and in some cases having real problems communicating with each other. The status quo is therefore definitely not an option.
There are two dimensions to the proposed restructuring, and I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman fell between two stools and did not give either of those the necessary importance. The first dimension is the strategic level, whereby organised crime operates not within localities—the towns and villages of our constituencies—but nationwide and regionally. We must have a system to fight organised crime and terrorism that is not locally based within divisions or even existing constabularies, but which has a bigger remit. That is why it is important to pool resources and strengthen the police at a strategic level.
The other aspect, which is probably more important for the current debate, is the local level. As my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping has pointed out, within the existing divisional structures, police officers already have increased accountability through consultative committees and forums—certainly in Derbyshire—and even down to ward and beat level. In High Peak, we already have police officers whose text numbers and e-mail addresses are known to the people in their wards. They are directly accountable to the people they serve. That is a welcome development and I want more accountability—not at county level, but at division and ward level, and in localities. The good practice that already exists— Derbyshire is well advanced in neighbourhood policing—should be made more widely available and should be used elsewhere.
Will the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, on that understanding, join me in saying that B division of Derbyshire constabulary, which is the divisional command unit shared between our constituencies—it covers the whole of mine, and not quite all of his—should not be merged and should remain as the basic command unit? Does he agree that, if we are to take neighbourhood policing seriously, it is important that there should be no fewer divisions than there are at present?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. I agree about B division, and I have no problem in supporting its continuation. It is likely to survive if Derbyshire keeps its chief constable, but it is highly unlikely to survive if there is an amalgamated force of five different authorities. We, the two local Members of Parliament, can have an influence on the chief constable, because there are only 10 Members of Parliament in Derbyshire. A chief constable with 44 Members of Parliament in the area covered by his force might well ignore us.
One advantage of the debate is that the Minister is here to listen and has heard us, on a cross-party basis, say that the divisional structure in Derbyshire should remain as it is whatever the final outcome. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's support for that view.
The last word on accountability is that most people in my constituency would have difficulty in saying exactly where the police headquarters is. Perhaps that does not apply to the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, which is closer to it. However, it does not matter where the chief constable is based. The location of the communications room, which is the place that people phone up, does not matter. People want to know that the divisional commander is on the ball and that their local policeman is on the beat in their neighbourhood. That is the level of accountability that I want, and I believe that it can be retained and strengthened under the new proposals.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman did not show a very strong inclination to go down the road of federation. It has been proposed on some fronts that we should adopt a loose federation of constabularies, but that has all the disadvantages of the current system with few of the advantages of the new proposal. The most important thing about federating constabularies is that it makes long-term planning impossible. As long as the federation is loose, it will not lend itself to such planning.
I did speak in favour of federation as preferable to what the Government are providing. There is a federation between Derbyshire and Nottingham: they share a helicopter, and I welcome that. It has been a useful part of the system and has not stopped long-term planning.
Of course it is sensible to share particular services, but that does not mean that the strategic decisions of the different authorities are necessarily being taken in line with each other. The debate has evolved already in that the two-county proposal that was on the cards a little while ago is no longer there. It proved deeply unpopular in Derbyshire, and it is right that the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire proposal has been taken off the agenda and that we should be talking solely about the five-county proposal.
I agree that there are problems, and I hope that the Minister will address them. They are to do with not just the different council tax precepts in the five authorities that will be brought together, but with the hugely different pension arrangements and pension scheme funding in the different constabularies. There is historical underfunding in Derbyshire, which is a much worse-funded authority than Nottinghamshire, for example. We need some equalisation. We also make a legitimate demand that the cost of the mergers should not either fall on council tax payers or result in reduced services. We know that it will take some years for the cost benefits of the merger to work through, but in the interim there must be no cost to other services or council tax payers.
Like Mr. Hollobone, I have taken part in the police service parliamentary scheme. We get a wonderful insight into how police operate and the huge diversity of services, and the scheme also allows us to see how well police officers are doing throughout the country. We have record numbers of police officers in Derbyshire and elsewhere, as well as falling crime. In Derbyshire, we have rising detection rates and some of the lowest crime levels in the country. We are proud of our local policing services. This is not an easy project to manage, and it must not be rushed. It is a year since it came on the timetable, and with a four-month consultation I think that it will take at least two years to put into operation.
I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is important to get things right, rather than to get things quickly. If the debate is centred on what people wantin terms of policing in their localities and neighbourhoods, and the quality of service that they see on the street outside their front door, and if assurances are given on that, there will be a lot more willingness to go along with different options for strategic organisations above that level.
I am pleased that the debate is taking place, as it offers us all an opportunity to put the issues on the record. I hope that the problems and issues that I have raised will help the Minister to guide and work with police authorities to reach a solution that we can all live with.
Order. I urge hon. Members to stay within the five-minute limit.
I am grateful to be called and will try to keep my remarks very brief.
The Minister and I were first in the room this morning, and I said to him that his Department has traditionally been a bed of nails for Ministers. I know that he is on his first day. I will not betray confidences by saying what he said to me, but he did smile. One thing that I would have thought should be going through his mind is the fact that he is in a Department that is widely seen as absolutely chaotic: convicted criminals who should be deported are not, there are problems with the cleaners at the Home Office being illegal immigrants and there are difficulties with the Criminal Records Bureau recording innocent people as criminals. It is indeed chaotic.
I was looking at my hon. Friends the Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—gallant Members who have served in the armed forces—and thinking what they, as soldiers, might say to the Minister. They would probably say that he should try to shut down one of the fronts. The Home Office seems to be fighting on so many fronts, so surely this is a great opportunity for the Minister to get further promotion with his boss, and at the very least to adopt the Rushcliffe model. Rather than going the whole way, maybe he could reach an accommodation or solution with my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin, the Conservative Chief Whip, whose debate this is—I am not looking for promotion—and Paddy Tipping. There is common ground.
There is almost universal disapproval of the proposals; no one wants them. Even the chief constables who were so heavily influenced by the Home Office when the Terrorism Bill was before the House—who were strong-armed into coming up with a position and briefing us—have changed their positions. One or two may covet the job of super-chief constable or Metropolitan Police Commissioner of the shires, but even they have come round. They do not want this nonsense. No one does.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, accountability will be hopeless and it will suffer. The situation will be like the one in Hinckley. I have no chance of speaking to the chief constable for the west midlands, which is on the other side of the A5, but I have the mobile phone number of the Leicestershire chief constable in my pocket. I have had it ever since the Home Office gave it to me when it was trying to influence him, but we shall not go into that.
Members have spoken eloquently about the chaos and ridiculous costs of merger. I ask Members who have been in the House for a while—I have been here as long as some—whether there has ever been a reorganisation that has not cost more than expected. My hon. Friend Mr. Duncan alluded to that. Such reforms—for example, health reforms—always cost more and there is always some difference.
This is completely the wrong tack, and we should take a leaf out of the New York police force book. That force works within certain precincts and uses sophisticated computer systems. In an age of information technology when communications are improving all the time, why are we told that we must accept vast, Stalinesque, monolithic structures that are totally unaccountable? Surely, with all the electronic wizardry around now, police force can talk to police force. It is not the case that the protocols are all wrong.
I say to Tom Levitt that there may be some problems with Devon and Cornwall police communicating with Cumbria, but the West Midlands and Leicestershire constabularies use a good mutual aid system to deal with nightclubs in Hinckley and Nuneaton. There is no problem—the argument is complete nonsense.
Mr. Deputy Speaker— I am not supposed to call you that in Westminster Hall. It is Mr. Chairman, I know. We cleared that earlier on.
Thank you, Mr. Taylor.
I ask any hon. Member of the House, who is more accountable to their constituents—Members of this old and honourable House of Commons or Members of the European Parliament? What is the answer? Who represents constituencies the size of Belgium? Is it us? No, it is not. It is MEPs, who have an impossible task in relating to anybody. The same principle applies in this case. Let us be done with the nonsense of vast structures and get back to some sensible local policing.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin on securing the debate, which is terribly important. I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. I am sure that he will handle it with the same aplomb as he has handled all his other appointments. I am pleased that there are three Nottinghamshire Members here today, as I believe that they will underline the importance of the issue to the county.
I shall not iterate points that have already been made about Nottinghamshire. The fact remains that this morning we have been told that Nottingham stands high—in fact, at the highest and most lamentable point—in the crime statistics for the country. Our constabulary is constantly under pressure: it is underfunded, understaffed and overtasked, and constituents in Sherwood, in Rushcliffe and certainly in Newark and Retford feel that they are not receiving the correct services from police officers whom they largely admire and who do a splendid job, but who do not have the resources to do what they are required to do.
I have already made the point about Nottinghamshire's population increasing by 4.1 per cent. in the past10 years, as opposed to the national average of 2.7 per cent., and points about underfunding have been made more eloquently by others than they would be made by me. Paddy Tipping is dead right—the situation must change. If we are to deliver better policing to Nottinghamshire, the structure must be better.
I probably differ with the hon. Gentleman on one or two details. I believe that we can achieve some economies of scale, but it worries me very much that a large sum of money will be spent on a wonderful new police station in a place such as Newark, yet the city of Nottingham—and, I have no doubt, cities such as Leicester, Northampton and others within a large five-county police force—will continue to act as a magnet for police officers and the dreaded policy community support officers.
Many officers are abstracted from rural constituencies such as mine, as well as Sherwood and the Rushcliffe constituency, to go into the city to fight gun and drug crime, which mercifully have not yet struck the streets of Newark. None the less, we have all sorts of difficulties and we require our officers to be based locally, to have a local focus and to be accountable to local people in a local way. I believe that the scheme the Government are espousing will destroy that.
We have a federated police force structure in the east midlands and it has worked pretty well. I suggest that there is no better example of how police forces co-operate than the way that Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire co-operated on the prosecution of my Labour predecessor in Newark. The three forces worked splendidly to produce a wonderful result, at least in the short term, and showed how a federated police force can work particularly well. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said, if we go down the Government's suggested route, we will end up with a leviathan of five counties and, in theory, a single chief constable.
As sure as shooting, and in the same way that the national health service has turned itself inside out over the past five or six years, we will shortly see another restructuring of those large forces with less accountability at local level, more costs, lack of focus and lack of resourcing. There are bound to be changes because that is a law of nature. My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Sherwood alluded to that.
There can be economies of scale. Looking to my shadow responsibilities, when I first heard about the plans, I wondered what use they would have. They could be attractive in fighting terrorism, and in that respect they may make sense, yet the model that has already been adopted for terrorism stretches from the Welsh border to the North sea. It has nothing to do with the five-county structure that is being prepared. If we want more effective structures, let us consider what is in place: undoubtedly, there could be economies of scale and there are ways of doing things better, but I deeply resent the loss of local accountability and of local policemen serving local people.
I believe that the Home Secretary is seeing sense and that he is beginning to row back on the proposals. If anything that my right hon. Friend, my colleagues and friends on the Government Benches say today persuades the Government that this is the wrong course of action, the debate will have been worth while in spades.
I add my congratulations to Mr. McLoughlin on securing this important debate. We are geographical neighbours but not, I hasten to add, political neighbours. Our constituents share many common interests, and Derbyshire police are one.
The objections to the creation of an east midlands super-force fall into three categories. The first is the undemocratic, rushed and sham way in which the proposal is being forced through and the consultation is supposedly taking place. Tom Levitt said that it is important to get these things right rather than to get them quickly. What has happened so far provides no assurance of that.
These changes in policing are the biggest in this country since the service was created in 1829, yet they are being rushed through in just a few months. On
To force through such drastic changes in such a short time is undemocratic and rushed, allowing no time whatever for adequate consultation with the public. In that rushed time scale, the Government refused to consider federations and local forces, which we have discussed in the past hour. They refused to allow consideration of co-operation on wider issues—for example, combating serious and organised crime, terrorism and even common payrolls—yet the same Government who refused to allow consideration of federation have insisted that the fire authorities do precisely that—federate to run joint control rooms. There seems to be no logic in a system whereby one branch of the emergency services federates while another cannot consider it.
Finally, in the past few weeks the pace of rushed, sham consultation picked up speed, and on
Although I support the mergerin principle, it was important that Derbyshire constabulary and the others did not go down the volunteer route because had they done so there would not have been the four-month consultation. Even if they had been in favour of it, they still should have opted for the consultation.
That is exactly the point I want to come to next. On
The second group of objections is to do with funding issues, which we have already had examples of from around the region. Derbyshire is traditionally underfunded, particularly since the dark days of the 1980s when a left-wing council leader, Mr. Blunkett, fought battles with a right-wing Conservative Government led by Baroness Thatcher.
In 2005-06, the average funding increase for police forces across England was 4.4 per cent., but in Derbyshire it was only 3.75 per cent. despite the traditional underfunding of the force. Over the next two years up to 2008, Government funding plans require a further £6 million of underfunding or cuts in Derbyshire police, which has led to the police authority writing to every Derbyshire MP to say in blunt terms that that means there will be a reduction in police officer numbers, less resources for neighbourhood policing and reduced opportunities to make full use of advances in forensic science that would otherwise improve detection rates.
That is a grim background to start with, but we must look next at the financial implications of this forced merger. We have had the details, so I will not go into them all, but the east midlands police authorities, which must be the experts on this, say that the set-up costs will be about £101 million and the ongoing costs £45 million. However, the Government—the Home Office—say, "No, we will fund this at £80 million on the set-up costs and £20 million on ongoing costs," which is considerably less. That can mean only that there will be a reduction in the services provided as a result of this merger.
There are other issues such as pay harmonisation. It will cost £9.4 million each year to harmonise the different pay structures across the five forces. The Home Office has made a partial commitment by saying that it will fund the cost for the first three years only. What happens after that? Either the council tax goes up or police numbers go down. There is also precept equalisation, and again there are different levels across the five forces—there is a 30 per cent. differential. How will that be harmonised out, given the capping guidelines of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which would not allow harmonisation to take place in that time scale?
On precepts, my understanding is that it will take at least three to four years for them to merge, so during that time we will have the same police force but some areas will be paying significantly more than others, which is unacceptable.
Absolutely. That leads us to my final group of objections to this forced merger, which involves the principle of local accountability. The size and diversity of the east midlands have been referred to, so I will not go into that, but the geographical differences and communications difficulties in respect of a force running from Northampton at one end to Skegness at another, and to High Peak and Chesterfield at yet another, speak for themselves. However, there is local accountability for a force such as Derbyshire. Let me highlight that by referring to an issue that has been raised.
In one or two of the previous four years, Derbyshire police authority has increased the council tax precept by well above the rate of inflation specifically to fund more beat police. I argued at the time—I have not received any comeback from my constituents to say otherwise—that my constituents would support that because they would see beat police on the ground making a difference. The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire says that his villagers have not seen a difference, and perhaps they are not so keen, but we have certainly seen a difference in Chesterfield.
However, would council tax payers in Chesterfield, West Derbyshire or High Peak be willing to pay extra council tax for more police if those police were going to Nottingham, Leicester or Northampton—or anywhere else in that giant super-region? It is not practical. For three different sets of reasons, I urge the new brooms at the Home Office to think again. Unfortunately, I do not have much confidence that they will.
Order. I shall call Mr. Dorrell, but I must point out that Mr. Bone also wants to get in before 10.40 am.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin on raising this topic. It is a long time since a Government Department has produced a proposal for which there is less support in the House; more important, less support among those in the police service who will have to put the proposal into effect; and most important, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, less support among our constituents. It is worth pausing to reflect on why there is so little support in any part of the community for the proposals.
The fundamental reason is that the arguments advanced in favour of the proposal remind me of nothing so much as "newspeak", as defined by George Orwell in "1984". Ministers and their apologists have offered series of arguments that bear no relation whatever to what most of us, and most of those in the police service, expect to be the reality. We are told that the merger is important in order to improve accountability. Since when did a shift of authority from a largely county basis to a regional basis improve accountability? It stands common sense on its head.
We are told that the merger is necessary to improve cost efficiency in the police service. Never mind the fact that the police believe that the Government have underestimated the cost, the Government themselves admit that it will cost £80 million, and that one day, five years hence—perhaps—there may be a payback, assuming that the Government do not change their policy again. Hello? Which world do the Government live in?
Finally, we are told that the proposals are important because they will assist operational efficiency. I do not understand the logic of telling my hon. Friend David Tredinnick that the efficiency of the commander in Hinkley in dealing with nightclub louts, shifting between Hinkley and Nuneaton, will be improved by bringing Nottingham into the loop. Will someone please explain that to me and, more important, to the policemen and women who fear that it is another scheme dreamed up by the Government that will undermine the efficiency of their service and the delivery of that service to local people?
When I reflect on why such a friendless proposal was driven so hard by the previous Home Secretary—we hope that it will not be driven so hard by the new one—I can draw only one conclusion. It is yet another proposal dreamed up in the bowels of a Whitehall Department that may look good on a bureaucratic organogram but simply does not reflect operational efficiency on the ground—or, more important, common sense.
It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell, who made a powerful speech. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin on securing such an important debate; the number of Members here today is testimony to that.
I shall concentrate on something that affects my constituency of Wellingborough. I founded a campaign called "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden", in which a regular survey is made of the constituency. Not only do we have a snapshot of people's worries at any one time, but we can compare those snapshots, month to month and year to year. You might think,Mr. Taylor, that education would come top of the poll in Wellingborough, because a secondary school has been closed under the Labour Government; or you might think that it would be health, because many of my constituents must wait more than six months for an NHS operation; but neither of those issues are at the top of the poll. Law and order consistently tops the poll and, interestingly, in the past few months the gap between law and order and health and education in the survey results has been growing. The perception, at least in Wellingborough, is that crime is getting worse and people are more concerned about it. That is how things are under the current arrangements.
Further examination of the survey results, to see what specific concerns the people of Wellingborough have about law and order, shows that they are worried about vandalism, foul language, yob culture, arson and mugging. Those problems would, I believe, have a very low rating in a regional east midlands police force. The problems are so bad on some estates that one or two families are terrorising the law-abiding citizens of Wellingborough. I recently met a delegation from the Croyland ward in my constituency. They had put their heads above the parapet: usually people are too scared to say anything when there is vandalism and yob culture, but these people had said "Enough is enough; we want something done about it." What they want is more local police on the street, catching criminals and deterring crime.
Let us think a little about where Wellingborough is. I had hoped, Mr. Taylor, to bring in a map to show hon. Members, but I understand that parliamentary procedure does not allow it. Perhaps I can describe it. Northamptonshire is right at the bottom end of the east midlands and Wellingborough is right at the bottom of Northamptonshire. Rushden, where I live, is the second town in the constituency of Wellingborough and is right at the bottom of the constituency. If I walk 100 yd I can be in Bedfordshire. That is where Rushden is. The new centre for policing will be further up the map, in Nottingham, and somewhere even further up the map will be the edge of the east midlands. To the people of Wellingborough, the proposal is ridiculous.
The basic command unit has already been changed to fit in with the new plans, so my chief superintendent has moved from Wellingborough to Kettering. At the moment I have meetings with the chief constable, and I used to have meetings with the chief superintendent. Those will disappear if we have an east midlands force.
We heard earlier in the debate that Nottingham has come out pretty poorly in the crime figures. Leicestershire has come top of the ranking for assaults. If there is an east midlands regional force it will be the duty of the chief constable to put his resources where there is most crime, so what will happen? Police officers will be taken from Wellingborough and moved to Nottingham and Leicestershire. That is the fear not only of the people of Wellingborough, but of the chief constable of Northamptonshire. We will lose policing, which will go towards Nottingham and Leicestershire. The people of Wellingborough will lose out.
At the moment my constituents do not have enough police out on the beat catching criminals and deterring crime. If there were an east midlands police force, any policing of that kind would disappear entirely and crime in my constituency would go up and up. In the "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden" survey, law and order would become an even higher priority.
I congratulate Mr. McLoughlin on securing the debate. The issue is important and is likely to affect not only the east midlands but many communities in the country. I am sure that many of the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman has raised today are shared by police officers, residents and, indeed, Members of Parliament from south Wales to Suffolk. It is regrettable that several hon. Members have had to seek Adjournment debates on the issue as a result of the Government's attempts to sidestep debates on the Floor of the House on such a hugely important matter.
I shall start by outlining the areas in which I and my party agree with Government policy. It is clear that in some instances small police forces do not possess the resources to deal effectively with some serious crimes. Several recent high-profile cases in which a particular force required assistance—Soham is just the most obvious example—have demonstrated that the Government were right to explore ways in which police forces could better co-operate and support each other; that much is not in doubt. It would be wrong to suggest that Liberal Democrats oppose closer co-operation between different forces and agencies. For example, we have called for a national border force to bring together the disparate agencies that deal with border security, including the relevant police, customs and immigration officers. We have also called for a new national body to deal with financial crime, which seems to be a low priority for the Government.
I do not agree, however, that the nuclear option, if I might use that phrase in this context, of axing entire police forces is a sensible way to deal with the issues. In my view, the answer is staring the Government in the face. The recently established Serious Organised Crime Agency gives the police a ready-made resource on which they can call if they need to. If SOCA could take responsibility for level 2 crime, as my party has suggested, we would have the ideal solution, because serious crimes and crimes that take up disproportionate resources could be tackled without, in effect, bankrupting smaller forces and, crucially, local communities in the east midlands and beyond would remain strongly linked to their local police forces.
My experience of local government in the past10 years has demonstrated to me in the clearest possible terms that, despite their rhetoric, the Government remain committed to centralisation. They seem to believe that an office in Whitehall can deal with community policing better than a local beat bobby can. One has only to speak to local police officers in a constituency to realise that much of their work is dictated by Home Office targets and politically inspired initiatives. Worryingly, that trend is replicated across a broad spectrum of services, including the NHS, where central mismanagement has led to local funding crises, and local authorities, which must somehow reflect local priorities while trapped in the central Government straitjacket.
In pursuing the regionalisation of police forces, we need to remember that current regional structures in the east midlands, as in the rest of the country, are the result of arbitrarily drawn administrative boundaries with no democratic structures underpinning them. The amalgamation of police forces would result in the abolition of police authorities and the loss of the link to elected councils through local authority members. Although the Home Office argues that new structures of accountability can be built around basic command units, that would create the worst of both worlds, because such structures would be too distant from local communities to provide meaningful discussion of neighbourhood priorities, and too fragmented to provide meaningful scrutiny of decisions that are taken at force level.
I turn now to the practical pitfalls of the mergers policy as it affects forces in the east midlands and elsewhere. Like all regions, the east midlands is diverse, with large metropolitan areas and distinct rural localities. Should the proposals be implemented, there is a real danger, as has been said, that officers and other resources will be drawn away from the quieter areas to police urban crime hot spots. Chief constables of smaller forces act as champions for their areas and can lobby for a fair share of resources, but that simply will not be possible under the new model.
In addition, there is precious little evidence that big forces perform better than small ones, which serves only to confirm suspicions that the real motive behind the policy is to save money. The HMIC baseline assessment in 2004 found that, regardless of size, all forces were classed as "fair" or "good" at tackling level 2 crime. If the resources required for mergers come from the neighbourhood policing strategy budget, that would signal in the clearest possible terms that the Government's priorities lie with centralisation, not local policing.
Amalgamation would also reduce police accountability and responsiveness by distancing force HQs physically and figuratively from the communities that they serve and by sacrificing coterminosity with local authority boundaries. However, it is not only coterminosity with local authority boundaries that is threatened, because the relationships between other agencies, such as—
Order. I urge the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a close.
I shall do so, Mr. Taylor. The relationships between other agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the probation service could also suffer. The last thing we need to do now is to allow the gaps in knowledge between the police and the probation service to grow wider. If ever a Government Department was desperate to buy some good will it is the Home Office, and the new regime now has the opportunity to take on board the views expressed this morning and to put a stop to the plans.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his new position. His predecessor as Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety lasted for two weeks; I hope that Mr. McNulty lasts longer. Commentators have described the mini-reshuffle that took place yesterday as reshuffling the deckchairs; I hope the Minister enjoys life on the deck of the Titanic. When icebergs appear, it does not make sense to steer the ship straight towards them, but thatis what the Home Office has been doing in relationto police amalgamation, in a totally unnecessary distraction from the job that the Department should have been doing. It is clear that the previous Home Secretary was too distracted by this process. I hope that the Minister and the new Home Secretary will think again—we hear that they are considering doing so.
My right hon. and hon. Friends raised a number of important concerns about the absurdly tight timetable for the amalgamations and the lack of consultation with local people. I shall wish to focus on three points made by Tom Levitt, because I think he was wrong on all three counts.
First, the hon. Gentleman made some suggestions about local accountability and people's ability to get hold of their divisional commanders and to have their e-mail addresses. He suggested that the survival of the basic command unit, although that is not assured in respect of the one he referred to in west Derbyshire, would be an adequate substitute for the loss of the chief constable. He said that nobody minded about where their chief constable resides, but actually, that matters a great deal, especially for a force that will cover an area of 6,000 sq miles and serve 4.2 million people. It matters, not only for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire suggested in terms of direct access on the part of Members of Parliament, but because power and decision making has to lie somewhere. Ultimately, somebody has to run the force and decide where resources will be deployed, and it would be a fiction to pretend that a BCU commander will be able to respond to people in the local community and say, "Yes, I will do this," or "I will do that," when in fact the force is run by the chief constable who is miles away. All Members will feel the loss when we find that our local communities are no longer able to have any influence at all over the proper decisions being made by the chief constable.
Secondly, the hon. Member for High Peak suggested that the federation of forces was not a viable option. I think that he is wrong. There is plenty of evidence in the midlands that federation, or the sharing of services between forces, is a viable alternative—look for example at the midlands counter-terrorism support unit, which operates in the east midlands. The option of sharing services was suggested by the Prime Minister, no less, as an alternative to amalgamation, which his own strategy unit warned would be a risky undertaking. It has not been properly considered by the Government. It was recommended by the Association of Police Authorities, but the impetus to achieve co-operation between forces has now been lost because there will be no incentive on the part of the strategic forces, some of them much smaller than the east midlands force, to share services.
Finally, on funding, I hope the Minister has seen a copy of the paper prepared by the Association of Chief Police Officers' head of finance, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, which was reported in The Daily Telegraph last Friday. If he has not done so, he should read it. The ACPO conference will debate it this week. The report represents a salutary warning to those who believe that amalgamation will somehow allow a reinvestment of resources into enhancing protective services. We all agree that there is a gap and that protective services need strengthening; the question is how we do that. ACPO's head of finance warns that because of the triple counting of services, and because amalgamations will cost money—£77 million in respect of the east midlands force—resources will not be available for investment into protective services and there will be an impact on neighbourhood policing.
I end by quoting the conclusion of the report:
"Ultimately unless additional funding is identified the early years of Force amalgamation are likely to be a period not of service improvement but a period of rapid and significant reduction in service provision as the new forces desperately try to balance their books."
If the Minister does not take account of that warning, he is making a severe mistake. I urge him to listen to what almost everybody has said this morning, and to think again.
I congratulate Mr. McLoughlin on securing the debate—something that Nick Herbert on the Front Bench did not do, by the bye, in the rush to make his contribution.
None the less, it has been an extraordinarily useful debate, certainly for me, given my current circumstances. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire and others on both sides on the broad tone of the debate. It has been essentially non-partisan, or cross-party—whichever way one wants to view it—and it has been well informed. I would expect no less from the MPs of the east midlands.
As a London MP, I find that policing in London is different from policing elsewhere, but I do, and will increasingly, appreciate what policing means outside London and in other areas. By the bye, I do notthink that I heard Mark Hunter, who speaks for the Liberals, congratulate the Government on leaving his Greater Manchester force alone, which I thought was a bit churlish.
The points that right hon. and hon. Members have made are important, but most—not quite all—of them started from the premise that the status quo is not terrible. Our broad position starts from that. As hon. Members will know, the Government's plans for assorted forces up and down the country are clear. However, none of the speakers went to the ditch to defend, in absolute terms, where we are now with policing. I am enormously grateful that that is the starting point. The present model is some 30 years old and, purely in terms of the development of society since then, bears greater scrutiny.
I take on board all that has been said about merger being at one end of the scale—the nuclear option, I think it was called—and all sorts of collaborative work and other options on the road to merger being at the other end. We should be clear that the proposed merger model does not preclude that sort of collaboration,or a federated structure, beyond and outside regions. As Patrick Mercer suggested, there must be ever greater collaboration across the country and across regions, not least on counter-terrorism, as he says.
Before I come to matters of substance, let me say that I take on board what has been suggested about the timetable. If hon. Members feel that they have not had sufficient face time—for want of a better phrase—with Ministers to talk through the issues in detail, I am more than happy to ensure that that happens. I am not sure that I would welcome all 44 east midlands MPs in the same room, all barking and baying at me at once, but we can certainly look into the details of how that should happen. I would welcome that opportunity, too. However valuable the Adjournment debate is, we can discuss these matters in far more detail in much smaller groups. I am more than happy to do that, whether on a county basis or otherwise, and I will afford the same facility—because it would help me as much as anyone—to the Front Benchers; I will come and hear their concerns.
Many of the complaints about what the Government are trying to do—quite naturally, in terms of hyperbole and rhetoric—involve attacking straw men and putting forward simplistic models. If all that the Government were offering was a rush to merge regional authorities, many of the concerns about accountability, remoteness and day-to-day operational policing would be well made.
I will in a moment, because I am keen to understand the Rushcliffe model mentioned by some speakers.
What is on offer must be, and be seen to be, inextricably, all the three elements, which are neighbourhood policing, a redefinition of basic command unit accountability, and the broader strategic structure.
Many years ago I encountered the same problem relating to force sizes and accountability. Will the Minister accept in this debate that the accountability and contact that mean most to many MPs and their constituents is at divisional level and local level, and that it will take much longer than the Government's present timetable to explain how accountability and contact at those levels can be improved as we move towards a giant overall organisation covering five rather disparate counties?
I am grateful for that intervention because in broad terms I agree with it. As I said at the beginning, I am not metrocentric. I appreciate that London is policed differently, but to return to the London parallel, I have never had cause, in specific local terms, to ring up Scotland Yard for anything. However, like the hon. Member for Newark, I have the numbers and other details of my local basic commander—borough commander, as we call it. That is where the accountability lies.
It is important to say that all three elements that we are discussing are significant. I take the points that people make about neighbourhood policing and wanting the police to be highly visible on the streets in their neighbourhood. That is part of the debate. Itake the point that the divisional level, the BCU level, must be the focal point for greater and enhanced communication among local communities, local representatives such as MPs and councillors, and local police forces. None the less, the case is made for forces to cover a wider area.
I ask hon. Members to take seriously what I say about seeing people and talking these issues through in far more detail during the objection period. Everyone can bandy about assorted quotes from chief constables. I accept that, so let me do it. The chief constable of Leicestershire says that merging five forces into one is going in
"the right direction and will provide, in time, greater flexibility and effectiveness".
I accept that that is a qualified statement, but the chief constable accepts the broad thrust of where we are going.
Funnily enough, I have no quote for Derbyshire, so I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
I am sorry that the Minister has no quote for Derbyshire. May I press him on one point? At the moment, we are in a four-month consultation period. My understanding is that it will end sometime in July. Will the Minister assure us that an announcement will not be made on this issue on
I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance on the first point, because I understand that the four-month objection period finishes around
Let me say this as clearly as I can, because there have been intimations in the press. The new Home Secretary starts from the premise that the current position is simply untenable and the direction of travel of what we have suggested is the right outcome. Quite rightly, as a new Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend reserves the right to take a look at things such as timetables and all the other elements that go with that. With or without that, local MPs are right to raise what are very important issues—none of which I traduce as trivial—such as council tax precept equalisation, the disparity between urban and rural areas and the disparity between the starting financial bases of each of the counties. Work is being done on those matters. In fact, the east midlands business plan for the merger was one of the best of those submitted, but work continues.
If hon. Members are suggesting that more time is required, I am not shocked or astonished by that and I will certainly take their suggestions back to the Department. I have commented on the Home Secretary's position. If the concern is that they have not had sufficient time at ministerial level to talk their concerns through, I will give an assurance that that can happen for the east midlands and elsewhere. I take seriously the concerns expressed by hon. Members and I will take them back to the Department, but the current position is untenable. We want to go in the direction outlined in the merger plans. Policing is far too important to ignore the genuine concerns raised by hon. Members from all parts of the Chamber—
Order. I ask contributors to and observers of the police forces debate to leave quietly.