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Volume 447: debated on Monday 19 June 2006

I remain of the view that strategic mergers are the right way to improve protective police services. However, I am keen to continue the discussion and dialogue that we have begun with police forces and police authorities on the best way to get to that destination. Accordingly, I do not propose to lay any orders for enforced police force mergers before the summer recess. I hope, however, that it will be possible to press ahead with laying the order for the voluntary merger of the Cumbria and Lancashire forces.

I thank the Home Secretary for that response, especially in relation to my own region. I understand his wish to kick this issue into the long grass; I hope that, in the case of Yorkshire and the Humber, it will be elephant grass. As a rule, the Government are keen to have a big conversation with the British people. Will the Home Secretary assure me that in the case of enforced police mergers regional referendums will be held before any such measures are imposed?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because I have listened and responded to the feelings of many people in the House and outside. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not believe that the status quo is an option. The destination that has been outlined, particularly in the study carried out by Denis O’Connor and others in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, is the correct one. It will be better for the strategic-level protective forces and will supplement efforts to put more police on the streets in our neighbourhoods in a visible, accessible and responsive fashion. This will mean that, when a major crisis occurs, we will not have to pull them out to deal with it.

I accept, however, that people want to discuss in greater length and detail many of the questions arising from these proposals. I have therefore decided—along with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, whom I have asked to deal with this issue—that this merits further and slower consideration. I cannot promise a referendum but I can promise discussion, dialogue and listening throughout.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will be extremely popular in north Wales. Will he ensure that each merger that takes place in due course is tested rigorously against the criteria set down by Denis O’Connor in the report? I believe that when that test is made in respect of Wales, the proposal originally made will be found wanting. Will there be close and rigorous analysis relating to the proposal for an all-Wales police force?

Yes, that is one area where discussion will take place. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already opened discussions and has conducted the beginnings of a public debate in Wales.

I repeat that the strategic direction and the ultimate destination—where we are going—are correct and will be illustrated in most cases to be correct, but I am responding to the will of the House, the police authorities and many outside the House to conduct matters in a way that meets the anxieties not only of members of the police service but of local people who want to ensure a degree of local accountability, neighbourhood policing and police on the streets, as well as a sense of their still owning their own police services locally. Those are perfectly legitimate aims and are therefore a perfect arena for further discussion.

I thank the Home Secretary for his thoughtful answer and for listening. Will he perhaps bring before the House, before we rise in July, a realistic, measured timetable that allows for proper, full consultation throughout the country? This is the biggest change to the police force, certainly for 50 years, and arguably for a century or more. May we please take proper time and do it methodically?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take proper time. I am reluctant to give him today, or indeed to promise in the next few weeks, an adequate timetable—

Because I think that is a legitimate part of the discussion of how this might be done, how it might be handled and what areas it might include.

I have already made it plain that there is no need for anyone to panic over time, because I will not lay orders on enforced change. Where there is voluntary agreement and willingness to go ahead—I hope that that is the case in at least one example—we will lay an order, but the timetable and details will be part of our discussions with people such as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows of the statements that the Prime Minister has made in the Chamber on these issues—that adequate time be provided, that the opinions of the communities involved be taken into full account and that all options will be considered, including the co-ordinated co-operation of neighbouring police forces.

Will the Home Secretary give the Chamber an assurance that all those prime ministerial stipulations will be taken into account before any decisions are made?

Of course, all those items will be aspects of the discussions, but I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend into thinking that I start with a blank slate. I am persuaded that the status quo is not an option and that the experience brought to the study by people with many years of operational experience—Denis O’Connor and Ronnie Flanagan are but two of them—is sufficient, along with the coherence of their argument, to convince me that the destination that we want to end up at, which was identified by my predecessor as Secretary of State, is the right one.

In relation to where I am giving a degree of flexibility in the face of requests for discussion and dialogue and of legitimate questions being asked over local accountability, financing and all sorts of other areas, I am saying that the journey from where we are to where I think we should end up might be at a different pace and in a different fashion. We must of course allow for the possibility of changes and nuances, otherwise we would not be acting in good faith. Equally in good faith, however, I can tell the House that I am pretty convinced that we will—and ought to—end up at the destination identified in “Closing the Gap”.

I thank the Home Secretary for his opening comments, but will he explain why, if the status quo is acceptable in Kent, it is not acceptable in Essex? This morning the Essex police authority launched a county-wide consultation. If the verdict of the people of Essex is that they want their own police force and not a merger with the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire forces, will the Home Secretary support that majority opinion?

The answer to that question is simple. There is no template for the exact size, configuration and balance of police services and specialities in any given region, and we should not assume that we will end up with any such uniformly imposed, centrally dictated template. It is, however, entirely possible that some forces are better able than others to stand on their own because of their size, configuration and specialities.

The key point is that unless protective services allow the police in a given area to respond to a crisis, such as a succession of serial murders or a terrorist attack, without continually drawing forces from the neighbourhoods, the whole idea of neighbourhood policing that is visible, accessible and responsive to local people’s needs will not be sustainable. We want the strategic configuration not just because it is suitable at a higher level, but because it supplements our aim of putting a record number of police into the neighbourhoods. The configuration will not be exactly the same in every single area, any more than it is now, but overall the strategic configuration will serve the public better.

I am glad that there is to be further discussion, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the delay may send a signal that alternative suggestions that have been discounted locally may be given credence? Will he knock on the head once and for all the ludicrous notion of splitting the county of Durham in half and merging it with Cleveland, and will he back the idea that a single strategic force for the north-east is the answer?

I entirely accept that. Resolution is sometimes portrayed as obstinacy, as dictatorial or as bullying. On the other hand, when people respond flexibly to the demands of Members of Parliament, that is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as irresolution. I am not irresolute. I do not seek another destination on the map. I am convinced, until persuaded otherwise, that the destination specified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is the correct one. I do accept, however, that all the problems and questions that people have raised are legitimate and require further, deeper and wider discussion and dialogue. We will engage in that discussion and dialogue over the coming period, and if a better solution emerges, any open-minded person will consider it; but I do not think that that is where we will end up.

Has the Home Secretary read the report by the head of finance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which warns that police force amalgamations will contribute to a funding gap equivalent to 25,000 police officer posts nationally? It says that such a cut would

“destroy any realistic hope of developing Neighbourhood Policing”.

Is that not enough reason not just to delay these unnecessary, unwanted and expensive mergers, but to scrap the idea altogether?

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman appears to have written his question before I gave my first answer. I always hate to disappoint the Opposition, but I am not going to withdraw my first answer.

I must confess that I have not read in detail the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but he will be gratified to know that I discussed it in detail with the authors, who tell me that the one example that he gave from a range of speculative options that they were considering was the worst and most extreme that they examined.

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to engage in a discussion about this paper, but I could not have done better than to speak to the people who wrote it; he merely read it. The hype and spin around it, which is some five weeks old now, prior to the Police Federation—[Interruption.] No wonder the hon. Gentleman is laughing; he has tried it on and been caught. The scenario described is unrealistic; it is a speculative, in extremis case, which has been denied even by the authors of the report.

I do not want the Home Secretary to run away with the idea that all police forces are against these amalgamations; only voices against them are heard in this Chamber. May I point out that the west midlands force is very much behind them and says that the worst thing we could do is consult for too long and end up not making a decision, because uncertainty is bad for all forces?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. If I have found out one thing in the Home Office in the last five weeks, it is that it is very difficult to get anything right, whatever one says. So it is unsurprising to me that, as my hon. Friend legitimately points out, there are people who take a different view, and who reasonably believe that there is such a self-evidently correct destination that we should move to it at a far quicker pace. The design of those who say that they have specific complaints is to stop the whole process.

It may well be that there are two extremes in respect of this matter. There is probably a mainstream position that says, “We are willing to enter into discussions but want clarification of a large number of points about accountability, finance and so on, on the basis of which, we would be prepared to proceed.” It is on the basis of such good faith that I enter into the discussions, and we will see whether that is a flexible and intelligent way of approaching them, or merely the naivety of a young and aspiring politician.