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Police Force Amalgamations (Wales)

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

We have been told that the two main drivers for the proposed reorganisation of police forces were the inability of smaller forces to deal with, first, terrorism and secondly, organised crime, but I venture to suggest that neither argument is sustainable.

I base my view on the fact that there are several avenues of good co-operation between Welsh forces and those over the border in West Mercia, Avon and Somerset, West Midlands, Cheshire and so on. We have been told that the size of those forces means that they cannot deal with the worst organised crime. I pray in aid the recent operation between South Wales police, Gwent police and the Avon and Somerset constabulary, which netted some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK, who were hell bent on bringing crack cocaine into south Wales, having already flooded the market in the Bristol area. They were heavily armed and very dangerous people. In large part, they are behind bars, which is directly because of the excellent understanding between the Avon and Somerset constabulary, Gwent police and South Wales police.

We are meant to rely on the Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary report, “Closing the Gap”. Many people have criticised that report, and I shall quote its author, Denis O’Connor:

“Being bigger is not enough to guarantee strong protective services. The environment (situation) also matters. For example, the presence of cities, ports or events (ie. repeated exposure to risks and challenges) also enhance the repertoire of protective services that forces offer the public. Able leadership can also be influential in allowing smaller forces to punch above their weight on these issues.”

He goes on,

“there are outliers: some smaller forces were almost as successful as the majority of larger forces, whilst two relatively larger forces…received surprisingly low scores”.

In December 2005, Anthony Lawrance, professor of statistics at the university of Warwick, was commissioned by West Mercia police authority to scrutinise the report. He said that the HMIC report based its amalgamation recommendation on the crucial statistical finding that in level 2 crime policing, bigger equals better. He questions the reliability of the scoring method used for each force, the statistical soundness of the claimed connection between size and effectiveness, and HMIC’s misleading presentation of its data. He goes on to say that the conclusions are not sound and that the graphs were not properly drawn and were hardly representative of anything. He says that one graph was uninformative and meaningless—

“an almost perfect example of how not to present a graph—no scales on either axis, no data plotted to justify the lines drawn. It is almost impossible to obtain any critical understanding from it”.

That is a pretty damning critique of the report.

I pay tribute to the Minister, who is new in the job and comes to this with an open mind, which is to the good. There is excellent day-to-day co-operation between the south Wales forces and over the border. Dyfed Powys and West Mercia liaise frequently. From my experience of dealing with legal matters, I have seen daily liaison between the North Wales police, Cheshire and Merseyside.

I, too, have major concerns about an all-Wales force. Equally, however, does the hon. Gentleman accept that we should not lose sight of the fact that there must be considerable savings to be made? Four separate forces means four separate IT systems, four separate personnel systems and so on. That is surely madness, and a lot of the money saved could be returned to front-line services.

That is probably right, but the figures that we have received from the Home Office suggest start-up costs of anything between £35 million and £50 million, and given the deficits projected, for example, by North Wales police it would take a devil of a long time to recover any savings.

There is concern about the way in which the consultation was rushed through. That is not this Minister’s responsibility, and I do not allege that it is. Many of the crucial questions, including those of financing, have never been properly answered. There may now be a partial reprieve, perhaps because of the Cleveland case in the High Court or because the Minister has taken stock of the situation. I am sure that he recognises that there are substantial debates to be had on this subject.

Only a few months ago, HMIC gave all four Welsh forces a glowing report. They have improved in many ways, and they were good previously. During the past 15 years, Dyfed Powys and North Wales in particular have consistently been in the upper quartile for semi-rural forces in England and Wales.

North Wales police have undertaken a consultation and received 90 letters from community councils in north Wales. They made different points but all were against any forced amalgamation. There has been an overwhelming response in the North Wales police area and in every other area—Gwent, South Wales and Dyfed Powys. I venture to suggest that those are important submissions that need to be taken on board.

Earlier this month, a submission was made by the clerk to the North Wales police authority. One of the points that he made was that the travelling distance between Holyhead and Cardiff is slightly longer than that between central London and Preston. That gives some idea of the likely problems that might occur. He also refers to the council tax equalisation problem and the likely capping criterion of 5 per cent., which would undoubtedly result in a black hole. He refers to future funding, the annual deficit of £29.9 million rising to just over £50 million in 2012 and the funding formula. The other week, an amendment was passed in another place that made agreement a precondition of amalgamation and provided that it should not be forced through.

I am sure that the Minister will deal with some of those points when he responds. However, I do not believe that any rigorous analysis has been carried out, especially of financing, which must be a crucial factor in policing nowadays. When senior police officers, police authorities and many people who know about policing in Wales speak with one voice, it is time to listen. I am sure that the Minister will take that on board.

I hope that the dialogue that takes place in the coming months will not be one-sided—I appreciate that that may be a misnomer. However, there is genuine concern that there should be proper dialogue about the matter. Nigel Thomas, the treasurer of North Wales police, has referred to the recurring deficit of £51 million. I understand that the Home Office had earmarked £120 million towards the merger plans, but that leaves a shortfall of hundreds of millions of pounds in creating the regime that the Home Office tried to impose. The North Wales share of that would go a long way towards achieving the necessary improvements in protective services.

Everybody realises that policing changes as time passes because crime changes. Crime is becoming far more difficult to detect, criminals are becoming more adept at IT and so on. That is beyond argument. However, the arguments for an all-Wales police force have not been persuasive from the beginning.

Is it not strange that the motivation for reorganisation that the Government present is to do with operational matters—a response perhaps to triple murders in Holyhead or terrorist outrages—but that the arguments of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) were essentially financial? They have some force, but they are not the arguments that the Government present.

Yes. The other disappointing point is that the National Assembly for Wales was not brought into the debate, although it contributes £144 million per annum to the Welsh policing budget.

Last week, on the day that the Minister announced the Government’s latest position in Millbank tower, I raised a point of order to suggest that it might be better to make that statement in the House. That is the reason for the debate. The Home Secretary responded by saying that there was no policy change but that police authorities would no longer be forced to merge. If only two of the 41 current police authorities have volunteered to amalgamate, how is it possible to proceed with wholesale amalgamation in the face of such relentless opposition? The announcement amounts to a policy change.

I ask the Minister to tackle one or two points in his response. Doubtless he will confirm whether forced amalgamations have been ditched. If the planned mergers have not been shelved, where are we on the “destination” to which the Home Secretary refers so often? We deserve to know.

A huge amount of time, energy and cost has been expended in Wales on trying to make sense of the merger. It was made far more expensive by the fact that all the authorities remained largely in the dark about cost, council tax precepts, set-up costs, revenue and continuing costs. Those fundamental matters had to be guessed. That is no way to run a modern police force.

I welcome the statement that there will be no forced mergers, if indeed that was the purport of the statement. Forced mergers could end up being the worst possible option—a shotgun marriage, to use an old and rather outmoded term. If the Minister cannot confirm that forced mergers are a dead duck, can he confirm that the Home Office will have a completely open mind on the issues of federation? I would not like this matter to arise again in 12 months’ time. The four authorities are working hard to produce a plan for federation, and it must not be dismissed out of hand.

Will the Minister deal with those points in his response? First, can he confirm that forced amalgamations are no longer the destination referred to by the Home Secretary? Secondly, if there is to be further change on a voluntary basis, will the Home Office keep an open mind on the question of plans for federation? Those are the points that I wanted to raise this evening, and I am sure that the Minister will deal with them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing this debate. I shall deal with each of the points that he has raised in his usual eloquent fashion, but I have to tell him that he is a bit behind the times, given the journey that we have travelled over the past couple of weeks. I shall return to that point later.

When my private office received the joyous news last Thursday that the hon. Gentleman had secured this debate, I was not in Westminster. I was in Cardiff, meeting the chairs of the four Welsh police authorities, members of the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee of the Welsh Assembly and members of the Welsh Local Government Association, precisely to talk about the future of policing in Wales, given that restructuring was not on the agenda. Sadly, following on from those meetings, the only matter of substance that Plaid Cymru could come up with involved a member of its committee suggesting that there had been chaos because the meeting with the committee had been on, then off, then on, then off again. That member made a rather petty and petulant point that was neither here nor there in relation to the serious issue of policing in Wales.

Before that, I had met the chief constables of the four Welsh police forces and the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration in the Welsh Assembly to talk about these matters. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a debate on this matter was initiated recently by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). I also gave oral evidence on this matter for the best part of an hour to the Welsh Affairs Committee. I have also liaised closely with the Secretary of State for Wales and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the issue. Welsh interests have therefore been uppermost in my mind in recent weeks. I have also met the Welsh group of Labour MPs and had a range of meetings—individual and otherwise—with Labour MPs from north Wales. I have been in my present post for only six weeks, but I have not had any requests for a meeting with members of Plaid Cymru.

The Minister seems to be finding opportunities to make political points, despite the fact that I went out of my way to say that the way in which he was dealing with this matter was not unreasonable. I am just asking for clarity. I spoke earlier to right hon. and hon. Members of his own party, who, like me, are in the dark as to what is going on. I am simply asking for clarification.

That is what I am seeking to give the House, but it was important for me to put the context on record. I had very fruitful meetings with each of those bodies last week, and I shall tell the House precisely what I said to them in a moment.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening statement—in which he prayed in aid a statistician—that the essence of “Closing the Gap” in regard to the difficulties that we face, principally outside London throughout England and Wales, in terms of level 2 services, counter-terrorism provision and serious and organised crime, is somehow traduced by a statistician trying to demolish the substance of O’Connor’s report. Almost to a man and a woman, those with whom I have engaged on this matter, regardless of their position on mergers, accept as the starting premise that there are serious gaps at level 2, in counter-terrorism provision, which must be filled.

I turn briefly to the hon. Gentleman’s point about my speech to the Local Government Association at Millbank. It was not a change in policy. It could not have been a change in policy given that some two weeks beforehand my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had made it very clear to the House that we were not going to lay the orders for enforced mergers as outlined in the timetable, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, had Wales in the first tier. My right hon. Friend said on 19 June:

“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.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1059.]

That was our position then, and it remains so. Enforced mergers are not on the cards, and we will not, as my right hon. Friend indicated, be laying those orders. Indeed, as a natural consequence of that announcement during Home Office questions, the notices of intention to lay orders to merge that were issued to the four Welsh police authorities and forces on 3 March were withdrawn on 13 July. That is a legal technicality, but those orders, on that timetable, are no longer on the agenda.

That has nothing to do with Cleveland and nothing to do with any amendment passed in the House of Lords. It is simply a sign of a reflective, listening Government who have taken into account objections. Any number of forces, in England as well as in Wales, have said, “Yes, we agree with the starting premise on level 2 protective services, but we think that there are other ways to achieve those ends.” In response, we have afforded police authorities and forces the time to establish whether they can achieve those ends.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point—I said this in Cardiff—that apart from level 2 protective services, this is not about there being anything wrong in substance with any of the four Welsh forces. As he said, they have made huge advances over the last 10 or 15 years. None the less, a gap remains. We were trying to seek, in the Police and Justice Bill, any number of accommodations for the peculiarities of the Welsh situation—that is now history, albeit recent—not least because of pressure from my Welsh colleagues. We tried to reflect concerns of geography by having an additional deputy chief constable in Wales should the merger proceed. We tried to reflect geographic disparity by providing scope for area committees.

I want to make two points about our starting premise now. First, for the sake of absolute clarity and accuracy about statute, forced mergers remain on the books. I will be urging the House, in October or November, to overturn the Lords amendment to which the hon. Gentleman referred which effectively says there will be no enforced mergers by the Home Secretary and that mergers must now start from an agreed position.

The situation is not terribly confusing, I hope. On 19 June, the Home Secretary said that we would withdraw enforced mergers, and we subsequently took the orders off the table. We are not proceeding with that timetable. For the foreseeable future there will be no enforced mergers. What I cannot do, which is why I shall be asking the House to resist the Lords amendment, is say that in all circumstances, in all our subsequent open discussions, to which I shall try to return if I have the time, every single force in the country will give me and the Home Secretary a 100 per cent. guarantee that they can fill the gaps in protective services and counter-terrorism by every other route except merger. There may be some forces that still have to merge. They may not choose to do so, but it may still be overwhelmingly in the interest of public safety that they merge. A year or 18 months or so down the line, if we come to that conclusion for any two, three or four forces, the Home Secretary will need to have the route of enforced mergers open to him. That is still on the books, and as I hope the House will agree, we will not accept the notion that there can no longer be enforced mergers by the Home Secretary.

In the current context, as I said clearly in Cardiff last week and have said previously, the starting premise must be that police forces and authorities in Wales are the very people who understand the challenges of policing in Wales and are best placed to set out how we can best improve protective services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there has been significant co-operation between the four forces. That is not a moot or tangential point. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) had a point in suggesting that there is scope for the four forces to share services, including many of the back-room ones. Members of the Welsh Affairs Committee made many points in that regard. I want to engage with colleagues in Wales as openly as possible to explore all those options.

In the first instance, it must be right that, having listened to the dissenting voices and those who did not want to merge voluntarily, we sit down and work out how to take this proposal forward, recognising the gaps. I promise to come to the discussion with the open mind that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I would still prefer an all-Wales solution. I do not resile from the suggestion in the O’Connor report that a merged force is possibly the best option. Plenty of other people, however, have far more experience and expertise than me in police matters in Wales, and we are giving them the time and scope to present their case.

To be momentarily pedantic—I am not usually pedantic—the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong to suggest that only two forces sought to merge voluntarily. Only two forces sought to merge with each other voluntarily, but invariably, in every other region, at least two out of three or three out of four forces wanted to merge voluntarily, but a third or fourth force did not. In the north-east, for instance, Cleveland sought not to do so, but Durham and Northumbria were perfectly happy to merge. It is a pedantic point, but I felt that I should make it none the less.

I also want to get to the stage in discussions with Welsh colleagues where we can restore—I think that that is the right word—the issue about filling the gap at level 2, counter-terrorism and serious organised crime, in relation to our overall collective vision for policing in Wales and everywhere else. We got slightly lost in an overtly structural debate on process that was devoid of discussion of how filling the gap at level 2 relates to all the points about area committees, governance, finance and council tax equalisation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as well as to the relationship between the region, areas, basic command units and neighbourhood policing.

In considering strategic forces in great detail and the preferred solution of mergers, part of the thrust was precisely to protect neighbourhood policing teams from abstraction every time that there was a serious event, incident or investigation. I still think that that is a model that works. I said to colleagues in Cardiff last week, and I say to the hon. Gentleman, that no element of the discussions with the four forces about shared services, collaboration, federation, back-office rationalisation or merger should preclude the fruitful cross-border co-operation with Cheshire and Merseyside, West Mercia and Avon and Somerset, which can be built on.

If we are considering lead force models, with one of the four forces leading on terrorism, one on serious and organised crime and so on—a sort of evolving Association of Chief Police Officers model for everything short of merger—even that is better discussed in the context of an all-Wales solution. That does not preclude cross-border co-operation at all. With regard to the events mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I congratulate forces such as Dyfed Powys and others on their co-operation. However, much can still be done, short of merger, with regard to the four forces.

As the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues may have told him, a tortuous analogy was going round in my head when I was down in Cardiff. In the morning, I got off at Newport and looked at some neighbourhood policing there. I thought, “Imagine a train journey from London. Everyone has told me that I need not go to Cardiff to enjoy all the richness of Wales: I can get off at Newport.” If Newport represents what we have been discussing—co-operation, collaboration and all those other models—and all the gaps in level 2 policing are filled in the way that I require, I am quite happy not to stay on the train to Cardiff, which, in my tortuous analogy, represents the full merger model.

That did not work terribly well during my meetings either, so I stopped eventually, but I think the hon. Gentleman gets the point.

I now want, across all parties and agencies—including the Welsh Assembly Government, of course, but this remains a non-devolved matter—serious, fruitful, productive discussion on the way forward for policing in Wales. I believe that last Thursday started that process. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, as I have already met Labour colleagues and others. I think there can be a way forward. I await with interest the plans and solutions suggested—everything short of merger—to deal with these important issues over the coming months, and I hope that we end up at Newport rather than Cardiff.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Twelve midnight.