Below is the text of the speech made by David Davis, the then Shadow Home Secretary, on 19 December 2005.
The matter we are debating this afternoon – the prospective reduction of 43 police forces to 12 regional forces – is enormously important.
The constitutional independence of the police, their local accountability, their operational effectiveness, their cost effectiveness, the stability of their finances, their very identity with their local communities, are all at risk.
That is why the Association of Police Authorities has rightly called for a full parliamentary debate on this important issue.
In his recent letter to their Chairman, the Home Secretary said “there will be an opportunity for Parliament to debate in full the issues raised by the review on Monday 19 December”.
So what do we have?
A debate timed to fall after the formal meetings of most or all of the relevant police authorities, despite the Home Secretary’s demand that those authorities meet his deadline of the end of this week.
A debate held just before Christmas, after a major Prime Ministerial statement, without a substantive vote.
You know, one might almost come to the conclusion that the Home Secretary did not want much press coverage for this issue.
This is hardly the full debate this subject deserves.
The Home Secretary should know that on this side of the House, we expect a much more extensive debate on the future of policing in the New Year.
We are not opposed to changing policing in Britain.
We have long argued for reform and for a greater focus on neighbourhood policing.
We are keen to work with the Government to find the best way to achieve it.
We recognise that Britain faces growing threats from terrorism and organised crime which often require greater co-operation across forces.
But the Home Secretary would do well to heed the words of one Chief Constable who said rightly that “All serious and organised crime has a local base”.
That is why we are very concerned about plans to force mergers between forces, which will inevitably make policing more remote from the people.
And we believe this is all happening too fast.
It’s happening without serious thought about the consequences.
And it is being driven by the wrong motives.
Rather than taking their time, the Government is trying to force the changes through almost without proper debate.
Rather than being driven by operational effectiveness, the changes are being driven by a blind belief in centralisation that defies the facts.
Rather than focusing on the needs of local people, they are being driven by an agenda of regionalisation that this government continues to pursue against the will of the people.
So while we welcome today’s debate, I would say to the Home Secretary that he has a long way to go before he proves the case for the changes he is advocating.
Real neighbourhood policing
We on this side of the House have long had a clear view of the kind of reform our police service needs.
We want to see genuine neighbourhood policing, which is responsive to the needs of local people.
We want the police to be genuinely accountable to the people they serve, which is why we continue to believe in the concept of elected police commissioners.
The evidence suggests that smaller policing units are the most effective.
Recent research from the think-tank Policy Exchange puts it like this:
“smaller forces, with a strong commitment to visible policing, are among the most successful at cutting crime and providing public reassurance”.
In Policy Exchange’s ranking of police forces, the smaller forces – such as Dyfed-Powys, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Dorset – came out on top.
That evidence accords with the Home Office’s own Performance Assessments for 2004-05, which shows that three of the top five performing police forces in Britain have less than 4,000 officers.
This evidence mirrors the international experience.
The greatest and most high-profile success in tackling crime in recent years is found in some American cities, notably New York.
They managed to cut crime by more than a half in just ten years.
Because they adopted a system of locally managed, directed and financed policing.
So with all this evidence to hand, we believe in retaining and enhancing the connection between local police and local people.
The Government’s centralising approach
But as the House will know, the Government wants to move in the opposite direction.
Fuelled by the O’Connor report – on which the current debate is based – the Home Secretary is proposing to replace many existing constabularies with larger and more remote police forces.
He justifies this with his now familiar claim that it is necessary to tackle the new terrorist threat.
That argument, it seems, can cover a multitude of sins.
But should this go ahead, we fear it will be the thin end of the wedge – the first step down the road to making all policing more remote and less responsive to local people.
In an earlier debate, the Hon Member for Stockton North (Frank Cook) – who has been very vocal on this subject – quoted the report’s author, Denis O’Connor, as saying:
“I was asked to put forward a protective services argument, not a critical assessment of forces” .
That suggests that the Home Secretary is trying to use this report as something it is not.
As so often, the Government seems to have come to a decision and then tried to find the evidence to support it.
Lack of public support
That perhaps is why the Home Secretary was very quick to say which of the five options outlined in the report he preferred.
He supports the proposed move to fewer, strategic forces.
There was absolutely no mention of this in the Labour Party’s election manifesto earlier this year.
Perhaps that is because they knew how unpopular it would be.
One opinion poll conducted by MORI for the Cleveland Force found public support for the plan at just 8%.
A similar poll for the Cumbrian force found a majority against the merger proposal.
This is mirrored elsewhere.
In the earlier debate in Westminster Hall, my Hon Friend the Member for Aldershot reported how his own police force of Hampshire had told him:
“At an independently run, public focus group consultation event held with residents, on November 19th our residents were unanimous across all groups that Hampshire Constabulary should not be amalgamated and should remain a single force.”
Indeed, there has been a burgeoning concern across the country as people have come to realise that their local police force might disappear.
And little wonder.
Some of the proposed new forces are simply too huge to be as effective as those they would replace.
Take the proposed mergers in the South East for example.
If that goes ahead, Kent’s officers could be closer to Calais than to their new regional headquarters.
Some officers in the proposed South West Regional Force would have to drive for 5 hours to make it to their new regional home.
Officers in the North West would have to travel for 2 and a half hours to make it from one side of their new force to the other.
Some officers in Wales would have to travel for around 5 hours to visit a headquarters in Cardiff.
We could accept this if we thought there would be genuine benefits to the community.
But, as I said earlier, all the evidence demonstrates that the best police forces are the smallest ones that are able to respond to the needs of the local community.
There is absolutely nothing to stop those forces co-operating effectively as they do now, but they should not be forced to do so.
Now the Home Secretary will claim that local policing will remain through the Basic Command Units which, he says, are accountable.
But there is absolutely no true accountability here at all.
The BCUs take their direction from above and report to those above them.
Local people have no control over them whatsoever.
What happens if they do something wrong?
Can they be fired? No.
Can they be replaced? No.
Can they be held to account in any way by the people they serve?
And how much more damaging will it be when they take their direction from a Chief Constable who may be hundreds of miles away?
The Home Secretary says that he has a “desire to establish mechanisms that … effectively hold BCU commanders to account”.
But then he admits that these mechanisms would be “non-statutory”.
Mr Speaker, it’s not enough for the Home Secretary to “desire” accountability.
There must be formal mechanisms to put local accountability in place.
But the Government has shown minimal interest in this issue, and frankly we know why.
There is a wider agenda behind the Government’s plan.
We can already see how the Government’s failed regionalisation agenda is being brought in through the backdoor.
What began in planning is now filtering through to the emergency services.
The ambulance service is being reorganised.
So is the fire service.
The police are just the latest body to face the zeal of the Government’s great drive towards regionalisation.
The Home Secretary cannot deny the regionalism lying beneath his proposals.
Why, if this reform is not driven by a regional agenda, would the Hampshire Police Authority be forbidden from amalgamating with the neighbouring Dorset or Wiltshire forces – as my Hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Andrew Turner) pointed out in the debate in Westminster Hall?
The answer is that they would then cross the arbitrary Government Office boundaries.
It is clear that the amalgamations the Government envisages can only take place where there is a regional driver behind them.
As Warwickshire Police Force – the smallest force in the country outside the City of London – said in an early response to the report:
“The Home Secretary has made it clear that the restructuring of forces has to take place within existing regional boundaries”. (Press Release, 11 October 2005).
If it is so important that we create larger, strategic forces to fight terrorism and organised crime, why should we let regional boundaries dictate how those forces are formed?
Are the criminals going to mysteriously respect regional boundaries?
If this reform was truly about operational effectiveness, it should be solely about doing what is most effective, not about fitting the government’s discredited, one size fits – all prejudices and preconceptions.
Mr Speaker, this Government’s plans for Regional Government were defeated soundly in a referendum of the people.
When will they accept that fact – rather than trying to implement them through the back door?
The speed of change
There may be a case for amalgamation in some parts of the country.
We accept that.
Our concern is that the Government is forcing it on police forces that do not want it, and do not need it.
As one Chief Constable said:
“There’s not been enough critical examination of the report.
Restructuring may be exactly what two or three forces in one part of the country need and may make totally sound sense.
But it does not follow that it needs to work like that in every part of the country” (Tim Brain, Gloucestershire Police, The Telegraph, 12 December 2005).
And the speed with which this is all being done is one of our greatest concerns.
As that same Chief Constable outlined:
“This is going to be the most profound chance since the modern police service was created in 1829.
Maybe it is not necessary to have a two-year royal commission now, but a debate – not even much of a debate – that is based upon a report which took three months to write and which we have really only been given a month to respond to, is just too hasty”.
The last time such a change was proposed a Royal Commission was indeed established.
It was established in 1960. Finally reported in 1962.
And its recommendations were put into place between 1964-5.
This time the report was called for in June, published in September and implemented if the Government gets its way as early as next year.
As the Labour Chairman of the Cheshire Police Authority, Mr Peter Nurse, told the Home Secretary:
“Your timetable is so absurd that it is impossible for us to have a meaningful dialogue with our communities and for us to fully appraise what is the best structure for policing in this area that not only effectively tackles those serious criminals in our midst but also protects our neighbourhood.”
This speed leaves many questions unresolved.
The most important of these being that of costs.
The O’Connor report is 113 pages.
Of these just 1½ pages cover how merging forces will deliver savings.
A figure of £70 million is asserted but completely unsubstantiated.
So the change ‘could’ save around £70 million in the long-run – but equally it ‘could’ not.
There is every chance that costs will go up, not down, particularly information technology costs, in which both the Home Office and the police have such a brilliant track record.
If nothing else, all experience shows that the process of amalgamation itself will be a ferociously disruptive and distracting exercise, probably for several years.
During which time neither the criminals nor the terrorists will rest.
The draft calculations in the report are far from convincing.
So is the evidence from history.
I’m sure many Hon Members will remember what happened on a previous occasion when a Labour Government amalgamated two institutions to try and drive up standards and cost-effectiveness.
They took one failing car company and one successful van and lorry firm, put them into one, and created a disaster called British Leyland.
The history of amalgamations does not inspire confidence.
Rather than raising the average of all, they often pull successful institutions down.
Even if the projected operational and cost improvements are capable of being achieved, it seems clear that we could achieve them through the simpler federated structure – which would have the added benefit of avoiding the heavy, upfront costs.
The O’Connor report admits that reorganisation “is bound” to entail up-front costs.
It says that these “cannot be avoided”.
In view of this warning, did it not occur to the Government that it might be a good idea to find out what the costs might be before they demanded that amalgamation proceeded?
It has been left to the police authorities to do that job.
The estimates are as wide-ranging as they are disturbing.
We have heard figures of £25-30 million being suggested simply to amalgamate IT systems across two neighbouring forces.
The Hon member for Stockton North has been very vocal about this from the Government back benches.
I hope he will allow me to give the example he has cited before.
His local force of Cleveland has been told that they will have to merge with Durham and Northumbria.
They think they will have to borrow £50 million to pay for it.
Servicing that loan will cost around £5 million a year.
But some forces will have to borrow even more.
I have here a memo from Leicestershire Police Authority which puts the cost of a amalgamation to create an East Midlands Regional Force at over £100 million with ongoing costs of anywhere between £30 and £52 million.
The Chief Constable of Gloucester, who is ACPO’s head of Finance and Resourcing, estimates the total set-up cost at £500 million. The APA assess it at £500 – £600 million.
I suspect that the cost of this is going to be like the infamous ID cards scheme: the harder we look at it, the more expensive it gets.
The full costs could be astronomical.
But we are told by the head of the police resources unit at the Home Office that the “Government does not have the money” to pay for it.
It is amazing, though, what Ministers can do when their backs are against the wall.
After the Association of Police Authorities refused to meet the Home Secretary’s rushed deadline of 23 December, he suddenly found £50 million next year and £75 million the year after that, in a rather clumsy attempt to bribe forces to accept his merger plans without question.
The APA was rightly outraged.
In its response entitled Policing Not for Sale, it condemned the Home Secretary’s attempt to bribe police authorities into abolishing local police forces.
Its Chairman, Bob Jones, said:
“we will not be bought off…
It is disappointing that the Home Secretary is now trying to bribe some police authorities to merge their local police forces at the expense of those police authorities who still have serious concerns about whether this will deliver the best policing for local people.”
And even with this rather cack-handed attempt to influence opinion, the shortfall in funding will be massive.
There are only two places to go to fill the gap.
One is to borrow the money.
The other is to raise it through a higher precept on the council tax.
It is clear that, in the end, the cost for this exercise will fall on the council taxpayer.
This is just one of the reasons why the Association of Police Authorities opposes the Government’s plan.
As their highly critical statement of 7 December put it:
“the APA does not accept that HMIC’s Report “Closing the Gap” provides a complete or comprehensive business case for the creation of strategic forces and… the APA will urgently explore alternative models, such as a Federated approach to establish if these offer a quicker, more cost effective approach to improve protective policing services”.
I welcome this approach.
It makes sense to explore alternative options, particularly when the Connor report proposed them.
Why is the Home Secretary so hostile to federation?
He says that a “compelling case” for federation has not been made.
Does he seriously contend that he has made a compelling case for amalgamations?
Alternative options need to be explored objectively and costed properly – not summarily ruled out because they don’t fit the Government’s regional blueprint.
My own survey of Police Authorities – conducted last week – revealed overwhelming opposition to the Government’s plans.
Most Authorities cited the speed and cost of the mergers to be a major factor in their opposition – together with concerns about the lack of accountability.
Conclusion – time to think again
So Mr Speaker, I hope the Government will now accept that they have handled this debate appallingly – which is why we find ourselves discussing such an important matter today, in the last week before Christmas.
Frankly, as the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys police said this weekend [?], the Government’s plans are “verging on a shambles”.
The Home Secretary needs to pause and reflect on the full implications of what he is proposing.
We are not opposed to any change in the current structure of 43 police forces, but we do believe there are very serious problems with the current proposal.
It makes policing remote, when we should be making it local.
It makes policing unaccountable, when we should be giving people greater control.
It threatens massive costs for no extra benefits and it is driven by a regional agenda which has already been rejected by the British people.
Quite simply, it seems to be trying to meet a resources problem with an organisational solution.
We should be designing the right organisation and then finding the resources to implement it.
It would be a tragedy indeed if we sacrificed good and effective policing on the altar of regional dogma.
It will be a tragedy if the government pushes through this hasty, ill-considered, costly, disruptive, and dangerous plan.
A tragedy the British people cannot afford.