Labour's police mergers always unloved

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to the plans to merge police forces in England and Wales and why they have been abandoned in all but name.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to the plans to merge police forces in England and Wales and why they have been abandoned in all but name.

ELEVEN months of behind the scenes manipulation, strong arm tactics and threats have exploded in the face of the Home Office, a department already in crisis over a failed asylum and immigration policy, the deportation of foreign criminals, rows over the sentencing of murders and paedophiles, and the ID cards fiasco.

It was August 16, 2005, when the EADT revealed exclusively that then Home Secretary Charles Clarke was intent on forcing through super-sized regional police mergers to combat the growing the menace of terrorism and cross-border crime and policing failures in the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Jackson.

You may also want to watch:

Mr Clarke was persuaded by the Chief Inspector of Constabularies Ronnie Flanagan that small county police forces such as Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Dorset, Cumbria, Warwickshire and North Yorkshire could not possibly cope with the demands of modern policing and should be swept away and replaced with regional forces.

When the details of the proposed new forces became a public, it was an inconsistent patchwork of full regional mergers, part mergers, and a few stand alone county constabularies. The number of forces was to be cut from 43 to around 20 by 2008.

Most Read

The bewilderment in Essex was understandable. Told by Charles Clarke it had to merge with Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in a bizarre Home Counties North grouping, it saw the Home Office supporting Kent and Hampshire - of similar size to Essex - being given the green light to become stand alone strategic forces.

In other parts of England and Wales - in Scotland, policing is a devolved responsibility - unwieldy mergers were being proposed. And from the outset, the plans looked doomed. Labour MPs were furious the Government was forcing the proposals under the 1996 Police Act without any meaningful scrutiny in Parliament.

The Labour Party in Wales was in uproar over the four constabularies in the principality being forced into one giant constabulary. In the East Midlands, all five independent forces were to join in one regional entity stretching from the outskirts of Manchester to The Wash.

While policies authorities dug their toes in, refusing to go voluntarily into amalgamations with some seeking a judicial review, Essex set about holding a referendum on the issue, asking for the views of the public - something Charles Clarke consistently refused.

However, it appears that the infighting between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may well be the real reason the project has been scuppered. Mr Brown, a Scottish MP destined to be the next Prime Minister, became increasingly conscience of the opposition in England and Wales to the mergers.

Worried about the enormous cost of linking back-office computer systems and individual control rooms, the removal of Charles Clarke in May from the Home Office over the release of foreign prisoners scandal allowed Mr Brown to flex his muscles.

He laid it on the line to new Home Secretary Dr John Reid - a fellow Scot - that the Treasury would not cough up to force through a policy unpopular in England and Wales.

This week, the matter came to ahead when Lancashire and Cumbria, the only two forces which initially had agreed to voluntarily merge, pulled out because of the Government's refusal to find the cash to equalise council tax precept for policing in the two counties.

In Essex, there is undisguised delight at the demise of the mergers. The county's MPs were due to meet Home Office minister Tony McNulty next week to seek the abandonment of the plans.

Chelmsford West MP Simon Burns said the new Home Secretary was under no illusion just how “deeply unpopular and expensive” the merger would have been.

But even though the police was publicly opposing the mergers, behind the scenes the various county forces were in discussions about how to implement the changes.

They had no choice - if the Government had pressed ahead, they would have to be ready to amalgamate.

We won't know until constabulary accounts are audited what the true cost in wasted resources has been.

It was a plan most MPs, councillors, the police and the public did not want. It was pushed through as part of the Government's regionalisation by stealth, masked as modern policing, and has gone the same way as its architect, Charles Clarke.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus