Legal challenge over police merger?

A HIGH Court challenge could be mounted by Suffolk's police authority if members vote to oppose plans to spend £31.5million merging the county's constabulary with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

By Graham Dines

A HIGH Court challenge could be mounted by Suffolk's police authority if members vote to oppose plans to spend £31.5million merging the county's constabulary with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

The legal route is one of the options to be considered on Monday after Home Secretary Charles Clarke rejected Suffolk's preference for an East Coast force linking Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

Police authorities have until April 7 to either volunteer for amalgamation or object to his plans. The Home Secretary will announce his decision on May 8.

Papers issued by the police authority give, for the first time, the cost of reorganising the three forces - and the figure was described as an “outrage” by one of the authority's members.

Tory Joanna Spicer said: “The Home Office estimate that £31.5m will have to be spent bringing the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire forces together means that, broken down, £10m will be diverted from improving policing in Suffolk.”

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If Suffolk does decide to seek a judicial review, it will be following the lead of Cleveland police authority, which has formally asked Mr Clarke to withdraw his plans to create a North East constabulary.

A “letter before claim” has been sent to Whitehall by Cleveland, the first step in the judicial review process. Cleveland calls the Home Secretary's proposals “unfair, irrational and perverse.”

In September, the Government announced plans to reduce the number of police forces in England and Wales from 43 to fewer than 18 to overcome “stark shortcomings” in the current “ability to meet the policing needs of the early 21st Century”.

Within each English region, police authorities were asked to decide with which other authorities they wished to be combined.

Mr Clarke said there was no option not to merge - but has since changed his mind and allowed Greater Manchester, Kent, and Hampshire to become stand alone strategic constabularies.

Suffolk said it wanted to join Essex and Norfolk, but Mr Clarke - who is MP for Norwich South - has backed Norfolk's preferred option for a Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire merger.

He rejected Essex's plea to become a stand-alone strategic force and is proposing it merge with Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

Next week, Suffolk police authority must decide whether it wishes to fight the Home Secretary's plans, being carried out under sweeping powers contained in the Conservative government's Police Act 1996.

If members vote for a “voluntary” merger with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and the other two authorities take the same action, an order will be laid before Parliament which will not be subject to debate.

However, if Suffolk resists and is over-ruled by the Home Secretary on May 8, there will be a four month consultation process. Should Mr Clarke insist on the merger, an affirmative resolution will be subject to debate in the Commons and the Lords.

In a report to the authority for next week's meeting, chief executive Christopher Jackson outlines the options if members are “minded not to volunteer”, including a judicial review, conducting their own consultation exercise, and lobbying MPs to object to the “affirmative resolution”.

However, Mr Jackson warns: “The authority needs to be clear about what the objective it is seeking to achieve.”

Mrs Spicer said Tory police authority members would vote against any forced merger, and said this would make the Home Office have a proper and meaningful consultation in Suffolk.

Labour's Harold Mangar called the merger process “flawed”, giving no time for proper consultation with members of the public.

“I will make up my mind on Monday about what course of action we should take next.”

The influential think-tank Policy Exchange yesterday branded the Home Secretary's plans misguided. “Big forces are no more efficient or effective that small ones, even on cross border crime,” it said.

“The proposed new super-force areas match regional government office boundaries better than they do crime patterns, suggesting they are part of an attempt to introduce regional government by the back door.”

graham.dines@eadt.co.uk

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