Police being stolen from us
Nick Herbert, Tory spokesman on police reform, outlines objections to the Home Secretary's plans to amalgamate county constabularies JOHN Prescott's plans for regional government were defeated overwhelmingly in the first referendum, in the North East.
Nick Herbert, Tory spokesman on police reform, outlines objections to the Home Secretary's plans to amalgamate county constabularies
JOHN Prescott's plans for regional government were defeated overwhelmingly in the first referendum, in the North East. But the inconvenience of the people's vote hasn't deterred the Government. Now we are getting regionalism by stealth.
Planning decisions are being taken by unelected regional assemblies. Local fire control rooms are being replaced with regional centres. The health service is being re-organised - yet again - to create regional Strategic Health Authorities. And now police forces are to be amalgamated. By the time the Government has finished, there could be as few as 12 forces, instead of the current 43.
In East Anglia, the plan is either for a single regional force, combining the forces of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, or two semi-regional forces. The mega force would cover a massive 6,555 square miles.
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Inevitably, regional police forces will become more remote from the communities they are meant to serve. In such a vast area, Chief Constables will be hundreds of miles away from many towns and villages.
It is clear that local people do not want mega forces. In Essex, a MORI poll, commissioned by the Police Authority and undertaken at the end of last year, found that 68 per cent of people wanted Essex to remain as a stand alone force and 15 of the 17 Essex MPs have publicly signed a pledge calling on the Government “to listen to the people of Essex and to their democratically elected representatives and to keep the Essex Constabulary fully intact”.
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The costs of merger will be huge - well over £500 million across England and Wales, and more than £61 million in East Anglia alone. The Government is providing less than a quarter of the funding to pay for this - money which in any case is being raided from the existing police capital budget. Resources which should have been spent on improvements to policing will now be used to pay for management consultants, merged IT systems and new headquarters.
Local taxpayers will pick up the lion's share of the cost. The average police precept will rise by 21% and in East Anglia this will mean between £22 and £30 added to council tax bills on a Band D property - on top of rises already planned.
The Government claims that the mergers are necessary because forces with under 4,000 officers are too small to deal with serious crime. But the Home Office's own performance assessments show that three of the top five performing police forces in the country have fewer than this number of officers. Big isn't always beautiful.
Every police force, however large, relies on outside help when there are major incidents. Even the Metropolitan Police in London, with 31,000 officers, needed help when the bombs went off on July 7ast year.
To deal with serious crimes which often cross police boundaries, the Association of Police Authorities has proposed that forces could make formal agreements to share services. Sharing specialist units such as murder squads or forensic units would make sense. Forces could also make new savings by sharing back office functions such as payrolls.
Last week Tony Blair said that this was an option, and that amalgamations would not be forced through. He was immediately contradicted by his own ministers, who want to press ahead with mergers. Since there isn't one region in the country where mega forces have the unanimous support of police authorities, they will indeed be forced through - and another of Tony Blair's promises will bite the dust.
Co-operation between police forces would be more flexible than amalgamation, and far cheaper. Crucially, it would also preserve the identity of existing forces and their connection with local people.
Under this Government, policing is increasingly being centralised. The Police & Justice Bill, published last week crease a new national policing agency and gives the Home Secretary extended powers to intervene in local forces. Local police authorities are already relatively powerless and anonymous to the public. With mega forces and tighter Home Office control, they will be even further removed from local people.
Conservative Party leader set out an alternative approach, based on his key principles of sharing responsibility and trusting people. Central control of the police would be replaced with direct local accountability, through elected commissioners or police authorities, re-building the link between police forces and their communities.
Across the country, people are crying out for their communities to be safer. They want to see effective neighbourhood policing and police officers on their streets. Police officers are spending just 17 per cent of their time on the beat. Detection rates have been falling. Britain has amongst the highest crime rates in the developed world. These are the issues which need tackling. Hugely costly and distracting amalgamations of police forces, serving only a regional political agenda, are not the answer.
Nick Herbert is Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs.
The EADT understands the Home Secretary's plans will be published later this month.