HC Deb 07 December 1965 vol 722 cc293-304

5.50 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to move, That the Northampton and County Police (Amalgamation) Order, 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th November, be not made. The purpose of this Order is to amalgamate the Northampton Borough police force with the county force. Northampton Borough has had a police force for a great many years—I think, ever since there were police forces. It is an extremely good force—no one has disputed that. Indeed, I think that the county's anxiety to get the borough police force amalgamated with it was in a certain measure based on its admiration and high assessment of the force it was getting.

I fully understand that there is a case for larger police forces. There is a case for bringing smaller forces into larger forces, particularly where the larger force is having considerable difficulties in policing its areas. I think that there is no doubt here that this amalgamation was in some measure for the benefit of the county at the expense of the borough.

The matter was fought out. We appealed. We took a delegation to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. My right hon. and learned Friend took a certain view. But then something else happened, a decision by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government that Northampton was to expand. From being a town of just over 100,000, it was to become a town of 220,000.

A town of 220,000 would have a police force of something over 500, which would be ample for an independent police force. But this decision occurred after the original decision regarding Northampton's police force, after our appeal had been rejected, and after our visit to the Home Secretary. Thus, the position now is that Northampton's police force is to be abolished, but, in five, six or seven years, when the Minister of Housing and Local Government's plans have become a reality and Northampton is a borough, or probably then a city, of 220,000 people, we shall want to re-establish a police force of our own.

The establishment of a new police force is always much more difficult than the enlargement of an old one. An old police force has its traditions, it has built itself up and won the confidence of the customer, in this case, the citizens of Northampton. Northampton has a most admirable chief constable whom everyone in Northampton will be terribly sorry to see go. Of course, he has a chance to become chief constable of the combined force, but, as far as that side of it goes, the county also has an admirable chief constable and I do not think for a moment that it has any intention of losing him.

Thus, the Northampton borough force will be broken up for quite a short intermission and we shall then have to start again, without the tradition of our old force and without its continuity of over 100 years. All this is to happen just for the sake of a short intermission. In the circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend will think again and say that we should give it a year or two years; let us postpone it a little and see how the redevelopment of Northampton goes. Let us see whether it is really necessary to destroy this very good, effective and traditional force before we know for certain whether Northampton will in any event have to have a force of its own in the quite near future.

That is the short and simple point. I shall not go over any of the matters which were dealt with in the discussions and at the inquiry. I am dealing simply with the new point, the decision to enlarge Northampton, a decision which seems to me to raise the whole question of timing.

5.55 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I have hesitated to intervene in this somewhat narrow debate, narrow in the sense that it appears to refer only to Northampton and Northamptonshire, but the House will recall that a few days ago, in the small hours of Friday morning, we discussed the West Midlands Special Review Order, which I felt that I had to oppose. The significance of that Order was that Staffordshire was to be truncated and what is commonly known as the Black Country was to be detached, one consequence being that the police force of Staffordshire would to that extent be carved up.

I intervene now because, although this debate is restricted to Northampton and Northamptonshire and it would be inappropriate for me to call in aid too much detail regarding Staffordshire, I want my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State to explain what are the rules or principles governing decisions to amalgamate or abolish police forces. The proposed abolition of the Northampton force seems to be strictly contrary to the action proposed to be taken in Staffordshire. In Staffordshire, a number of county boroughs are to be established under the Order. They will not have their own police forces, and, as I understood the Order and the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—though I should not charge him with too much specific comment on this—it was considered desirable that in the carved off part of Staffordshire there should be an amalgamated police force for the so-called Black Country.

I expect that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may argue that there is merit in amalgamation, but this would seem contrary to what is proposed regarding the Staffordshire constabulary, in which case——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not discuss the Staffordshire case. All we are discussing tonight is whether or not this Order in respect of Northampton should be annulled.

Mr. Snow

I thought that I was avoiding transgressing the bounds of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, of course, I bow to your Ruling.

I conclude by emphasising the general point of my remarks. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will comment on the rules prescribed in his Department for deciding when there should be amalgamations and when there should be carve-ups. It is as simple as that. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has been very cogent in his reasoning and, for my part, I hold the view that there may well be a case for taking account of the shape of things to come. The reverse is true in the other case which I have mentioned but which I shall not develop further. There seems to be confusion about the rules guiding the Home Office in these matters.

6.0 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

In its long history Northampton has sent to the House many distinguished leaders, but I think that none has been a greater champion for it than my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). He has established for himself a great reputation in the House. Nothing happens to Northampton without his bringing our attention to the matter. He has rightly brought our attention tonight to the question of the amalgamation of the police force with that of the county.

I join at once with my hon. and learned Friend in a high tribute to the Northampton Borough police force. There is, of course, no question of its efficiency. However, I hope that the House will feel that it will help if I explain first of all the background to this amalgamation scheme in particular and the schemes that we have in mind in general.

The Police Act, 1964, conferred on the Home Secretary wider powers to promote the amalgamation of police areas where he is satisfied that it is in the interests of efficiency that there should be a combined police force. The practice, introduced by the then Home Secretary in 1964, is to review the policing of the country in the light of the current review of local government areas. The order in which amalgamations may be proposed depends on the progress made by the Local Government Commission and the decisions taken by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Everybody will agree—as indeed all parties in the House agreed during the debates on the Final Report of the Royal Commission on the Police, and on the Police Bill—that there should be amalgamations and that larger forces are in the interests of efficiency. I know, of course, that a great deal of anxiety is often caused by specific amalgamation proposals like this one, and that on the whole most local authorities think that amalgamations are right in principle, but that they should not occur in their own area. But the Home Secretary is satisfied that it is right, where it seems that more effective policing may come from a combined force, to press on with proposals for the amalgamation of police areas and, if necessary, to use the compulsory powers contained in the Police Act, 1964, which followed on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Police which reported in 1962.

The Royal Commission heard a great deal of evidence and carried out what is unquestionably the most thorough survey of the organisation of the police in this country since it was first established. The House will recall that the Royal Commission was strongly critical of the present number of relatively small police forces and considered that such forces had a number of inherent disadvantages. For instance, first, operationally such forces are not flexible enough to meet all the demands that may be placed upon them and the help of neighbouring forces may have to be called upon. Second, the employment of specialists is difficult and training facilities tend to be inadequate. Third, promotion tends to stagnate, and it is harder than in a larger force to ignore the claims of seniority in filling vacancies. I visited a small police force the other day where it takes 20 years for a man to become a sergeant. In the Metropolitan area there are sergeants with five, six or seven years' service. This is, of course, an important factor. Also, discipline is difficult to enforce impartially in the smaller force. There is a danger of undesirable pressure being brought to bear—I am not saying this about Northampton—on the police by local people where there is a small force.

Finally, it is not easy to find for a small force a chief constable with the right qualities for that exacting office, but I join with my hon. and learned Friend in paying tribute to the two chief constables involved here.

Mr. Paget

Is not the trouble here that because there are some small bad police forces—that is certainly true—the Government are on this occasion abolishing one which is outstandingly good?

Mr. Thomas

I shall deal with that matter.

The Commission also expressed the view that forces numbering less than 200 suffer considerable handicaps and that the retention of forces numbering less than 350 in strength is justifiable only by special circumstances, such as the distribution of the population and the geography of the area. It regarded a force of 500 upwards, serving a population of about 250,000, as the optimum size.

The figures quoted by the Royal Commission are a general guide and they must now be viewed against the background that since the Commission reported police forces have been increasing their establishments, partly as a necessary consequence of the introduction of a five-day working week. Also, the tendency now is for the ratio of population to police to come down. The figures of 200, 350 and 500 that the Royal Commission mentioned must; therefore, be regarded as underestimates.

The Royal Commission recognised that a balance must be struck between the advantages of size and the advantage of retaining a direct local link; but it concluded: the weight of police evidence was to the effect that where there was a conflict between the claims of operational efficiency and of the local connection, it has been resolved on the whole too readily in favour of the local connection". The Commission recommended an immediate review of police areas, and also that the law should be amended to strengthen the Home Secretary's powers to promote the amalgamation of police forces. In particular, it thought that there should be no restriction as to the population of the areas affected and that no new force should be formed without the permission of the Home Secretary.

The Commission had already in an earlier part of its Report—paragraph 128 —made it clear that a number of its members thought that a national police force would prove to be a more effective instrument for fighting crime and handling road traffic than the present large number of local forces, each possessing more autonomy than the Commission regarded as appropriate.

It is implicit in the Commission's Report that it regarded the elimination of the smaller police forces as an essential condition of retaining a system of local forces. In other words, without a programme of amalgations the case for establishing a national force might well have prevailed in the Royal Commission's mind.

The Royal Commission's Report was debated in the House of Commons on 9th May, 1963. The right hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), who was then Home Secretary, made it clear that he agreed in general with the Royal Commission's views on the advantages of larger police forces in the interests of the efficient policing of wider areas. The case for amalgamations was strongly endorsed by the then Opposition official spokesman, who stressed the importance of not allowing any Home Secretary to delay the necessary task of carrying out amalgamations.

Further opportunities were afforded for the expression of views on amalgamation from all parts of the House by the debates on the Police Bill in 1963. The then Home Secretary announced his intention of asking the Inspectors of Constabulary to review each area from a police standpoint after the Local Government Com- mission had announced its proposals for the reorganisation of the structure of local government in that area.

The right hon. Gentleman also stated that it was not his intention to work by any statutory yardstick or arithmetical formula and that geography entered into the matter as well as the size of the forces. This side of the House welcomed the intention of the Police Act with regard to amalgamations and the debates on the relevant sections showed a wide acceptance of the need for more amalgamations The present trend of crime, with the enormous number of offences against the person and against property, together with the increasing sophistication of criminals and their methods and speed of movement, make measures to increase the efficiency of the police service a primary duty of government.

Where efficiency will be gained by the amalgamation of police areas, no Home Secretary should hesitate to take the initiative if the police authorities concerned will not willingly amalgamate their forces. I should like to emphasise that the need for amalgamation does not imply that a particular police force is in itself inefficient. Many small forces have a high degree of efficiency within the limitations of their size, and they also have a proud tradition. The crucial point is that amalgamation will lead to greater efficiency of policing for the whole of the areas affected and not just for the local area which is to lose its independent police force.

The fact, therefore, that this particular amalgamation is proposed between Northamptonshire and Northampton does not cast any reflection on the present county or county borough police forces. Indeed, it was made clear at the local inquiry that both forces are efficient within the limits of size. The essential point is that greater efficiency is likely to come from having one larger force serving the areas of the county borough and of the county. It is not just the area of the county borough with which we are concerned, but the areas as a whole.

I have outlined the background to the current review of police areas following in the wake of the local government review.

Already this review has produced important results which the Home Secretary is satisfied are moves in the right direction and in conformity with the views expressed by the Royal Commission on the Police and by Parliament. The county borough of Solihull, newly created on the same date as the county borough of Luton, obtained the agreement of the Warwickshire police authority to make a voluntary amalgamation scheme for police purposes. No fewer than five police authorities in the area covered by Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and Peterborough decided, following discussions with the then Home Secretary, to merge their police forces; and from 1st April, 1965, the whole area has been served by one combined police force known as the Mid-Anglia Constabulary. The effect of these amalgamations was to reduce the number of separate police forces from 126 to 122.

After a local inquiry the Home Secretary announced in March last his decision that the county borough of Northampton should be amalgamated with Northamptonshire—the subject of the present debate. Again after a local inquiry, the Home Secretary announced in June his decision to amalgamate the county borough of Luton with the county of Bedfordshire. The city of Bath and the county of Somerset are considering proposals by the Home Secretary that they might enter into a voluntary amalgamation scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) reminded us, the five large county boroughs of Dudley, Smethwick—to be known as Warley—Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton are entering into a voluntary amalgamation scheme whereby the conurbation comprised by the areas of the five county boroughs will be policed by a single force.

The Home Secretary has proposed the compulsory amalgamation of the county borough of Exeter with the county of Devon. The local authorities acting as a co-ordinating committee for the future county borough of Torbay, which will be constituted from 1st April, 1968, have decided in principle to continue to be policed by the county of Devon.

Mr. Snow

I say this with great respect to my hon. Friend, but he is obviously speaking from a brief prepared before my speech tonight and he is calling in aid a voluntary amalgamation in the West Midlands. But there is nothing voluntary about the truncation of the Staffordshire Constabulary.

Mr. Thomas

It would have been better if it had been voluntary. Perhaps everyone would have felt better, but it is considered nevertheless that the proposals for Staffordshire are in the best interests of the area.

As regards the amalgamation scheme now before the House, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government announced in December 1963 that the boundaries of the county borough of Northampton would be extended with effect from 1st April, 1965. As a result, the right hon. Gentleman who was then Home Secretary, after reviewing policing arrangements in consultation with H.M. Inspectors of Constabulary, reached the conclusion that in the interests of police efficiency it would be right to have a combined police force serving the whole of the county.

This decision was reached in the light of the proposed boundary changes and of the probable future increase in population. The right hon. Gentleman told the county and county borough police authorities his view and had discussions with representatives of both police authorities. After considering Northampton's representations that they should retain their separate police force, he reaffirmed his view that an amalgamation scheme should be made and gave to both police authorities formal notice of a compulsory amalgamation scheme.

An objection was made to the proposed amalgamation on behalf of the county borough watch committee and as a result a local inquiry was held, at which the watch committee developed their objections to the scheme. The report by Mr. Peter Stanley Price, Q.C., on the local inquiry found clearly that on merits the case for amalgamation was indisputable and that despite the arguments put on behalf of the county borough, the inherent disadvantages of small forces as seen by the Royal Commission on the Police existed in Northampton; and that both the county borough and the county force would gain by amalgamation.

Mr. Stanley Price's report made certain recommendations as to the composition of a combined police authority, and as to the apportionment of the costs of a combined police force in the light of a "without prejudice" agreement which had been reached between the two police authorities; and also recommended that any scheme should provide for the use of the Northampton police headquarters building by the combined police authority rather than for the transfer of that building to the new authority. The scheme meets all these points and, although the county borough remains opposed in principle to the idea of amalgamation, all the details of the scheme have been agreed with the two police authorities.

Since the local inquiry and again tonight my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton has urged on behalf of the county borough that a recent Government decision to expand Northampton by 1981 had invalidated the bases upon which the local inquiry had been held; that in a few years' time the enlarged county borough would justify a police force of the size accepted as tolerable by the Royal Commission on the Police; and that it was unfair that Northampton had been singled out for the first compulsory amalgamation scheme under the Police Act, 1964.

My right hon. and learned Friend received a deputation from the Northampton watch committee—I was there and so was my hon. and learned Friend—and also invited representatives of the county to be present, but he made clear to them subsequently that his decision to proceed with the amalgamation was unchanged.

It was quite clear that the future development of Northampton was very much in mind at the local inquiry, as it had been very much in mind when the proposals for amalgamation were first decided upon; the subsequent announcement of a firm decision on the future development of Northampton only confirmed assumptions which everybody concerned had already made.

The proposal for a combined police force took full account of a likely population expansion and one of the points that had been made at the local inquiry was that one police authority would be in a far better position to plan for future changes than two.

We have to deal with the situation as it is now and as it is likely to develop; there is no point in waiting some years in order to consider afresh whether Northampton should retain a separate police force because it may by then be a bigger place.

As to the other point made on behalf of the Northampton watch committee, it has frequently been made clear that it is the general policy to consider the most effective policing arrangements in the wake of local government review.

This was done in the case of Northampton as soon as the local government review had been completed and there is nothing sinister in the fact that the first local inquiry into a compulsory amalgamation scheme was held at Northampton.

My right hon. and learned Friend is satisfied that the amalgamation scheme is right and should be proceeded with and that there are no considerations which justify changing that decision.

Question put and negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lawson.]