HC Deb 24 October 1968 vol 770 cc1662-70

6.38 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I beg to move: That the Essex and Sonthend-on-Sea Police (Amalgamation) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 3rd July, be withdrawn. If I push on apace, it is not because I believe that this subject is not worthy of a much longer debate, but because it will suit the convenience of the House and its servants if we come to a decision by 7 o'clock.

In the preceding debate, we discussed the question of mergers. We now come to a suggested compulsory amalgamation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and myself are strongly opposed. This amalgamation has never been sought by the County of Essex or by the County Borough of Southend. In fact, they are strongly opposed to it. To add further piquancy to the matter, may I say that I live in the County Borough of Southend and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West lives in the County of Essex and that we are both united in our belief that this Order should be withdrawn.

The main links of the County Borough of Southend are not with the County of Essex, but with London. The county borough's problems are different from those of the County of Essex. This was brought out very clearly at the inquiry. The two main roads from London to the County Borough of Southend—the A.13 and the A.127—carry about 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles an hour which produce traffic problems in Southend which are not reproduced in other towns of comparable size. Our view is that this mixture of vehicles and pedestrians is probably unique in the country. In addition, we have 8 million visitors to Southend a year.

This enormous addition to the local population presents problems for the county borough which are not experienced by the Essex County police force. Nothing that I say will, I hope, suggest that I am denigrating the efficiency of that force. I often travel through that force's area and I shall be extremely careful about saying anything which may upset its members. But they do not have the experience and expertise of tackling the problems which obtain in Southend which is possessed by the Southend County borough police force.

Consider, for instance, the question of vice, which is uppermost in many people's minds today with the increase in drug peddling, prostitution and the like. One does not have those problems in the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea to anything like the degree that one would expect to have them in a town so close to London, absorbing 8 million visitors every year. This is because the county borough has a very efficient and capable vice squad of people who know their way around the town and the people who live there and are familiar with those who are likely to practise these forms of vice, to which we are strongly opposed.

The airport presents problems for Southend-on-Sea. Six hundred thousand passengers pass through Southend-on-Sea Airport. There has been the closest possible liaison between the police in Southend-on-Sea County Borough police force and the police in Ostend, Calais and Rotterdam. I doubt whether there is anything like the same liaison between the police forces of Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Certainly, we believe it to be important to maintain the closest possible liaison with the people who are our nearest neighbours across the sea.

It is inevitable that under the new scheme the police force for Southend County Borough will be less efficient. It will not have as many men capable of policing the county borough. The Southend County Borough police force is up to strength. The Essex County force is notoriously under strength. The effect of this compulsory amalgamation will be the taking away of an efficient police force from Southend ostensibly to improve the services in the county, whereas, clearly, what should be done is to improve recruitment in the County of Essex and not try to denude the Southend County Borough of a police force of which it is particularly proud, which does a first-class job and which the people would be very sorry to lose.

As was made clear at the inquiry, Southend County Borough is prepared to pay more money than is recommended under the Order to retain the efficient police force which it now has. Why should a question of this kind be decided by people who have nothing whatever to do with Essex County or Southend County Borough? We have not been asked our opinion on this matter. It is imposed upon us by the Home Secretary, who has probably never been to Southend in his life. I do not remember his having been there. What knowledge has he of the deep feeling which exists and the great pride which the people of Southend have in their local police force?

The Inspector of Constabulary has said that there will be a shortage of manpower for some time, but it does not exist in Southend. The shortage of manpower which exists in the Essex County police force will now be imposed upon Southend, also. I know that police officers in the county borough cannot be forced to move from Southend if their home is already there, but if they refuse to move into different parts of the Essex County there is no doubt that they will suffer in promotion.

There are many other points which I could make. I have a whole page of things that I would like to say to the House, but I have no desire, Mr. Speaker, to keep you or the servants of the House after 10 o'clock to listen to them. Perhaps if I were to send you a private note, you would have sympathy with the position in which I find myself.

In the inspector's report, when he recommended that amalgamation should take place, he criticised the Southend County Borough police force, in effect, because it has dealt with a number of offences by caution rather than taking punitive action against motorists. I am not sure that that is a bad thing. It is a very good thing if a police force can so conduct its affairs that motorists receive a caution instead of being punished. I am not at all sure that that is a valid criticism of the Southend County Borough police force.

I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West to dilate, as time will permit him, on the many problems on which I have not been able to touch. I finish by saying that it is foolish to weaken the admittedly good police force in Southend—Her Majesty's inspectors of constabulary all admit it—without guaranteeing any improvement in the combined area. Instead of having one good police force and one under strength, there will be two under strength. For these and other reasons on which my hon. Friend will touch, we ask that the Order be withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. H. P. G. Channon (Southend, West)

I support every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sit S. McAdden) has said about the objections in principle which he and I and the overwhelming majority—indeed, everyone to whom I have spoken in the County Borough of Southend has to the Order amalgamating the Southend and Essex police forces. If I do not reiterate the points made by my hon. Friend, that does not mean that I do not approve strongly what he has said and object strongly to the Order.

Apart from the points of principle, there are two matters of more detail to which I hope that the Minister will give his attention. The first is the strong comments made by the inspector at the inquiry about the position of the clerk to the new police authority. The Under-Secretary of State would, I think, agree that if we are to have police takeovers, especially when they are strongly contested, and certainly when neither authority asks for it and one strongly objects, it must be the case that for the future happiness and working of the force it should be seen to be, not a takeover, but an amalgamation.

Nothing could be further from achieving that if all three chief offices—chief constable, treasurer and clerk to the new force—are to be in the hands only of Essex and none in the hands of Southend. This was a point on which the inspector agreed strongly with the Southend point of view. He says so in his report. I do not ask the Under-Secretary to confirm or deny what the inspector has said, but I ask him to direct his attention to the new police authority before an appointment is made.

The second thing that I would like the hon. Gentleman to consider is the extraordinary behaviour under the Order in the taking over of that part of the police premises in Leigh which has been owned by the Corporation for 50 years, for which the police force has paid a rent for 50 years and which, under the draft Order, it is proposed should be expro- priated by the new police authority in a way that would mean if the police ever vacate the premises, the people of Southend will have to buy back the property that was originally theirs in the first instance. At the same time, development of a vital part of the Borough of Southend could be frustrated by a police authority which did not consist in the majority of representatives of Southend County Borough. This is a disgraceful case of expropriation and I hope that the Under-Secretary may be able to do something about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East made it clear that we have no criticism whatever of the Essex police force. As my hon. Friend has said, I live in the County of Essex and I have nothing but praise for them. Over the period during which the Southend police force has been operating, the people of Southend have been used to a service which has commanded their respect and which is worthily looking after the people of Southend.

The only possible argument in favour of amalgamation is that it would increase the efficiency of the police and serve residents better than they have been served in the past. All the evidence flies in the face of this. There is no doubt whatever that the police cover in Southend will be less than it is at present. There is no doubt whatever that it is likely that the police force will become less rather than more efficient. That is a tragedy for the people of Southend, who have been served so well in the past.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West would like to be associated with me in saying that if, after tonight's debate, the Southend police force is to come to an end on 1st April, we would like to pay tribute to all those, past and present, who have served the Borough of Southend so well during the past half century.

It is a tragedy for the people of Southend that this amalgamation should take place. Even at this late hour, I ask the Government to look at the matter again and consider whether they are doing a service to the population by making this compulsory Order. If they must get away with it—I hope that they do not—I hope that at least they will consider the important points of detail which, I too, have brought to the attention of the House. I object strongly to the Order and I hope that even at this late minute, second thoughts may yet prevail.

6.50 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

The hon. Gentlemen the Members for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) and Southend, West (Mr. Channon) have pressed their case with fervour and with conviction. Very briefly, I should like to deal with the main facts which constitute the history of the case over the last two and a half years.

The first formal notification to the two police authorities of the proposed amalgamation was in an official letter of 17th May, 1966, on the eve of the general statement to the House of Commons by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) on the nationwide programme of amalgamation. Southend's initial reaction was to open discussions with Essex in view of what Southend considered to be the inevitability of amalgamation, but at the same time to seek to impress on the Home Office the so-called special features of Southend's case.

Thus, on 23rd November, 1966, my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne), received a deputation, which included both the hon. Gentlemen the Members of Parliament for Southend, and which sought the assistance of the Home Office in Southend's efforts to persuade Essex to agree in advance to a district structure for the new force which would mean that an officer of the rank of assistant chief constable would he stationed in Southend, and to a provision in any voluntary amalgamation scheme nominating the clerk for the time being of Southend County Borough Council as the clerk of the combined police authority. Throughout all the negotiations the attitude of the Essex police authority towards the general question has been that though it does not seek amalgamation with Southend it does not oppose it.

Soon after the meeting with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lincoln, Southend's discussions with Essex broke down on the refusal of Essex first, to agree to an ex officio clerkship, and, second, to undertake that the police area should be divided into districts for operational purposes with a district assistant chief constable stationed in Southend as a permanent arrangement. Then on 3rd February, 1967, the Home Office was accordingly notified—and I quote—that in view of the unwillingness of the Essex police authority to agree to the reasonable compromise put forward, the Watch Committee has not been able to agree terms for a voluntary amalgamation. A statutory notice of compulsory amalgamation was, therefore, issued by the Home Office on 6th March, 1967. A local inquiry into objections to the proposed compulsory amalgamation scheme was held by Mr. E. S. Fay, Q.C., in September, 1967. Southend objected wholly to the proposed amalgamation, and also, without prejudice to the generality of its objection, to certain features of the proposed scheme which Southend wished to see replaced or supplemented by alternative provisions. Essex joined issue at the inquiry both with Southend and with the Home Office on some of the detailed provisions of the proposed scheme.

Mr. Fay's report of the inquiry published in January came to the firmest possible conclusion that the proposed amalgamation was justified. The two authorities were notified on 2nd January this year of the Home Secretary's intention to proceed with a compulsory amalgamation scheme. Following lengthy consultation on matters of detail the present draft scheme was finally laid before Parliament on 3rd July. It provides for the combined police authority to be constituted by 1st December and for the new combined force to come into operation on 1st April next year, the latter date having been urged upon the Home Office by both authorities in place of the earlier intention to make this scheme fully operative by 1st October, 1968. The new force would be known as the Essex and Southend-on-Sea Joint Constabulary.

It seems to me that the case by Southend-on-Sea pressed upon us by the two hon. Gentlemen can be summarised under three headings: first, that the loss of local control would diminish efficiency; secondly, that the policing in Southend would no longer be in the hands of men with intimate knowledge of the area; and thirdly, that by the amalgamation the level of police cover in Southend would be reduced so as to make good large deficiencies in the present Essex police force.

The fact that an amalgamation proposal is made should not be taken to reflect adversely upon the efficiency of the police force in question. The efficiency of the Southend police force within its boundaries is acknowledged. In his report of the inquiry into the objections to the proposed amalgamation scheme, Mr. Fay pays a tribute, with which the Home Secretary and I wish to be associated, to the efficiency and the well-earned reputation of this force. Nevertheless, the first object of an amalgamation of this kind, and the criterion by which any objections to it ought to be judged, is to promote an even greater level of efficiency over the combined police area as a whole.

The Home Secretary is satisfied, having carefully studied Mr. Fay's report, that this amalgamation is fully justified in those terms. If this amalgamation is carried through, Southend will form an important part of the new force, and as such it will be under the day to day command, of no doubt, a very senior officer. Such an officer would be quite competent to maintain a close liaison with the local authorities at Southend.

The conclusions reached by Mr. Fay on this point were threefold. First, the senior officer who would be in day to day command at Southend would undoubtedly be well able and well equipped to deal with local emergencies; the fact that in a special emergency he had immediate access to advice and assistance at headquarters would be a source of strength rather than weakness, and there is no reason to suppose that the necessary liaison with the Southend Council would not remain unimpaired. Secondly, that any interchange of personnel which might take place would be of equal value to both areas.

Thirdly, that the fear that the ratio of police officers to population in Southend would be diluted to improve the average number of police operating elsewhere in Essex has, perhaps, some substance, since it is not impossible that the chief constable of the combined force—this is an important point which he has under consideration—would be faced with circum- stances which required him slightly to reduce the average police cover—that is, the police cover outside peak holiday times—in Southend; but this possibility is more than offset, I submit, by the reasonable certainty of greater efficiency of the police in Southend stemming from integration with a large force with its better promotion prospects, wider fund of experience, greater provision of specialised services, and greater flexibility, than the county borough force can at present claim.

I must put it to the House that the case put forward by Southend is for a rejection of this amalgamation scheme, and, presumably, any other amalgamation scheme. I doubt very much whether the detail of this scheme is really in issue. The result of this would be that Southend would be left with a smaller force of 374 officers. It would be smaller as a force by several hundreds than any other force in England and Wales.

The question of the clerkship of the authority—I appreciate what has been said by Mr. Fay in this connection—is basically a local government matter and not a matter upon which the Home Office should, or could, comment.

On the Question of the Leigh-on-Sea police station, I shall he happy to write to both hon. Members in full detail.

Question put and negatived.