HC Deb 23 March 1993 vol 221 cc765-83 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the police.

The present framework for the management of the police service in England and Wales is based on the Police Act 1964. This has enabled us to deliver by and large a first-class police service over the last 30 years—a police service of which we are justly proud. However, 30 years is a long time. Society has changed in its attitudes and in its expectations. Crime has increased in absolute terms and in terms of its sophistication. In order to strengthen the ability of our police forces to respond to today's demands, I have undertaken a review of the existing system. I should like to outline to the House in broad terms how I propose to improve the police service.

We all want the police to be able to provide the best possible service—no one more so than police officers themselves. We want the police to protect the public, to prevent crime, and to tackle crime effectively when it occurs. The police must respond to the needs of local communities and of the victims of crime and use to maximum effect the £6 billion which they spend every year. What we need are the conditions in which the men and women of the police service can give of their best.

That means: giving police authorities and police forces greater freedom to decide for themselves how best to spend their money; creating more powerful and businesslike police authorities which will give more leadership to the local police service and ensure that money is spent more effectively; creating a new police authority for the Metropolitan police in line with the new national pattern, thereby strengthening local accountability in the capital.

It also means setting key national objectives for police activity; complementing local objectives agreed by the police authority; measuring performance against these objectives and publishing the results so that the public know what their force has delivered and how well their police force is doing compared to others; reforming the funding arrangements to get the best out of the money spent on policing; and simplifying the procedures for forces to be amalgamated when the time is right.

I am sure the House will agree that the principle of operational independence must remain. No Home Secretary and no police authority must be able to direct a chief constable in the conduct of any investigation or in the handling of an operation. While maintaining that principle of operational independence, we need to make a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Home Office and local police forces—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Running commentaries are not necessary.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

He is forcing coppers to vote Labour.

Madam Speaker

Order. Mr. Secretary Clarke.

Mr. Clarke

I do not believe that, if the hon. Gentleman listened, he would change his opinions on the subject in any way whatsoever, so he can carry on talking to himself if he wishes.

I have always believed that organisations run better when responsibility is devolved to local managers. The current financial arrangements shackle police forces. Far too often, decisions that could and should be taken locally are referred upwards.

Chief constables will in future have greater freedom to manage their resources. In consultation with their local police authority, they will be able to decide on the right mix of manpower and equipment needed to meet local needs. They may need more constables on the beat, or more civilian staff to free police officers from administrative paperwork. They may need police cars or computers. In future, the choice will be theirs. That means that the current Home Office control on police manpower will cease, and so will all but the largest capital projects.

At the same time, in order to manage this new freedom, I propose to strengthen local police authorities and give them greater autonomy. They will have responsibility for the performance of their force, and I will hold them to account for the results. Their job will be to ensure that policing responds to local needs and concerns. I will expect police authorities to build on their existing statutory responsibility to consult local people in setting the local policing agenda.

Police authorities need to change to fulfil their new responsibilities. Police authorities should have many fewer members and be more businesslike bodies. There should be broader local representation in their membership, including local people with relevant management experience. I propose that half of the membership should be elected local councillors. The remaining half should be partly local magistrates and partly local people nominated by the Home Secretary on the basis of their knowledge and experience [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—Wait for it. The chairman of the police authority will be nominated by the Home Secretary from among the overall membership—[Interruption.]—and the current Home Secretary will be less obsessed by the political complexion of the appointees than hon. Members opposite.

I have also re-examined the role of the Home Secretary in relation to the Metropolitan police. I propose to establish for the first time a police authority for the Metropolitan police on the new national model separate from the Home Office and with essentially the same tasks as police authorities elsewhere.

Greater freedom to manage must go hand in hand with clearer means of calling police authorities and police forces to account. I propose to take a power to prescribe national objectives for the police service. I will also expect police authorities to set local performance targets. The results will be published, so that comparisons can be made between forces. This will build on the current drive within the police service for better quality of service.

The present funding arrangements for the police are unsatisfactory. They are cumbersome, without giving any effective control of overall expenditure. The present system, for example, encourages the increase of police rather than civilian manpower, and there are no incentives to ensure that the best use is made of resources.

I propose to continue with a joint funding arrangement, with central and local government meeting police authority costs broadly in the same proportions as they do now. All police authorities will in future be constituted as free-standing precepting bodies. The central Government contribution will be set at the level necessary to secure an effective police service. It will in future be cash-limited. The local contribution will be subject to the overall controls on local expenditure.

One of my principal objectives behind these structural changes is to encourage devolution of responsibility within police forces to local police units, which will be directly accountable to their local communities. Half the forces in the country, including the Metropolitan police, are already cutting out unnecessary headquarters and management tiers and giving more responsibility to local commanders. As the focus of policing is increasingly shifted from headquarters to local units, the role of the force headquarters will change. They should become coordinators and supporters of local activity, rather than the commanders of local policing.

As a result, we may no longer need 43 separate headquarters maintaining 43 parallel organisations. I have no fixed views about what the right number of forces should be, and I have no plans to use the powers in the Police Act 1964 to amalgamate forces, but I propose that the statutory procedures, which are unduly cumbersome, should be simplified to allow for amalgamation when the time is right.

The House will be aware of the inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Sheehy, which is examining police rank structure, pay and conditions of service and is expected to report in May. I will also be issuing shortly a separate consultation document on radical changes to the disciplinary system. Shift systems and training are being overhauled throughout the service. Those and the other changes that I have announced today extend the principles of the citizens charter through the police service and will complement the wider reforms to police structure and organisation. Together, they will constitute the most important reform of the police service for 30 years.

Over the next few months, I will be developing my proposals in more detail. During that period, we will be happy to continue to listen to all views. I will then publish a White Paper and legislate when parliamentary time allows.

My aim, above all, will be to help the police service help us to build a safer and securer society. We must ask what difference we intend our reforms to make to the ordinary man in the street. The answer must be to make his street safer. I commend that objective and the means to achieve it to the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

First, there is no dispute that a change in policing is necessary: the issue is what type of change. I shall deal in turn with each principal matter that the Home Secretary raised.

I welcome the change in the method of calculating public funding, which is long overdue and which will replace a system that discouraged efficiency and was far too cumbersome and centralised. Will the changes in funding lead to a change in the resources needed to do the job? Can I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman, if anything, to go further on the changes, and to ensure that much greater local automony is given to police services to decide how they spend their money and what it is spent on? Does he agree that there is a need for greater flexibility and less bureaucracy not merely in financing, but also in the ability of police authorities and chief constables to introduce the changes within police forces which present regulations prevent them from doing?

There was a short paragraph in the Home Secretary's statement on amalgamations. Can we be clear exactly what he is proposing, since both the amalgamations and the composition of police authorities bear all the hallmarks of the worst kind of Cabinet compromise? May I at least welcome what I assume to be his backing away from a headlong rush into bigger police forces, but can we be clear—I hope that he will answer this specifically—that the proposals for an enforced reduction in the number of forces from 43 to 25 or 23, which were widely leaked from his Department, will be permanently shelved and that there will be no compulsory amalgamations?

The Home Secretary said that he will retain the powers of amalgamation under the Police Act 1964. Am I right in saying that those powers include a power for him to order amalgamations of police forces if he wants to? Perhaps he will confirm that to the House. Since he has presumably thought about the subject during the past few months, will he tell us his intentions? Does he or does he not intend to amalgamate police forces? The House needs to be told.

Given that the Home Secretary is on record as saying that he believes that there are too many police forces, will he confirm that there is no evidence to suggest that bigger forces mean better service? Indeed, such evidence as there is suggests the opposite—that smaller forces provide as good a service and as high standards of operational efficiency as larger ones, and are closer to the local community.

We certainly welcome the creation of a police authority for London—a big change in policy. However, would it not be better to have a properly elected authority for London which is fully accountable to the people of London? If the Home Secretary and his colleagues are now admitting that a strategic authority for London is right for policing, what possible case can they have for refusing a strategic authority for London for all the services in our capital city?

Does the Home Secretary accept that the fact that he is to appoint the chairman of the police authority and at least a substantial number of its members will mean a significant shift in power from local people to the Home Office? No doubt the Home Secretary will say—as he always does—that local councillors are not well known as members of the police authority.

Let us look at what the Home Secretary proposes. Does he believe that the chairman or managing director of a company, who is perhaps already on a training and enterprise council, regional health authority and heaven knows what else, and who is having to cope with the recession, is more in tune with local feelings than local councillors, who live locally, have to experience the menace of crime locally and are elected by local people?

Who will appoint the new members of the authority? Not the local people, not the police authority, but the Home Secretary, sitting behind a desk in Whitehall. What sort of local accountability is that? Is it not high time that Government policy on policing ceased to be driven by an extreme, ill-judged and damaging prejudice against local government, which is a slur on Conservative and Labour councillors alike?

The proposals as a whole suggest the possibility of larger and more remote police forces, a Government-appointed chairman, Government appointees replacing local representatives. Are we not going too far down the road towards centralised policing that will be out of touch with, and out of the reach of, ordinary people? We need to travel in the opposite direction, with more policemen and women on the beat, more local policing and a greater partnership between the police and the local community.

Does not the Home Secretary understand that, at a time when crime is running out of control in many parts of Britain and burglary, theft, criminal damage and other crimes of violence make life hell for many ordinary people in our local communities, the public want the Government to concentrate their energy on those issues? The Home Secretary would gain greater support if he spent less time attacking the responsibilities of the police and police authorities, and more time discharging the responsibilities of government.

Mr. Clarke

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) agrees that change is necessary in the police force. He has not yet advocated any change, but when he has had the chance to study what I have said, I think that he will find that there is more with which he can agree beyond that which I am glad to say he has already agreed to and welcomed.

I made the statement in advance of the White Paper that I have always proposed because of the debate currently running about the changes that I was supposed to be proposing. That debate runs far wide of what I am actually proposing. When he studies my proposals, the hon. Gentleman will see that I am certainly not suggesting the centralisation of the police service, any more than I would propose the centralisation of any other service.

I am the first Home Secretary to say that I propose to shed responsibility for the Metropolitan police. I propose to give more autonomy to local police authorities—a move welcomed by the hon. Gentleman, as it will be welcomed by the police service generally. I propose to give local police authorities much more freedom to use the resources that they are given. I also propose fundamentally to alter the relationship between the Home Office and the local authorities, but in quite a different—although important—way from that feared by the hon. Gentleman.

Instead of the Home Office being responsible for detailed day-to-day supervision of what every police authority does—almost the only dialogue that exists between the Home Office and counties at present is on issues such as whether or not I agree to let them have more police officers—I propose to give police authorities the money and the freedom to spend it and to set standards, and then hold those authorities to account. That is the fundamental change which I trust that the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, will come to welcome.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about amalgamations. I make no secret of the fact that, as part of the process of developing neighbourhood policing, one element that we propose to use to speed up that process will be that the nature of the police headquarters will change. They will become smaller and more supportive; they will not be involved in the day-to-day managing of policing. People want the police in their neighbourhood to be run by a local police commander in a nearby headquarters.

That is why Paul Condon, the new commissioner that I have appointed to the Metropolitan police, almost immediately decided to move 700 people from headquarters out into the divisions doing the policing. When that change takes place, there will be pressure for amalgamations. The present statutory process is not good enough to achieve them, so I propose to simplify the process.

I have not studied the maps; I have no view on whether Wiltshire police should or should not amalgamate. The time has come, however, to turn to more important matters such as those on which I am concentrating in these reforms.

The Opposition only appear to come to life when we ask whether Labour councillors should dominate the membership of police authorities. I am going to set up a new police authority for London which will have, if we follow the national model, about half its members drawn from local government under a process that we have yet to consult on. If we decided to have an elected police authority for London, my guess is that the hon. Member for Sedgefield would be even more worried than I. The idea of his friends in Lambeth, Southwark and Camden serving on the police authority would keep him lying awake at night.

We are talking about setting up stronger police authorities, taking half their membership from local government and half appointed for the qualities that they can bring to the service—qualities that might not be contributed by those who happened to emerge from local authorities or from magistrates.

The result will be authorities that are more visible, that can take on more responsibility for their local services and that can be held to account by the Home Secretary.—[Interruption.] That is an improvement on the present. It is all very well Opposition Members baying their support for what they have. Most of their constituents do not know who their police authority is or what it does. A recent newspaper poll showed that nine out of 10 people think that the Home Secretary runs their local police service; only one in 10 know that it is supposed to be a local authority responsibility.

I think that the local councillors on the new authorities that I propose will find that they are in a more responsible position to contribute more to police work in their new role. I also think that this is an altogether more sensible structure to achieve what we all want, which is a better managed and directed police service, achieving higher standards in making our streets safe and combating crime. That is what the reforms will bring about.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The exchanges between the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman have taken up rather more than 20 minutes. I shall now require hon. Members to carry out our procedures. That means not making statements but putting direct questions to the Secretary of State.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Since we now have more police with more powers, better pay, better equipment and better training, yet crime is rising and the number of arrests is falling, is it not obvious that the next stage must be some structural rearrangement to make the police force more efficient and effective and to give people better value for money? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that what our constituents really want is a more localised police force, with a local police chief who is identifiable and who can make decisions that are important to his locality? Is he aware that those constituents will welcome the proposals as a sensible step forward?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Police manpower is up by 30,000 compared with when we came to power. We spend 81 per cent. more in real terms on the police than our predecessors did. We have a much better police service than we had when we took office. But plainly, our response to the pressures cannot simply be to argue about how many more men and how much more money. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend was right: Staffordshire will welcome the fact that its chief constable will no longer need my permission to recruit police officers. He will be free to make his own judgments about what he wants to spend from the resources he gets, and he will be more visibly accountable for the standards of performance he achieves.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I acknowledge that the unprecedented spiralling upwards of crime makes the continuation of the examination of the future structure, funding and objectives of the police natural and proper. However, does the Home Secretary accept that this is a peculiarly ill-digested approach to reform, dribbling out some half thought out proposals, allegedly strengthening local autonomy while actually increasing the power of the Secretary of State over appointments to police authorities, laying down national objectives and, in other words, taking into his own hands direct responsibility for the policing of the country, which hitherto has been shared around the country? Does he also accept that the local objectives of the police can be measured only if they are following a pattern proposed by the local authorities, and that proper comparisons between authorities will not be made any easier by the manner of his imposition of national objectives?

Mr. Clarke

I think that the hon. Gentleman is expressing fears about what he thought I was going to say, without having digested what I actually said. We are not dribbling anything out. By the summer, we shall have the report of Sir Patrick Sheehy and his team on the leadership, pay, terms and conditions of the police service. We shall have the White Paper that I propose on new structure, new financing, more autonomy and stronger police authorities, held more openly accountable for what they achieve. We shall have the new proposals on police discipline to complement what I have already done on dealing with the incapability procedures, as they are called, for police officers who simply do not come up to the job.

As soon as I can manage thereafter, we shall move on to legislation, in the light of the consultation on all that, aimed at trying to get a stronger police service. Faced with that, the hon. Gentleman's meanderings through the subject, exploring what changes might or might not be needed, did not match the urgency of the task, which is to tackle today's levels of crime by a stronger and more effective police service.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the key to his objectives, as announced today, is a stronger police system, leading to a better control and the reduction in crime that the public wish to see tackled? Does he further agree that the character and nature of the police authority has to model those objectives, and that the chief officer of police will have to remain operationally independent, as he or she has always been, and that the police system has never been part of the local government structure in the manner of an environmental health department?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with all those points, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the contribution that he makes to debates on the subject, now as at other stages. I know his opinions well, because I have consulted him closely throughout, and I know that he thinks that I am being nervous in the extent to which I have so far contemplated change. Nevertheless, I hope that I have his support for what I have announced, in that it is going in the right direction. He underlined some key principles on getting stronger accountability for the police service.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I am certain that the Home Secretary will join me and the House in condemning the murder of the police sergeant in my constituency on Saturday night. In that context, will he tell the House how his proposals to introduce business men on to police authorities will get more policemen on the beat when they are needed, where they are needed and at the time they are needed? How will authorities be able to afford those policemen, given the financial constraints that he has announced and the existing tax capping of local authorities?

Mr. Clarke

I said that the authorities should be more businesslike, in that their job is to take decisions about priorities and spend the money effectively. It is by no means the case that I will appoint only business men. The approach that I shall adopt to such appointments will be to see who, by chance, emerges from the local authority side of the membership and who emerges from the magistrates' side of the membership, and then to decide what individual skills and abilities need to be appointed to make a strong, all right authority to complete the total. We shall then choose a chairman—a local councillor, a magistrate or one of my appointees. That is how we shall go about it.

I agree that the key question here, as it is about everything that happens in any headquarters, however it is administered, is what that means on the ground. It should mean that the headquarters listens more closely to local opinion, which will say that it wants more officers on the ground, a more visible presence, prompt replies to 999 calls, a good level of detection and success when investigating crime in the locality. We shall measure performance in all those sectors.

The police officer on the beat, in the exposed position described by the hon. Gentleman, will know more clearly what is expected of him, will know that the person directly in charge of him has far more responsibility for how things are organised, and will know that his performance will be measured according to his success in creating the good relationship with his locality and in delivering the kind of the results the people want.

Many policemen will find that more attractive than some of the 43 headquarters that we have at the moment, because it is a fair criticism that some police officers would make that we have a top-heavy structure dotted around the country in far too many places.

Mr. John Greenway (Rydelale)

As a former policeman and the father of a policeman, I can tell my right hon. and learned Friend that this is the best news that the police have had for many a year. Does he agree that, when his proposals come into effect, they will expose those police authorities that are not up to the job, but police authorities such as North Yorkshire, which do an excellent job, will warmly welcome the ability to spend their money more wisely and to deliver a more effective police service?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I share his opinion on the likely response, not least in North Yorkshire, which has shown itself to be a go-ahead force, where the chief constable has introduced many changes, and regards itself as continually trying to enhance the service to the population it serves. It has not shied away from change in order to do so, and I hope that it will find that my proposals go very much with the grain of what a force such as North Yorkshire has been doing.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement that he would tell the House "how I propose to improve" the police service must have sent shivers down the spine of the police service, coming as it did from a former Secretary of State for Health who said that he would improve the health service and left it demoralised and inefficient, and from a former Secretary of State for Education who said that he would improve the education service—

Hon. Members

He did.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have already cautioned the House that I am becoming a little intolerant in the way in which statements are put to Secretaries of State. I want questions, not long statements.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman

Absolutely, Madam Speaker.—and left the education service inefficient and demoralised? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain how that fiddling and meddling interference with democratic structures and bringing in his own nominees will solve or prevent one more crime?

Mr. Clarke

The right hon. Gentleman belongs to that generation of the Labour movement which became so reactionary that it resisted any change of any kind to any public service. I am only glad that he never had the opportunity to try to improve the foreign policy of this country.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that greater autonomy for chief constables to spend resources as they think fit in consultation with the new stronger police authorities will be most welcome, and will make a considerable contribution towards the improvement of the police service? What does my right hon. and learned Friend have in mind with regard to the radical changes, as he describes them, in disciplinary procedures? Is he aware that such procedures are a matter of great concern to the police? Can he give the House an assurance that there will be no lowering of the standard of proof in cases which involve dismissal?

Mr. Clarke

I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the police service, is right when he says that greater autonomy will be widely welcomed. One of the things that chief constables complain to me about all the time is that, if they reorganise their headquarters and dispense with a post of chief superintendent, they can appoint only one constable in his place because of the Home Office controls on overall numbers. That is an absurdity, which, with many others, will be swept away by my proposals.

Discipline is an important matter, which is why I announced today that I shall be publishing a consultation document specifically on that subject. Disciplinary procedures, particularly in the more serious complaints against police officers, are legalistic and take a great deal of time. Cases come to me years after the incident complained of, the police officers in question suffer the unbelievable stress of being suspended while their cases are considered, and the outcome is often so long after the event that it is regarded as unsatisfactory by the complainant and everybody else. Those important matters need to be approached by a less legalistic, convoluted and lengthy process, but obviously it must be fair, and it must be widely acceptable within the service.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Now that the Home Secretary has accepted the principle of a police authority for London, why does he not go a step further and allow the people of London to elect all the members of that authority through an elected authority for London as a whole? It cannot be right in a democratic society for half the members of a police authority to be appointed directly by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman and I both believe in democracy, but we do not see it in exactly the same way. The House is an elected House, but it does not manage anything except the Palace of Westminster—which, it could be argued, it does not manage very well. It is an elected body to which those who are responsible for various Departments are answerable and accountable. I do not believe that, in the case of local services, putting people in elected positions to run the management and be solely responsible for day-to-day decisions in the police service is the best way of proceeding.

I also think, without repeating what I said to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), that there would be peculiar difficulties in allowing some of the elected representatives of London loose on the police service. They have hardly been an all-fire success in running the services for which they are already responsible, in Lambeth, Southwark, Camden and elsewhere.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

The keynote of what my right hon. and learned Friend said was his comment that he wanted the police to be more powerful and businesslike—I think we would all applaud that—but being more powerful and businesslike does not necessarily mean being larger. A police force like the Dorset police force—which is small, extremely efficient, very powerful and already businesslike—would, I hope, escape his attention. On a slightly lighter note, could I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that he might consider instituting annual fitness as opposed to health checks for all members of police forces?

Mr. Clarke

As I have made clear, I have no views on whether the Dorest force is or is not the right size. I have not even begun to look at amalgamation. I think some amalgamations will be required, and I propose to simplify the procedure. I prefer to approach these things from the bottom up. The first thing to get right is the local command and the organisation and distribution of officers in a particular neighbourhood, with the person who is clearly in charge given more autonomy. Above that there will be smaller headquarters, whose role will be to lead and support those on the ground in specialist ways and hold them to account for their performance. That will cause us to readdress the present imbalance in the distribution of police forces, which is largely historic. In some cases they match the counties; in others they do not. In some cases they have local government representatives on the police authority; in London they do not.

What will emerge is that we will have fewer headquarters eventually, but it is a second order question. The first things to get right are the structure, the standards we need to set, the way in which we are to hold people accountable, how to delegate responsibility further down the chain, how to get more resources and manpower deployed where it matters most, on the ground actually fighting crime. I think it is likely that thereafter people will come to me stressing the need for amalgamations to avoid duplicating headquarters functions in different existing forces.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

May I tell the Home Secretary that his proposals for so-called businesslike police authorities, with Government-appointed chairs, will go down like a lead balloon in the west midlands, where we have seen similar leadership by Government-appointed business men? Sir James Ackers's leadership of the health authority led to the wasting of millions of pounds, was a complete shambles, showed a lack of concern about public opinion and has resulted in a lack of confidence in the west midlands in an authority appointed in that way.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain how his proposals will help authorities such as those in the west midlands to be more vigilant over the practices operated by senior police officers which have led in the past to scandals such as those involving the serious crime squad? In my view it is exacerbated by an unelected component of the police authority—the magistrates—and has led to a lack of grip by police authority members over their affairs—

Madam Speaker

Order. I call the Secretary of State.

Mr. Clarke

First, I propose to appoint men and women to be chairmen of authorities. I do not propose to appoint anybody to be a chair. It is also a rather extraordinary theory, which I will listen to at greater length on a more suitable occasion, that it is the magistrate members of the west midlands police authority who are responsible for the difficulties that have occurred in relation to the serious crime squad in the west midlands under the existing structure.

Sir James Ackers did an extremely good job as chairman of the West Midlands regional health authority. He presided over the most dramatic capital programme throughout the region, which transformed the region's health services for the better in comparison to the work of the old regional health authority before he took over. It is churlish of the hon. Lady to describe his performance in the way she did.

Sir George Gardiner (Reigate)

In his search for a more rational and devolved policing structure, which I am sure most of us would totally support, is my right hon. and learned Friend prepared to consider submissions from people like many of my constituents who find themselves on the fringe of the Metropolitan police area and would very much prefer to be policed by their own county constabulary?

Mr. Clarke

I am prepared to consider such submissions from my hon. Friend or anyone else. I have a completely open mind about that. I expect that, once we move towards setting up new police authorities, I will receive many representations from the home counties about precisely where the borders of those police authorities should run.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I noticed that the Home Secretary said that he will hold local police authorities accountable. Does that mean that he will follow the example of one of his right hon. Friends, who removed local councillors from a police authority because they dared to disagree with civil servants? Does the Home Secretary accept that there cannot be effective local accountability unless the local councillor representatives on the authority are appointed, and can be removed, by the local authority and are hence accountable to the people in the locality?

Mr. Clarke

Half the membership will come from local government. A particular problem in England and Wales is that we are currently embarking on a process of local government reorganisation. Alongside the process of police reform, which will essentially be governed by policing requirements, we will see a changing pattern of local government across the country. It is difficult to predict exactly who the local authority members will he and from where they will be drawn, but half of them will be elected local councillors.

However, for reasons that I have already given, I do not think we can have in any part of England completely elected local authorities which, at the same time, can enjoy all the autonomy that I am proposing. It is essential to have the right strength and authority to handle the freedom that authorities have to spend the resources as they think best. It is also essential that the Home Secretary of the day holds the authorities to account for national standards.

In turn, the Home Secretary is, of course, accountable to the House. I can always be questioned about policing methods. Given that I provide 90 per cent. of the money on behalf of central Government and that nine out of 10 people think that I run their local police service, it is time that I held those authorities to account for performance and was then held to account by this House.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that we must produce a country that is safe for children, women and the elderly? His statement offers quite good prospects for that. However, does he also agree that the criminal of today is much more mobile because of the motor car and that there is therefore a very good case to be made for regional police headquarters, although of course it is nice to have local accountability?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. We must bear it in mind that criminals do not always have the regard for local authority boundaries that some people wish they would have. Their organisation and equipment are also sometimes extremely sophisticated. We must therefore ensure that the police are that bit more sophisticated.

We are now organising large regional crime squads precisely to handle large scale organised crime. It is essential that we do that. It is also essential that the police are organised so that they can match up on the right scale to the threat that they face as a contribution to making the country safer, which, as my hon. Friend says, is undoubtedly our priority.

Mr. Stephen Byers (Walsend)

Does not the Home Secretary recognise that the new powers he intends to give to the holder of his office will be a dramatic extension of Whitehall control over a crucial local service? Is he not aware that his statement will be seen in many quarters as a damaging distraction from the real battle against the rise in crime? Does not he accept that, at a time when what we really need is an active partnership between local authorities, the local community and the police, his statement will be seen as a triumph of political dogma over reason?

Mr. Clarke

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's experience relates more to education than to policing. Thus, when he says that I am talking about a great extension of Whitehall power, he may not appreciate that I am solely the police authority for London, as all my predecessors have been. There is absolutely no local government contribution to the discharge of that responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman may also be unaware of the fact that, outside London, I determine exactly how many police officers may or may not be employed in every county and that, through my office, I exercise the most detailed control over the investment split between manpower and various types of equipment. All that I am proposing to forgo. With the greater devolution of responsibility, some attention must be paid to the strength of the police authorities that are being given more autonomy and to the way in which they are to be held to account for their performance.

Mr. Warren Hawksley (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his statement. As someone who was a member of a police authority for some years, I believe that this is a move in the right direction. When does my right hon. and learned Friend hope to produce the White Paper? Will it be possible to have a debate on it before the recess? Who does my right hon. and learned Friend think will initiate any amalgamations? I am very nervous about the suggestion that there should necessarily be large-scale amalgamations, and I am very relieved that my right hon. and learned Friend has not announced a low number of forces.

Mr. Clarke

I hope to produce the White Paper in June, by which time I hope the report of Sir Patrick Sheehy and his group will have been published. I understand that Sir Patrick is trying to achieve publication a little earlier. I hope that, when the White Paper is published, consultations concerning disciplinary procedures and so on will be well advanced. I understand that there may well be demands for a debate. As my hon. Friend will know, however, I am not responsible for the disposition of parliamentary time—I am extremely glad that I have no such responsibility at the moment. However, I look forward as much as my hon. Friend to a debate at a convenient time.

We have still to have consultations about what I have described as the new, simplified amalgamation process. There must be some power to initiate discussions about amalgamations, apart from the question of locality. I remember quite well the last occasion, in the early 1960s, on which this question arose. At that time, nobody was in favour of amalgamation anywhere, and all proposed amalgamations were fought like mad. If one were to consult a map of the then police force areas of the United Kingdom, one would realise that nobody would dream of re-fighting many of the battles that were fought to keep small local forces.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why does not the Home Secretary admit that his reason for bringing these proposals forward today has more to do with his position and the Tory Cabinet shuffle than with anything else? Can he give a guarantee that anyone he appoints will not be associated with freemasonry? How did Sir Patrick Sheehy get this job? He is only a tobacconist. What are his qualifications?

Mr. Clarke

Sir Patrick Sheeehy is altogether more experienced in management and in the running of large organisations than either the hon. Gentleman or myself. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not asked any question about the police—in particular, the Derbyshire police.

A key fact arising from the changes in funding is that, in future, police authorities will be free-standing bodies, so there will not be the virement to or from police funding, vis-a-vis other local services, that takes place at present. Thus, for example, in Derbyshire it will not be possible for what I hope will be the successor body to the Derbyshire county council to reduce spending on police—to spend less than the Government think it should spend—and to use the money to subsidise school meals and charge artificially low prices. This will result in a big improvement in the management of policing in Derbyshire, where improvement is very necessary.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

What effect does my right hon. and learned Friend think his statement will have on overall police numbers? Can he confirm that, in future, chief constables will have much greater freedom to appoint more officers and much greater freedom in the selection of equipment, such as the side-handled baton?

Mr. Clarke

The level of police manpower will be much more determined by the decision of chief constables themselves. As they receive increased funding, which undoubtedly they will, they will determine the distribution of expenditure between manpower and equipment. In some cases, that will lead to big increases in manpower but not necessarily in all. One reason why the only dialogue that takes place between most politicians locally and most Home Secretaries at the moment is about whether they can have more police officers is because the present system works on the basis that one can have more money for a police force only if the Home Secretary can be persuaded that more police officers are needed. If we just gave them the money, some chief constables would spend it on capital, kit and even new buildings, and not just on police officers. Overall manpower will be determined in future by more local operational judgment of the relative importance of manpower vis-a-vis other expenditure.

We are testing new types of baton. While I am anxious to improve the protection of the police, I continue to be very sceptical about the side-handled baton, which is so visible and such an aggressive-looking weapon that it would be a significant step to start introducing it as part of the uniform of British police officers. It would not exactly be like arming them with firearms, but it would be a step away from the tradition of the unarmed police and the non-aggressive-looking figure that we have on the streets at the moment.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

In Wales, what consultations has the right hon. and learned Gentleman had with magistrates, councillors and police, bearing in mind the linguistic, geographical and cultural differences from England? Has he guaranteed today more police for Wales, bearing in mind the crime wave that is sweeping the Principality? The Secretary of State for Wales's appointments to hospital trusts generated a great deal of controversy. Will the Home Secretary bear in mind the need to be very even-handed? We do not want more Tory placemen in Wales.

Mr. Clarke

There will be a full process of consultation in Wales as elsewhere. I will certainly pay regard to the distinctive features of Wales in carrying out that consultation. I have already had meetings with south Walian leaders of the police service in respect of other matters causing controversy there, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will also be involved in the process.

As for appointments, one effect of moving police authorities a bit further away from being a committee of the local council will be, in my opinion, to depoliticise to some extent the day-to-day running of the service. Indeed, it is that which often causes the initial outbursts of rage among Opposition Members. I too have made appointments to hospital trusts. I have appointed quite a number of ex-Labour MPs in my time, and certainly quite a lot of Labour supporters

We have moved on from this rather ridiculous canard where Opposition Members can only wonder, when we mention appointments, whether they are of their political colour or ours. We have been in government for longer, and we are more responsible about these matters than our opponents plainly would be, if they had the chance.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East)

If my right hon. and learned Friend is, quite rightly, going to give far more responsibility to chief constables, should he not at the same time make it easier to get rid of those few who may prove to be not up to the job?

Mr. Clarke

That runs from top to bottom of the police service, as it unfortunately does in any other walk of life, which is why I have more or less finalised proposals, for the lower ranks, for changes to the incapability procedures, as people insist on calling them, which is a way of bringing to an end, in a civilised fashion, the service of someone who is no longer up to being a good officer.

At the top of the police service at the moment we have again long and convoluted procedures if ever one wished to remove somebody, and I will look at them alongside my consideration of the disciplinary procedures. I am sure that Sir Patrick Sheehy is also considering representations made to him about putting very senior police officers on fixed-term contracts. I recently appointed a new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis who raised not the slightest objection to being placed on a fixed-term contract.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Has the Home Secretary any plans to address the high incidence of freemasons in the police force? I see him smile, but it is so corrosive of public confidence and so deeply resented by honest police officers.

Mr. Clarke

I am not a freemason, and I know little about freemasonry. My general view is that it is entirely a matter for individuals whether they are freemasons or not, and I have absolutely no views about whether police officers should be freemasons, as long as nobody uses that membership or anything else improperly in the course of his or her duties.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

If my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement today means that we may get back a Coventry and Warwickshire police force, it will be warmly welcomed by my constituents. My right hon. and learned Friend is under great pressure to do something about juvenile crime and about unpicking the defects of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. What will he see as his first priority in the limited legislative time available to him?

Mr. Clarke

I remember the controversy about the Coventry and Warwickshire police force many years ago. We may or may not see that reopened. I did not realise that those passions still ran high.

So far as legislative time is concerned, I have a large number of proposals which, in due course, will occupy some legislative time in the House. But that will be when time allows, and those matters are not within my control.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I give the Home Secretary half a cheer for introducing a new police authority for London, and remind him of how he used to get his truncheon in a twist when Labour Members suggested that he should no longer be the police authority for London?

When he considers the new police authority for London, will the Home Secretary take into acount London's unique policing role, having to pay for protection of diplomatic services, the royal family, Parliament and so on? In his new proposals for the police authority, will the City of London police authority be assumed into the new authority?

Mr. Clarke

First, I do not recall ever getting passionate in defence of my role as the policy authority for London. I announced today that I have concluded that my office and I should not continue to be the police authority for London. It would be better to have a clearly distinct police authority of the sort which I have described.

While I envisage an authority on the national model, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more consideration needs to be given as part of the consultation to what I might call the national and distinctive functions of the capital's police force, such as diplomatic protection, which are not shared elsewhere.

I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman's final point. [HON. MEMBERS: "The City of London."] I have no views on amalgamations at any stage.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the chairman of Leicestershire police authority is both an elected Conservative county councillor and a successful business man and, as a result, has probably saved the force a lot of money and made it more effective? Is he also aware that, as a Leicestershire Member, I must deal with different police authorities but that the response I get from the smaller Leicestershire authority about constituents' problems is better than that of the larger west midlands authority? Will he take that into consideration?

Finally, is not the most significant part of the statement the determination to improve the control and management structure which runs down through the ranks? If that is implemented, it will not be necessary to amalgamate the police forces because, with improved communications—

Hon. Members

Come on.

Madam Speaker

Yes, come along, quickly.

Mr. Tredinnick

—it will do the trick.

Mr. Clarke

I accept that quite a few local authority elected councillors have considerable business and other skills. Quite a few magistrates have business and other skills. On each individual police authority, the specific mix which emerges is sometimes a matter of chance. There are some police authorities where there is simply not a strong enough or wide enough spread of membership emerging in that way and, for that, appointments can fill in the gap.

I take on board my hon. Friend's view on the performance of police authorities and the desirable size of them. Whether or not the Leicestershire police force combines with the police force in Nottinghamshire, for example, is a matter on which I have absolutely no views. There might be resistance to it on both sides of the border.

I look forward to seeing a comparison between those extremely similar forces on such matters as the response to 999 calls, clear-up rates, number of police officers per 1,000 population deployed on the ground, number of complaints successfully sustained and so on, because the two police forces are roughly comparable. It would be a great advantage to all of us, in holding our police service up to the mark, to see how Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and, dare I add, Derbyshire compare in all those respects so far as their performance is concerned.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the Home Secretary not see that the problem with the Leicestershire police force and, I am sure, many other police forces which do an excellent job is that they are overworked and underfunded, and that what matters is that they should have the resources to do their job? Does he accept that a force which is undermanned and under-resourced cannot possibly hope to meet the crime wave, whether under the present system or under the one which he proposes, and that we need money and men and women on the beat?

Mr. Clarke

I hope that we will move the whole debate on public services on from that—I carefully persuade myself that we are slowly beginning to do that. Of course, if we ask anybody in any walk of life about their job, they will tell us that they are underpaid and overworked. It has long been a tradition in the United Kingdom that, whenever anybody seeks an improvement in public services, they get back a litany of complaints about underfunding and undermanning.

We have poured manpower and funding into the police service. The police service in Leicestershire is not underfunded or undermanned. It is a perfectly decent police service. We are looking at ways of enhancing its performance, the use of its resources, the value for money we get and keeping it up to ever higher targets.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

While I welcome the bulk of my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals, does he accept that there is concern that in his mind fewer somehow means bigger and bigger somehow means better? Does he accept that smaller forces such as Wiltshire provide better value for money per officer and a better clear-up rate than many of their larger counterparts? Will he assure the House that he will allow his performance and objective exercise to proceed before he considers amalgamations, so that he does not throw out valuable babies such as Wiltshire with the bath water?

Mr. Clarke

I am glad that my hon. Friend, in seeking to defend the present size of the Wiltshire force, is content to look to its performance. It is obvious that the case for change in a police force which can demonstrate that it is achieving high standards by national standards will not be strong. The force will be able to make the best possible case for its retention. I believe that, for the day-to-day management of the police service, small-scale, very local delivery is best.

The local commander in the sub-division, or whatever the local force calls it, should have much more autonomy over everything from setting his budget to how he deploys his officers. He or she should remain in post for longer than usual at present, get to know the local community and take personal responsibility for delivering policing in that neighbourhood. Apart from that, however big the overall force is, people will ask many questions about the size of the county or multi-county headquarters, all the people who work in it, and whether we need 43 of them scattered across the country.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Home Secretary's statement about resourcing astonishes me. Will he give me some assurance about the future of the north Wales police? They have been undermanned by 70 constables for five, six and seven years, despite repeated requests from several hon. Members from north Wales. Under the new proposal, will we have yet more gross underfunding and another Government cop-out?

Mr. Clarke

I have already said that funding in the police service has increased in real terms by 81 per cent. since the Government have been in power. Spending on the police service for the coming year has increased by much more than on other local authority responsibilities. We should not continue a political debate in which all that anyone can think to say about the police service locally is that it is underfunded or undermanned.

I am getting rid of the Home Secretary control, whereby I and my office have to determine how many police officers north Wales is allowed to have. We have an absurd exchange each year, in which the police authority asks for a lot more police officers. It knows perfectly well that it will not get them. I always turn it down. The political debate is reduced to nonsense about how undermanned the police force is. In future, we shall give the money to whatever police force delivers the service in north Wales, and leave it to the stronger police authority and the chief constable to decide whether to spend it on men, equipment, cars, buildings or whatever.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend is looking for those administrative arrangements that will best help the day-to-day pursuit and prosecution—I emphasise prosecution—of crime. I also welcome what he said about local police being accountable to local communities. But is he aware that in Avon and Somerset we will be looking at his proposals with considerable interest, because that is an unhappy relationship? Only this last week, the Avon councillors have vetoed a sensible proposal by Somerset for increasing police resources.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should concentrate on how best the police prosecute their business, in every sense of that word, locally. Already, a much more active debate about the effectiveness of policing in parts of the country is taking place than for a long time. Many more comparisons are made of detection rates, arrest rates and so on than anyone ever thought of making until the recent past.

I shall not intrude into the disputes between Avon and Somerset. I know that it is sometimes an uncomfortable relationship. Somerset believes that it is subsidising Avon, and Avon believes that too much is drawn out to Somerset. I hope that the proposal that only half the members of a police authority should be elected local politicians and that the others should be appointed for other qualities will help to improve the internal tensions inside that structure.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Home Secretary enter into serious discussions with lawyers about the procedures which lead to police squandering time hanging around court? I am told that up to 20 per cent. of police time is spent hanging around court, often needlessly, and police are uncalled when they could be doing other things. How does that fit in with any serious performance relation?

Mr. Clarke

The short answer is yes. Obviously that is not directly within the subject today, but is very relevant to it. It affects police performance. I have frequently had conversations with my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on matters of this kind. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that, at the moment, the amount of time spent abortively at court by police, prison officers, solicitors, witnesses and victims is excessive, and we must find some way of cutting it down.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We are now going to move on.