HC Deb 05 July 1994 vol 246 cc236-42

21AA.—(1) The Secretary of State shall by order made before 1st April 1996 make such alterations to police areas in Wales as he considers necessary or expedient in connection with the reorganisation of local government in Wales taking place on that date. (2) The alterations that may be made by an order under subsection (1) of this section include alterations that result in a reduction or an increase in the number of police areas, but not alterations that result in the division of any county or county borough between two or more police areas. (3) The Secretary of State shall make an order under subsection (1) of this section only after he has consulted every body within the following paragraphs which is in existence when the order is made—

  1. (a) the police authorities established under section 3 of this Act for the police areas altered by the order,
  2. (b) the police authorities which are to be superseded by the police authorities mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection;
  3. (c) the county councils which—
    1. (i) are the councils of counties wholly or partly within the police areas altered by the order, and
    2. (ii) are to cease to exist on 1st April 1996 by virtue of the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994;
  4. (d) the councils of the counties and county boroughs established by virtue of that Act which are wholly or partly within the police areas altered by the order; and such other persons as he considers appropriate.'

Amendment (a) to amendment No. 57, in subsection (2), leave out 'a reduction or'.

Amendment (b) to amendment No. 57, after subsection 3(d), at end insert— '(e) Members of Parliament representing constituencies which are wholly or partly within the police areas altered by the order;'.

Government amendments Nos. 49, 58 to 60 and 50 to 55.

Mr. Wardle

The amendments are necessary to enable us, after Royal Assent, to settle outstanding questions relating to the police boundaries in Wales. As the House will know, the Bill has been proceeding through Parliament at about the same pace as the Local Government (Wales) Bill. By convention, each Bill is drafted as if the other Bill did not exist, so as not to anticipate Parliament's decision on either Bill. The Welsh Bill is about to receive Royal Assent, so we now need to make an amendment to take account of the new local government boundaries to be created in Wales from 1 April 1996.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) knows, for North Wales and Dyfed-Powys police areas that would be entirely straightforward, with only minor boundary changes. But the shape of the new boundaries in south Wales will require significant changes to the boundaries of the South Wales and Gwent police areas, because the Rhymney valley—the new Caerphilly district—straddles the existing boundary between those two police areas. The boundaries of the new district were not finally settled until a late stage during proceedings on the Local Government (Wales) Bill.

Although we have been discussing with the two police authorities and the two police forces the options available for settling the boundaries, those discussions obviously could not be brought to a conclusion until the boundaries of the new local government areas were settled. The changes affecting the South Wales and Gwent police areas are quite large, and it is obviously right that we should give sufficient time for all concerned to consider the available options. My right hon. and learned Friend would not want to impose a solution now, when there will not have been sufficient time for the police authorities—or, indeed, for my right hon. and learned Friend himself—to consider all the available information, including an assessment of the policing implications of the available options on the basis of the boundaries so recently, decided.

The powers provided by the amendments will therefore require the Secretary of State, before 1 April 1996 when the Welsh local government changes take effect, to make an order—or if necessary more than one order, although that seems unlikely—settling the police boundaries in Wales. I can confirm that for North Wales and Dyfed-Powys we expect that the order will merely redefine the existing boundaries, in terms of the new Welsh local government areas, including some small but important changes in the north-east of Dyfed-Powys police area necessitated by the Welsh local government changes.

I cannot, however, say what will need to be done in South Wales and Gwent. The position today is that my right hon. and learned Friend has not reached any decision on how to resolve the boundary problem affecting the South Wales and Gwent police areas. Discussions have been going on with the police authorities, on the basis of the available options.

There are three options, any of which could be put into effect by means of the powers set out in the amendment. The first option is to put the whole of the new district covering the Rhymney valley into the Gwent police area, making the Gwent force somewhat larger than it is at present. The second option is to put the whole of the new district into the South Wales police area, which would make the South Wales force a little larger and the Gwent force somewhat smaller. The third is for the two police areas to be combined.

The discussions already held with those concerned mean that we have committed ourselves to a process of consultation on the basis for those three options. Although we do not want prolonged uncertainty, my right hon. and learned Friend certainly will not rush into a decision; we want the policing needs of the area, and the wishes of those concerned in the area, to be properly explored. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and I have discussed that subject at some length—most constructively, I feel. The amendment includes a requirement for consultation, which in a sense is unnecessary because we have already made it clear that we are committed to that course.

If those concerned in the area could reach agreement on a way forward on a basis that provides a solution that my right hon. and learned Friend regards as satisfactory in policing terms, he would use the new power to give effect to that agreement. We certainly want to proceed on the basis of agreement if we possibly can. That has been the purpose of the discussions that have been going on locally. We have received welcome indications in the past few days, since the amendment was tabled, that agreement seems more likely. The two police authorities have asked for postponement of a meeting with Home Office officials, which was due to take place tomorrow, so that they can have more time to discuss matters between themselves; I welcome that development. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth is aware of that and has been having discussions himself.

The other, minor, amendments in the group are consequential and enable the necessary changes to be made to the schedule that defines the boundaries of the police areas, which will need to be amended to define Welsh police areas by reference to the new Welsh local government areas. They will permit transitional provisions in the order and deal with other minor and entirely consequential matters.

Mr. Michael

I welcome both the spirit in which the Minister wrote to me about his intentions with regard to the amendments and the way in which he has introduced them today. I accept that most of the amendments in the group are minor and consequential and are intended to make two pieces of legislation fit together. I do not intend to take time on them. Instead, I shall come straight to one issue that is of major concern and on which, in the light of what the Minister said, I hope we may proceed in a spirit of co-operation. That issue is the impact on police authority boundaries of the Local Government (Wales) Bill.

Will the Minister confirm that it is only in relation to local government reorganisation arising from the Local Government (Wales) Bill that those powers can or will be exercised, and that he will not seek to use the powers except as a consequence of the boundary changes which would make a change necessary?

Mr. Charles Wardle

indicated assent.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful for the Minister's indication of assent. Will he also confirm that there are only two places where boundary changes are relevant to that extent? The first of those is the Llanrhaiadr-ym-Mochnant and Llanfyllin area. My understanding is that everyone agrees that that can be dealt with as a simple consequence and that there is no question of having to use powers to merge or vary police authorities to any great extent, but that any transfer of resources and responsibilities can be and will be dealt with by agreement in a fairly simple manner.

Mr. Wardle

indicated assent.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the Minister for indicating his assent on that point.

That leaves the Rhymney and Islwyn area. The Rhymney area, currently in the South Wales police authority, and the Islwyn area, currently in the Gwent police authority, would come together to compose the new Caerphilly authority. Am I right in assuming that it is only in resolving the impact of that boundary change on police authority boundaries that any question arises, and that outside that, there would be no intention at all of using the powers? The Minister is indicating that that is where we have a problem, which is extremely helpful, because that makes it easy for us to have a common purpose—to end up with an agreement on the right form of policing for that area.

As the Minister rightly said, there have been meetings during the past week, and I was delighted when I met representatives of each of the four county councils—the three Glamorgans and Gwent—to find that the members and the leaders of those authorities are, indeed, keen to find common agreement which could lead to a recommendation to the Department.

Obviously, it takes a little more work to reach a specific recommendation. However, I can tell the Minister that, at the meeting that I requested, which was held at very short notice in the past week, agreement was reached that the two clerks of the police authorities would write jointly to all members of both police authorities to call them to a meeting at which it is intended that the two chief constables will speak on the policing issues relating to the Rhymney and Islwyn area. That positive spirit gives us a possibility of reaching agreement.

Any hon. Member—a number of Welsh colleagues have spoken to me—would be concerned about any suggestion that a merger was about to occur. The reassurance given by the Minister of State in another place was referred to earlier. He said: My right hon. Friend has no intention at present of amalgamating anything, but it is perfectly possible in the course of the next 10, 20 or 30 years that amalgamations will have to take place." —[Official Report, House of Lords, Vol.551, c.324.] I take it that the Minister would be willing to reassure us that his intention in Wales is not to depart in any way from the spirit and substance of that earlier reassurance.

The Minister will know of the sensitivity in relation to the Gwent police force and the Dyfed-Powys police force. There is also a feeling that we do not want the South Wales police force to become over-large. Indeed, the North Wales police force serves a considerable area. It is the area in which I was born and brought up, so I take a personal interest—as do hon. Members of all the parties represented in Wales.

I have tabled three small amendments to amendment No. 57. The first would leave out the words "a reduction or". That would mean a retention of the same number of police forces in Wales or—I say with tongue in cheek—an increase in the number of police forces in Wales. For instance, the Minister may have it in mind to deal with the situation by splitting the South Wales police force in two, although he has not referred to such a suggestion.

If we are talking of any reorganisation that is not simply consequential, we should look at all the options. If we ruled out the reduction in the number of police forces in Wales and established that there would be no intention of bringing it down from four, it would be extremely helpful. Obviously, I would be greatly reassured if the Minister would accept that amendment. If he cannot, a positive response, in the spirit in which I have moved the amendment, would be helpful.

8.45 pm

Secondly, I would insert as consultees the Members of Parliament representing constituencies which are wholly or partly within the police areas altered by the order;". That would refer only to the South Wales police and Gwent police areas. Thanks to the Minister's courtesy in writing to me last week, I have been able to speak to large numbers of my colleagues in Gwent and in South Wales, and, in doing so, have observed not only party boundaries in doing so. There is a great deal of interest among Members of Parliament in the policing of their areas.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

None of them are here.

Mr. Michael

I speak for them. The hon. Gentleman, who has wandered into the Chamber at a late hour, probably after a heavy dinner, ought to behave himself and listen to the debate, rather than interrupting in an unhelpful way.

Sir Jerry Wiggin

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman said that there was a great deal of interest in the matter. One Opposition Member has just come in, but when I came in—and I am not especially interested in the matter—there was a complete absence of Opposition Members of any kind. Is it right for the hon. Gentleman to make such assertions when they are clearly untrue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The occupant of the Chair obviously observes that interest can be measured either by quality or quantity.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker—although we did not have much quality in that intervention. Throughout the Gwent and South Wales police authorities, my hon. Friends have taken part in constructive discussions on those issues outside the Chamber. I am conveying their composite views to the Minister, who has treated the matter seriously and with courtesy. The hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate does him no credit.

Perhaps we may return to serious business. The interest of Members of Parliament has been constructive during the past few days and will continue to be so. We have arranged for an opportunity for hon. Members to discuss the issue in the hope that we, as well as the police authorities, may move towards a consensus. That would be helpful to the Minister, helpful to good policing in the area and helpful to the general atmosphere in which policing may continue.

My third amendment asks the Secretary of State to use his best endeavours to proceed by consensus in making orders under subsection (1). The amendment was not selected, but I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will confirm that he will seek the use of these powers only in the context outlined in the amendment—I hope that he can answer in that spirit—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would not be in order for the Minister to respond to amendment (c). It was not selected. Whatever spirit moves hon. Members outside this Chamber is for them to determine—but not now and not here.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I just want some idea of how the Minister will exercise the powers that this House is about to grant him; I am sure that that will influence the minds of right hon. and hon. Members when they respond to the Minister's request.

I appreciate the spirit in which the Minister has approached this issue. In return, I offer him a spirit of co-operation on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent constituencies throughout south Wales and in Gwent. If the matter is carried through in this atmosphere, I hope that we will be able to come up with a single proposal for the Minister which he will be able in turn to recommend to his right hon. and learned Friend.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to my points. Any reassurances from him will take us a long way forward.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)

The amendment caused some consternation in the Dyfed-Powys area, both on the part of the chief constable and on the part of the clerk to the police authority.

I have been greatly reassured by the Minister's remarks today. I note that he has communicated with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. Had the chief constable and clerk of the Dyfed-Powys police authority been notified, a great deal less activity than has taken place in the past three days would have been necessary. The Dyfed-Powys police authority runs a small force, and it has been anxious about the prospect of amalgamation or of changes to its boundaries.

I note what my hon. Friend has said, and on the basis of his assurance that there is no intention to alter the Dyfed-Powys boundaries—apart from what has been outlined in respect of the changes in the north-east corner following on from the Local Government (Wales) Bill—I am content with his proposal.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I served on the Standing Committee that discussed the Local Government (Wales) Bill, and I, too, am relieved to hear that there are no immediate plans for amalgamations. During the passage of that Bill, five fire brigades and five ambulance services disappeared in Wales—their numbers were cut from eight to three—so I came here this evening with some trepidation, as did other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.

I am greatly reassured by the Minister's remarks, and greatly relieved that our four excellent police forces in Wales are to be fully retained.

Mr. Charles Wardle

I hope that this debate will have provided the clarification sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) and by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. I listened with care to what the latter had to say about amendments (a) and (b). Perhaps it will be convenient for the House if I add a few remarks about them. I hope that I can deal with them quickly and in a way that will provide the hon. Gentleman with the further assurance that he wants. Incidentally, I commend him for the constructive way in which he has participated in these affairs.

The second amendment deals with consultation with Members of Parliament. I will always carefully consider any views expressed by hon. Members. In relation to the boundary problems between south Wales and Gwent, local Members, including the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, are well aware of the issues.

The second amendment, in respect of north Wales and Dyfed-Powys, is equally unnecessary. Those police areas are in effect settled, as I am sure those concerned will confirm, when we begin to use the powers that the Government amendment will give us.

On the first amendment, I have already made it clear that we will proceed on the basis of agreement if we possibly can. I suggest that adding an undertaking to the Bill would be unnecessary. We cannot guarantee to proceed by agreement or rule out the possibility of amalgamation until we know that agreement has been reached between the parties, and that any agreement that they may reach represents a satisfactory solution in policing terms.

As a result of what the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has had to say, and of what I have learnt recently, I am now more hopeful that these conditions will in due course be satisfied. But the House will acknowledge that they certainly have not been met yet. Until we can be certain that a satisfactory agreement can be reached, it would be wrong not to have powers that just might be needed. Without them, my right hon. and learned Friend risks being put in the impossible position of having no power to resolve an impasse between the authorities, or no alternative but to implement arrangements that he regarded as unsatisfactory in policing terms. That would not be a responsible way to proceed, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand. Given these assurances, I hope he will feel able not to move his amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

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