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House of Commons

Monday 16 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of people who would be (a) arrested, (b) brought to court and (c) imprisoned if khat was classified as an illegal drug. [41769]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): No such estimates have been made. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has carried out a comprehensive study into the harms associated with the plant khat. The Council's report is currently with the Home Secretary and will be published in due course.

Paul Flynn: Is not the call for a ban on khat based on the naive, mistaken belief that banning drugs eliminates their use, while in fact the reverse is true? Millions of people in Britain use illegal drugs every day. Would not a ban on khat drive a wedge between the police forces and the Somali and Yemeni communities, encourage khat users to use far more addictive and dangerous drugs such as alcohol and tobacco and change legal businesses into criminal ones overnight, and also place a burden—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That question is far too long.

Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend and the Government have a rather different view of the control of drugs. It was due to concern about the health and other impacts of khat use in the communities that he mentioned that the issue was referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The council has made its assessment and its report and the Home Secretary is considering it. He will make his decision and an announcement in due course.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): In the courts where I sit, there is no link at all between the consumption of khat and crime. The danger of banning such a substance is that the price will shoot up, supplies will drop and more people will turn to crime to fund
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their habit, so may I urge the Minister to focus more on crack cocaine and heroin and to take no steps, for obvious reasons, on that particular substance?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that the Government's priority is class A drugs—heroin and crack cocaine—which do the most harm, but the Home Secretary is considering the report from the advisory council. He will have heard the hon. Gentleman's comments and will make his decision in due course.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The noble lord, Lord Adebowale, the chief executive of Turning Point, said of khat:

Will my hon. Friend take Lord Adebowale's opinion into account before he makes his decision?

Paul Goggins: Not only that, but Lord Adebowale and Turning Point, the organisation that he heads, have done important work in that area. Indeed, Turning Point submitted a report to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is among the range of evidence being actively considered by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): As the Minister will know, the use and trade of drugs are behind the majority of criminal activity and social problems in this country. Sixty per cent. of those arrested, convicted and imprisoned reoffend, so what are the Government actually doing to deal with the underlying problems that drug use reveals?

Paul Goggins: A great deal. The drug interventions programme, which is at the heart of what we are doing in relation to drug-misusing offenders, is the key. More than 2,000 drug-misusing offenders a month are going into treatment through the programme. At the same time, crime levels are falling. That has to be a good message, which I hope will be welcomed by the hon. and learned Gentleman. With the intervention and the investments we are making drug-related crime is falling while the numbers coming into treatment are increasing.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I want to reiterate what the Minister said about the demand for the criminalisation of khat coming from the Somali community, as that is certainly the case in my constituency. I also support calls for more emphasis on serious drugs such as crack cocaine, so are there are any plans to repeat Operation Crackdown this year, which was a great success last year?

Paul Goggins: It will be very much for police forces to decide on how to take forward their new powers in relation to Operation Crackdown, which closed down crack houses and not only took out those who supplied drugs in our communities, but did so most effectively with the active co-operation of local communities. My hon. Friend's comments on khat are noted, and the considerations continue.
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Police Force Amalgamation

2. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What plans he has to ensure local accountability of policing if forces amalgamate. [41770]

10. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What assessment he has made of proposed arrangements for local accountability of policing following amalgamations of forces; and if he will make a statement. [41778]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr.   Charles Clarke): The Government have already set out our plans for accountability in our 2004 White Paper, and they are being actively developed with the   Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities. Those plans for direct accountability include appointment throughout the country of local neighbourhood police teams whose names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses will be available to every citizen, which will be completed by the end of 2008; publication of local crime data, for which local police will be held publicly accountable; and regular partnership meetings at basic command unit level, where police will discuss local questions with elected councillors and others, combined with question and answer sessions open to the public, media and community groups.

Mr. Gauke: Does the Home Secretary accept that under the current arrangements we already lack adequate directly elected, local accountability and that the move towards larger forces will merely make this matter worse? For example, in Hertfordshire we currently have a police authority of 16 members, none of whom is directly elected, but nine of whom are at least county councillors. If we move towards an eastern region force, which is one of the options that the Government are considering, we will have a police authority of up to 23 members, of which at most two will be Hertfordshire county councillors. Is the Home Secretary merely making a bad position worse?

Mr. Clarke: I am afraid that I cannot accept that the current situation is satisfactory. There is not sufficient accountability at the moment between local police officers and their immediate local community at beat level; there is not sufficient accountability between basic command unit commanders and local elected councillors and local people; and there is not sufficient publication of data locally.

A lot of good things are happening and moving forward, but the White Paper in 2004 set out a stream of ways in which accountability has to be increased. That is the most important thing for us to fix upon.

Mr. Evennett: Does the Home Secretary appreciate the real concerns and disquiet across the country about police force amalgamations and accountability to local communities? Surely, the issues involved are complex, so why are the Government rushing the changes through? What is the hurry? Why cannot more discussion take place and more time be taken before decisions are made?
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Mr. Clarke: There is not the slightest rush in this regard. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We set out our proposals clearly in the White Paper and I set out, in a public speech last July to all police authorities and all chief constables, how we intended to go. We refined those proposals in September last year. Police authorities and police forces were then asked to discuss this matter fully and come up with proposals, and I am glad to say by the 23 December almost all of them did so, despite some of the misleading publicity at that time.

Where there is a voluntary agreement—I emphasise the word "voluntary"—between police authorities and forces, we will proceed immediately. Where there is not such an agreement, a statutory four-month period for full discussion is required. I am sure that the kind of debate that the hon. Gentleman wants will take place in areas where there is such disagreement.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Part of local accountability is to do with local funding. Will my right hon. Friend say what would happen, for example, in the greater west midlands if there is amalgamation, where the precept levels between the different police authorities are markedly different?

Mr. Clarke: As my hon. Friend knows, three of the four forces in the west midlands region favour this amalgamation. There are issues, as he rightly says, about the precept and how it can be brought together effectively. That is precisely one of the issues on which the forces have made proposals and which   we will discuss with them. I can assure him that we will come to a sensible conclusion in that regard, but we will not allow that to present a blockage to the sensible proposals supported by three out of four forces in the west midlands.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is correct to emphasise the basic command unit, which meets the population face to face in its daily working arrangements. However, when he talks about consultation, does he realise that many people, particularly in the shire counties, would want a guarantee that in any amalgamated force the police officers from our shire counties are not sucked into the west midlands? How can we have real accountability, rather than consultation, under his arrangements?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entitled to ask for that guarantee. It is a fair question and my answer to it is the   commitment that I gave in my initial answer: the absolute commitment to neighbourhood policing with a   local policing team—with named officers and named community support officers working with that neighbourhood—the point being to ensure that they are not obstructed from their day-to-day policing of a particular locality because the force is not large enough to deal with the crises that emerge from time to time.

My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter and I can give him the pure, solid assurance that it will be respected in every approach. I think that every community in the country will want to see us fulfilling our manifesto pledge to neighbourhood community policing across the whole country—in every community, whether shire or not—by 2008.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Home Secretary will undoubtedly appreciate that
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policing is always by consent, and that the quid pro quo for that is good local accountability. Will he explain how the awful vista of one force for the whole of Wales will increase local accountability in the north of the country, when it takes five to six hours to drive from Cardiff to north Wales?

Mr. Clarke: Precisely by the means I described a moment ago in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins). Of course it is important that there is proper accountability in the local village, the local ward and the very local area. In the Government's opinion, that requires police who are dedicated to working in that local area with community support officers. That will apply in north Wales, south Wales, east Wales and west Wales. It also requires that, at the level of the district council and the basic command unit, there is proper dialogue between the police and the other agencies, including elected councillors, about how we ensure that policing—at the end of the day, it is an all-community responsibility and not simply a responsibility for the police—is done in the most effective way. That will happen in north Wales and south Wales, and that is the right way to go.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): In my right hon. Friend's proposals for an all-Wales force is it his intention to have on the police authority a representative of each of the 22 local authorities in Wales?

Mr. Clarke: That is one of the issues that has been raised in the responses from the Welsh forces. It is a very reasonable response, and my hon. Friend's point is also very reasonable. We are looking at the exact detail of how to bring that about, but I can certainly say that we are looking at it with a very positive approach.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Home Secretary may know that there is significant opposition in Staffordshire and my constituency of Stone to the proposals that the police forces in the west midlands be amalgamated. To what extent does he really believe that when we are dealing with regional systems such as would be set up in the west midlands, the philosophy and the attitude that is relevant to dealing with very large urban areas such as the west midlands would be applicable to rural constituencies such as Stone and others in Staffordshire?

Mr. Clarke: I have been very encouraged—it is an important point to emphasise—by the extent to which chief constables, chief officers and police authorities of all types from all parts of the country are utterly committed to the neighbourhood policing idea. Why? Because they know that crime will be best prevented by having police on the beat in the local community working with the local community. Whatever type of force we talk about—whether it is in Stone in Staffordshire or in the centre of Birmingham—that ideology is there and established, and it is a core part of our proposals.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Excellent though the Home Secretary's ideas undoubtedly are, I hope that he will understand that,
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much as we in Crewe admire the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, there are reservations in our minds as to how much accountability there would be for those of us at the bottom of a very large regional area if decisions were taken elsewhere and in an urban setting. Will he give us a very clear idea of how that point will be dealt with?

Mr. Clarke: Well, Madam Speaker—I do apologise, Mr. Speaker. I was slightly distracted for a second.

I certainly know that my hon. Friend can punch her weight in these arguments, and her key point about reservations is a fair one. It is a fair one to put to me as Home Secretary and to my colleagues to ensure that we provide the assurance that she is looking for. [Hon. Members: "Answer the question."] I am indeed answering the question, and I will continue to do so. The answer is that I can give her the absolute assurance that the responsibility for policing will lie in local communities in the way that I have described and that accountability will not be diluted by larger forces at the strategic level. That is the absolute assurance that I give her and the House.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): If the Home Secretary really wants accountability, will he make two commitments today? The first commitment is that no merger can take place unless local elected police authority members have actually voted for it. The second commitment is that every council tax payer will be told exactly how much the mergers will cost and will see what the cost is when they get their bills in April. Unless he makes these two commitments, we will end up with a situation in which local people will have even less of a say but will have to pay even more.

Mr. Clarke: I am familiar with the hon. Gentleman's leadership bids in relation to these matters. I can give him a commitment on the second of his points, but not on the first. The commitment that I can give him is that the full financial facts in relation to any particular proposal will be in front of everybody including council tax payers in any locality. I cannot give him the commitment that police authorities around the country would have a veto on change. That would be utterly ridiculous in circumstances in which the police say that we have to ensure that our policing meets modern 21st century needs. That is what I am determined to deliver.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essence of local accountability is related to the neighbourhood policing model? Will he thus commend the work of South Wales police, especially the Bridgend division, which is not in a pilot area, but is bringing forward many elements of community policing well in advance of the pilot areas? Will he consider joining me and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) when we spend a night with South Wales police a week next Friday?

Mr. Clarke: I have had many offers this year and all I can say to my hon. Friend, whom I respect greatly, is that I cannot guarantee to accept every single one.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Irresistible.

Mr. Clarke: It is irresistible to some, certainly.
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The commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) to neighbourhood policing is absolutely central. In commending Bridgend police and the approach that they have taken, may I add that it is important to publish figures on local crime? I   cite the example of my own constabulary, the Norfolk constabulary. Every week, the Evening News Norwich publishes a detailed account of crimes committed—such as burglaries and car thefts, and information about the streets on which they have occurred—precisely so that local people have information about the crime that has been going on in their patch. That provides accountability in a direct way and it should proceed.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Of the dozen or so police regions that we are about to have under the Government's proposals, how many have the unanimous support of their constituent police authorities?

Mr. Clarke: Of the regions, I think that none has the unanimous support that the right hon. Gentleman talks about. However, I can say that there is a clear majority of police authority support in several regions, and that is the way that this is being taken forward. I was amazed to see the proposals that were brought together today to bring politics into policing by making elected politicians directly responsible for operational policing. If the right hon. Gentleman had been elected Leader of the Opposition, I know that he would not be putting forward anything so foolish.

David Davis: I will bring the Home Secretary back to Government policy for the moment, shall I? The reason why there is no unanimous support for the regions is pretty clear from what has been said already. The proposal will cost hundreds of millions of pounds. It will dilute accountability throughout the country and disrupt police operations. It is based on an analysis with logic that has been described as flawed by one of Britain's leading professors of statistics, and it is opposed by the Association of Police Authorities. It is opposed because there is a better alternative: the proposal described as federal, which means that there is co-operation between abutting police authorities on matters on which they have a strategic or common interest. Why has the Home Secretary ruled out that very sensible proposal out of hand?

Mr. Clarke: Of course co-operation is a good thing. It happens in policing every day of the week in every part of the country and we want to encourage it—it is the right way to go. However, the fact is that when trying to deal with strategic police priorities, serious and organised crime and counter-terrorism, there must be operation at a strategic level. It is not me who is saying that, but the police themselves through Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and senior police officers. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that there is controversy about the proposal, but the fact is that in region after region, the senior police believe that it is the way forward to meet the needs of the 21st century. It would be better for the official Opposition to get involved in the debate instead of trying to make elected politicians directly responsible for operational police decisions.
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