Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who, in a thoughtful speech, challenged the thinking behind the merger of his force into a much larger regional authority. The arguments that he deployed will have struck a chord with many hon. Members.
It is also a pleasure to welcome back to the Back Benches my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) after some 14 years on the Front Bench. The loss to the Front Bench is counterbalanced by the gain for the Back Benches.
I want to make two points, one general and one local. The general point is that public service reform, wherever it comes, is not cost free. The Prime Minister has talked about the scars on his back, and reform requires the investment of political capital and financial capital. It means taking on established interests and short-term turbulence. It means the diversion of energy from the delivery of front-line services, and it is expensive in set-up costs, relocation, harmonising systems and working practices. It is also destabilising for those involved, many of whom have to bid for their own jobs and then, if successful, move.
That is not a killer argument against reform, but it is an argument for embarking on reform only after due consideration and proper consultation, and after, where possible, building political consensus behind it, having not only convinced a suspicious public that they will benefit, but convinced oneself as the instigator that it is worth the candle. It also means looking across government to phase in a particular reform along with others. It means dealing first with those with the greatest need and the greatest public support, while putting the others in the in-tray for further reflection.
The case against the Government is not that it is not possible to construct a case for police amalgamation. One can. The case against them is that their argument simply is not strong enough, as currently proposed, to include amalgamation in their programme. With health and education, there is consensus that investment of extra money needs to be accompanied by structural reform, and there is an appetite for reform of those public services. The pitch has been rolled, not least by Conservative Members as well as Labour ones.
That is simply not the case with the police forces. There are ways to improve them, and I shall say a word about them in a moment. But they are not along the lines suggested by the Government. My first point, then, is that what the Government propose is a strategic political mistake, as well as wrong for the service under discussion.
My second point concerns my county, Hampshire. Many of the county's Members of Parliament met the police authority last week, and we listened to what it had to say. The authority put forward a sensible case for leaving Hampshire—a large well-run force—alone. Its size is above the minimum standards for grouping proposed by the Government. The total staff is more than 6,000 and likely to rise to more than 7,000 by 2007.
Hampshire is very different from Thames Valley, with which the Home Office plans an arranged marriage for us. We have a long coastline, unlike Thames Valley. We have a large number of military establishments, unlike Thames Valley. We also have some major ports. But crucially—to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Pudsey—we are a high-performing force, ranked either third or fifth out of 43 forces, depending on which performance table one uses, compared with Thames Valley which is, unfortunately, 34th.
The cost of merging with Thames Valley would be £27.1 million, but it would cost nothing to remain as a stand-alone authority. The judgment of the police authority is that protective services may be diluted across the areas of major crime and serious organised crime, causing a decrease in performance or a requirement for extra funding. The Hampshire precept could be increased by 6 per cent., or £10 million per annum. How does that sit with the imperative of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to keep a cap on the local council tax?
Additional front-end funding would also be required to facilitate the reconfiguration and change management processes. As if that were not enough, the assessment of a merger between the two authorities showed that the ongoing increased costs from year three would be £12.2 million, compared with savings of some £8 million. Any local MP, confronted with such evidence from his police authority on a service as sensitive as law and order, has to stand up and ask the Government where they are going. It is also clear that the policing methodologies in these two forces are different, and the work needed to evolve a coherent strategy across such a diverse area would be complex and protracted.
I spent 30 days on the police parliamentary scheme—all credit to Neil Thorne for pioneering it—and saw the workings of the Hampshire constabulary from the inside. We have higher standards. We reject those who would be accepted by other forces, and if officers switch to Hampshire they have to be retrained to our standards. We will inevitably be confronted with a dilution of the high standards that we enjoy and pay for.
The administrative centre is currently in Winchester, which is the centre of the county, but the likely location of a merged service is Kidlington, some way away. There is legitimate staff concern about travelling time and the remoteness of management. Hampshire is a good force, and I saw that at first hand when I patrolled the streets of Southampton a few months ago. Of course it could be even better, but what frustrates officers includes form filling, frustration with the Crown Prosecution Service and the magistracy, the constraints on how they do their job, and out-of-date buildings. Our energy should be spent freeing them up to use their skills, not on trying to reorganise them.
On this issue I agree with the Prime Minister, who said at Prime Minister's questions last week that there is an argument for a federated approach for certain services. Hampshire already does that, being one of the greatest exporters of services to other forces in the country. We can do that without amalgamation.
On Tuesday last week the Home Office sent two independent consultants to meet the authority's strategic forces. The consultants said that Hampshire's stand-alone case was better than any other authority's and that we had made a strong case for staying as we are. The chief constable's professional advice is that the stand-alone option guarantees the best level of service to our communities at minimum cost. I agree with my chief constable, and I hope that the Minister will too.