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I am pleased to have this opportunity to bring you up to date on the discussions that I have been having in relation to the possible restructuring of the police forces in Wales.
Following our last debate in Plenary on 6 December last year, I wrote to the Home Secretary to ensure that he was aware of the points raised in our discussions. In particular, I wanted him to be in no doubt about the strength of feeling in Wales about the haste of the consultation period, the wish for us to have a clear role in determining the future democratic structures underpinning any reconfigured police service in Wales, and our clear opposition to the cost of restructuring and meeting the level 2 gap falling on Welsh council tax payers.
I have since had an opportunity to reinforce those points to Hazel Blears, the Minister of State with responsibility for policing in the Home Office, on 11 January. As a result of that conversation, I felt that Hazel Blears now fully understood the issues for Wales and was prepared to look carefully at the effect of any changes on Wales. I have, of course, followed the telephone conversation up with a letter to ensure that there can be no misunderstanding about our position on these fundamental issues.
I am sure that you are anxious to know where we are in relation to a Home Office decision on the future structure of the police forces in Wales. The Welsh forces did submit a detailed business case before Christmas, in line with the Home Secretary’s wishes. Their submission stated that their intention is
‘to ensure that Wales has policing structures which deliver strong neighbourhood policing as well as an appropriate level of protective services and complements the developing structures for delivering public services within Wales’.
I am sure that we would all sign up to this statement. However, the police authorities were, in the end, unable to agree on a preferred option for Wales. Therefore their submission continued to offer the three alternatives that I set out in my statement on 15 November 2005. The first option is to continue with a four-force structure, with increased collaboration on protective services, including North Wales Police strengthening its links with Cheshire. The second option is for a two-force structure with South Wales and Gwent, and Dyfed-Powys and North Wales, merging. The third option is to have one strategic force for Wales. The costs associated with each of those options make sobering reading and remain within the ball-park figures submitted to the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee. According to the police’s figures, the net costs over the first three years range from £56 million for one force to over £66 million to retain all four forces. However, the bulk of these costs are associated with the need to build the level 2 capability rather than with the restructuring itself, and the need to build level 2 capability is inescapable in the modern world. I understand that the Home Office is now considering all the submissions in detail and is carefully analysing the related costings. However, it seems that it is unlikely to make any announcement on future structures until March.
Whatever the final outcome of the new structures and the associated costs, I remain adamant that these additional costs should not fall on the Welsh council tax payer. I shall continue to make this absolutely clear to Home Office at every opportunity. This message is also being conveyed to the finance working group that has been set up to consider the financial issues associated with the restructuring process.
In relation to democratic structures, I have stated clearly that we would want to see all local authorities in Wales represented on any new strategic police authority. This is particularly important if police authorities are to continue to have a role in setting council tax precepts. I also share the view of other Assembly Members that there should be flexibility for us to decide in Wales on what regional and local structures would best meet our needs.
As you may know, Hazel Blears gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the proposed changes to the police forces in Wales on Wednesday 17 January. While the Minister of State gave no guarantees, her evidence clearly showed that she appreciates the different circumstances in Wales. In particular, she gave a strong indication that the Home Office would be prepared to consider different democratic structures for Wales and be flexible over the size of any new strategic police authority. Hazel Blears also indicated that some money would be available to help forces that reach early agreement on restructuring. Today a further piece has been added to this very important jigsaw, with the publication of the draft police and justice Bill. We will need to consider the Bill very carefully and work to ensure that the messages that I have outlined today are properly reflected in it.
As Members will be aware, this is a rapidly moving policy area. Today’s statement sets out the situation as it currently exists. It can fairly be said that the Assembly’s influence has been felt in the way in which debates and decisions have taken shape over the past few months. My aim will be to see that this influence continues and strengthens as the policy develops further, and to report the outcome to you as the process continues.