POST OFFICE, PLANNING AND POLICE – 26 March 2002

[EASTER ADJOURNMENT DEBATE]

Dr Julian Lewis: I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your permission to join this debate at such a late stage. I want to speak about three issues, which might be called the three Ps: Post Office, planning and police. They are all national issues, but they all have a direct bearing on my constituency.

First, if we reach the stage, as appeared to be prefigured by the news yesterday, at which there will be a mass closure of sub-post offices the length and breadth of this country, I predict that there will be enormous dissatisfaction, upset and complaint from all conscientious constituency MPs, irrespective of the party to which they adhere. The reality is that, in five years in the House, I have never seen such anger among Back-Bench MPs as I saw when similar moves were being carried out by the large banks – and when Barclays Bank came to make a presentation, not to consult with MPs about what it proposed to do, but to try to explain the mass closure of local branches.

The result of that was a scale of protest which eventually led the banks to agree a sensible policy among themselves: where there was only a single branch of one of the big four banks left in a given locality, that branch would not close. I do not know how the Post Office will be able to deal with the analogous uproar which I anticipate, but deal with it it will have to do. I say to the Government in the nicest possible way that they are vulnerable on this issue. As the Opposition are now full of concern for the vulnerable, I wish to advise the Government that they should not neglect the people who will be sorely hit if many sub-post offices go to the wall.

The second issue is planning. I am deeply suspicious of the Green Paper on proposals to change the planning regime. Even as I speak, a major Public Inquiry is under way about a proposal to build a huge container port at Dibden Bay in my constituency. I am confident that, day by day, as the Inquiry proceeds, the weakness of the case for carrying out this massive project will steadily become apparent. At the end of the Inquiry, I expect to see a detailed and dispassionate report on the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments deployed.

Let us suppose that the Inquiry concludes that there is no overriding national need for a container port in New Forest, East, given the more suitable alternative sites at Shell Haven, Felixstowe and Harwich among others. It will then be up to the politicians to decide whether to override the Inquiry result and insist on allowing Dibden Bay to be built regardless. In the Green Paper, however, it is intended that Parliament should take a "decision in principle". Can one honestly believe that even the more salient arguments in favour of or against a project such as the Dibden Bay container port development would receive an impartial or dispassionate hearing in the Chamber or a Committee room that was divided along party lines?

At present, the Labour party enjoys a huge parliamentary majority. The Labour-dominated city of Southampton, which is next door to my constituency, wants Dibden Bay to be built and it would have every reason to believe that such a Parliament as we have today would be heavily biased in its favour on purely political grounds. The idea that Parliament should take a decision in principle first, with the detailed inquiry coming later is plainly to put the cart before the horse.

Mr Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I have listened to my hon. Friend's remarks with great care, because it is a subject in which I am also interested not least because of my chairmanship of the Procedure Committee. It will very shortly begin an inquiry into the way in which the Government's proposals impinge upon Parliament and its procedures. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions is similarly considering this dramatic change from the normal planning process. I hope that my hon. Friend will be somewhat reassured that Parliament as whole is appraised of the problems.

Dr Lewis: I can think of no-one in whom I would have more confidence than my hon. Friend in trying to protect the interests not only of Parliament but of the population as a whole when such an amazing reversal of priorities is being proposed by the Government.

If that reversal of priorities took place, the result would be prejudiced in advance and the task of objectors would be turned into a far greater uphill struggle than that which they already face. In short, what is proposed would, if implemented, destroy local democratic control of the planning process. Any Government with a large parliamentary majority may be tempted to try to bury local democracy in that way. Sooner or later, however, the boot will be on the other foot and it will be a Labour Opposition's turn to complain about a prejudicial arrangement such as is now being sought. I hope that it never comes to pass.

Finally, I shall talk about the police. On 2 November 2001, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on community policing in Hampshire. I was fairly tough in my criticisms of the way in which local policing was being centralised and about the invisibility of policing in the town of Totton and the villages on the Waterside and in the New Forest which are in my constituency. I am pleased that, since then, there have been very clear steps in the right direction.

The new head of the police force for the New Forest, Superintendent Paul Colley, is a proponent of the proactive policing which I referred to in that debate. That means going out, looking for trouble and nipping it in the bud before it can develop. It contrasts with the centralised and reactive way in which so much policing is carried out today. Superintendent Colley has set up a Proactive Unit that will operate precisely as I have described, and I look forward to seeing how it works in the not-too-distant future.

Having put, last November, the case for the prosecution against the police, I now feel obliged to redress the balance as I promised to do to the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, Mr Alan Gordon. He organised an excellent open forum on 18 January, which was attended by several Hampshire Members of Parliament. The forum was the result of the growing protest about the reforms, particularly of pay and conditions, which the Government are proposing. I promised at the time that I would do my best to air in Parliament some of the police's concerns, and that is what I hope to do in the few remaining minutes.

Members of Hampshire Constabulary who have complained to local MPs range from those at the top of the tree to those in the front line. At the top of the tree is the Chief Constable himself, Paul Kernaghan. His letter addresses in particular the point that

"the Police Reform Bill contains provisions enabling the Home Secretary to effectively sack Chief Constables at will."

He says that he has some concerns about those provisions, and he is quite willing to say exactly why:

"Chief Constables have no right of appeal against the Home Secretary under the proposed legislation and the body to which they are immediately accountable, namely the police authority cannot retain their services if the Home Secretary wants them to go.

"I respectfully suggest that the lack of safeguards and the effective bypassing of police authorities will result in a cadre of Chief Constables obsessed with pleasing the Home Office, regardless of their own professional judgement. Chief Constables cannot be above account but the current proposals will result in increased central control at the expense of local representatives."

A vast range of concerns has been expressed from the front line. On 15 December, I wrote to the Home Secretary, setting out, in their own words, the specific concerns of about half a dozen police officers who had written to me. I received a reply exactly three months later, on 15 March, but I have to say that it was a very general one. I am sure that it was a standard letter, and if that was all that we were going to get it could easily have been sent out much sooner. As the specific complaints were not addressed in that reply – a letter signed by someone on behalf of a junior Minister, who was writing on behalf of the Home Secretary – I shall pick out a couple of examples that give a flavour of what is so upsetting to today's front-line police officer.

One officer wrote to me as follows:

"There was a time when the five operational stations within the New Forest Division were staffed with 5 detective sergeants and up to 20 detective constables, now it is 2 detective sergeants and 11 constables, the pressures on the officers within the New Forest and Hampshire as a whole are immense yet we are still meeting or heading towards the increased performance indicators set for us, though God only knows, we must remember that quantity does not mean quality. We are reaching breaking point and offering a sub-standard service to the public."

Another officer wrote:

"If these proposals were to be implemented in their current state I have no doubt we would suffer the biggest reduction in numbers ever known . . . in fact I wouldn't be surprised to see as many as a quarter of the strength up and leave."

A woman police constable said the following:

"I feel that I am the owner of two distinctly undesirable labels. I'm a Police Officer ... I am also a 'single mother' ... I make suitable arrangements for my son when I am required to work on short notice, work late, and when I am on unpaid call-out ... and now the government want me to work an extra 2.5 hours a week for absolutely nothing at all whilst I pay my childminder at triple time ... I have what I consider to be a good sickness record. Since April 1989 I have been sick on a total of 28 days. However, my sickness record shows that I have had 118 days off sick. This is because my Maternity Leave of 90 days is included in the total."

Finally, I should like to quote the following extract from the letters that I originally received:

"As my local MP, I would be grateful if you will try and convince the Home Secretary not to underestimate the strength of feeling that his Reform proposals have drawn from virtually every officer I have spoken to. Morale is at its lowest that I ever recall in almost 25 years’ service, it will fall lower."

The key to the problem was summed up in a letter handed to me during the mass rally by the police when they lobbied Parliament a couple of weeks ago. Constable Andrew McDonnell, a police traffic motorcyclist, who said that I could name him and quote him in the House if I had the opportunity, gave me a letter in which he said:

"The Government has very deceitfully handled the current situation, which should deal with two very different issues, Police Reform and Pay and Conditions.

"In February, there was a vote by the police federated ranks in response to the proposals for pay and conditions. I am sure you are aware of the unprecedented rejection, a 75  percent turnout of voters with 91  percent rejecting the Home Office's offer."

The constable believes that the rejection of the Government's proposals on pay and conditions is being misrepresented as a rejection of necessary reforms to which the police do not object at all.

The letter concludes:

"I cannot emphasise enough how let down the vast majority of Officers feel by the Government. We have an unenviable job by most, constant verbal and sometimes physical abuse and we are restrained in carrying out the most simple tasks by red tape."

The final twist in the argument is that even when, against all the odds, the police succeed in making an arrest and bringing someone before the court, time and again, red tape and bureaucracy, the inefficiency of court proceedings and a tendency by magistrates to bend over backwards in favour of the defendant frustrate their best efforts.

If we are, from time to time, critical of the police, we must also, from time to time, realise why they are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. I hope that the Government will not lock themselves into a corner on police reform but realise that they have made an honest mistake, back-track and recognise the debt that we owe to those people who maintain law and order on our behalf and on behalf of our families.