Police merger plans set to collapse

The Times

Government plans for a £1 billion merger of police forces across England and Wales have collapsed, The Times has learnt.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, is expected to officially announce the end of the mergers plans on Wednesday.

The decision marks the end of the biggest police reform for 40 years which was proposed after concern that smaller forces were failing to cope with high profile investigations such as the Soham murders and counter-terrorism operations.

Tony McNulty, the Home Office Police Minister, today called in the chief constables of Cumbria and Lancashire, who were keen to merge, and told them that the money would not be available to facilitate the amalgamations.

Later, every chief constable in the country was warned by Ken Jones, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, that, "as we feared, the necessary financial support for mergers has not materialised and mergers including voluntary ones will not take place".

After the merger scheme was announced, Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, offered £125 million to pay for amalgamation. In April, Mr Clarke offered to foot the total bill put at up to £1 billion.

One chief constable said that the funding plans for the mergers were "chaotic and never backed by a financial case that stacked up".

Mr Reid’s decision will be seen as a sharp rebuff to Mr Clarke and is certain to increase tensions between the two men.

A Home Office source said tonight that Mr Clarke had "nailed his colours to the mast" over police mergers and made plain that he wanted them "come Hell or high water". Mr Reid intended to deal with the issue "in a measured way".

Officials said that the talks with chief constables had thrown up issues "that we are not able to resolve" and Mr Reid would make plain that no mergers were likely to go ahead in the foreseeable future.

Mr Reid appears to have decided that within his limited resources he would rather spend the money that would have to be allocated to merging on other priorities.

The proposals were announced last year by Mr Clarke to create "strategic forces" from the current 43, but the proposals divided chief constables and met growing opposition from local politicians.

There were concerns about bills which could include millions in IT costs, redundancies and pensions. Unless government helped, the bill would fall on forces whose spending is already capped and one police report gave warning that at least 25,000 jobs would be lost.

One of the biggest areas of concern was that different forces require different levels of precept, the section of the annual council tax bill for policing.

If merged forces took the precept of the force with the highest level, that would be unfair on thousands of council tax payers. If the lowest level was set - suggested by ministers - the new forces would run into cash crises.

Cumbria and Lancashire were the first forces to agree voluntarily to amalgamate, but there was concern about harmonising the precept. Cumbria charges £163 this year for a band D home and Lancashire charges £113.

There were also worries about the start-up costs. The forces put the bill at £23 million and the Home Office offered £17 million.

Mr McNulty met the two chief constables and the chairman of the police authorities today, but he had little to offer.

After the meeting, the Home Office said: "He explained to them it has not been possible to resolve issues surrounding the mergers and so they don’t wish to proceed with voluntary mergers."

A Home Office spokesman added: "What happened today was about Cumbria and Lancashire and we are not going to talk about the bigger issues. There may well be a statement further forward on this."

Lancashire police authority said that both authorities had insisted that the merger would only proceed if the Government was able to provide a solution to the "dealbreaker" issue of harmonising the council tax costs.

"At the meeting the minister admitted that he had been unable to provide any solutions. He also conceded that the Government had no other proposals to make and accepted that under these conditions, it would be most unlikely that the merger would now go ahead," the statement said.

Cumbria and Lancashire representatives expressed "intense disappointment" that ministers had failed to find a solution to a problem identified many months previously.

Councillor Malcolm Doherty, chairman of Lancashire Police Authority, said: "We feel badly let down. We have done everything in our power to get this merger to work. We now have to find other ways of dealing with the problem that Government has left us with."

Steve Finnigan, Acting Chief Constable for Lancashire Constabulary, said: "We were happy to take forward this proposal as a pathfinder and the fact that the Home Office have been unable to meet the conditions set by the Police Authority is very disappointing and a real missed opportunity."

Last month Mr Reid told MPs that he had postponed decisions on the mergers until the autumn, but the plan was still alive.

The merger plans were announced after a report by Denis O’Connor, an inspector of constabulary and former chief constable, attacked the current structure of forces as unsuitable for the demands of the 21st century.

Mr O’Connor said that many smaller forces were simply "not fit for purpose" and suggested that forces should be at least 4,000 strong.

He said this was the minimum workforce to cope with major serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism, major disasters, critical incidents, public order and roads policing.

This would mean creating large regional forces in some areas like the North East and Wales, and the plans for most of the country have now been announced, apart from the South West.

Mr Clarke had originally hoped to start appointing new chief constables this spring but he faced rising opposition. A number of forces have challenged how Mr O’Connor calculated the figure of 4,000.

Police authorities said that local communities had not been properly consulted and Cleveland has begun a High Court action over plans to merge with Northumbria and Durham.

Nottinghamshire police also lodged papers today with the High Court against their merger. West Mercia may follow suit over proposals to join other Midlands forces. The Welsh forces are divided about becoming one regional force.

Last month the Lords voted to give police authorities the right to veto future amalgamations in England and Wales. Peers agreed a Tory amendment to the 1996 Police Act to water down the power of the Home Secretary to force through changes.

That's one big U-turn, wonder how they're going to put a friendly face on it?

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