July 11, 2006

Mergers scrapped ?

The Times this morning thunders:
'' £1bn police mergers to be scrapped ''
In exclusive article in The Times today Stewart Tendler and Philip Webster report:

''Government plans for a £1 billion merger of police forces across England and Wales have collapsed John Reid, the Home Secretary, is expected to officially announce the end of the mergers plans on Wednesday.''

The article continues:

''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.''

The article concludes:

''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''
So, is this the end of the forced police mergere issue ? It would be nice to assume so. Watch this space !

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