Police merger plans face legal challenge

Cleveland police authority has today launched a legal challenge against the government’s plans to merge it with two others to create a ‘super force’ in the north east.

The plans are part of a wider restructuring to cut the number of forces in England and Wales from 43 to just 12, in the wake of an official report last year saying the current structure was incapable of dealing with modern threats such as terrorism.

The process was begun by Charles Clarke, and his successor as home secretary, John Reid, has signalled his intention to continue as planned, but at a slower pace.

However, Cleveland police authority wants Mr Reid to be prevented from laying down a parliamentary order to merge them with Northumbria and Durham authorities until further consultation is carried out, and hopes the judicial review will achieve this.

“We haven’t done this lightly – we’ve looked at it long and hard, and taken some significant legal advice,” chairman Dave McLuckie told politics.co.uk.

“We are fully confident that we will be successful at least in forcing the home secretary to slow down the process before taking what is clearly a massive decision on how policing operates in England and Wales.”

But the Home Office insisted it was “premature” to consider taking the home secretary to a judicial review given that a final decision on mergers has yet to be taken – the four month consultation on the plans does not end until July.

“It is clear that the present strategic structure of our police services is not fit for purpose and that the status quo is not an option,” a spokeswoman said.

“The home secretary is working closely with police forces and authorities on police force restructuring and has made it clear that he will not make a final decision on whether to proceed with any mergers until he has carefully considered all views.”

Mr McLuckie believes the merger, which both Durham and Northumbria support, will reduce accountability, by replacing the authorities of all three forces, which are made up of local people, with one large authority made up of people from an area of 3,300 square miles.

The cost of the restructuring is also a major issue – Mr McLuckie estimated the actual merger would cost up to £50 million, while he claimed the new authority would not be able to begin making efficiency savings for at least five to ten years.

The government drew up plans to merge police forces following a HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report that said that under the current system, the pressures of terrorism and organised crime are leaving most forces with little time for neighbourhood policing.

But critics of the scheme, who include the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, argue that creating ‘super-forces’ is unlikely to improve local policing, and today Mr McLuckie reinforced the point.

His authority has proposed instead that the three north-east forces put money into a regional crime squad to deal with cross-border crime and the most serious issues, but remain separate to deal with more localized issues.

And Mr McLuckie questioned whether any force would be big enough to deal with a major terrorist attack, noting that the Metropolitan police forces, with 30,000 officers, needed help from around the country after the July 7th London bombings.

“How big do you have to be to look after yourself?” he asked, adding: “The mergers were a non-starter from the beginning.”