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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 20/11/2005)

The urge for 'Euro-regions' plays fast and loose with law and order

Most people are aware that the Government plans to restructure the 43 local police forces of England and Wales on regional lines. What is not so widely known is the astonishing speed at which the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is bulldozing this through.

Using the usual excuse, "the need to fight terrorism", his plans first surfaced on September 16. Six days later he gave the 43 chief constables an ultimatum: they must come up with their plans for a mass-merger by November 28, and by Christmas the entire plan must be agreed. The most fundamental restructuring of Britain's police in 170 years is to be rushed through in just 12 weeks.

Although the Home Secretary gave the police an outward show of choice as to how this should be done, he made clear that the Government's preferred option was that the forces will be cut to 12, corresponding with the 10 regions of England, London and Wales (the two largest regions, South-East and North-West, can each have two forces). Wales is to have just one force, not four as now. The seven South-West forces are also to be merged into just one, from the Cotswolds to Cornwall.

What this means in practice is highlighted by the fate of West Mercia Police, already covering a large rural area of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Under its admirable Chief Constable, Paul West, this was recently rated the most efficient of all the 43 forces in England and Wales. Despite being the fourth lowest funded, it beat all the rest in meeting its targets, from response times to crime clear-up rates.

Since, to justify its plan, the Government has chosen an entirely arbitrary minimum force size of 4,000 officers, Mr West now has just weeks to plan a merger with neighbouring forces. But Mr Clarke has already indicated that he wants West Mercia to be swallowed up in a vast new regional force, dominated by the needs of Birmingham. Like most rural forces lumped in with crime-ridden cities, West Mercia anticipates that the people of its three counties will no longer enjoy the services of Britain's most effective police force.

On Wednesday, Mr West and his police authority chairman, Paul Deneen, were invited to the Commons by Owen Paterson, the Tory MP for North Shropshire, where, with other MPs, they had an informal tea-room meeting with a Home Office minister, Fiona Mactaggart. As the pair forcefully quizzed the minister over the reasons for the restructuring, eavesdroppers at nearby tables were startled to hear how flimsy the Government's case seemed to be. When Miss Mactaggart was asked why they had picked the figure of 4,000, she was totally stumped for an answer.

Mr West observed that it was "nothing short of scandalous to reconfigure Britain's policing in just a few weeks". There was no way the absorption of locally based forces into an amorphous regional bureaucracy would do anything but severely erode the service they currently provide. But, unlike the 90-day detention proposal, Parliament will have no chance to stop this one. Yet again we shall see this Government riding roughshod over everyone's wishes, simply to further Mr Prescott's dictatorial dream.

NWRA 'like a private club'

Article 13 of the North-West Regional Assembly's constitution is unequivocal. Subscriptions from the local authorities which provide most of its funding are due on April 1 each year. If any council has not paid up by September 30, its "membership shall cease forthwith".

Two Warrington readers, Gerald Kelley, a retired businessman, and Richard Buttrey, an accountant, noted that on September 30 this year not a single council had paid. In law, none was any longer a member. Under council rules they would have to reapply for membership, requiring endorsement by the full council. Until that happened the NWRA could no longer function.

In the twilight zone of regional government, however, what are rules? At Friday's meeting of the assembly, following representations from Mr Kelley, Mr Buttrey and myself, the assembly chairman, Coun John Joyce of Warrington, conceded that the rules had technically been broken. But, since all councils but three had now paid up, "we can take a pragmatic view". After all, he explained, the NWRA is "akin to a private club".

So the rest of us must obey the law, but apparently this does not apply to Mr Prescott's "private clubs".

EU sees eye to eye with the tyrants

Internet users may be grateful that last week's "World Information Summit" foiled a bid for control of the world wide web to be handed over to the United Nations. Since its launch, the web has been run by ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a body answerable to the US Department of Commerce.

Leading the opposition to any UN hijack of the internet were the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Those in favour of UN control included Communist China, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and the EU. Fortunately the English-speaking free world won the day, while Britain, represented by the EU, lined up with all the world's most brutal and repressive dictatorships. Since our unelected EU government is in effect a one-party state, this was of course only appropriate.

'Ring of stars' equal to Union Jack

Last month I reported how Wear Valley council had been forced to haul down an EU flag outside its offices. Legally this ranks as an "outdoor advertisement" and to fly it without planning permission is therefore illegal. Noting a "ring of stars" flag outside the headquarters of Cheshire police, a reader, Barry Jones, wrote to the chief constable asking whether he had permission. When his letter was ignored, he wrote again, mentioning that his letter would be sent to this column.

The police have now told him that the flag has been removed. Meanwhile the Government has announced that it is to rush through an amendment to the law. As from next year, the EU flag will be given the same status as the UK's own national flags. Our councils, police and anyone else will be free to fly it whenever they wish.

There is no clearer example of our Government's high-handedness than the way that John Prescott is railroading through his plan to give England eight regional governments.

It is a year since this was put to its only democratic test, when the voters of the North-East rejected an elected regional assembly by four to one. But Mr Prescott's project rolls on regardless.

Fire, ambulance and health services, and now the police, are being reorganised on regional lines. Two events last week threw this radical reshaping of the country into alarming relief.