The Big Question: Are there too many police forces, and does the system need an overhaul?

Why are we asking this now?

This week Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that the structure of police forces in the UK should be reviewed. He wants the Government to hold an independent review which would look at whether the current model, which comprises 43 individual forces, is fit for purpose. Sir Hugh's comments were backed by Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who agreed that reform of the current model was needed.

Why do they want things to change?

Sir Hugh's reasons are mainly financial. He has predicted that, because of the ongoing economic slump, the budgets of police forces in the UK will be cut by between 10 and 20 per cent. So he says that there are benefits to be had in amalgamating forces to save money behind the scenes. He has highlighted various areas where money could be saved if forces merged. Back-room staff and IT equipment and software could be shared. As could squads and units that are relatively rarely used. Areas that deal with only a handful of murders a year could share a major crime team, for example. Expensive equipment such as helicopters and specialist vehicles could also be shared. It would also be cheaper for a bigger force to buy vehicles and uniforms in bulk.

Sir Paul's reasons are based more upon the threat of organised crime. Criminal gangs do not particularly care for geographical boundaries and will cross several in their lawless pursuits. The commissioner's fear is that some forces are currently too small to adequately deal with the threat organised criminals present.

How are the country's police forces currently structured?

There are 43 regional forces in England and Wales, 44 if you include the British Transport Police (BTP). Each has its own chief constable (Commissioner in the case of the Metropolitan Police and City of London Police) who is ultimately responsible for crime in his or her area. Each force is loosely based on a geographical area, usually identical to or based upon, the corresponding county.

What's the new proposal?

Part of the problem is that, while various politicians and senior policemen have extolled the virtues of having fewer forces, no one has articulated exactly what the new model would look like. All agree that the number of forces would have to be cut in half at least. Common wisdom suggests a number between nine and 14. The Metropolitan Police would be unlikely to get any bigger, except perhaps to swallow the existing City of London Police, which operates only in the square mile financial district of the capital.

Where would the change happen?

The forces most liable to merging are smaller ones, which would be more equipped to deal with organised crime by getting bigger. For example, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire would be an obvious pair as would Cumbria and Lancashire, and Norfolk and Suffolk. Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria would probably be amalgamated, while the Yorkshire forces, North Yorks, West Yorks, South Yorks and Humberside, would likely become one.

Haven't we heard this before?

Yes. In 2005 the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke unveiled plans to merge some of Britain's police forces. But the suggestion was not to the liking of many of the forces involved. Only two – Cumbria and Lancashire – were willing to voluntarily merge, while the others were to have mergers thrust upon them unwillingly.

In the face of a police force revolt the plan started to falter. Its fate was sealed when Cumbria pulled out of its merger saying the money that the Government had promised to make the move happen, was not forthcoming. Following Charles Clarke's removal from the Cabinet, the new Home Secretary John Reid ditched the idea.

When was the last time policing was restructured?

In 1966, following a Royal Commission in 1962, the number of police forces in England and Wales was cut from 117 forces to 49 and later to 43. It meant that many small forces disappeared. Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Worcester police became West Mercia Constabulary, for example. While the constabularies of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Oxford City Police and Reading Borough Police became Thames Valley. Since then the policing map has remained more or less identical.

So isn't it time there was a restructuring?

Most senior police officers certainly think so. Sir Hugh Orde's argument is that the policing landscape has changed significantly since the 1960s, yet the structure of police forces has remained the same. Now some small forces are not fit for purpose. Many are overwhelmed by a major murder inquiry and few have the capabilities of monitoring serious organised crime gangs. How would they deal with a terrorist attack?

Sir Hugh says there is not the political will, among any of the major parties, to merge forces and improve their capabilities. He is not wrong.

The Government's position is that they will give the seal of approval to any forces who want to merge, but they will not force mergers upon unwilling forces. This is likely because of the controversy it caused in 2005. But Sir Hugh says this is not good enough as police forces are unlikely to submit to a merger voluntarily. Fewer forces need fewer chief constables. Why would a chief constable willingly demote himself, or, in the worst case scenario, make his own position redundant? Sir Hugh says an independent review is needed. One which all forces sign up to and agree to adhere by its findings.

Isn't policing best carried out by local officers who know their beat?

It still will be. No one is suggesting that by amalgamating, for example, the four Welsh forces, people living in Cardiff will suddenly have their neighbourhoods policed by officers previously based in Rhyl. The local police station will still be the local police station, staffed by the same people, doing the same jobs. The only difference will be the name of the force.

There is a suggestion that members of the public might feel disassociated from a force whose name bears no resemblance to where they live, but it is unlikely this would materialise. A family from Lancashire who have just had their home ransacked or their car stolen are unlikely to prevaricate on calling the police because the force is now called North West Police.

Where things might change is in units such as major crime teams or homicides. Continuing the Welsh example, one specialist homicide team might cover the whole of Wales. While this might mean that detectives would cover crimes outside of their previous regions, it also ensures that they will be experts in their field. And, in terms of public satisfaction, it can be safely assumed that the family of a murder victim does not care where the detectives attempting to solving their loved one's death are based.

Is amalgamating police forces a good idea?

Yes...

* Larger police forces would be better equipped to deal with organised crime and terrorism

* Fewer forces would mean a sharing of resources, which would save money in a recession

* Forty-three forces is too many and creates a lack of consistency and coherence

No...

* The champions are lone voices. There is nothing significantly wrong with the current policing model

* Mergers are expensive. They would save money long term, but are not a solution to budget cuts

* People already feel detached from their 'local' police force. Mergers would exacerbate this

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