Blair shelves Clarke's plan for police mergers

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has sounded the death knell for plans to create a series of police "super- forces" across England and Wales in the near future.

The Government had been planning to order a series of forces to merge despite overwhelming opposition from chief constables, police authorities and opposition MPs.

But, in an announcement that in effect shelved the controversial proposals, Mr Blair indicated yesterday that amalgamations would take place "where we can find consent to do so".

Tony McNulty, the police minister, raised doubts whether a single merger would have taken place by the end of the decade. The comments marked the completion of a U-turn over the policy championed by Charles Clarke, the previous home secretary, which stemmed from a warning from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary that the way policing was organised was unfit for the 21st century.

Mr Clarke set out proposals to cut the number of forces from 43 to about 20, including the amalgamation of all four in Wales, and made clear he was prepared to order the mergers, but the policy has been put on ice by the Home Secretary, John Reid, as he struggles to get a grip on his much-criticised department.

The Government says it remains committed to reforming the structure of the police force. But it is now expected to examine ways of enhancing co-operation between existing forces and examine whether any proposed amalgamations have sufficient support.

David Cameron accused Mr Blair in the Commons of "wasting police time" following the collapse of the amalgamation of Lancashire and Cumbria, the only planned merger that had local support. The Tory leader added: "The flagship of forced mergers has sunk without trace."

Mr Blair said mergers were not off the agenda: "The reason why we have listened is because people have made representations about the forced mergers people don't want to see. There will be areas where it is important for us, for example, to have far greater strategic co-operation across force lines and also to merge where we can find the consent to do so."

Mr McNulty told an Association of Police Authorities conference in London that he wanted a new emphasis on collaboration between forces. He added: "Are the mergers going to go through in one way or another eventually? I think the definitive answer to that is no."

Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, protested there was now "significant and distracting uncertainty" over the issue in future.

He said: "The original merger plan is no longer relevant. If voluntary mergers cannot be facilitated, then we find it difficult to understand how more complex and costly mergers are still viable."

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