In my role as Shadow Minister for Policing I spoke in a recent debate on fire and policing in Greater Manchester:
The Minister will be delighted to know that I will not repeat at length my arguments against the course that the Government have taken on police and fire mergers. I will, however, begin by saying that the core of our objection last year concerned local demand and local consent. We thought then—and still think today—that it is wrong to force a merger of police and fire authorities on an area that does not want one.
Thankfully, that does not apply to these draft orders, which have received the consent of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and are part of a wider devolution deal. That deal should enable the Manchester city region to adapt, to the extent that any level of government can, to the extremely difficult combination of reduced service funding and increased service demand that they will face over coming years. We welcome the devolution settlement as a way to bring powers together at a level where they can be used effectively and their use can be held accountable effectively.
There is a long history of local authorities working together across Greater Manchester, with or without a permanent statutory framework, which bodes well for such reforms. That history of co-operation in major cities is one that the Conservative party has not generally had much respect for, so I am delighted by the apparent change of heart. We still have serious concerns about the fragmentation and incoherence of this Government’s attempts at devolution within England thus far, but that need not prevent us from endorsing reforms if they go in the right direction.
I hope that none of us assumes that the devolution process has gone far enough to put in place genuine devolution to Manchester. Our local areas need more control over revenue raised locally, so that such deals will not simply transfer responsibility for cuts made by central Government. Governments should never pass the buck without passing the bucks. Local government needs a system for national funding that is fair, transparent and based on real need—not sweetheart deals with Ministers at meetings in cars outside Downing Street. That is particularly important for areas such as fire and rescue and policing, where community safety is paramount.
More generally, the current model of piecemeal reform is inadequate. Restructuring should not be imposed from the top down and cannot be based only on local authorities going cap in hand to Ministers either. We need to make devolution the default if we are to open up public services to the experience and creativity of local areas and truly demonstrate our trust in the people who are most affected by changes in policy.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority consent documents noted that the draft orders
“will need to be in place by February 2017 at the latest to allow sufficient time for Mayoral candidates to be fully aware of the powers of the elected Mayor and to prepare a manifesto.”
Clearly, that has not happened, since it is now the middle of March and some of the legislation determining the new Mayor’s powers is still not fully confirmed. Does the Minister have an explanation?
More broadly, this is the first case—apart from the now well-established arrangements in Greater London—where full accountability and power relating to policing will be assigned to the elected Mayor of a city region. The fact that responsibility for fire and rescue services will be mixed in at the same time makes it doubly significant, because the Mayor of London does not have direct responsibility for fire and rescue. There is now an urgent case to be made that the new Mayor of Greater Manchester will have a truly unprecedented degree of authority across those two public services. It will be an important test case for future structural reform.
It is important to note that the offices of Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and of police and crime commissioner for the area have already been combined to some extent for almost two years now, because Tony Lloyd, Labour’s elected PCC, was appointed as interim Mayor on 29 May 2015. He has served in both capacities admirably and has set an excellent standard, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will live up to, starting on 8 May.
To sum up, we support the draft orders. They will help to cement the devolution settlement for Greater Manchester, which has received the agreement of local authorities and residents in and around that great city. I hope that members of all parties will join me in wishing the new Mayor well in helping the city region to deal with the undoubted challenges of the future.