A MAJOR rebellion over controversial plans to merge forces in England and Wales was launched by police authorities last night.

The Association of Police Authorities (APA) accused Home Secretary Charles Clarke of trying to ''bribe'' forces into submission and vowed to refuse to co-operate with him unless he meets a series of demands.

Association chairman Bob Jones said they will not submit responses to Mr Clarke's plans by next Friday's deadline unless he pledges that Government will meet all the merger costs.

Force watchdogs in the North-East last night backed Mr Jones, and one described an apparent cash incentive to authorities as "despicable".

Police sources revealed that ministers have instructed force leaders to borrow money to meet the costs of re-organising and re-branding their forces.

Last month Mr Clarke revealed plans to slash the number of forces in England and Wales from 43 to as few as 12, by merging traditional county forces with their neighbours to form ''strategic forces''.

The APA wants assurances that key functions of police authorities will remain enshrined in law, that they will control the amount of money added onto council tax bills to pay for policing and a review of the Home Office's police funding formula.

Mr Jones said: ''It is disappointing that the Home Secretary is now trying to bribe some police authorities to merge their local police forces at the expense of those police authorities who still have serious concerns whether this will deliver the best policing for local people.

''We will not be bought off.''

Cleveland Police Authority chairman, Coun Dave McLuckie, added: ""It does appear that he is looking to bribe or reward those police authorities that break rank.

"It is a despicable tactic for a Labour government to employ and it is more like the process that a Thatcherite government might have used."

Mr Jones said Mr Clarke had offered extra money to authorities who volunteered to merge their forces by next Friday's deadline.

Mr Jones added: ''We have told the Home Secretary that any mergers of police forces will cost a lot of money.

''We will not be bullied or bribed into making decisions in three months about changes to our police forces which have done a good job for the last 30 years.''

Durham Police Authority chairman, Coun Anne Wright, added: "There will be no final submission until we get some satisfactory answers to the issues we have concerns over - funding, governance and the precept."

The reorganisation will cost between £500m and £600m, the APA estimates, with computer systems needing to be re-structured so that merged forces can operate effectively, and the re-branding of uniforms, vehicles and police stations.