A new force

Without effective police reform, England and Wales will lose the fight against crime in years to come. Serious crime is rising and mutating as new crimes emerge such as people trafficking and internet fraud, creating entrenched social problems. But the nightmare position of the public finances means that the police’s extravagant spending increases over the last decade cannot be sustained and will in all likelihood be reversed. The police in England and Wales are the most expensive in the developed world – costing a fifth higher as a share of GDP than in America.

The structure of the police presents a block to necessary reform. The “tripartite model” – with power shared between the Home Secretary, Police Authorities and Chief Constables – means that Government does not have effective control over national policing priorities. The 43 forces are run as fiefdoms by their Chief Constables. To get things done, the Home Office resorts to bribing forces with sweeteners.

Five myths have defeated reforming politicians over the years:

Myth 1
Policing should not be “politicised”. In fact the police should be accountable to elected politicians. Currently the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – a self-perpetuating oligarchy – is the key influence on police forces, in a textbook example of producer capture. It will gain more power over appointments in the new Policing and Crime Bill.

Myth 2
All policing is local. In fact England and Wales does have a national lead police force – the Metropolitan Police – which is already coordinating serious crime fighting across the country. In addition national politicians interfere in day-to day policing, preventing local leaders from answering their democratic mandate to fight crime.

Myth 3
The 43 police forces work well together. In fact the 43 forces operate separately, in particular failing to share information, as the Bichard Inquiry found.

Myth 4
The 43 forces generate economies of scale. In fact waste occurs at two levels: unnecessary regional bureaucracies, and duplicated spending on serious crime at a national level.

Myth 5
The creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has solved the serious crime problem. In fact serious crime is rising, while SOCA is a white elephant.

To move forward the reality should be acknowledged, both at a national and local level.

The Metropolitan Police is the only credible force capable of leading on national and regional serious and organised crime. The Government confirmed this in 2008 by putting the previously abolished e-crime unit (at a cost to the taxpayer of £7 million) with the Metropolitan Police, not SOCA.

Counter-terrorism hubs, funded by the Home Office, operated by local police forces and coordinated by the Metropolitan Police present an exciting model for how effective national crime fighting could work. The Metropolitan Police should be given a formal role leading national serious crime policing.

A change in the accountability structure would be impractical given the dual national and local role of the Metropolitan Police. However, greater scrutiny should come through full operational and financial transparency which is currently lacking.

Until Jacqui Smith’s retreat in December 2008, there was cross-party consensus for greater local accountability for policing. The principle is right: smaller policing units solve more crimes per officer than larger ones.

Proposals for local accountability have foundered partly because they have tried to follow a one-size-fits-all model for the whole of England and Wales. Proposals should reflect the varying reality of local government arrangements in England and Wales. In most areas, the natural arrangement for policing is for higher tier council areas (for example County and City Councils) to hold police forces to account.

In practice 11 forces, such as Gloucestershire, can become accountable at a county level in their current boundaries. 25 forces, such as West Yorkshire and Avon Somerset, could be split to reflect local government boundaries; local authorities in these areas should be allowed to secede their local policing from the regional force. Seven forces have structures that are currently incompatible with local government.

These recommendations require a new role for the Home Office and Home Secretary. The Home Secretary would become, in effect, the commissioner of national policing. The Home Office should then address itself to becoming an excellent commissioner of serious organised crime services and abandon its role in volume crime fighting at a local level.