Speech to Policy Exchange fringe meeting at Conservative Party Conference 2005
"I want to thank you for asking me to speak at your meeting this lunchtime. Policy Exchange has been a key partner in the debate about who should be making the key decisions about the future of the police and what that future should look like. This is a debate that affects the police and they should have their say; it affects the public too and I am pleased that this meeting provides an opportunity for that debate to move on a bit further. At a time when so many are concentrating on the Party leadership it is vital that we do not forget that the Party will not succeed just by electing a new leader; it needs well thought out policies too.
In this country we believe rightly in the concepts of policing by consent of the public and the police officer as the citizen in uniform, and we see something in our police that perhaps mainland Europeans and Americans do not, namely that they are part of us and come from us, the law abiding public; they are not, save in their dedication to duty, bravery and sheer determination to see right prevail day in, day out, a breed apart.
There is serious business facing the police at the moment. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, reported back to the Government recently on the 'fitness for purpose' of the current organisation of the 43 police forces across England and Wales.
The working practices and administration of the Police have been placed under the microscope by the recent HM Inspectorate report which set out to determine whether the police were 'fit for purpose'. This report comes in the wake of a period of constant change and reform within the police service. It also comes thirty years after the last major reform of the policing structure, when the number of police forces was reduced from the 125 forces created in 1962 to the current 43 forces established in 1974.
The question are the police as we know them now fit for the purpose of dealing with 21st century problems may provoke us to inquire into the fitness of the Government asking the question. Neither the Home Secretary nor any of his fellow ministers is immune from cross-examination about their policies, their acts and omissions. Contrary to their rhetoric, Labour do not possess the golden key to the perfect solution to our 21st century policing needs. And Conservatives have a duty to scrutinise, to question, to test, sometimes to destruction, the ideas put forward by Government. Sometimes we will accept their ideas when they command respect and meet the needs of our country. This is far too serious a subject for bull-headed opposition for opposition's sake so we will study the HMIC Report carefully and constructively.
The Report contrasts the benefits of a fundamental reorganisation of the 43 police forces, moving away from the current system, with those that will come from an increasingly centralised model of policing. According to the HMIC, some of the smaller forces fail fully to meet the required standards of the inspectors. But I think this raises more questions than it answers. Did they consider that this may simply be because different forces must by the nature, demographics and geography of their areas, have different priorities and structures? Have the police being working to Whitehall demands and targets rather than to the crime scene in their patch? Have the inspectors asked themselves whether this may be because forces were spending time getting to grips with "Best Value" rather than burglary, or constantly moving human and financial resources to meet the latest Whitehall fad rather than attacking the constant enemy, drug and drink related crime, terrorism and its related security issues, serious organised crime and persistent young offenders, to name but a few aspects of it?
This is not new. For the last few years the process of centralisation has been gathering pace. Let me be candid: the trend towards centralisation didn't begin in 1997. The temptation to legislate up hill and down dale in the field of police law and criminal justice seduced the last Conservative government too. But this Government has meddled, controlled, interfered, regulated, and dictated on an unprecedented scale. Of course all strategies need coordinated staff work and central direction but the recent pull of the Whitehall black hole has been too powerful, too insensitive and too quick and it has inhibited local initiatives and years of local experience, both individual and collective, from delivering benefit to local communities and husbanding scarce resources.
It is ironic that after years of meddling and controlling from the centre, the Government have now decided that what police forces are doing is not up to scratch, and that they need radical and urgent change.
There are parts of the report that are founded in common sense: the fact that 'size matters'. Small is not always beautiful and it is hardly controversial to state the obvious: a police force with over 4,000 police officers and its concomitant civilian back up is going to find it easier to meet all of the 'required standards' than a force with far fewer. But doesn't that this says as much about the required standards as it does about the police force?
The section on ensuring that police forces are up to the challenge of dealing with organised crime is also based on common sense. Modern organised crime unashamedly takes advantage of the best technology available, is happy to deal with far greater sums of money in one criminal transaction than many police forces receive from the taxpayer in a year, and can do so speedily and internationally. Big crime, be it terror-related, white collar and City based, or drug- or people-trafficking, computer crime, contract killing, or the stealing of plant and equipment is no longer confined to the Richardsons' or the Krays' London manors: it is international, sophisticated, well resourced and ruthless. Government must ensure that the police are able to deal with this problem head on.
This report has raised concerns, especially amongst those who describe themselves as localists. But this Report, and debate that follows it, provide us, localists included, with the opportunity to take the lead in shaping the future structure of the police and to reverse the centralism of recent years.
During the period that the HMIC were inspecting the police forces of England and Wales, the number of Basic Command Units has been reduced from 320 to 230. This must be checked before further damage is done to the ability of the police to respond locally to the needs of our communities.
Police forces need to be able to build relationships pragmatically with other forces, at home and abroad, and deal with each other, on a regional, national and international basis. If Government believe that they are being stopped from doing this then they should actively open the channels of communication between forces.
But now that the Report has been published we have the opportunity to put forward the arguments in favour of local accountability and local responsibility. Robert Peel said that 'the police are the people and the people are the police', but the people will not thanks us for modernising the police service into something distant and unresponsive to their demands for a visible police presence on their streets, in their towns and in their villages, albeit that we all realise that the demands of the public also include protection from international terrorism and from serious organised crime, matters that have to be tackled at the strategic regional, national and international level.
All policing requires the active gathering and analysis of intelligence, but none more so than 'level one' policing. That is the policing that Labour ministers like to call 'Neighbourhood Policing'. Subject to their explaining precisely what they mean by the word "neighbourhood" I agree with the underlying implication of that expression.
However it can only truly become neighbourhood policing if the police in that neighbourhood are able to set their own targets and manage their own policing. There is too much inefficient central control and this will continue until there is a commitment from the Government to meet their rhetoric with action. The problem we face is that the Labour Party is by its nature centralist and until they come to understand what their rhetoric means they will, I fear, mouth the soundbites about neighbourhood policing whilst increasing central control.
The police need to work in sympathy with local needs and conditions - it would be silly if they did not - and although the headlines of this Report are all about fewer police forces, amalgamations and re-structuring, the recommendations in it could make sure that this happens.
As well as providing an opportunity for shifting the control of the police onto a more localised footing, I also hope that any reforms once implemented will provide the police with another necessary change - a rest from Whitehall-imposed initiativitis. The public services have been subjected to a constant stream of changes and demands from the centre, and it is time this stopped so that the police can hear and act upon the voices of those they work amongst as well as the stentorian tones of a Home Secretary in search of a headline.
I accept that necessity demands that we keep pace with the changing demands of criminals but instead of carrying on this policy of perpetual tinkering and centrally led initiatives, in this as in so many other areas of public policy, is it not time that things were allowed to settle down. Has there not been too much centralised, eye-catching change? No sooner have the police and the courts got up to speed with one change, with the Government demanding that the police and the judges digest and implement it without delay, than another, and then another legislative or practice change comes around the corner. Order, counter-order and disorder.
The President of the Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, Rick Naylor, said recently that he believed now was not the time to tinker around the edges, and that the police needed a 'radical overhaul' that will last the police at least another 30 years. I agree that now is not the time for the more tinkering, although it remains to be seen what the future should hold for police forces.
One thing that has pleased me is the growing realisation that Basic Command Units should be the focus of our attention. As the HMIC say, 'policing is essentially a locally-delivered service' and I welcome this. The challenge now is to ensure that the debate about reorganisation does not focus too much on shifting powers up, and allows the voices of a diverse range of BCUs and their Superintendents to be heard. We must also be sure that back office reforms are not used as the camouflage for unworkable reform on the front line, nor that cutbacks in non-uniformed staff are promised as immediate solutions to financial pressures.
I am pleased that both the police and Think Tanks such as Policy Exchange have been willing engage in this debate in such a positive way, and I hope that over the coming months we will all be able to continue this debate constructively, and reach a conclusion that fits the needs of the police service and the wider public in the coming decades. There need be no division between the interests of the police and the public; indeed it would be fatal if there were.
The Conservative Party went into the last election promising more police officers on the streets of Britain. That was the right pledge to make to an electorate that feels unsafe on their own streets and vulnerable in their homes.
The constantly changing demands of the job mean that the police cannot always be on the street, and I believe that our plans to increase police resources would have helped that. But fighting crime is not a job for the police alone - and just as it is the job of all of us to ensure that crime does not destroy or infest our communities, politicians must ensure that the police are helped and not hindered in that process.
I cannot say now what will be in the 2009 Conservative Party manifesto but I can that the work of Policy Exchange will help us to ensure we have policies that are fit for the purpose, robust, and relevant to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Britain. And that they will be policies that we will implement in Government."