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Garnier: Police forces - fit for purpose?

Speech at the Police Superintendents’ Association Conference Dinner, Warwickshire

"Thank you for inviting me this evening. Police conferences and the dinners that go with them have a long tradition of leading to tears before bedtime, as no doubt Louise Casey would be the first to admit - or perhaps not - but I do want to thank you all for doing me the honour of asking me to speak at your Conference dinner tonight.

Since the invitation was not preceded by the statutory caution and since the PACE regulations on confession statements extracted at interview, still less at the roadside, have not been complied with, I am wholly confident that nothing I say tonight will be used in evidence against me. I also know that since nothing I say is admissible against my co-defendants those along side me are entirely safe to carry on smiling innocently knowing that their integrity, honesty and credibility will be wholly unsullied by anything I have to say, but after the indictment has been severed they may need to look to their lawyers for assistance.

I started, or rather almost did not start my legal career, 30 years ago. My practice at the Bar has almost entirely been concerned with media law, dealing with defamation, privacy and confidence cases involving radio and television broadcasters, newspapers and magazines, book publishers and film makers here in this country and abroad, but more recently internet providers, the new mode of information dissemination that crosses national boundaries and has no time for police areas or the geographical limits of court jurisdictions.

I say almost did not start because {extemporise: first case at Kingston County Court; Snaresbrook Crown Court; Reading Crown Court, the theft of the knickers case: the husband on holiday case)

Things have improved somewhat: Moonies and other jury actions taught me that the jury system, although imperfect, is worth preserving. Crown Court Recorder since 1998 confirms that view; also enables me to see the consequences of the criminal justice and policing legislation we pass through Parliament.

That aside, there is serious business facing the police at the moment. Last year my predecessor spoke of the bond of trust between the police and the public. 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 expect something of our police that perhaps mainland Europeans and Americans do not, namely that the police 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 a bond that links us, the public, and you, the police.

In the last few months, however, that bond has come under pressure as the police, despite attracting the deserved gratitude of the political establishment, the press and the public following the July outrages in London, have at the same time received a barrage of attacks as tensions, especially in London, but also further afield, have risen to a new high. Tonight is not the time to debate the operational issues behind the use of firearms by the police or at what stage good manners and sensible relationships between the police and the ethnic minority populations end and poor practice or counter-productive political correctness begin - but we all need to acknowledge that in an era of growing demands for public accountability of politicians and police officers alike we can no longer brush aside as ignorant or inconvenient the opinions of those who question our working practices and policies.

We have to work in the world as it is, not always the world as we would like it to be. I would like to start by saying that I think the police have dealt with this challenge in the best possible way. You are the men and women who face daily the dangers and tests of life on the streets, and whilst politicians seem to be constantly questioning your role, you are getting on with the job. And as Chief Superintendents and Superintendents you are and you represent the keystone - not the Keystone Cops, far from it - but the central and vital building block in the modern British police. Basic Command Units led by you and your colleagues are where local policing is driven, they are where the operational demands of life on the beat and in the Force Headquarters meet and the circles have to be squared; you represent that vital and unavoidable meeting point of public and political demand. It's tough work; it's exhausting work; it's often unthanked and unappreciated work: you are not the bobby on the beat and you're not the ACPO man on the television but without you neither can do his job. Let me put that right here and now by thanking all of you and all in your Association for the job you do, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year.

The future of the Police as we know it has been thrown into speculation by the recent HM Inspectorate report which set out to determine whether the police were 'fit for purpose'.

Since it first came into the current arena, I have wondered who exactly this question was aimed at. The Home Office has always pointed the finger accusingly at police authorities, but increasingly I think that the questioning should be a two-way process.

Far be it for me, a humble seeker after truth with no wish to stir up political controversy on a happy occasion such as this, to suggest that that the Home Secretary, is not the man to be accusing others of their un-fitness. But neither he nor any of his fellow ministers is immune from cross-examination on their policies, their acts and omissions. They do not possess the golden key to the perfect solution to our 21st century policing needs and I, as a citizen, as an Opposition spokesman and as an MP not only have an interest in, but have a duty to scrutinise, to question, to test (sometimes to destruction), the ideas put forward by Government - as well as publicly to accept those ideas and solutions that command respect and consensus. 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.

As you will all know, the Report focused on the relative benefits of a fundamental reorganisation of police forces, moving away from the current system, to 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 been working to Whitehall demands and targets rather than to the crime scene in their patch? Have they 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?

Now this is nothing new, but 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 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 needs radical and urgent change.

There are parts of the report that are founded in common sense: the fact that 'size matters' strikes the report as a stark finding. 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.

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.

Parliament has only just passed the Serious and Organised Crime Act, which the name suggests is supposed to be dealing with serious and organised crime. How many Criminal Justice Acts or similar have there been in the last decade? Does all this legislation give us the right answer, does it give us part of the answer, or does it take us in the wrong direction? Or is it mere tinkering at the edges? There have been 10 anti-terrorist provisions since 1997 and more are coming this autumn.

I accept that necessity demands that we keep pace with the changing demands of criminality 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 you as police officers and my learned friends and I on the Bench, digest and implement it without delay, than another, and then another legislative or practice change comes around the corner. Order, counter-order and disorder.

Your President said last week 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 pleased me about the way the debate is moving is the 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. You and I know that back office reforms, if they come at all, will take several years to bear fruit - if that's what it is.

I am pleased that you are willing to interact 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 public in the coming decades.

Whilst all of these changes are going on I think that it would be sensible for the Home Office to take a long hard look at their own operational decisions in the last few years, and whether they are meeting the required standards of support and development.

I would like briefly to touch on to the issue of intelligence sharing, and in particular, the development of a national intelligence system. I agree with Rick Naylor that the creation of such a system is "the most important of all the IT developments going on at the moment."

After the tragedy at Soham, the call for a national system of intelligence sharing for England and Wales was described in the Bichard Report as 'a matter of urgency'. However, over a year on, we appear to be no closer to meeting this priority.

I not only agree with Rick Naylor that the absence of such a system is a major handicap; I go further: its development is absolutely essential in helping the police to reduce crime levels and make communities safer.

The Government has allocated £160 million to develop the IMPACT programme. So far, it has spent at least £7m of this but without anything apparent to show for it. Where is the fully-worked business case, the clear direction? Why is there no confirmed date by which it will be fully operational?

Meanwhile, the police have to operate in a heightened security environment without this invaluable resource. It is understandable that some police forces are starting to look for alternatives.

We cannot let this drift. Have we not now reached the point where the Government should deal with this lacuna by considering an interim solution that will allow forces to share intelligence across the country sooner rather than later. Scotland already has a successful system in place that, as I understand it, could be in place across England and Wales within 12 to 18 months. This would provide forces with a tried and tested intelligence capability that could be used immediately whilst IMPACT is being developed. I am no expert on IT, still less on what exactly you need to assist in the much-needed but secure sharing of criminal intelligence and information but I do look with concerned interest at the Scottish system and urge the Government to tell us all why it should not be adopted by forces across this jurisdiction. If it is not what we need they should say so and why; above all they should get on before another Soham hits us.

The Home Office, having farmed out so much of the IT responsibility to PITO in recent years, have been critical of the information sharing processes between police forces. But the Government does not have a proud record when it comes to IT procurement be it with the CSA, the Probation Service or the Passport Service. In fact in the past few years the Government have managed to overspend by around £2 billion on its computer projects, whilst forcing 5 per cent 'efficiency' cuts on police forces. They should stop making the same old mistakes, get in some real experts and get you a computer system that really is fit for the purpose.

My Party went into the last election promising that we would significantly increase the number of police officers on the streets of Britain. That was the right pledge to make to a country that feels unsafe on their own streets and vulnerable in their homes.

The constantly changing demands of your job mean that you cannot always be on the street, and I believe that our plans to increase your resources would have helped that.

Now of course I am speaking in a different time and I don't want to stand here making promises that can't be kept. Politicians are already some of least trusted human beings around, and I think you've all had enough of hollow promises.

But I can make you one pledge, the Conservative Party will always support what is best for policing in this country. What that means is constantly altering, and so we will also make sure that we listen to your views on the issues that matter, be it on matters as far-reaching as force reorganisation or the day to day issues."

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