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Letwin: Primary policing - the Conservative vision

Speech to the Police Superintendents' Conference, Newport

This is an age in which the worst insult you can hurl at someone in my profession is "politicians are all the same."

I'd like to use this speech to argue against that. Politicians are not all the same. If only because they belong to different parties that each have a very different vision for Britain's public services.

Today, I want to tell you about my party's vision for the police service. I can't guarantee that you'll like it, but I can guarantee this: At the next general election you will have a genuine choice. A choice between what you have now under this Government and what you could have under a Conservative Government.

In a nutshell, our vision is this:

The restoration of neighbourhood policing as a fully-respected, fully-resourced function of the modern police service - of equal importance, and equal status, to any other aspect of modern policing.

Neighbourhood policing versus conventional policing

In other speeches I have described the difference between neighbourhood policing and conventional policing. Neighbourhood policing is sometimes called beat policing, but it is not only that. The beat is at the heart of neighbourhood policing, but this is policing with brains too - as anyone who has seen it succeed in America can tell you. That is why you will not hear me use the term "intelligence-led policing" to refer to conventional policing alone. Each form of policing is as intelligent as the other. But they gather, and then use, intelligence in different ways.

There are, of course, overlaps, but conventional and neighbourhood policing differ in emphasis: One deals with specific crimes, the other with general disorder; one targets major offences, the other minor offences; one is reactive and remedial, the other proactive and preventative.

These two forms of policing are complementary; they could and should form two halves of a whole in today's police service. But they do not. Over the years, neighbourhood policing has been systematically disrespected and under-resourced.

As a result it has declined in importance and diminished in status. Debate over beat policing degenerates into talk of "bobbies on the beat". And by that point, it is not long before predictable and patronising references to Dixon of Dock Green are trotted out. In this way the debate is lost, dismissed as mere nostalgia for an age long gone, if, indeed, it ever existed at all.


On the principle that I might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb, I'm going to indulge in a gratuitous act of nostalgia by looking back to my school days - the days when children were still taught to memorise poems by heart. I expect many of you will recall one particular poem by John Masefield, the one that begins like this:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

The next verse describes a "stately Spanish galleon" and its equally exotic cargo of "diamonds / Emeralds and amethysts / Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores".

The final verse is in total contrast to the first two. It describes a "Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack" and a deeply unglamorous cargo of "Tyne coal / Road-rails, pig-lead / Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays."

This poem is itself about nostalgia. The gritty realities of modern life are set against the golden age of the Stately Spanish Galleon and the even more distant glamour of the Quinquireme of Nineveh.

Gritty realities

One could draw a parallel here with the police service. On the one hand there are the gritty realities of neighbourhood policing, while on the other there is the glamour of conventional policing - which normally goes by a more glamorous name like "intelligence-led policing" or "high-level policing". Just as the "dirty British coaster" goes "butting through the Channel", so neighbourhood policing concerns itself with ordinary life in ordinary places. Sure enough, the neighbourhood police officer sees past the polite façade of those lives and places, but what he sees is not the stuff of TV drama. There is no thrilling heart of darkness, just a dim reality of commonplace crimes and misdemeanours.

The neighbourhood police officer is unlikely to encounter Mr Big on his beat. But he can stop Mr Insignificant from selling Mr Big's heroin on street corners. Which might mean that Miss Hopeless makes something of her life. Which might mean that Old Mrs Frightened feels safe enough to venture outdoors. Which might mean that the neighbourhood regains some sense of community, the essential first step to regeneration and renewal. Not bad for a dirty British coaster.

But Masefield's poem isn't just about nostalgia, it's also about progress. The dirty British coaster was a workhorse of the industrial age, at the cutting edge of modernity. The quinquireme and the galleon were undeniably more glamorous, but it was the coaster that, quite literally, delivered the goods.

And this is where my analogy might appear to break down. Because conventional policing is not only seen as more glamorous, but more modern too. Neighbourhood policing, on the other hand, is seen not only as dull and dirty, but out of date too - a relic from yesteryear to be patronised and disrespected.

The attack on neighbourhood policing

But this is a misperception, and there are two main reasons for the misperception.

The first is technological. Pursuit vehicles, surveillance equipment, computerised databases, DNA analysis and many other applications of technology have transformed the possibilities of policing. While paying due regard to civil liberties, it is entirely right that these possibilities should be fully explored and exploited. And yet, however adept we become in the use of technology to target serious crime, there can be no substitute for human intelligence, in particular, intelligence derived from the wider community that provides the context for every crime, serious or otherwise.

The second reason for the disdain of neighbourhood policing is ideological. To some, for whom crime is a response to a system of oppression, and for whom the police are agents of those who control the system, neighbourhood policing is seen as something to be expelled from the community. In previous decades, those who laboured under this delusion moved to weaken the police presence in our communities, in order to bring about a shift in the balance of power. As a result, the forces of law and order have lost ground in towns and cities throughout this land.

These two tendencies of very different kinds - the enthusiasm for top-down, technology-led policing and the ideological disdain for traditional authority - have together led to a Britain in which neighbourhood policing has in general been allowed to decline. In my view, this is a calamity, because the real balance of power lies not between the police and people, but between crime and the community. The front line runs through our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, a front line from which police have been systematically withdrawn, leaving the weakest, most vulnerable members of our society alone and defenceless against the real enemy.

Parallel with the medical profession

To understand the full scale of this calamity, imagine that something similar had taken place within our healthcare system. The medical profession has its equivalent of the neighbourhood police officer: a class of professionals who are based in the community, who are involved in the day-to-day lives of those in their care, who deal mainly with minor complaints, but are best placed to know when and where to call in extra resources and specialist help. These professionals are known as GPs. Most of the glamour and the fame may attach to other roles within the NHS, such as that of surgeon or consultant, but the respect in which the family doctor is held is second to none.

Now the NHS has its problems, but imagine how much worse these would be if the role of GP healthcare had been subject to the denigration and neglect that has befallen neighbourhood policing. Imagine the fear and frustration of the public; the stress and despair of those GPs who remained in place; the deterioration of untreated minor ailments into major emergencies; the loss of local intelligence leading to massive misallocation of specialist resources; the inevitable decline in the nation's health.

It is not for nothing that the service provided by GP surgeries is known as primary healthcare. It is so fundamental to the functioning of the NHS as a whole that it is impossible to think about it in any other way. And indeed the primary importance of primary healthcare has never been in doubt. That is why, whatever the problems of the NHS, one thing we haven't seen is a general decline in the nation's health.

However, what we certainly have seen is a general decline in law and order. And on that measure, the problems facing Britain's police service are deeper than anything facing the National Health Service. Deep problems require deep solutions, the deepest of which would be the restoration of neighbourhood policing to its rightful place in today's police service, in today's Britain. We need to think about neighbourhood policing as primary policing, of primary importance to policing as a whole.

Police numbers

That is how my party thinks about neighbourhood policing. But what would the next Conservative Government actually do to make that vision real?

First of all we will provide the necessary resources, by which I mean sufficient funding for an unprecedented increase in police numbers - that is an increase of 40,000 police officers.

There's no small print in that commitment. We will increase police numbers by 40,000 over and above the level we inherit from Labour at the next election. And to give credit were it's due, by the next election this Government will have increased police numbers by about 5,000. It's also true that, over the same period, they'll have increased Home Office central staff numbers by 10,000. This may tell you something about this Government's priorities. It may also tell you why you've got so much paperwork to deal with.

So while this Government has increased police numbers by 5,000 over eight years, we will increase police numbers by 5,000 every year for eight years. That makes a total of 40,000 - an increase of almost a third. For every three police officers now, there will be four. My intention is that this significant shift in the level of resourcing should enable a quantum leap in the level of neighbourhood policing. If every one of the 40,000 extra police officers is devoted to neighbourhood policing, then that will, I believe, triple the number of police officers on the beat.

The conveyor belt to crime

Of course, this isn't just a numbers game. In a moment I'm going to say something about what else is needed to restore neighbourhood policing to its rightful place. But first I need to make something else clear:

Neighbourhood policing is essential, but it isn't sufficient. We won't give you the impossible job of winning the war against crime single-handed.

This is what Sir Robert Peel said when he founded the modern police service all those years ago:

"Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

In other words, it is society as whole that needs to wage the war against crime - or, as another Shadow Home Secretary once said, we must be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

It's a great line. But now we need some action. The next Conservative Government will start with the greatest single cause of crime - which is drug addiction. Heroin and crack cocaine addicts are responsible for one-third of all crimes in this country. And that can only get worse as the army of addicts swells by 10,000 every year. For the addict there are only two ways out: One is death, the other rehabilitation. Unbelievably, there are just 2,000 places on rehab programmes in the entire country. The system will prescribe methadone like mother's milk, but if you want to get clean, this country won't help you.

That is why my Party is committed to a ten-fold increase in rehab capacity. That's 20,000 places, enough for every hard drug addict between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Whether they like it or not. Because our policy will be backed up by compulsion.

But our attack on the causes of crime goes well beyond addiction. We will implement policies at every stage to get offenders off the conveyor belt to crime. We will institute much longer but much more constructive, rehabilitative sentences for persistent young offenders, with a period of serious rehabilitation in open custody and a long period of supervision based on the C-Far model.

We will focus more effort on helping the parents of very young, troubled children before those children have a chance to go off the rails. And Damian Green and I will shortly be making announcements on helping those excluded from school to return to the rails.


It is fashionable these days to talk about partnership. But this really is about partnership. Government must do its part by providing the resources for neighbourhood policing and for policies to get young people of the conveyor belt to crime. And the police must do their part, which in particular depends on the people in this room.

If fully-funded, fully-respected neighbourhood policing is going to work, it's got to work at the level of the BCU. It will be the captain of the Dirty British Coaster that delivers the goods. Not the Chief Constable on his Stately Spanish Galleon. And certainly not the landlubbing politician, running up and down the beach, trying to direct the fleet.

You can't steer a ship from the shore. And you can't police a neighbourhood from Whitehall. The Home Office has got to let go. Because, sooner or later, the obsessive, centralising tendencies of the current regime will end in disaster.

The next Conservative Government will reverse the direction of policing policy. We will push power down from the politicians and bureaucrats, through the police force hierarchies and to the police officers on the front line against crime and disorder. Each of you will be accountable, not to me, but to the neighbourhoods in your care.

At next month's Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, I plan to make a major announcement on how the next Conservative Government will change the relationship between the Home Office, each police force and the general public. And, as with our plans for police numbers, that change will be dramatic.

We are determined to create the basis for a serious revival of neighbourhood policing in this country. We are determined to let the stimulus for such policing come from local populations rather than from above. And we are determined to let you get on with the job, rather than telling you how to do it.

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