Police Reform: More Rhetoric under the guise of Power to the People?

Theresa May
Rt.Hon. Theresa May MP

Yesterday, Theresa May MP , the Home Secretary, delivered her latest sermon from the Home Office pulpit. Her speech was billed as a “coherent ideological vision for the service in England and Wales” but, is that vision blurred by the impact of an empty public purse?

She told her audience that police reforms weren’t just about money-saving and were designed to “equip the police to face the future.” The Home Office website says; “The government’s radical programme will leave us with a police force that is answerable to the public and transformed in its ability to fight crime.”

Whether or not all the claims come to fruition remains to be seen, I have to admit I’m doubtful. But more importantly, it’s also arguable whether or not the public will actually reap the promised benefits in the long run, I for one am still to be convinced.

When people talk about public service reform it’s often through the prism of cuts. With the deficit we have, that’s understandable, but it’s just not what our police reforms are about..(Theresa May MP)

It was good to hear Ms May actually acknowledge the important role that policing holds in our society at the beginning of her speech

The police do one of the most important jobs in this country. They do their work with great courage, great skill and great commitment. In fact, I believe Britain has the finest police officers in the world. But we can help them do their job even more effectively…(Theresa May MP)

But don’t forget, she (and many of her political cohorts), often espouse a sweetener of hollow admiration, prior to getting into the meat of party political diatribe. Being adept at saying one thing to the face of policing (and the public), is often swiftly followed by stabbing them in the back before all the hot air has even cooled, it’s a prerequisite skill of politicians!

It’s undeniable that the role, task and perception of British policing has changed immensely since Sir Robert Peel’s conception indeed, I witnessed massive change during my thirty year career, only a small part in the bigger picture however; many say (and I agree) how can you plan and implement ‘reform’ when you don’t really know what it is you are trying to improve? A question that Mark Easton of the BBC is trying to address (see below).

In March 2011, Paul McKeever, the chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, said: “It is extraordinary that the Home Office and Government have actually followed a policy for the last few months of reforming the police service through cuts by saying they will protect the front line when they, nor anyone else, can say what that is.” A year on and little has changed, there are still many big questions around the remit, roles and responsibilities of 21st century policing.

In addition, what the public want/expect from policing despite being mostly undefined, is wholly dependent upon the diversity of differing communities and the individuals that live within them. Everything from counter-terrorism and gang ‘warfare’ in the cities, through to alcohol related incidents and anti-social behaviour in the towns and suburbs, are all within the policing remit. As are the needs of the rural community suffering from burglary, livestock and fuel theft.

Try explaining to village community groups there are insufficient police resources to protect them and their property. The reduction in funds (and police numbers) mean understanding priorities; drunks fighting and smashing windows in the town centre two or three nights per week are (arguably), more important than the possibility of Ol’ Farmer Giles getting his tractor nicked.

Many parts of policing, with differing levels of priority for politicians, the public and the police are already in decline, and have been for years. 

The speech, and comment on its content, was admirably covered during the day by experts, critics and some supporters, both in the mainstream and social media forums. If there is one thing to be said for the power of the internet and modern communications; critical political matters are far more ‘in your face’ these days. Great for public engagement, not so great for politicians with a desire to try to stuff things under the door at the eleventh hour, and then say we were all consulted, I suspect.

Reading the piece written by Bernard Rix, a well-known and respected policing and public sector management consultant, entitled – Policing: “Power of the Public” – I’m mostly in agreement with many of his observations. He outlined how he believes the ‘most important’ content of the speech was the part relating to “empowering the public.”

Although I obviously find that interesting and an important issue, now I’m a retired police officer, I’m not sure I could confidently give it the highest priority, if I was still serving and being so severely financially shafted by our government?

…it does not mean that we’re happy with the outcome. Whichever way you dress it up, this will mean serious financial hardship for police officers…(Paul McKeever)

By the end of the day many, who actually have an interest in the issues, had digested the speech and offered up their own comments on the subject. But, as usual, with any political hot potato there was polarity of opinion. What too many often fail to understand is the plight of those who provide us with policing services.

They are not faceless or insignificant and generally, take pride in working hard to deliver the best possible service they can, often to their own and their family’s detriment. To add insult to injury, they’re now being financially disadvantaged as well. Writing his Chairman’s Blog on the subject, Clive Chamberlain of the Dorset Police Federation wrote…

All this means that police officers face a cut in take home pay of between 20 and 30 per cent over the next three years – more than any other group of public sector workers. Add to this the 20% cuts to the funding of the police service and loss of at least 16,000 warranted officers posts and policing is in for a challenging time. I fear the long-term losers will be our communities…(Clive Chamberlain)

Unfortunately I was unable to follow the issue ‘live’ all day and in addition, I also missed the new BBC Radio 4 series to be hosted by the BBC Home Affairs editor Mark Easton, due to work. In the program he intends to explore (and perhaps answer) the important question; “What are the police for?” He preempted the show with an excellent blog posting (see here) which set the scene about the conflicting priorities involved in policing today. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t as simple a process as many would believe.

That is a much broader description of the police’s role than cutting crime “no more and no less”. Indeed, it might be argued, Theresa May wants them to do it all – from kids tagging a lamp-post to organised criminal gangs…(Mark Easton)

So what do you think the role of the police should be? Mark’s series What Are The Police For, which started on BBC Radio 4 last night, may answer some of the questions but I guess I will have to catch up via the iPlayer!

To borrow a phrase used in recent Home Office police recruitment campaigns; Policing – Could You? There is however one thing for sure… Sir Robert Peel is turning uncomfortably in his grave!

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