When it comes to policing, the government of the last ten years has been wrong about pretty much everything.
From the moment in 2010 that David Cameron moved into Downing Street and Theresa May took up residence in the Home Office, it was evident that police reform was high on their agendas. In fact, it rapidly became apparent that they regarded policing as a significant problem in need of fixing.
They actually seemed to relish their task, but the damning facts are that they set about it without any kind of coherent plan, without any real understanding of (or appreciation for) the service they were seeking to reform and without paying the slightest bit of attention to the voices of those who actually knew what they were talking about. From the very outset, members of the police service spoke out, warning the government of the inevitable consequences of their actions. But their concerns were dismissed with undisguised contempt by a Home Secretary who accused them of ‘crying wolf’.
Billions of pounds were cut from police budgets. Between 2010 and 2018, 44,000 officers and staff were lost from policing in England & Wales. Hundreds of police stations were closed. Neighbourhood policing was decimated. Specialist support in the form of dogs, horses and helicopters – all proven to be highly effective in the fight against crime – were cut back. And so it went on.
Then there were the changes driven by ideology: the creation of elected Police & Crime Commissioners; the appointment of the first ever civilian Chief Inspector of Constabularies (a former rail regulator with no experience of policing); the creation of the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Complaints; the initiation of a Direct Entry programme, allowing officers to join policing at the rank of Superintendent; the reform of police bail provisions. And on it went.
And they were wrong about almost all of it.
Crime Figures: Whenever the government’s approach was challenged by anyone, the response was to state that “crime is down and police reform is working”. But it turned out that neither element of that assertion was true. Crime has now been rising for some time, certainly crime of the most serious kinds.
Police Numbers: David Cameron and Theresa May cut more than 20,000 officers from policing in England & Wales. More recently, in one of his first announcements as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced the recruitment 20,000 additional officers. There was no hint of irony in what was said, no semblance of an apology for the untold damage done and no acceptance of the blindingly obvious – that here was a government scrambling to undo harms of their own making.
Stop & Search: The overt politicisation of the police use of Stop & Search – specifically by Theresa May – undoubtedly contributed to a substantial reduction in the use of the power. And it doesn’t require any great leap of the imagination to see a correlation between this and the alarming subsequent rises in violent crime.
PCCs: Policing in this country is founded in part on the notion of operational independence from political control: politicians should stick to politics and allow police officers to get on with the actual job of policing. The creation of Police & Crime Commissioners compromised this ideal. It has been a failed experiment. Whilst there are undoubtedly some excellent individual PCCs out there, it is the idea itself that has failed. Politics has been allowed to interfere with – and compromise the effectiveness of – frontline policing. And it is local communities that have suffered as a consequence.
IOPC: It is essential that police officers – individually and collectively – are held to the highest possible standards and that we have an independent complaints system that has the confidence of both the public and the police service. The IOPC, set up by the government in 2018, has the confidence of neither. Perhaps the greatest concern officers continue to articulate is the inordinate – and inexcusable – length of time taken by the IOPC to investigate far too many cases. The Police Federation is now calling for statutory time limits for all investigations and the necessary change can’t come soon enough.
Direct Entry: From 1829, when the Met Police was founded, until the coalition government came to power, there was only one possible route into policing: you joined as a PC and began your working life out on the streets. So much of the job is about experience – you learn it by doing it – and the PCs and DCs remain the heart and soul of the service. The introduction of the Direct Entry Superintendents programme therefore represented a significant departure from almost 200 years of history. In fairness, it allowed the service to recruit some exceptional individuals, but they were few in number and, in late 2019, the programme was suspended.
The College of Policing: The College was set up in 2012 as the new independent professional body for policing in England and Wales. But, from the outset, it was regarded with suspicion by frontline officers who saw it as nothing more than an extension of the government’s hostile reform programme. Seven years on, it is still trying to establish a credible identity amongst the rank and file.
Bail Reform: In 2017, the government introduced reforms to police bail, restricting the standard length of pre-charge bail to just 28 days. The move was opposed by every professional with an understanding of these things. And those professionals were right. Earlier this month, the Home Office announced a review of the law. The chair of the Police Federation had this to say about the decision: “Our stance has always been that a 28-day bail limit was unrealistic especially when dealing with complex and often protracted investigations, and the legislation as it stands allows potentially dangerous suspects to be released or even evade justice altogether.” Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager for the End Violence Against Women Coalition, went further: “This review is a clear acknowledgement of the systematic failings to protect those most at risk – a direct result of unnecessary and ill-conceived changes to the Bail Act in 2017.”
When it comes to policing, the government of the last ten years has been wrong about pretty much everything. But I am not writing this piece in an effort to deliver some kind of ‘told you so’ to government on behalf of the police service (though they were told, repeatedly and insistently). I am writing now because it is essential that we recognise, understand and learn from this litany of failure. Governments that pay no heed to the mistakes of the past are destined to go on repeating them.
Not so long ago, one leading member of the government suggested that ordinary people have had enough of experts. He was wrong. They have had enough of politicians.
Footnote (i): As ever, it is important to point out that the concerns I am articulating about policing are mirrored in almost every other part of the public sector: health, education, prisons, probation, the courts, and so it goes on. And the cost of austerity remains greatest for those least able to bear it.
Footnote (ii): As ever, the content of this blog is not for politically partisan use. In my view and experience the current opposition are, in their own unique set of ways, every bit as bad as the current government – not least in the form of a Shadow Home Secretary who gives every indication of being actively hostile towards the police service.
Footnote (ii): As ever, I need to remind myself that there are good politicians out there – on both sides of the House. They are women and men of conscience and character who need and deserve our encouragement and support. The tragedy is that they don’t appear to be the ones in charge.