25 July 2008
The green paper on police service reform proposes to include directly elected local representatives on police authorities. But will they have enough clout, asks Rick Muir
The police are unusual among the public services in having successfully resisted the wider reform agendas of both main political parties. Almost uniquely, they were left untouched by the Thatcher revolution and have not experienced significant organisational change even under a Labour government that has made public service reform a priority. Labour has invested more money and required the police to follow Whitehall performance targets. But in terms of structure or how the police are governed and held to account, there has been surprisingly little change in the past 30 years.
However, things are set to change. One of David Cameron's first moves as Conservative leader was to set up a task force to look at police reform. This proposed major reductions in bureaucracy and argued that police authorities should be replaced with directly elected commissioners. The government has now published a green paper on policing which, among other things, proposes further modernising of the workforce, cutting red tape and giving directly elected mayors and other locally elected representatives a role in setting priorities.
The case for reform is strong. While crime has fallen significantly over the past decade, much of that reduction is due to a strong economy. If the economy falters in the years ahead, most criminologists expect crime to rise again. And police performance on key measures has not improved in the same period. For example, detection rates fell between 1998 and 2002 and are only recently approaching 1998 levels, with around 24% of recorded crimes being 'cleared up' in 2007 compared with 29% in 1998/09.
While there has been a rise in the number of offences brought to justice, this does not mean more offenders being brought before the courts but is a result of the new forms of discretionary punishment, such as penalty notices for disorder and 'on the spot' fines.
Moreover, public confidence in the police has fallen. The proportion of people saying that the police do a 'good or excellent' job fell to 48% in 2004/05, from 64% in 1996. Elsewhere in the public sector, people with direct experience of services (such as schools and hospitals) are normally more satisfied with the quality of those services than the general public as a whole. But the opposite is true of policing. People who have direct contact with the police as victims or witnesses tend to be less satisfied with the quality of the service provided than those who have not had such contact.
This is despite record increases in public spending on the police (up by 21% in real terms since 1997) and the fact that we now have more officers than at any time in our history (up by 11% or 14,000 officers since 1997). As public spending gets tighter in the years ahead, the police will have to raise their performance without significant extra resources. They will, in short, have to do things differently.
There are a number of changes that would help to achieve this – for example, police information systems remain poorly integrated and there is still no national police IT system. There is a need for workforce reform – for example, numerous tasks are currently carried out by warranted constables that could be done at less cost and to equivalent standard by civilian specialists, saving huge amounts of police time. The creation of more specialised roles and opening up the service to a wider diversity of skills would also help. In this respect, the government's green paper proposes much greater national inspection and monitoring of chief constables' workforce strategies, which is very welcome.
However, most political attention has focused on increasing the accountability of the police to local communities. There are two arguments in favour of this. First, we know that the decline in public satisfaction with the police is linked to a perceived decline in responsiveness. Many people believe the police do not spend enough time out on the beat and are not focusing on the crimes that matter most to local communities.
Until now, the government's response has been to introduce neighbourhood policing, each local area having a dedicated team of constables and police community support officers out on regular patrol and taking a 'problem solving' approach to tackling crime. Early pilots have shown promising results and the word from both the police and local authorities is that neighbourhood policing is having an impact.
But 'having more bobbies on the beat' is only part of the solution: the fact is that local policing priorities continue to be set several steps removed from local people. The police are theoretically held to account at the local level by police authorities, which are made up of councillors, magistrates and appointed members. However, these authorities provide a very weak form of accountability. Few people know they exist, their members are not directly elected and they cover very wide areas, meaning that they are remote from the views of local residents.
Moreover, most of what officers spend their time doing is dictated nationally by Whitehall performance targets. In a recent speech, Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair disclosed that almost every borough police commander in London had told him their priorities would be different if they were set locally rather than by the Home Office. Even with neighbourhood policing there is a responsiveness gap.
Another argument for greater local accountability is that we need robust mechanisms to hold chief constables to account for their performance. At present this is done through central targets, which are far too inflexible. If we are to replace this centralised regime, we need powerful local agents capable of appraising police performance and ensuring delivery.
So what is to be done? The government's green paper takes several steps in the right direction. Especially welcome is the decision to scrap the central targets imposed on police forces. These have led to officers handing out many more cautions for minor drugs offences simply to tick government boxes, and have made policing extraordinarily inflexible. Now there will be a single target to increase the public's confidence in the ability of the police to reduce crime.
There are also plans to boost accountability through direct elections for police authorities. The government rightly rejects the proposal to directly elect a police commissioner for each force, as some are so large that such a person would be far too remote from local people's concerns. It proposes an elected representative for each borough or district, who would chair a local board and represent the area on the local police authority.
This would increase police authorities' democratic legitimacy. However, the key to delivering greater local accountability is how much power authorities would have. For instance, it seems they would not control the mainstream budget for neighbourhood policing in their area or have a role in appointing and appraising police commanders. Local representatives need the right mix of powers and resources, or they will not have sufficient clout to deliver.
Rick Muir is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and co-author of A new beat: options for more accountable policing. It can be download for free at: www.ippr.org/publicationsandreports/