Toby Harris on the need for a greater local dimension to UK policing
Later today, Peers will debate Policing for a Better Britain, the product of two years work by a group chaired by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord John Stevens. The report is a Royal Commission in all but name – and was commissioned by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, rather than the government. It is the most thorough appraisal of policing for over 50 years, and its detailed recommendations need to be taken seriously if the service is to meet the challenges of today.
The diagnosis is that the police are grappling with deep social transformation, including a global economic downturn, ever-quickening flows of migration, widening inequalities, constitutional uncertainty and the impact of new social media. Overall, crime levels have been declining for the last 15 years (despite some suggestions that violent crime and burglary are increasing again). But there are new types and modes of crime to contend with: e-crime and cyber-enabled crime, the widespread trafficking of people and goods, and also terrorism – both international and domestic. And all at a time when trust in the police is under threat.
We need now to return to the fundamental principles of British policing: the concept that the police are a civilian service operating with the consent of those they serve; that their effectiveness is measured not by the number of arrests but by the absence of crime; and that underlying it all is the idea that they are accountable for the actions they take.
Lord Stevens’ concludes that the police must have a social purpose that combines catching offenders with work to prevent crime and maintain order in our communities; that they should listen to what the public say while meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society; and above all be rooted in local communities.
Faced with the budgetary cut-backs of the last three years and ministerial insistence that the police’s only objective is to fight crime, the report warns: “there is a danger of the police being forced to retreat to a discredited model of reactive policing.” It also bemoans the steady dismantling by the Coalition of local community policing – built up and supported by the last Labour government. In London alone, for example, 300 sergeants have been lost from Safer Neighbourhood Teams over the past two years.
The sight of beat police, whom the community knows, fosters reassurance, promotes feelings of well-being and security, and builds public trust. And that itself enables the sort of relationship where people feel confident enough to confide their concerns and pass on the raw material of the intelligence that local police must rely on to do their work.
All of this needs to be coupled with increased professionalism (Stevens suggests the concept of ‘the chartered police officer’) and greater accountability, with a proper independent body to monitor standards and investigate complaints. Locally, there needs to be a much greater role for elected councils in setting priorities. At force-wide level, the report is scathing about the defects in governance resulting from the ill thought out changes that led to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners on a 15% turn-out.
What the Stevens Commission has done is provide a formidable body of evidence to support some coherent reforms to make British policing fit for the 21st Century whilst retaining the core principles that still make British policing the envy of the world. All we need now is a government that is interested in genuine improvements to take this forward, rather than one that takes delight in sniping at Chief Constables and undermining police morale.
Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a backbench Labour Peer and a former Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority
Published 5th December 2013