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Elizabeth Truss: A new police force for England and Wales

Picture_11 Elizabeth Truss is deputy director of Reform, the independent, non-party think-tank, and is co-author of its new paper on police reform, A New Force, which is published today. Here she previews that paper.

Tuesday’s announcement that police forces will be obliged to cut officer numbers going into recession to get the budgets into shape puts a spotlight on how effectively and efficiently we police as a country.

Despite having the most expensive police service in the developed world per capita - costing 20 per cent more as proportion of  GDP than the US - Reform’s new report, A New Force, shows that there are major gaps in provision, particularly in tackling organised crime. The street price of drugs is falling – cocaine costs half as much as a decade ago. People-trafficking is rising. The recent SOCA Threat Assessment showed that criminal gangs are importing ever larger quantities of fire arms, fuelling gun crime in London, Manchester and Birmingham.

The 43 forces of England and Wales are neither fish nor fowl. They are not accountable locally or nationally and can be run like fiefdoms – ordering their own IT, uniforms and equipment. Chief Constables are nominally accountable to Police Authorities but they lack a direct electoral connection.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s 2005 Closing the Gap report highlighted a huge gap in dealing with national serious and organised crime, with many of the 43 forces lacking the capability to deal effectively with high-level threats. Cooperation and intelligence-sharing to deal with crime that crosses regional boundaries is weak. The report declared that “the 43 force structure is no longer fit for purpose”.

At the same time police forces are too large to be truly flexible or local. Studies suggest that a small force with closer to 100 officers solves more crimes per officer perform than one of 1,000. (West Yorkshire Police has 5,000 officers.) The failed “superforces” model proposed by Charles Clarke would only have exacerbated this problem.

The challenge of coordinating national crime fighting in Britain has been a perennial topic. A national police force was first proposed by Robert Peel in 1828. A minority report submitted to the 1962 Royal Commission made the same recommendation. It has never quite taken off as England and Wales does not fit a simple federal model like Germany or the US, with a clearly defined balance between the local and the national. The response of governments has been therefore to do nothing.

In the absence of anyone else filling the gap the Metropolitan Police have taken a national lead role in many areas, often in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). The Met already leads on counter-terrorism, coordinating “hubs” based in seven locations around the country. These hubs are staffed by local forces and funded by the Home Office. The Met also coordinates mutual aid (on behalf of ACPO) between forces and Police Support Units, which provide additional or specialist resources when needed.

The Government has acknowledged that the Metropolitan Police is the only show in town for e-crime. After dissolving the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit into SOCA in 2006, the Government has launched a new Police Central e-crime Unit, sited at the Met, not SOCA – at a cost to taxpayers of £7 million.

Reform recommends that the successful counter-terrorism hub model is used to combat organised crime. The Met would coordinate while local forces provide the manpower in local hubs and the Home Office provides funds. Thus the serious crime work remains “embedded” in local police forces.

Accountability should be sharpened up by making the Metropolitan Police formally responsible for leading on national and regional serious and organised crime. Models of operation should be much more transparent. Both counter-terrorism and mutual aid are dealt with by bodies commissioned by ACPO committees. ACPO is a limited company that is exempt from FOI requests. Police forces do not publish itemised accounts or details of their chain of command or accountability structures.

Proper national accountability needs to be accompanied by proper local accountability. This is best done by matching police force boundaries to local authority boundaries in “natural” communities. Thus we could see the development of a Leeds City Force or a Brighton and Hove Force, free from the constraints of their amorphous regions.

Ours is not a “big bang” proposal. It would be up to local leaders to decide – they could continue to joint commission forces, or they could choose to secede and run their local policing independently. Our research indicates that in 11 cases boundaries already match, and in 25 cases police Basic Command Units (BCUs) with boundaries that match local government could form the forces. Only 7 of the 43 forces pose a problem with current BCU and local government boundaries.

Compared to other public services, the police are in a good position, with a strong record and an esprit de corps unmatched in health or education. Our proposals seek to preserve this but at the same time address the twin threats of low level and serious crime. The Home Office must step away from interfering in operational practices and reintroduce greater discretion, taking advantage of the professionalism of police officers. In return the police must accept greater transparency and accountability from local and national authorities.


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