Summer, 2006. In Lancaster, local Liberal Democrats are helping collect signatures for a petition against Home Office plans to merge police forces in a drive to improve services and drive down costs. Some wag has printed posters warning against the safety dangers of taking “CaLPol”, the unfortunate potential acronym for the new Cumbria & Lancashire police force.
A chubby young man with dreadlocks the colour of damp cobbles takes me to task about this latest LibDem rally. “You’re the only party I could vote for if I felt like it, and you’re sticking up for the police!” he charges. Turns out to be an anarchist, but clearly a wobbly one. Like a member of the Church of England, say, principled while not committed to anything.
Four years later and those plans, long since abandoned along with the succession of Home Secretaries, appear to be back on track. With the Conservatives citing their preferred option for Directly Elected Commissioners – something I support – there seems to be a pressing enthusiasm for cutting the numbers of Constabularies in the name of cost cutting and assisting in major investigations involving serious organised crime and terrorism. “Consolidation”, of course, always means job losses and a growing distance between provider of a service and its customers. The threat of “CaLPol” returning is ever closer; I cannot say the idea of a “super force” stretching from Carlisle to Skelmersdale makes me feel safer or confident of low-level crime will be responded to any quicker than it is today.
My preference for directly elected commissioners is based on being attracted to the idea of accountability at the very top of all police forces. This is not about introducing a layer of party politicians at the top of the local constabulary, indeed nobody has actually suggested the elections take place on party lines. Across the country there are very highly successful examples of police and communities working together to suggest aims and judge police on their performances; I have seen very popular “Police and Communities Together” meetings in church halls and schools across Preston, where the only thing missing in my opinion is an independent figure at the top of the system able to judge the priorities and how they have been met.
There would be a worsening in performance if “super forces” across swathes of England and Wales were merged in the name of cost-cutting. I am, therefore, positioned on the other side of Sir Hugh Orde, who suggests mergers could be acceptable while commissioners would not.
Budget cuts and savings are required across the Home Office, who seem to zone into the “easier” targets whenever cost cuttings are mentioned. The dreadlocked man in Lancaster who disliked my party’s support for the police in general may prefer us now Chris Huhne has spoken out against the Commissioners plan…but if faced with me again would have to jab his finger one more time.