Da Police

Home Secretary Theresa May has confirmed plans for major police reform, although I am aware that “major police reform” is the kind of phrase often too often from the Home Office recently. It became quite common under the Labour Government, whose tabloid led reform was very much “top down” – more targets, more dictats, more demands. It was “reform by Daily Mail”, a concept so unsettling in its breadth I feel slightly dead inside thinking about the entire consequences.

May has proposed changing this around – the two headlines are the introduction of elected Police Commissioners by 2012, and the abolition of SOCA. Well, “building upon” SOCA, to form a new National Crime Agency from the amalgamation of numerous existing bodies.

On elected Police Commissioners, I support the plans as set out. It is right, if we are to have a police force which works for the safety of local communities, to have accountability at a local level. It remains the case that the police are largely without a single answerable higher force. I’m not great fan of the civil liberty hoovering-up which occurred under Labour, where the police became Moral Guardians, Drink Monitors and Attitude Surveyors. Theresa May must do what she can to focus the police on ACTUAL crime, not Thought Policing.

I hear a lot of “What about the BNP” straw-man arguments about elected Commissioners. Party membership is forbidden at the highest level of the existing police structure, I would hope this remains the case. However if the Commission candidates are able to be party political, then that’s fine by me. Ever since a member of the English Democrats was elected as Mayor of Doncaster, he has done more damage to the reputation of the far-right than anyone could have dreamed. His Party are no more a threat now than before his election; in 2010, despite his “ground breaking” election, the English Democrats continue to be nothing more than a vociferous bunch of nut-jobs. I have no fear about them, or the BNP, or any other extremists being elected; the far-right just are not able to secure electoral credibility.

In any case, using the BNP as a threat against allowing people to vote in elections, even changing the voting system, is incredibly patronising. It supposes that democracy is open to all, just not to all. The idea that increasing accountability or changing voting systems or opening up the House of Lords should be curtailed because of the ‘threat’ of the BNP is in itself anti-democratic and extreme.

One encouraging additional announcement from Theresa May is her pledge not to force police forces to merge. I remember campaigning against the planned merger of Lancashire and Cumbria forces into the laughably named “CaLPOL” some years ago. I was confronted in Lancaster by a self-proclaimed anarchist who wanted all police forces disbanded, these things tend to stick with you. As the Derrick Bird and Raoul Moat cases have proven, Constabularies need to know their local area intimately. It would have been far worse with Bird, for example, to expect a merged “CaLPOL” to follow a gunman through winding Cumbrian roads. Northumberland Police were able to get help from neighbouring forces, but it was their own knowledge of the rural outcrops of Rothbury which ultimately helped find Moat. A “Greater North East” police force would have focused its resources on Newcastle City Centre to the detriment of everywhere else.

A message board I visit began to discuss the full privatisation of the Police force, on the grounds that the State shouldn’t have its own “legislation enforcement team” in any case. Such a radical consideration falls down after some scrutiny, perhaps mercifully. As a realistic alternative, allowing members of the public to hold their local bobbies to greater account will do for me.

It is a sign of the times that it is Labour who want to deny devolution and accountability, while the Conservative-led coalition are taking power away from unelected bodies into the hand of ordinary people.

Police reform means democratic accountability…

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.