With Winsor's appointment, the Tories have declared war on the police

This is a highly provocative move.

The appointment of Tom Winsor as Chief Inspector of Constabulary can be boiled down to two areas of debate. First, there's the desire to distance Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) from the police force. Second, there's the way the government has chosen to do it.

On the first issue, the arguments have been played out across the media all day. The police will tell you that the man responsible for monitoring performance needs to understand the job, and for that reason, he needs to be drawn from the force. The counter-argument says that this leads to self-interested regulation - Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has never run a prison, for example. The counter-counter argument runs that HMIC is less of a regulator because of the various police authorities: it's really there to make the force run more efficiently. And so on.

It would take more space than we have here to thrash all these issues out, and they're somewhat beside the point. Of five current inspectors of constabulary, two aren't police officers. Many serving police officers can see the merits of the various arguments: judging by their comments this morning, it's not really why the appointment frustrates them so much.

However the government sells it, Winsor is a deeply provocative choice. In fact "provocative" doesn't really cover it. Unless Jim Davidson's being lined up to head the Equality and Human Rights Commission you're unlikely to see a public appointment provoke this much anger any time soon. You can forgive a nervous Lynne Featherstone - who was attempting to talk about forced marriages at the time -  for her somewhat-less than wholehearted endorsement of Theresa May's decision ("I believe Theresa is probably, almost certainly, right") on Radio 4 this morning.

The police hate Winsor because of the reforms suggested by his report, and the suspicion that they were simply an expression of Conservative political will. The issues surrounding them are hugely complex. Take pay: you tell me you don't like the fact that the basic salary for a typical officer at entry level is nearly £2,000 more than a teacher. I tell you teachers don't have a job where people try to stab them, unless they're at a particularly rough school. You say the police overtime bill is enormous. I tell you teachers aren't expected to be called out to work at 3am.

This is before we get on to Brian Paddick and his massive pension. You don't like it. I point out that Paddick doesn't have the same opportunities for career progression as he would in, say the army, and given he was a bright graduate, never mind the rest of the public sector - the state needs to have something to attract him away from coining it in at Goldman Sachs or some other City hell-hole, and if you're the government what better way than by promising him a load of money further down the line once you're safely out of office?

So we go away from our discussion having reached the conclusion that politicians are disingenuous scumbags, which is pretty much the same conclusion the police have reached for different reasons. And these days they seem more likely to blog or tweet these views than the average Guardian journalist (one of the morning’s more interesting posts on the surrounding issues was published here).

This is an unusual state of affairs. The received thinking in Whitehall is that law and order is just such a big deal for voters that if there's one branch of the public sector you don't want to upset, it's the cops. The trouble is that there are now just too many strong emotions and vested interests at play to come to any kind of meaningful conclusion. Paul McKeever of The Police Federation says the appointment will lead to senior officers leaving the force. But then yesterday, McKeever essentially claimed the Federation predicted the 2011 riots, which given the way they played out suggests he’s either prone to getting overexcited or officers don't listen to him as often as they should.

This declaration of war - and it is just that; a fierce rebuttal to the heckling May received when she spoke to the Police Federation last month - marks an unprecedented worsening in the relationship between government and police. Many of us have plenty of time for the argument that the force needs reform - it has been left untouched for 30 years - and the furious reaction to the initial Winsor report showed exactly why this has been the case. The question, therefore, is whether the government really needed to rub salt in the wound. This morning, Nick Herbert told Radio 4: "In his report he showed how he is able to get under the skin of policing." He's certainly got that right. I can only agree with Matt Cavanagh of the Institute for Public Policy Research. It's a "risky if not reckless choice".
 
But we're not there yet. Winsor has yet to meet the Home Affairs Select Committee, and one member, Steve McCabe MP, has already said the appointment of Winsor would mean the government was seeking to "politicise and neuter the police". Keith Vaz MP found it regrettable "those without experience of the frontline have been instructed to draw up the plans for our police force" a precedent also frowned upon by the outgoing inspector, Sir Denis O'Connor. Vaz and McCabe are, of course, both Labour, and this is the problem: every decision Winsor makes - whether right or wrong - is likely to be seen through a political lens.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.