Labour's opportunistic campaign poster
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The Conservatives and Labour are both wedded to the failed War on Drugs

On drug policy, mindless tub-thumping trumps trumps what actually works. 

In the US presidential debate of the excluded three years ago, the Green Party, Justice Party, Libertarian Party and Conservative Party, four entities from right across the political spectrum, were united in denouncing the lunacy of the War on Drugs. Meanwhile Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, divided by far less ideologically, remained wedded to the status quo. It encapsulated a depressing truth about drugs policy in the western world. Advocating reform is a favourite of fringe and retired politicians and police officers. Those in power are lamentably reticent.

So it is in the UK. Last year promised to bring a sea change in the UK's self-destructive approach to the War on Drugs. A non-binding vote in the House of Commons advocated rethinking drug laws and - against Theresa May's wishes - the Home Office produced a report on what works in drug policy. It confirmed what we already knew: harsh sentencing does not lead to reduced use of drugs and, by stigmatising drug users, is actually counter-productive.

But it is a lesson that the main parties appear not to want to learn. While the Lib Dems and Greens advocate fundamental change in the UK's approach to drug policy - both parties want to transfer drug policy from the Department of Health to the Home Office, and the Lib Dems want to borrow from the successful Portuguese model, and decriminalise possession of all drugs for personal use - the bad news is that the Conservatives and Labour seem to remain wedded to the failed status quo on drugs.

Blind to the findings of the Home Office's report, David Cameron claimed that existing drug policy is "working". The fact that someone is 20 times more likely to die from drugs in the UK as in Portugal, where drug possession was decriminalised in 2001, tells a very different story. But the Conservative manifesto ignores all these lessons, advocating doubling down on failed drug policies that treat personal drug users as criminals rather than addicts. Abstinence would be kept as the goal of drug treatment, and substitute drugs to wean addicts off the most dangerous ones would not be countenanced.

Ostensibly Labour's approach seems less cackhanded. The manifesto advocates a greater emphasis on drug treatment and less on punishing users. "We will ensure drug treatment services focus on the root causes of addiction, with proper integration between health, police and local authorities in the commissioning of treatment," it reads. But of course very few people read manifestos. So what matters is the message that Labour is sending out - and campaign posters attacking the Lib Dems as "soft" on drugs shows that the party has opportunistically spied a dividing line with Clegg's party by hammering its desire to reform drugs policy. “Accusing the Lib Dems of being ‘soft on drugs and thugs’ is a cheap populist slogan that tries to hide the Labour Party's own co-responsibility for destroying the future of thousands of people by giving them a criminal record for no good reason at all," Martin Jelsma, Director of the drugs policy programme of the Transnational Institute, recently told me.

The alternative is hardly earth-shattering: following the evidence of what actually works in drug policy, rather than mindless tub-thumping. But political expediency dictates that the Conservatives and Labour do not speak out against the disastrous status quo. While that remains the case, 3,000 people will die every year from drug use in the UK.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation