The police service is undergoing tumultuous change and faces huge challenges. Police integrity has been brought into question by ‘plebgate‘, Hillsborough and Leveson. At the same time, the police have been caught in a pincer movement between rising demand and financial austerity. Although crime has fallen significantly, the police are increasingly expected to intervene as the public service of last resort in all sorts of community disputes. Moreover, as crime has shifted online and become more international, the work of policing has become more complex.
At the same time, the police have faced large budget cuts, a pay freeze and major reforms to pay and pensions. The public are starting to notice as neighbourhood policing teams are cut back. Combined with government ministers insisting that the police should be seen principally as ‘crime-fighters’, the police are in danger of retreating to a discredited model of reactive ‘fire brigade policing’.
It is in this context that the Independent Police Commission, established by Labour and chaired by the former Metropolitan Police Commission Lord Stevens, reports today. We make a number of recommendations across all areas of British policing. Taken together they amount to the most radical and substantial review of the police service since the 1962 Royal Commission.
Our first objective is to restore neighbourhood policing, currently under threat, as the bedrock of policing in England and Wales. To achieve this, we recommend the implementation of a local policing commitment across all forces, including guarantees around response times, accessibility and a minimum level of neighbourhood policing. Financial constraints mean that not every area can have the same level of neighbourhood policing and, beyond a national minimum, resources should be focused on the high crime areas.
Following ‘plebgate’, Leveson and a range of other recent scandals, there is a need to make sure that all officers are held to the highest professional standards. We recommend merging HMIC and the IPCC into a new single police standards agency. This new agency would hold police forces to account for the delivery of standards, deal with misconduct effectively and efficiently, and ensure all failings are addressed without delay.
To further raise standards, the Commission recommends creating a ‘chartered police officer’ as the basis of the police profession. All police officers must register with the College of Policing. Existing officers will be registered under ‘grandfather’s rights’, but all must demonstrate they are properly accredited within five years. This provides a mechanism for continuous professional development and means that those without accreditation will leave the service.
Following extensive deliberation, we have concluded that the government’s experiment with Police and Crime Commissioners has failed. The aim of this reform was to connect the police with the concerns of the public. By that standard, PCCs have failed: turnout in the first elections was pathetic, leaving the elected commissioners with contested legitimacy. Moreover, the public visibility of PCCs has been low and concerns about the appointment and dismissal of some chief constables have undermined confidence. We argue instead that local government should be given a much stronger role in holding the police to account – a form of democratic accountability that is much closer to the public.
Finally, we confront one of the great elephants in the room’ of British policing. Almost no one who gave evidence thought that the existing structure of 43 forces was the best way either to deliver responsive local policing or to deal with ‘high policing’ matters such as serious and organised crime. In the context of a major fiscal squeeze it is essential that the structure is addressed if we are to avoid further damaging cuts to the frontline. We recommend that decisions over most community policing matters be decentralized to local government level. Having taken that major localising step, the present force structure looks unsustainable. We recommend that the government consults on three options: negotiated mergers, coordinated mergers into ten forces and the creation of a national police service.
Our report sets out a bold and radical vision to deliver fair and effective policing in straitened times. This model of policing is one grounded in values that are widely shared among the British people and informed by good evidence of how the police can, with others, contribute to the creation of a safer, more cohesive and more just society – in short, to a better Britain.
Rick Muir is a member of the Independent Police Commission and writes in a personal capacity.