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.