The Home Office brief - a bed of nails during Labour’s years - shows no signs of becoming a fluffy chaise lounge under this government, writes Kevin Meagher.
The Home Office brief – a bed of nails during Labour’s years – shows no signs of becoming a fluffy chaise lounge under this government.
However, the sight of a Tory home secretary being openly barracked by the police is an altogether new phenomenon in British politics.
This was the fate of Theresa May who came in for an unprecedented buffeting at the hands of Police Federation delegates when she addressed their annual conference this week.
At the heart of this animosity is the scale of the 20 per cent funding cuts hitting the police. This translates into 16,000 frontline officers and a similar number of back office staff. As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper warned in her speech to the same conference, more than 5,000 police officers have already gone “from 999 response units, traffic cops and neighbourhood police”.
But more prosaic reforms are a cause of friction too, not least Tom Winsor’s review of pay and conditions, set up by Theresa May to deliver greater value for money and improve police services. Two weeks ago 30,000 officers took the rare and symbolic step of marching through London in protest.
Winsor recommends raising police entry standards, and fast-tracking more able candidates through the ranks as well as bringing pay and grading into line with other parts of the public sector.
As crossbench peer Lord Dear, a former HM Inspector of Constabulary, notes, the reforms are trying to challenge the “current culture” of a service “that is frequently unclear of its role: often risk-averse, process-dominated and defensive”.
Of course it may be a political curiosity to see a Tory home secretary on the ducking stool – and in the speed and scale of frontline cutbacks her critics are right to throw rotten fruit – but on police reform, it is Theresa May who is often right.
As The Independent noted:
“Individually, police officers are often stellar public servants. But the majority of forces are neither as efficient nor as accountable as they should be. Even without the need to tighten the government belt, it is high time for reform.”
The truth is the police have skipped many of the big organisational reforms other parts of the public sector have already undergone. The weakness of police authorities in holding constabularies to account has meant chief constables have enjoyed little real scrutiny and outdated practices have lingered.
When Labour’s former home secretary Charles Clarke tried to instigate the modest reform of rationalising the 43 constabularies in England and Wales into more scaleable regional forces – in order to avoid duplication and improve operational effectiveness – he was assailed on all sides until he was forced to drop the idea.
Anyway, trouble is brewing on another front as one of the Home Office’s flagship policies hits a problem. A poll this week shows the public does not know very much about the new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) ahead of the first elections to the posts in just six months’ time.
The ComRes poll (pdf), commissioned by campaign and research company Centreground Political Communications, found fewer than one in five voters (18%) feels they know much about the forthcoming elections to choose the 41 new PCCs, while a quarter of voters (26%) say they expect to vote for an independent.
The elections, described by police minister Nick Herbert this week as “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, are due to be held on November 15th. They had originally been tied in with elections for directly-elected big city mayors in a bid to boost turnout. In the event, only Bristol chose to switch to a mayoral model earlier this month, fuelling fears about turnout and the risk of fringe candidates emerging.
This adds to the stack of thorny problems mounting in the home secretary’s in-tray. And then, of course, there’s the Olympics and the ever-present worry about a re-run of last summer’s rioting and looting.
The curse of the Home Office is set to continue.