Why I Disagree With Lord Ian Blair On Police Reform

This article was published in Conservative Home on 21 July 2012

I have liked and respected Lord Ian Blair since I shared a classroom with him on the Police Senior Command Course almost twenty years ago.  It was clear even then that he was destined for the very top of the service.  However, I simply do not agree with his views on the Police Reform Programme.

Writing in the New Statesman recently, Lord Blair declared “Police independence is under threat” and gave four reasons for his views.  I truly believe each to be wrong.

Firstly, he says that “a series of connected decisions” reinforce the view “the main job of the Police is to catch criminals”, which he goes on to criticise.

Leaving aside the obvious – that this seems to be an intrinsic part of the public’s, let alone a Conservative perception of what the Police should be doing – it ignores the consistent message from both Theresa May and Nick Herbert that the primary responsibility of the Police is to reduce crime, which is not just a semantic difference, but a fundamental and strategic shift of thinking, with a much wider impact than merely arresting people.

This change is embodied in many ways – the most obvious being the cross-departmental responsibilities that Nick Herbert deals with as Minister for not only Policing, but Justice as well.  No previous Government has had the imagination to have a single Minister dealing with the end-to-end process of Criminal Justice in this manner.

Building upon this, the Government is introducing Police and Crime Commissioners, with far wider responsibilities than the Police Authorities they will replace.  It is clear that Lord Blair (and many other people) have not grasped the real opportunities these wider responsibilities will bring – to scrutinise at a local level the whole of the Criminal Justice Process; to fund Crime Reduction Partnership activity, thereby focussing on the wider causes of crime and anti social behaviour; to really connect different strands of activity, drive efficiency and eliminate waste.

Far too many people who should know better talk of “Police Commissioners” – and I regret to say, the culprits include many Ministers – who forget the crucial words “and Crime” in the title.  It is the “and Crime” that makes the difference – that gives Commissioners the opportunity to drive the greatest and most effective reform of our approach to reducing crime and anti social behaviour that we have seen in decades.

Secondly, he criticises the budgetary restraint that is being imposed upon the Police, saying it will “probably force the Police to retreat into an outdated method of working” where Neighbourhood Policing will suffer, because all the Police will be withdrawn from these activities.  There is no evidence this is occurring.  Additionally, removing the multiplicity of targets created for every strand of Police activity the last Government created is saving Officer time and getting them out of the Police Stations where people want to see them.

Lord Blair is not alone in this mantra about “savage cuts”.  Yvette Cooper and all her Parliamentary colleagues continually bemoan the fiscal position Police Forces are in and the issue is shaping up to be a key element of the forthcoming elections.  It really is about time everybody realised the fairies do not bring money in the night and every possible efficiency saving has to be generated for the next decade if we are to sort out the financial mess Labour left the country in.

The third attack is about the Association of Chief Police Officers, which Lord Blair considers is being distanced from policy development, whilst at the same time criticising the demise of the National Police Improvement Agency, which he describes as “trying to do what it said on the tin”.

With regard to the ACPO, the facts speak for themselves – Theresa May and Nick Herbert use them as a resource all the time.

Of the National Police Improvement Agency, one has to say that others hold a different view from Lord Blair – one which highlights the massive spending and lack of outcomes associated with the Agency.  One has only to refer to the debacle over deployment of mobile data terminals to Police Officers, which saw some forces left woefully short of these devices whilst others had more terminals than Officers.  However, the creation of a Police Officer led Border Force, the Police Professional Body and the National Crime Agency demonstrates the Government’s determination to ensure national standards of professionalism and expertise remain and are developed far more effectively in the future.

Finally, Lord Blair reserves his deepest opprobrium for Police and Crime Commissioners and what he forsees as an inevitable consequence – the loss of operational independence by Chief Constables.

Citing everyone from Robert Peel to Sherlock Holmes, referring to academics from the sociological criminologist Egon Bittner to Kelling and Wilson (of “broken windows” fame in policing circles) he declares as “particularly ironic that Peel’s own party is involved in driving the partial destruction of his greatest legacy”.

I have never been attracted to the argument the sky is going to fall in if a particular policy is pursued, budget reduced, or decision made.  However, there is one element of Lord Blair’s argument with which I totally agree.

We lose operational independence in policing at our peril.  That a Chief Constable (or indeed any person holding the Office of Constable) can act without fear or favour in executing the duties of the office is a fundamental difference between our police and most other law enforcement bodies in the world.

I do not believe the transition from Police Authorities to elected Commissioners presents the risk Lord Blair identifies.

Firstly – although most people don’t know this, the vast majority of Police Authority members hold their position at the whim of party group leaders on councils.  They have every reason for toeing the party line, for fear of being removed from what is a fairly lucrative appointment.  This is local political patronage of the worst sort and the direct relationship between future Commissioners and their electorate is certainly to be preferred.

Secondly, Theresa May has – for the first time in the history of policing in this country – created a series of protocols which define key elements within the relationships involved.  Never before has such clarity been given to the relationship between Chiefs and the people to whom they are accountable.

Not only have the protocols been developed  – with the agreement of the Association of Chief Police Officers, no less, somewhat undermining Lord Blair’s argument about them being marginalised – they have the force of law, having been created by Statutory Instrument.

Much has been made of the power Police and Crime Commissioners will have to “hire and fire” Chief Constables.  Lord Blair describes this as placing them in a position where they will not stand up to their Commissioners.  I think we need to get away from the macho descriptions being used and I don’t agree that Chiefs will be as malleable as Lord Blair says.

The simple fact is an effective Commissioner will need the support of the Chief Constable to really make radical change happen and to grind out efficiencies in the Police and elsewhere on a day to day basis.  Behaving in a dictatorial fashion will not achieve that objective.  If constant reference is being made to “The Protocol” – both of them have failed.

The concept of “Operational Independence” is fairly simple when analysed and the relationship between that and the Commissioner’s statutory responsibilities about effectiveness, efficiency and value for money should be the first agreement the two parties reach.

A Commissioner who cannot live with a Chief Constable needs to understand not only will their Police and Crime Panel have to ratify the decision, but also their local media will commence every story about them with the details of the event for the remainder of their term in office.

It follows that for Lord Blair to say that Police independence is under threat is not only wrong, but each of the arguments are flawed.

Actually, it really is, as Bernard Hogan-Howe, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said recently, “time to shut up and move on” when it comes to Police and Crime Commissioners.  However, in doing that, we also need to get a real sense of clarity about why our approach is right, to get it understood by the wider Conservative movement and to generate the same sense of understanding amongst the electorate.