Police must be crime fighters, not form writers
Last week Greater Manchester Police excited public attention by Tweeting every call they received in 24 hours. The Chief Constable said he wanted to show that the police don't just deal with crime.
There were certainly some time-wasting calls. It's obviously not the police's job to deal with builders who turn up late to work or remove a rat from a house.
But it shouldn't be hard to sort out the trivial reports from those requiring action. We were given the impression that these were all 999 calls. In fact, two thirds were to the force's non-emergency number. Tellingly, it seems that most did actually report anti-social behaviour or crimes.
I applaud the transparency which this initiative brought. And I agree with the Chief Constable that crime is connected to social issues. The police can't fight crime alone. The active involvement of other agencies, such as those dealing with mental health, drugs addiction or housing, is essential.
And of course the police have a wider role in protecting their communities. This was powerfully brought home to all of us who attended the Police Bravery Awards and met the relatives of officers like PC Bill Barker who died heroically while helping people in the Cumbria floods.
But the primary mission of the police is to cut crime, and it always was. The founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, declared more than 170 years ago that the "basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder". As a former Chief Constable said this week, "if it's not the police's job to cut crime, whose is it?"
The Inspectorate of Constabulary found that 90 per cent of the public think it is the responsibility of the police to tackle those causing anti-social behaviour, yet forces were not always doing so. Communities whose lives are blighted do not want to hear about the 'complexities of modern policing'. It would hardly be reassuring for a sick patient to be lectured by a doctor about the complexities of modern medicine. The public wants to hear that the police will fight crime. And as Policing Minister I am determined to ensure that forces are able to do so.
This week, the Government will announce a challenging set of reductions in public spending as we address the deficit. The police will have to play their part. But we are determined to do what we can to strip out bureaucracy and unnecessary cost in policing. The front line must be the last place to look for savings, not the first.
The Inspectorate of Constabulary has said that forces can save over £1 billion a year - more than 12 per cent of their budgets - by working more efficiently, without touching the front line. There is potential for far greater collaboration, sharing and outsourcing services - and not just in the back office. For instance, a new plan will enable forces to share helicopters, with no loss of operational effectiveness.
Money is wasted when 43 forces procure their own equipment, such as cars, and develop their own IT systems. So we will mandate national procurement where savings can be made. It's a paradox that the last Government was weak in driving such savings from the centre, yet they never stopped interfering in local policing.
Arriving in the Home Office on my first day as a Minister, I discovered a sign in the washrooms which didn't just exhort me to wash my hands, but set out comprehensively how to perform the task. At least the advice didn't begin at an earlier stage in the process. But the notice perfectly illustrated Labour's culture of micromanagement.
A hailstorm of targets and directives fell on local forces. In the last year alone there were more than 2,600 pages of guidance. Laid end to end, the pages of all current advice would be three times higher than the Eiffel tower.
It's no wonder that the police were spending more time on paperwork than patrol. The Inspectorate has found that, on average, just 11 per cent of a police force's manpower is visibly available to the public at any one time. Last year we hit a record number of police officers in England and Wales - over 140,000. But if they are also filling in record numbers of forms, or working inefficiently, the figures don't count for the public.
Labour's centralism wasn't just costly. It skewed priorities, interfering with local and professional discretion. It forced officers and staff to respond to what government wanted rather than what the public want. We need to return to common sense policing.
So we have scrapped national targets and the 'policing pledge', on which Labour spent £6 million of propaganda. We are cutting out unnecessary forms. Abolishing the form which officers must fill in every time they stop someone, and reducing drastically the stop and search recording process, will save over 800,000 hours of police time a year.
Too often the police key in information or fill in forms several times over. Real improvements in IT and business processes are needed, but not every requirement comes from government. A risk averse internal culture has grown up. We need to give officers more space to exercise their judgement, restoring professional discretion.
We are successfully piloting the return of charging decisions from the Crown Prosecution Service to the police, and we can go further. The public must still be able to hold forces to account. That's why greater transparency and stronger local accountability are so important. So from next January, we will publish new crime maps allowing the public to see at street level where crimes are committed. And in 2012 the people will be able to elect local Police and Crime Commissioners, replacing weak and invisible police authorities, setting local policing priorities, holding forces to account, and leading a coordinated effort to ensure community safety.
By replacing bureaucratic accountability with democratic accountability, we will ensure that the people's priorities are reflected in policing. Polling shows that 91 per cent of the public want a more visible police force, patrolling their local area. Even with tighter budgets and fewer people, front line policing can be protected if bureaucracy is attacked, resources are used more efficiently, and officers work more productively. New York's police lost more than a tenth of their manpower in the last decade, yet crime fell by over a third. The police must be crime fighters, not form writers.
Nick Herbert is Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice