Police Review Article

Last Saturday was a reminder of why policing matters and what officers do to keep the public safe.  Four Met officers were injured, three seriously, when tackling a suspect with a knife.  As the new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, put it, police officers run into danger when the rest of us are able to run away.  I, too, would like to express my thanks and admiration for the courage of the four officers, and wish them a speedy recovery.

Policing is a special public service.  Police officers do difficult and sometimes dangerous work.  They cannot strike.  They form the famous ‘thin blue line' between the public and criminals.  So we should value the police, treat officers properly, and do everything possible to ensure that the service is strong.

But policing doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it cannot be insulated from the reality of events which are affecting the whole country.  Everyone has seen the reports about the current economic situation, particularly in the Eurozone.  The dangers of letting a nation's debt get out of control are obvious.  Every family in the country would suffer the effect of higher interest rates if the markets lost faith in our determination to reduce spending, and those families include police officers.   And a failure to deal with these problems now would lead to far worse cuts being forced on us down the line, as countries like Greece and Italy have found.

So it is as much in the interests of police officers as everyone else that we tackle the deficit, and this is the Government's first priority.  This has meant some very difficult decisions, including to cut the budgets of public services, freeze the pay of public sector workers for two years, and reform pensions so that they are affordable in the long term.  The police service is not being singled out: these decisions are affecting people like soldiers, teachers, nurses and firefighters, too.

It is true that the police are also facing a review of pay and conditions, and we do want to try and protect jobs.  But this is not just about saving money - in fact, the first Winsor report has suggested net savings of just 2 per cent of the pay bill.  Reform is about ensuring that we are rewarding people in the right way, recognising the skills they have and the weight of the jobs they do.   The Winsor recommendations are currently under consideration in the Police Arbitration Tribunal, and we must await the outcome.

I recognise that many officers are also concerned about their pensions.  We want to ensure that police officers continue to have access to pension schemes that are among the very best available.  However, the fact is that people are living longer - a good thing of course, but as a result costs have risen by one third over the last decade.  This must be addressed.

I appreciate that police officers already pay higher monthly contributions than most public sector workers, but this is because they are paid over a shorter period - 30 or 35 years - with better benefits at the end than most.  I do not believe that it would be fair to exempt police officers from the increases in contributions which others in the public sector are having to make.

Equally, police officers should not have their pensions treated more harshly than other public servants.  So accrued rights - the pension pot which officers have built up - will be fully protected, and all police officers will have continued access to pensions that give a guaranteed benefit in retirement and that are better than almost any private sector pension. 

I understand, of course, why police officers and staff are concerned about pay, pensions and funding issues.  But I strongly reject the allegation that the Government is somehow singling out the police or is motivated by a dislike of the service.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I have always been an instinctive and fierce supporter of the police.  I will not step back from difficult decisions which have to be taken in the national interest.  But my goal has always been to support officers in their job.  And there are three key areas of reform where I particularly want to help.

First, I want to do everything possible to enable chief constables to protect the frontline.  So the Home Office has been supporting the drive to save money through collaboration, sharing and outsourcing services, and mandating national procurement.

We have identified over £2 billion a year of potential savings, a larger sum than the reduction in spending which forces will need to make.  The reason that this is a bigger figure for savings than the 12 per cent cuts in government grant set out by HMIC is that we have identified greater savings from procurement of services and IT, as well as the significant savings from a two year pay freeze.

No force will actually see a 20 per cent reduction in income, because every force raises funds from local taxpayers.  I do not underestimate the challenge which forces face in managing lower spending, and in a public service where 80 per cent of budgets are spent on people, a smaller workforce is unavoidable.  But if the right decisions are taken, with new ways of working, it should be possible to protect frontline delivery.

The election of Police & Crime Commissioners next year will also help to protect the frontline.  They will drive value for money, cost savings and reductions in bureaucracy, because they will know that this is what the public wants.

Second, I am determined to make real progress in the agenda to reduce bureaucracy.  We have already identified measures which could save some 3.3 million hours a year of officer time - equivalent to over 1,500 police officers.  But we need to do more, and I welcome the work which Chris Sims is doing through his Reducing Bureaucracy Programme Board.

Good public services can't be delivered through micro-management and targets.  Bureaucratic control skewed priorities, and it devalued the expertise and knowledge of frontline officers.  It created enormous compliance costs, kept officers from the streets and threatened to turn policing into a box-ticking exercise.  So as well as abolishing the targets and increasing discretion, for instance over charging, we need to empower police officers, enabling them to innovate and exercise their judgement without fear of recrimination.

This requires a return to a culture of professional discretion, where officers are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need.  So we will create a new professional body for policing which has responsibility for training, standards and leadership.  I strongly believe it is time we collectively lifted our sights and saw the huge and positive opportunity which creating an inclusive, professional policing body would bring to the whole service.

Third, I am focused on securing a more efficient criminal justice system which will help the police to do their job.  The response of the system to the riots showed what could be possible, with offenders being brought to justice in days and even hours, rather than the usual weeks and months.   Swift and sure justice shouldn't be the exception: it should be the norm.

So we are looking at how to speed up justice using new technology and smarter ways of working.  Next spring the criminal justice system will go digital, with the electronic transfer of documents between police, prosecution and courts.  We are rolling out integrated case management, and piloting livelinks so that officers can give evidence from police stations rather than have to hang around at court.

The riots revealed the worst of Britain, but the response showed the best.  The determination of officers to regain control of the streets was tremendous.  I know how much officers did during those hours.  We saw real heroism from officers in the face of violent attack, and I know that many worked long hours, missing leave and time with their friends and families.

The public support for the police during the riots was inspiring.  They knew what an important job officers were doing, and they were on the side of law and order.  Whether it is dealing with events like this, or tackling violent criminals, or doing a quieter but important job behind the scenes, policing matters.  So I would like to end by saying, quite simply, thank you to the police officers, PCSOs and staff who keep us safe.

Christopher N Howarth