Police Superintendents' Conference: Inefficient forces face `hit squads'

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT "HIT squads" could be sent in to run police forces that are inefficient and fail to reduce the number of officers taking early medical retirements and excessive sick leave, it emerged yesterday.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said the teams - a similar idea to those deployed at failing schools - would only be used as a last resort. He gave the warning as he expressed his anger at the failure by some chief constables to implement efficiency savings recommended in a series of reports by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. He accused some chiefs of not even bothering to read the reports.

Mr Straw, speaking at the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales conference in Bristol, warned that under the policy of "best value", due to take effect in 2000, police forces would have to account for the way they spend their money and would be set targets. Three forces are undergoing pilot studies to test the scheme.

"Best value will also have teeth, it will involve certification, audit and inspection and in those extreme cases where local communities are not given the level of service they are entitled to, there will be provision for intervention, ultimately by the Secretary of State," he said.

He was particularly critical of some forces that appeared to have ignored suggestions made in a series of reports by the Audit Commission and HMIC. "Not enough chief officers have read or digested [the reports]", he said. "They have not been implemented sufficiently."

A recent report by the inspectorate, "What Price Policing?", noted that despite significant increases in the numbers of officers in recent years, the number of staff available for operational duty had declined. Mr Straw blamed "simply unacceptable" levels of sickness and excessive early retirements on the grounds of ill health.

Police forces have been told that they must make efficiency savings of 2 per cent a year to qualify for extra funding under the comprehensive spending review. Mr Straw insisted that cutting staff would be a "lazy and unimaginative" way to save money and would not necessarily improve inefficiency. He suggested that some services could be merged - such as helicopter units, fire arm teams and underwater divers.

Chief constables are privately known to be angry at the threat of hit squads and criticisms of their work.

David Blakey, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "We fully understand the need for increased efficiency and have taken part in all the studies which it suggested. All the examples of good practice mentioned by the Home Secretary come from the police service. Our task is to make that good practice universal in the service, and we are on the way to doing that."

t Senior police officers are being forced to take charge of murders and other serious cases, including firearms operations, despite not having any relevant training. According to a study published yesterday by detectives, understaffing has left senior officers supervising budgets and situations they barely understand.

The officers' concerns are outlined in a study of six police forces - Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Lancashire, Wiltshire, West Mercia and Kent. The report, by Dr Annette Davies of the Cardiff Business School, is published today at the Police Superintendents' Association's conference.