Although concrete proposals have not yet been tabled, chief constables believe that Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is considering a radical package of reforms which could have a wide-ranging effect on policing. They say such changes would also affect changes to the criminal justice system likely to follow the report of the Royal Commission in June.
Among the ideas said to be favoured by Mr Clarke include replacing police authorities - currrently comprising two-thirds councillors and one-third magistrates - with centrally appointed boards, making the police wholly Home Office-funded instead of the current 50-50 local/national split, and merging some smaller forces.
John Burrow, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and Chief Constable of Essex, told a press conference yesterday that Mr Clarke was 'a man in a hurry' and it was feared his plans could be announced within weeks. Acpo has now written to Mr Clarke seeking more consultation.
He said: 'These plans have been drawn up in the corridors of Queen Anne's Gate (the Home Office). We have not been involved.' Although Mr Clarke had announced an inquiry into police pay, nothing similar had been launched over structure.
The Home Office is committed to legislation in 1993-4 to incorporate both the work of the present Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and the Sheehy inquiry into pay. The changes under consideration by the Home Office must now be at an advanced stage.
'We are making this stand to get our proposals on to the agenda,' Mr Burrow said. 'We are not opposed to certain changes, but we are concerned about the extent and timing.'
Centrally appointed boards and 100 per cent central funding would alter the public perception of locally accountable policing: 'It will be a question of who pays the piper, calls the tune.'
The appointment of businessmen to the boards could have wider implications; such people were more likely to be concerned about value for money rather than the quality of policing. The amalgamation of forces should also be carried out on a more logical basis than simple force strengths or population areas.
David Shattock, Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset, said after the press conference: 'At the moment, we are implementing many internal reforms such as devolving power to local commanders. When the Royal Commission reports, there will be changes as a consequence of that which will be in response to genuine public concern. Are we to prejudice that by devoting all our resources to managing structural change at the same time?'
Amid reports of divisions in the Cabinet on the changes, Mr Clarke is due to meet John Major tomorrow, when it is believed the possible changes will be discussed. The Home Office emphasised yesterday that all proposals were still at an early stage and no firm decisions had yet been taken.