A comprehensive package for reform, but will it work?

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The Independent Online

David Blunkett's 149-page reform plan, Policing A New Century, aims to cut crime, increase efficiency and revolutionise how officers carry out their duties. But will the Home Secretary's plan work?

Raising standards

By setting up a new standards unit and threatening to sack chief constables who fail to improve their crime-fighting records, the Home Secretary hopes to pull the worst performing forces up to the levels of the best. Among the 43 forces in England and Wales, detection rates vary between 16% and 60%. Along with the stick is a carrot in the form of plans to improve training and create a new police academy.

The publication of performance tables has infuriated chief constables. They see it as a crude attempt by the Home Office to shame them and manipulate how they run their forces, but it has resulted in many improvements. Expect more of the same, despite a rearguard fight by police chiefs. David Blunkett and his advisers think many forces are run in an autocratic way by sub-standard men. This White Paper is the first stab at changing this.

More officers

Together with a promise to boost the number of police officers from 125,519 to 130,000 by Spring 2003, the Home Office wants to introduce new tiers of civilian patrollers. The biggest change will be the introduction of thousands of so called Community Support Officers to deal with low-level crime.

This is clearly policing on the cheap – despite repeated denials by ministers. But it has been coming for the past five years and at last the Home Secretary has the courage to spell it out. It will help quench the public's insatiable desire for more "beat bobbies" but is bound to lead to problems when badly trained guards try to exceed their limited powers.

The measures already have support from most police chiefs and middle-ranking officers who will welcome the extra help, but are bitterly opposed by rank-and-file officers who feel their work will be undermined.

The concept of a second tier of quasi-police patrollers is here to stay and coming to streets and country lanes throughout Britain in the near future.

Cutting red tape

An all-time favourite – along with putting more bobbies on the beat – for Home Secretaries regardless of their political beliefs. Michael Howard, the Tory's last home secretary, declared war on red tape, followed by Jack Straw, and now his successor, Mr Blunkett.

Among the imaginative ideas are to get civilian staff to do a lot of the work for beat officers, and to simplify forms. One very good idea is to have an alternative 999 number for the tens of thousands of people who either accidentally ring the police emergency number or consider it a useful place to find out about bus timetables and report missing pets.

Undoubtedly, the proposed changes and simpler procedures will help, but nothing on the scale that the new Home Secretary expects.

Pay and conditions

These are proposals to cut the benefits that most police officers receive. Many are long needed – such as those on the huge amounts paid in over-time – but they are causing great unrest among rank-and-file officers. The backlash and bad publicity generated by the sight of officers revolting has been enough for former Tory home secretaries such as Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke to back down on similar reforms. It takes a determined and powerful Home Secretary to take this issue on. Mr Blunkett appears to be both.

Sickness

Police forces' infamous reputation for the "bad back" syndrome is being tackled. After drops in sickness rates, they have begun to rise again. There are proposals to reduce the huge number of days lost through ill health – currently running at 1.5 million days a year – caused by poor stress management and prevention strategies. Among the plans are regular health screenings.

There is also a fresh attack on officers who use sickness or medical retirement as a means of avoiding discipline. The question of bogus sickness claims has been very damaging to the police's image over the past decade and both the officers' associations and the Home Office have been working hard to change this.

There is a danger that officers who often work in dangerous and stressful situations could be badly treated, but these measures seem workable and should be welcomed by all.