Blunkett sets deadline for police to reform

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The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has set police chiefs a deadline of three months to drive out "arcane practices" and reduce chronic sickness levels in the ranks.

In what was billed as Mr Blunkett's first police "summit", at the Gladstone Library in Westminster, the Home Secretary indicated that unless forces adopted flexible and modern working practices he would introduce sweeping reforms in a Police Bill in the autumn. But he wanted to work in partnership with the police. "This is dialogue, not diatribe," he said. The Home Secretary was addressing chief constables and police authority chairmen from the 43 forces of England and Wales, alongside representatives of police staff associations. He said: "Reform will involve sweeping away arcane practices, unnecessary regulations and 'no change' attitudes." He told them that he would set up a standards unit for "improving performance and hands-on changes on the ground".

Mr Blunkett has been frustrated by bureaucratic demands on police, including those that prevent arresting officers returning quickly to the streets.

He is keen to introduce more civilian staff with financial and scientific backgrounds to the police service as administrators and specialist investigators.

Mr Blunkett signalled changes in the funding and provision of police for sporting and social events. He noted the presence of 900 officers at the FA Cup final in Cardiff in May, and said that city-centre nightclubs should contribute to the cost of keeping public order. "Paying their way for that simply makes sense," he said.

He warned that Labour's promise to increase the number of police officers on the streets would lead to an increase in recorded crime. People must not "simply panic" at rising crime figures. He acknowledged that "recorded crime went down as police numbers went down".

Labour had previously highlighted the successes of its crime-fighting initiatives in driving down recorded crime during its first four years, when police numbers fell by 3,000.

Mr Blunkett emphasised his unhappiness at levels of police sickness and promised to set up a national occupational health service to get officers back to work. He said an occupational health programme in West Midlands Police had saved £6.5m in early retirements, sickness absence and injury awards.

He said: "What's the point in having people assigned to neighbourhood policing when up to 50 per cent of them are off sick in one particular force area?" Cutting sickness absence by 1 per cent would put 1,200 police officers back to work.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said it was "reasonably confident" that it could work with Mr Blunkett in achieving his objectives. The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said it was "not at war" with the Home Secretary and that its main quarrels were with police management.