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Police reform: the Lord Stevens’s report has much to recommend it – until he drops the baton

He has tackled issues at the heart of Plebgate - but his restructuring plans don’t add up

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, has done two important things by asking Lord Stevens for advice on how to reform the police. She now has a plan for raising the standards of the profession, and she has mobilised a coalition of interests in support of her reforms - including the Police Federation, second only to the British Medical Association in the ferocity of trade-union defence of its members’ interests.

John Stevens was a good Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, 2000-05, and so he has huge credibility. His proposal to require officers to register with the College of Policing goes to the heart of the Andrew Mitchell business, which looked too much like an attempt by serving police officers to force an elected representative out of office.

It means that there will be an independent investigative authority with the power to “strike off” officers found guilty of misconduct. It will also set up a mechanism for continuing professional development, a concept familiar to other professions such as medicine, law and teaching.

That is the first important bit of the Stevens report. The second bit is the backing for it from the Police Federation. I understand that the Federation was initially hostile to the ideas put forward by Stevens, who took the precaution of consulting widely over two years. Part of that consultation included opinion polls of the serving police officers, and when the Federation was presented with evidence that its members overwhelmingly supported the Stevens reforms, it changed its tune.

Thus Cooper has resolved the central dilemma of public service reform, which is how to avoid alienating the producer interests while ruthlessly promoting the interests of the consumers of public services. The consumers of law and order services want visible neighbourhood policing, which is what Stevens did when he was Met Commissioner, and what he criticises the coalition for undermining, and which he proposes to restructure the police force to restore. The greatest problems of Blairite reforms of the NHS and schools came from the hostility, or sullen acquiescence at best, of doctors, nurses and teachers.

How long the Police Federation’s support will last is another question. The producer interests in public services tend to align themselves with the opposition party until it gets into government and becomes the main enemy. But it is better to start with the coppers’ trade union on side or at least neutralised rather than backing the Conservatives.

Those are the important bits, and it is as well that Stevens gets them right, because the rest of his report most disappointing. He wants to abolish directly elected police commissioners, but doesn’t know what to replace them with, offering three options, all of which involve going back to putting local councillors back in charge. He says that everyone agrees that the current division of England and Wales into 43 police forces is no good, and "makes a clear recommendation that change is essential". But then he gives three mutually incompatible options and suggests further consultation.

Hopeless. Surely if there is one thing we have learned about taking imperfect institutions apart, it is that you don’t do it unless you have a clear idea of what is wrong with them and why another arrangement would be better.