Jack Straw: Why good policing is more than just a numbers game

The Home Secretary argues that efficiency is as important as staffing levels

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All of us would like to see more "bobbies on the beat". The sight of officers patrolling is indeed a reassuring one. But any serious debate about law and order must reflect the fact that greater police visibility and effectiveness needs more than just higher overall numbers of police officers.

All of us would like to see more "bobbies on the beat". The sight of officers patrolling is indeed a reassuring one. But any serious debate about law and order must reflect the fact that greater police visibility and effectiveness needs more than just higher overall numbers of police officers.

Police numbers have come down under both governments since 1993. But we are now turning the corner. New funds available for forces to recruit an extra 9,000 officers over three years are showing results. Recruitment is now outstripping the number of officers retiring or leaving the service. By 2003/04 the number of police officers in England and Wales should be at record levels.

Of course, some forces face particular problems. The Metropolitan Police is competing in the same very tight labour market as other London employers. So we have boosted the pay of new Met officers, as well as those who joined after the housing allowance was withdrawn in 1994, by more than £3,000 a year. And, over the past two months, this now appears to show we are turning the corner in London, too.

Yet it is little use increasing the total number of officers if too many are sitting behind desks filling in paperwork, hanging around in court, or even off sick unnecessarily.

In this respect, the police service is no different from other public services. As in education, while the amount of staff and resources are important, issues of management and how people do their jobs are just as vital.

We know there are wide variations in crime figures between police divisions in similar sorts of areas, and there is no correlation between those forces that do best in terms of crime reduction and their relative budget or manpower levels. Nor is there a pattern between forces over the closure of police stations.

There are many reasons why police stations have closed over the past decade, not least the shifting patterns of crime and the changing nature of the demands made on the police. The need to provide better treatment of suspects in custody has also led to fewer if better-equipped establishments.

While I understand the concern of those living in areas that have lost a police station, it has to be for individual forces to make these decisions, and to judge whether officers are better deployed on patrol or staffing police premises. I do welcome, however, the efforts many forces are making to establish visible police "shops" at the heart of many communities.

The major improvements in the efficiency and management of the police service have brought real results for the public. For example, over the past three years they have found about 150,000 more staff hours by reducing average sickness absence by just over one day a year. That is the equivalent of an extra 700 officers available for duty, without increasing the total number of officers at all.

Freeing officers for front-line duty also requires better, more modern technology. For example, the new national police digital radio system which we are funding will give officers greater and faster access to the information they need to do their job.

And they need to be able to get on with the job rather than getting snarled up in paperwork and delays. So we are reducing the amount of form-filling officers have to do by a third, and we are cutting down the amount of time police officers have to spend hanging around in court, not least with a new Bill to stop hardened defendants playing the system by stringing out their cases.

Effective policing can only work with the help and co-operation of local communities. We have therefore placed a legal duty on local councils and local agencies to work in partnership with the police in every area. And that is one further reason why the kind of inflammatory rhetoric about the alleged effect of "political correctness" on the police that we heard last week is so destructive.

The good news is that, as a result of the excellent work done by the police and others, crime is now 10 per cent lower than it was in 1997, with violence down 4 per cent, and burglary and vehicle crime now at their lowest levels for a decade. Also, the number of households saying that serious crime is a problem in their neighbourhood has fallen by a third.

But crime is still too high. So, as well as new legislation, we are investing record sums of money in the police - and all police authorities have set challenging targets to reduce burglary, vehicle crime and robbery in the five metropolitan areas.

There is still a long way to go. But I am convinced that the improvements that are being made will help make for a safer and more responsible society.

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