Soham proves the need for a national police force

The current structure of the police reinforces the fiefdom approach to catching criminals

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For most of my 18 years as the MP covering the area where Ian Huntley lived, I had constant run-ins with the Humberside Police Force.

For most of my 18 years as the MP covering the area where Ian Huntley lived, I had constant run-ins with the Humberside Police Force. It was created in 1974 out of the wretched local government reorganisation that merged Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire with the rural areas of North Lincolnshire, Scunthorpe and Grimsby. The new county was a disaster - sliced through the middle by the mile-wide River Humber. Eventually, in 1996, the Department of the Environment finally abolished this hated county, and unitary local authorities were established.

But, despite persistent lobbying by me to the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, he refused to accept my case that the Humberside Police Force should also be abolished. I wanted my North Lincolnshire constituency to be covered by the Lincolnshire Police Force. Among other reasons, it seemed a recipe for disaster that these new Lincolnshire local authorities' social services departments should have to liaise with a police force headquartered in another county.

So when Sir Michael Bichard concluded yesterday that there were "systematic and corporate failings" in the senior management of Humberside Police - concerning the shortcomings relating to the maintenance of intelligence records - I was not surprised. Its priorities reflected the prejudices of the political heads of the local police authority based in Hull, and its pettiness knew no bounds. Once, during the final passage of a government Bill to abolish the 35p annual dog licence, I stated - in a Commons speech - that, like three million other dog owners, I had not renewed my licence. Days later, Humberside Police sent PC Plod to my constituency home to seek a ludicrous prosecution because I had broken the law that had been repealed by the time the paperwork was concluded. No wonder Huntley's name was missed while the Humberside force was otherwise engaged in such futilities - simply to get an embarrassing headline about the local MP.

The blame for the errors surrounding Huntley appears to have fallen solely upon David Westwood, the present Chief Constable who took over in 1999. From the tone of David Blunkett's Commons statement, it looks inevitable that he will now be forced out of office. The Home Secretary has used statutory powers available to him requiring the Humberside Police Authority to suspend the chief constable. Mr Westwood can certainly be blamed insofar as the failures of intelligence were discovered on his watch, but it is an outrage that he should bear the sole personal responsibility for Humberside's institutional failures which go back at least a decade.

The Bichard inquiry found that there was a scandalous neglect of record-keeping long before Mr Westwood took up his post, and I saw at first hand the shortcomings of a police force under his predecessor Tony Leonard, not least in the abysmal clear-up rate of recorded crime. Ironically, there may be something in Mr Westwood's claim that he, above anyone else currently serving as a chief constable, probably now has a better understanding of what needs to be done to ensure another Ian Huntley does not slip through the net.

But while the immediate blame game will centre on one individual police chief, it is actually an institutional failure in the way all our police forces are constituted that begs a wider question. Why do we not have a national police force? There are 43 separate police authorities in England and Wales, each headed by chief constables whose personal priorities and egos determine which aspects of the criminal law are given variable resources by the Home Office. They, in turn, can be tempted to waste these resources by spending according to the priorities of the local police authorities to whom they report, rather than the priorities of the Home Secretary. The representation of local politicians on these authorities can skew a Home Secretary's policies, so that performances between similar neighbouring police forces can be completely different.

Sir Michael's report rightly dwelt on the need for vetting arrangements of school employees to be based on shared intelligence and nationally specified criteria. Mr Blunkett stressed that the police national computer should be the cornerstone of intelligence, but he also noted that, at present, the 43 forces operate their own individual systems of intelligence gathering. All this is to be changed. But why stop there?

It is clear that national rules will now be the norm for intelligence gathering, but this must also be extended to all other aspects of national policing. Police authorities are too small - Cambridgeshire simply did not have sufficient resources to undertake the murder inquiry, and should have had instant access to extra national resources. The current structure of police authorities reinforces the fiefdom approach to catching criminals, and line management stops abruptly at the door of the chief constables. Only a national police force answerable to the Home Secretary, rather than to police authorities, can be the logical consequence of Sir Michael's report.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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