The Home Secretary, the police chief, and the question of who runs this country

Inefficient police forces have sheltered behind politicians who have been afraid of publicly criticising them
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The Independent Online

'Who runs this country?" John Humphrys shouted the question at a Home Office minister on yesterday's Today programme. Mr Humphrys implied that it was the bloody government that ran this country, or should be running it, accepting responsibility when things go wrong. Yet unintentionally the BBC's interrogator clouded the issue with his follow-up sentence. "They run the country to such an extent that David Blunkett is now saying he wants the Chief Constable of Humberside suspended."

Presumably this was meant as another whack at his timid ministerial interviewee: What arrogance from Blunkett! What a populist abuse of ministerial power! But note the qualifications as Mr Humphrys sought to deliver his killer blow. David Blunkett "wants" the suspension of Humberside's Chief Constable, David Westwood. The supposedly mighty cabinet minister has not managed to pull it off yet. Note also that he is proposing the suspension of Mr Westwood, not his outright dismissal.

Consider also the broader point. Mr Humphrys was suggesting that the Home Secretary should take full responsibility for failing to introduce a national data system for the police. But the distribution of power over the police is more complicated than that. The Association of Police Authorities and the police constables are part of an awkward tripartite system in which the powers of the Home Secretary are limited. This is not an excuse for the Home Office, a department that is perfectly capable of competing with the police in matters of incompetence. It is a statement of fact. Mr Blunkett is constrained. Indeed whenever he seeks to make his powers over the police less limited all hell breaks loose.

His demand for the suspension of Mr Westwood is a necessary response to Sir Michael Bichard's report on the role of the police in the events that led up to the Soham murders. The inquiry exposed an astonishing range of failures by the Humberside police force of which the most fundamental was a failure to keep proper criminal records. This failure meant that even if there had been a national data system there would have been no records. There is no point in having a national computerised system without the information to go in it.

Mr Westwood has not questioned the findings of the Bichard report, but has declared that he wants to remain in place in order to put right what is currently wrong with the Humberside police. This is a disingenuous plea. In effect he is declaring: "I was in charge of this incompetent chaos therefore there is no better person to put it right". Those who are involved directly or indirectly in cock- ups are rarely the best people to implement subsequent changes. They begin from a defensive position, they know too many of the other people involved in the original cock- ups and, most of all, they lack authority when an independent report has condemned them. Yet by stating the obvious: that Mr Westwood should step aside, Mr Blunkett finds himself in the centre of a storm.

To some extent he is the victim of his own populism. Too often, on a range of complex issues, he has rushed forward at the earliest opportunity to reassure the Daily Mail and Downing Street that he is leading the populist tide, articulating an unformed prejudice before it has appeared in a tabloid editorial. Some cabinet ministers are livid with what they regard as Mr Blunkett's persistent self-promotion.

Recently a premature story appeared in the Daily Mail relating to a new policy being developed by Mr Blunkett and several other cabinet ministers. Mr Blunkett wrote a note to a senior cabinet colleague expressing dismay that the story had appeared. The colleague responded bluntly declaring that he would not put up with unconvincing protestations of innocence from Mr Blunkett any longer. Now he and others are less sympathetic than they should be with Mr Blunkett's latest high profile clash. Did Blunkett move too quickly in calling for the suspension of Mr Westwood? That is what some of them are asking.

Yet he is more perceptive on the confused distribution of power in Britain than most of his ministerial colleagues. I have written before about one of his more perceptive soundbites, that too often "cabinet ministers have responsibility without power". The clash between a chief constable and Mr Blunkett is an especially vivid example. Whenever anything significant goes wrong in Britain we blame cabinet ministers. Whenever ministers attempt to act they are condemned as being authoritarian. Matters are so confused in Britain now that quite a lot of the time ministers do not dare to act at all, preferring to hand over power to regulators, quangos or the private sector. They still get the blame, which is why some of them are starting to take back their lost powers.

If England had a robustly pluralist culture, the battle between Mr Blunkett and Mr Westwood would be different. If there were prominent regional figureheads, charismatic mayors across the country, powerful and able figures backed by an active local electorate, they might be in a position to run local police forces on their own. England is far from being ruled in such a way.

Take a look at the website of the Humberside Police Authority. Members of the authority include relatively obscure councillors, even more anonymous magistrates and unknown citizens selected by the councillors and magistrates. Is this the most appropriate body to have full power over a police force, one built on the rubble of a lifeless local political culture?

Even if local democracy thrived in England there would still be a case for an active and powerful Home Secretary. If we seek a more co-ordinated police force, with information shared between different areas, someone centrally has to do the co-ordinating and take overall responsibility.

Imagine if Mr Blunkett accepted the wishes of the local police authority, kept Mr Westwood in post, and there was another cock-up involving Humberside police in the future: "Mr Blunkett joins us now. Why didn't you suspend the chief constable in Humberside after the Soham inquiry that suggested his force was inefficient and incompetent?"

"Well, I decided in the end that it was a matter for the Police Authority that wanted the chief constable to stay on."

"But you're the Home Secretary. Are you going to resign?"

Inefficient police forces have long sheltered behind politicians afraid of publicly criticising them. Even now, Mr Blunkett moves tentatively, as far as he has power to move at all.

Who runs this country? In many areas it is quangos, unknown regulators, judges, the European Union and the private sector. Although we interview ministers most hours of the day on TV and radio, they are often not as powerful as they should be - and nowhere near as mighty as Mr Humphrys seems to assume.