Hark, the minister of police approaches

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The Independent Online
FOR the first time since Cromwell's hated major-generals divided the realm into 12 police districts, taxed the locals to pay for police services and preached their moral 'back to basics' creed, England and Wales (but not Scotland) are to have a minister of police at the Home Office.

The English have always despised this idea. Since the time of Alfred the Great (849- 901), the arrest of offenders (the hue and cry) and the keeping of the peace have been duties that 'fell upon each locality under a well-understood principle of social obligation, or collective security'.

The police have always been of the people, save in Cromwell's time. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, proposes to dam the course of history with his Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which was introduced in Parliament yesterday.

In more modern times, every effort has been made to retain this local involvement, direction and control of police, while creating a national policing capability. Based on regional and national organisations, we have serious crime squads, national drugs squads, national criminal records and computers, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and a national system of training and standards of equipment and technology; but policing of an area remains a local responsibility.

In 1822, Sir Robert Peel, then Home Secretary, set up a parliamentary committee to consider the introduction of a national police system, like the French model. It reported that 'it is difficult to reconcile an effective system of police with that perfect freedom of action, and exemption from interference, which are the great privileges and blessings of society in this country; and your committee thinks that the forfeiture or curtailment of such advantages would be too great a sacrifice for improvements in police, or facilities in the detection of crime, however desirable in themselves if abstractedly considered'. No centralist yearning here.

At present, responsibility for the general state of law and order lies with the Home Secretary, and he is given powers of inspection of the police. He can make regulations and require police authorities and chief constables to maintain standards, but he cannot particularise. Local police authorities are required to maintain 'an adequate and efficient' force, and chief constables are required to 'direct and control it'.

This tripartite system of checks and balances was the outcome of a Royal Commission in 1962, when a traditional Conservative Home Secretary, R A Butler, faced the same range of problems as Mr Howard does today.

'I am quite convinced,' Mr Butler said then, 'that it would be wrong for one man or for one government to be in charge directly of the whole police of this country. Our constitution is based on checks and balances. This has kept our liberty throughout the generations.'

'Checks and balances' and 'liberty' are words and meanings that no longer seem to be in the Home Office lexicon. Mr Howard please note.

In rejecting an impartial, independent inquiry into the police, Mr Howard has made a cardinal error, which he, and we, may live to regret.

The local police authorities have responded to this unforgiveable snub through the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, declaring that Mr Howard's Bill 'will reorganise police authorities, currently part of local government, as free-standing quangos'. They also believe that 'the measure amounts to a major constitutional centralisation of power' that would remove the safeguards against central political control of the police.

Why do so many British people feel antipathy towards the centralisation of police power? After all, a great nation like France has a national police system, as do many others who follow the Roman and Napoleonic tradition. One important difference is that these nations have written constitutions under which the rights and freedoms of the people, and the limitations on governmental power, are defined. The combination of a centralised police system and an unwritten constitution is the stuff that dictators dream about.

It is no good seeking to rely on the judges, as not only are many of them likely to side with the Government, but also the common law they make is no match for parliamentary power. Nor can we rely on the police to sound the alarm, for - as was so graphically illustrated during the miners' strike in 1984/85 - they are, in the final analysis, government mercenaries to a man, or woman.

Mr Howard's Bill, of course, does not include the words, 'minister of police', 'national police force' or 'central direction and control'. No, he is seeking to achieve a national police force without declaring that to be his intention.

The present power of local police authorities is quite democratic and accountable. Two-thirds of their members are elected councillors and one-third are magistrates. They elect their own chairperson from their members. They also appoint the chief and assistant chief constables, after agreeing on a shortlist with the Home Secretary.

Mr Howard now proposes to take all these powers unto himself. No longer will our local police authorities be under democratic local control, because more than half of their members will be the Home Secretary's appointees; and the chairperson will be a placeman or placewoman.

This adds up to a scheme to accumulate massive political power and patronage at the centre of our affairs. It is the logical extension of the strategy to undermine and weaken local democracy, and to privatise the most important public service. It is but a short move from a system that makes possible the capacity of the affluent to buy police services, while the poor and vulnerable will not be able to do so.

It should be noted that the sweeping centralisation of police power does not apply to the Scottish police system. Is this because this Conservative government knows that Scottish sensibilities would prompt revulsion against such blatant politics of power?

By drawing back from replicating the England and Wales reform in Scotland, this Conservative government exposes itself to comparisons that could undermine its stated aims, and reveal them to be, as many think they are, just an exercise in political power.

The author is former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall. This is an abridged extract from his paper in the series 'Violation of Rights in Britain', published by Charter 88 (071-833 1988).

Matthew Symonds is unwell.