How criminals cross the thin blue line: A national police squad is essential if we are to tackle the soaring crime rate, says Sir John Wheeler

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John Major's promise to tackle crime is a high-risk commitment, for real progress in the fight against crime - from car theft to multi- million-pound City fraud - will require radical reform of the 52 police forces. Anything less will be tinkering with the problem.

Conservative governments since 1979 have all claimed that law and order and support for the police is their first priority. Despite an avalanche of resources, with 180,000 police officers and civilians now costing pounds 4bn, there has none the less been an extraordinary growth in recorded crime, from 750,000 crimes in 1960 to 4.5 million now.

More money and more police officers have not stopped crime, prompting people to ask whether crime can ever be reduced, or even contained. My view is that it can, but only if we avoid repeating the political failures of the past 220 years.

The argument about the structure of the police began towards the end of the 18th century, when Sir John Fielding, magistrate of Westminster, recognised that massive fraud in the City of London and highway robbery in the suburbs could not be controlled by parish constables. He argued for a national police system and suggested the forerunner of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. He was, of course, resisted by an army of people who cloaked their arguments in the guise of liberty.

He established the Bow Street Runners. But a Commons select committee opposed the establishment of a professional, paid police service and it was not until the Peel reforms of 1829 that the first of the modern police forces - the Metropolitan Police - was formed. The present local government police committee structure came into being in 1888.

The Royal Commission on the Police in 1962, which supported the amalgamation only of the smaller forces, had a dissenting memorandum by Arthur Goodhart, who argued for a national police system. He believed that the only way to control and reduce crime was through a national structure, where intelligence, national policy and hi-tech equipment could be provided on a national basis. The politicians once again refused to grasp the nettle, wanting to preserve the bogus notion of local accountability.

The rise in the crime figures has shown that Dr Goodhart was right. But with the concept of a national force now gaining currency again, the old arguments about local accountability are being dragged out of the cupboard for another airing. The politicians of 1993 must have the courage and wisdom to create a structure that will work. A few amalgamations of police forces, which is what the Cabinet appears to favour, will not do. That was done in 1962.

We should recognise the face of crime as it is today. Huge international frauds, such as the Maxwell case, car crime - accounting for one third of all reported crime - and property crime, which accounts for most of the crime problem throughout the country, do not respect police boundaries.

A national police structure would replace not only the 52 separate forces, but the 52 special branches, each of which has the task of combating terrorist crime. It would enable every car crime to be reported to one national reporting centre, so that modern technology could provide the police with an analysis of where the crime is occurring and who is carrying it out. There could be one national fingerprint retrieval system, not 52. There is already a national structure for tackling soccer hooliganism. When are we going to treat the robber, the burglar and the fraudster with the same seriousness as the Saturday afternoon yob?

Such a change would require 100 per cent central funding (not the present 90 per cent central and 10 per cent local funding) for a police system and a clear division between those parts of the system that should be national, such as the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and those which should be regional. It is little wonder that the Home Secretary made the security service (MI5) the main body for collating and analysing information relating to Irish terrorism.

The structure of the police service in England and Wales should be based on the existing boundaries of the eight regional crime squads, which have stood the test of time. The Metropolitan and City of London police forces would remain as they are. The 13,000 police officers in Scotland would make a natural Scottish constabulary; the Royal Ulster Constabulary should remain.

Accountability lies in the relationship between the police and individual citizens, not in the extent to which a police force is local. When a police officer makes an arrest he is accountable in a court of law. If he gets it wrong, he can be sued. Accountability for the effective delivery of the service rests ultimately with Parliament. The Home Secretary should set out annually the national policy objectives for the police service and how they are to be achieved. Accountability for the regional administrations could be enhanced by a new inspectorate of constabulary, which would look at the use of money and resources.

All senior officers should be on short-term contracts. There should be fewer ranks and a greater degree of professionalism for police officers, who should not be employed as car parking attendants at county shows and parking wardens in our towns.

It is extraordinary that we have had such an inefficient police system for so long. A very big shake- up is needed if we are to stand any serious chance of reducing crime.

There can be no question of compromise here. The last 220 years have seen a succession of compromises resulting in higher costs and increased crime. Further compromise in 1993 will mean this Government has decided not to tackle the problem of crime seriously. It is as stark as that.

If the solution is so obvious, who is opposing it? Partly, of course, the chief constables, keen to preserve their fiefdoms and county cap badges. Who would willingly surrender the prestige and dignity of a chief police officer's uniform, with its privileges of staff car and aides, in return for an FBI-type structure of director, senior agents and agents? The Association of Chief Police Officers has 270 members across the 52 police forces and anything up to 11 ranks from the most junior to the most senior.

Those curious links with the late 19th century - the assortment of councillors who compose two-thirds of the police committees outside London - will, I imagine, also oppose these proposals. But they are as irrelevant now as they were in 1888, and the services they have delivered stand testimony to the failure to control crime and use taxpayers' money efficiently.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, has the reputation of a reformer, having brought radical changes to the health service and the education system that are now bearing fruit. We all remember Robert Peel - it is noteworthy that the one 19th-century politician whom many people can still name is the one responsible for the reform of the police. Mr Clarke could go down in history as the Peel of the late 20th century - or will he be a failed Home Secretary, who was offered the gift of great reform, and lost it?

The author is Conservative MP for Westminster North, a former chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and a former assistant prison governor.

(Photograph omitted)