Leading Article: Change of beat for the police

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The Independent Online
THE WHITE PAPER on the reform of Britain's police forces, released by the Home Office yesterday, shows what happens when ministers are reshuffled too often. The preparatory work for it was done over many months stretching back into last year, under the stewardship of Kenneth Clarke; but it fell to Michael Howard, his successor as Home Secretary, to make a few changes to it and then present the paper to Parliament as if it were all his own. The result was a paper that was both good and new - yet the parts that were good were not new, and the parts that were new were not good. It is perhaps because so much of the Clarke version remains intact that the paper as a whole deserves a broad welcome.

Mr Clarke thought the police lacked clear objectives, and suffered too much interference when they tried to put their plans into effect. That interference came from the Home Office, which told Chief Constables how many beat officers they could employ and how wide the corridors of new police stations should be; and also from an archaic set of disciplinary rules dating back to the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that made it near- impossible to sack a policeman, no matter how incompetent.

Under the Clarke overhaul, new disciplinary procedures were to be put in place; the police were to be given more precise aims; and their performance was to be monitored more closely - even down to how quickly they responded to 999 calls and how many administered breath tests proved positive. Mr Howard has wisely carried forward much of this, and has endorsed Mr Clarke's wish to see more businesspeople on the police committees that link forces with the communities they serve.

In the 20 working days he has been at the Home Office, Mr Howard has had time to make only two important changes. One is to place more emphasis on public participation in the White Paper, and to try to encourage average people to consider the policing of their neighbourhoods as a job in which they can help the local bobby, rather than stand aside as mere spectators. This is as praiseworthy as motherhood and apple pie, but it has little to do with the more hard-headed matters of police management, discipline and financing that the White Paper addresses.

More seriously, earlier plans for an independent authority to oversee London's Metropolitan Police have been ditched and replaced with a committee empowered only to offer advice to the Home Secretary. Mr Howard gives two reasons for this: first, the fear that left- wing extremists from Labour councils would sour relations between police and public; and second, that the Met's remit covers not merely policing the capital, but also a number of broader national jobs in which he would wish to be involved. Among them are the prevention of terrorism and the protection of Parliament and the Royal Family.

Neither of these reasons is convincing. Police commissioners everywhere manage to muddle along with local councillors with whose politics they disagree; Paul Condon, the talented new Met commissioner, is confident that he could do so as well. As for those specialist divisions, there may be a case for spinning them off from the Metropolitan Police altogether, and treating what remains like any other British police force. But Mr Howard has no excuse to keep control of the capital's policing in his own hands.