Leading Article: Come on now, gents, time to move along

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN MAY 1991, Kenneth Baker addressed a teachers' conference. 'The plain fact of the matter,' he said, 'is that teaching in Britain is the envy of almost every country in the world . . . You are having major success and you should be complimented for that.'

Some mistake, surely? Indeed, there is. Mr Baker, though previously the Secretary of State for Education, was Home Secretary by May 1991, and he was actually addressing a police conference. Substitute 'policing' for 'teaching' and it all makes sense. Tory ministers for 13 years have adopted a special tone of warmth and emollience for police conferences. Mr Baker's predecessor, David Waddington, told the Police Federation in May 1990: 'We hear a lot these days about what is wrong with the police service. As far as I am concerned, there is a lot more that is right, and it needs shouting from the house tops . . . There is a lot of ill-informed and mischievous criticism. Too many cases of the media seizing on any stick to beat the police with. Too much readiness to seize on isolated cases and ancient cases to fuel prejudice and stir up trouble . . . Too little willingness to focus on the terrible burdens which society thrusts upon the police. We all recognise how splendidly those burdens are borne.'

Kind words have been matched by generous action. Since 1979, a constable's pay has gone up by 41 per cent in real terms, discounting inflation; the average police officer is better paid than the average teacher. The number of officers has increased by 23 per cent, the number of civilian employees by 15 per cent. Yet, on crude measures of value for money, the police have failed to deliver. The crime rate has doubled since 1979, the clear- up rate has declined from more than 40 per cent to a little over 30 per cent. Mr Baker, ingeniously, managed to convert this to a cause for congratulation on 'the record number of crimes cleared up'. Again using crude measures - numbers of children passing exams - teachers have improved their performance. Yet they have been castigated, not least by Mr Baker, for failing their pupils.

Mr Baker was the man who turned the education system upside down in the search for higher standards. He told the Police Federation that he had 'absolutely no plans to introduce fundamental change' in the police service. Yet the police are riddled with the restrictive practices, inefficiency, time-serving and incompetence so readily criticised among other groups. Their shift system is notoriously inflexible and allows excessive overtime payments. There is not even a rudimentary attempt at performance-related pay. Sacking an idle or inefficient officer is all but impossible. Rates of absenteeism are far above those in industry.

THE DIFFERENCE between teachers and the police is that the former are, at best, lukewarm Tory supporters and see it as their duty to help pupils question the actions of governments. The police were once described as the Conservative Party on patrol and ministers were grateful for their support in controlling public disorder during the miners' strike, the Wapping dispute and the poll tax protests.

Kenneth Clarke, Home Secretary since April, has served notice that he will treat the police as robustly as he treated health workers and teachers in earlier ministerial posts. This week, he will announce the terms of an inquiry into police pay and career structure. The Government has thus recognised a crisis of public confidence in the police - a recognition so belated that most police leaders acknowledge it themselves.

First, groups that normally consider themselves law-abiding complain of rude and insensitive policing. Even if it has no personal experience, there can scarcely be a family in the land that has not heard, from a teenage child suspected of cannabis possession, a neighbour suspected of shoplifting or an uncle suspected of drink-driving, accounts of aggressive and arbitrary behaviour. Most television viewers would not feel instinctive empathy with Malkjit Singh Natt, arrested on a charge of threatening to kill his wife. But Mr Natt, harassed by the police on numerous occasions, carried a tape-recorder. Last week, on a BBC programme, viewers heard the police telling him to 'go and set fire to yourself' and to 'go home to India or Pakistan, or wherever you (expletive deleted) come from'. Millions recognised this as the authentic tone of British policing.

Second, a series of miscarriages of justice - of which the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Judith Ward and Stefan Kiszko were only the most publicised examples - has suggested that bending or suppressing evidence has, in some forces, almost become part of the professional culture. Ancient cases, pace David Waddington, perhaps. But recent allegations of drug-planting among officers in Stoke Newington, north London, suggest that there is as much cause for concern as ever.

Third, the public has not been convinced that police malpractice is adequately punished. Eleven convictions obtained as a result of evidence falsified by the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad have been overturned in the Appeal Court. Not a single officer has been convicted and it is still not certain that any will be internally disciplined. Frequently, disciplinary action is shrouded in secrecy so that those wronged have no belief that justice has been done. Some officers are allowed to retire, on spurious medical grounds, before they need to face charges. Thus, as we report on page two, a senior Scotland Yard officer is allowed early retirement on grounds of stress and depression before he has to face a disciplinary tribunal ordered by the High Court.

Mr Clarke's inquiry is a first, tentative step to tackling the problems of British policing. He should not be afraid to go further. The timidity of his predecessors - which has allowed public confidence to decline to the point where it may be hard to regain - has done no service to the public or indeed to the police themselves.