Leading Article: Local policing and efficiency

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The Independent Online
KENNETH CLARKE was wrong to boast to the House of Commons yesterday that he had just introduced the 'most important reform of the police service for 30 years'. In fact, it could be argued that the service's greatest reformer will turn out to be the Audit Commission, the body responsible for rooting out waste in local councils - while Mr Clarke himself is in danger of being remembered as the man who did more than anyone to sever the link between the police and local communities.

From 1 April, at the Audit Commission's prompting, the 43 police forces in England and Wales will have to collect and publish some standardised statistics to show how they work - ranging from how quickly they answer 999 calls to how many breath tests come out positive and how many complaints against them are substantiated.

This apparently minor exercise will have profound consequences. Police forces will learn for the first time how well they do their jobs compared with other forces up and down the country - and how well they spend the pounds 6bn that England and Wales devote each year to policing. Gradually, chief constables who want to do well in the league tables will be forced to give their junior officers more responsibility. The result should be better police management, and better use of taxpayers' money.

The Home Secretary's plans will help this process. He wants to hand back to the chief constables the power to decide how they spend their money and allocate their personnel. At the moment, a force that wants to build a new station has to get approval from Whitehall for the width of its corridors, the size of its rooms and the number of parking spaces it will contain. In future, the forces themselves will decide such things. Money will be better spent, and decisions more quickly taken.

Wisely, Mr Clarke has backed away from imposing mergers between forces. It is true that Britain has a handful of Toytown forces: last year, the City of London Police numbered 880 officers, and Dyfed-Powys, in mid-Wales, 947. Yet small can sometimes be beautiful: Dyfed has an admirable record as an efficient and modern force, which could be at risk if it was merged with another. Mr Clarke, who thinks that 43 forces is probably too many, has awarded himself the power to ordain mergers in future; but if the Audit Commission's figures have the effect they should, he will have to justify any such changes on grounds of efficiency.

Mr Clarke also proposes to correct a long-standing anomaly by setting up an authority to oversee the Metropolitan Police. London is not an easy city to police, and the Met has improved greatly in recent years. But it is still backward in many ways: for instance, its officers take down reports of stolen bicycles by hand, while their colleagues elsewhere use computers. Moreover, the Met is one of the country's most expensive forces on a per-citizen basis, and has few officers out on the beat. Supervision by outsiders will probably help, rather than hinder, its updating.

At the moment, the authorities that oversee each police force are divided two to one between local councillors and magistrates. Mr Clarke wants to make police authorities smaller; he thinks committees of 16 would work well. Worryingly, though, he also wants to change the authorities' structure by appointing his own nominees to them.

Speaking before the House of Commons, he did not specify numbers; elsewhere, he said that he wants authorities to have eight councillors, five of his own people and three magistrates. Yet central appointments to such authorities already work badly in the health service. Worse, he wants the right to choose the powerful chairman of each authority. That would increase even more tightly Whitehall's grip on the police - and sit uneasily with the respect for local people on which the rest of his plans are based.