Leading Article: New police rules, OK

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IT IS a backhanded tribute to the power of the Police Federation that the rules governing the management and discipline of the police force have hardly changed since 1919. While officers' pay becomes more generous by the year, and the equipment put at the disposal of chief constables more advanced, police discipline looks resolutely backwards - to a time when horse-drawn carriages plied the streets of London, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle still had a decade to live. Their disciplinary procedures have helped to give British police officers today better job security than almost any other group of workers in the economy.

Recently, however, the system has begun to show its age. Allegations of misconduct have proliferated, but the machinery for dealing with them has failed to keep pace. Officers accused of wrongdoing can often wait, suspended on full pay, for two years while their cases are resolved. Accusations must be proven 'beyond reasonable doubt'. No procedural distinction is made between minor cases of pinching paper-clips and major cases of falsely imprisoning or even killing citizens. The system has become so cumbersome that chief constables sometimes prefer to see disgraced officers retire quietly on grounds of ill-health rather than jump through the legal hoops necessary to have them sacked.

These failures are already familiar. Less well known is the fact that police forces find it awkward to rid themselves of officers who, while guilty of no misconduct, are simply bad at their jobs. So well has the federation protected its members that nobody can be sure how much the quality of British policing has suffered. Last week, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, announced plans to reform a number of important aspects of police work, ranging from performance measures to the way budgets are ordered, but left this fundamental issue unresolved.

The review of police disciplinary processes unveiled by Mr Clarke yesterday is, therefore, long overdue. It proposes two procedures for dealing separately with misconduct and with the more straightforward issue of underperformance. Misconduct cases will be handled in a simpler, less judicial way. Chief constables will acquire the right to dismiss officers instantly in severe cases, and policemen will no longer be immune to discipline for their actions (as they are now) if they have been acquitted of a criminal offence in court. Officers who are lazy or incompetent will be subject to workable internal procedures, such as those that most organisations employ, and will have the right to appeal to an industrial tribunal if they are sacked.

The exact details of the new procedures remain undecided: the consultative document contains 20 open-ended questions to which the public is invited to offer answers. How, for instance, should the line between misconduct and incompetence be drawn - and how can the procedures be designed so as not to become as hidebound as those in use today? But the principle that there should be change, and the direction that change must take, has been established.

First reactions from the Police Federation, and from MPs most closely associated with it, suggest that both will fiercely resist these changes. If so, they will do a disservice to the rank and file they represent. Good and honest police officers have nothing to fear from the changes proposed, and much to gain.