Leading Article: Policing the police

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The Independent Online
FOR once the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Police Federation (in essence, a trade union representing the men and women on the beat) are on the same side. The speed and determination with which the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is pressing ahead with plans to reform the police service have angered both organisations.

Shortly after Mr Clarke moved from Education to the Home Office nine months ago, we commented: 'The Home Secretary should make it clear that he intends to set the agenda for reform and to dictate the speed of change.' Mr Clarke's determination to do so is the immediate reason for the unrest at all levels in the service. The Home Secretary should feel no more distress than he felt when he came into conflict with the British Medical Association or the teachers' unions.

It is new, and in many ways healthy, that the ACPO suddenly feels itself to be distanced from decision-making in the Home Office and is prepared to express its anger publicly. The perception of the ACPO as a creature of the Home Office has damaged both bodies. Last week the ACPO claimed that Mr Clarke's as-yet-unpublished plans would undermine both local and democratic accountability and demanded that the ACPO should be consulted about them.

The Home Secretary should, of course, discuss his ideas with the association and pay due attention to its experience and anxieties. But he should do so in the knowledge that the ACPO is, among other things, a trade union lobbying on behalf of senior police officers, most of whom have risen through the ranks. Some are people of ability and vision. However, they - like the officials of the Police Federation - are products of an inward- looking, secretive and self-justifying system that has, to some extent, lost the confidence of the public. Mr Clarke was appointed to make changes, and the police are likely to prove as resistant to change as were the medical and teaching establishments.

Mr Clarke is right to seek the amalgamation of forces and the creation of supervisory boards to replace police authorities, which have not proved particularly effective, either as monitors of efficiency or as democratic channels for the expression of local grievances. The new boards he envisages would apparently be composed of appointed figures including, wisely, business people. Their task would be to oversee the expenditure of police funds, which would come directly from central government in the form of block grants.

These are sensible objectives. The Audit Commission has repeatedly criticised as inflexible the present system under which funds are earmarked by the Home Office. The changes proposed by the commission - and apparently endorsed by Mr Clarke - would enhance the power of chief constables to manage their own forces, to define priorities and to meet the particular demands of local people.

During the past 13 years, successive Conservative governments have caused disquiet by undermining the authority of local government and by creating a large number of undemocratic quangos. Having recognised the need for managerial expertise, Mr Clarke should give further thought to the composition and accountability of his proposed police boards.