Leading Article: Pushing ahead with the police reforms

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The Independent Online
ONE consequence of the Tory party's reputation as the party of law and order is that it takes great courage for any Conservative to say or do anything that annoys the police. Kenneth Clarke had that courage in buckets: as Home Secretary, he set in train the most comprehensive overhaul of British policing since the war. But Mr Clarke was lucky enough to be promoted to the Treasury before the results of his work became clear. His successor at the Home Office, Michael Howard, now faces an unattractive task: to defend a set of proposals that he arrived too late to influence. His Police Foundation lecture yesterday gave no clue whether he has the nerve to do so.

The Clarke reforms - a loose term to denote not just the Home Office's White Paper on structure and its consultative document on discipline, but also the Sheehy report on pay and conditions and the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice - will ensure that the resources now devoted to the police are better spent. They will bring a distant bureaucracy a little closer to the citizen. And they will help to remove the small number of corrupt police officers who have managed against expectations to stay in the force despite successive attempts to root them out.

The reforms will allow chief constables to regain control of their forces from Whitehall, and local police commanders to make decisions that should be made locally. Many top police officers have reservations about the fine print. They doubt, for instance, whether responsible people will be willing to join the force at the starting salaries proposed by Sir Patrick Sheehy. But broadly, they think the new framework will allow them to deliver a better service for the money.

The Police Federation, on the other hand, sees nothing but bad in it. Like many trade unions, it opposes any system of pay that rewards good performance above bad; likewise, it opposes anything that damages its own prestige. When the Sheehy report is implemented, the federation will survive at force level; but, nationally, there will no longer be a right to beer and sandwiches with the Home Secretary. It is therefore no surprise that the federation should oppose the Sheehy changes as bitterly as it does; nor that it should be spending lavishly to advertise its case at a vast jamboree at Wembley next week.

The Government has made a tactical mistake. By reneging on its commitment to set up a police authority for London - a commitment backed by Paul Condon, the Commissioner at New Scotland Yard - it may create an unintended alliance between the federation's sympathisers on the Conservative back benches and opposition MPs who believe London needs the partnership between police and local government that is universal elsewhere. Mr Howard could therefore find it harder than he expects to put the reforms into practice. But this is a great office of state and this is what he has to do.