Leading Article: Reform coupled with fair praise

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The Independent Online
WHEN Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, addresses the Police Federation on Wednesday, he will have to tread a fine line. On the one hand he needs the full co-operation of the police in the fight against crime. This might tempt him to make concessions on reform to placate an angry audience. But he also needs to rebuild public confidence in the police, and this requires him to press ahead with reform even if it means treading on toes.

Compromise will be necessary. Nobody will gain if the police are driven into still more stubborn resentment of the reforms that have been raining down on them. But the case for reform is too strong to be set aside. The sensitive issue of police discipline is particularly overdue for attention. Procedures have scarcely changed since 1919. They are lengthy, legalistic, highly protective and manifestly ineffective. Cases of misconduct can take years to investigate. Minor offences go unpunished because proof requires too much effort, while serious offenders may also escape because of difficulty in achieving criminal standards of proof, especially when the accused enjoy the right of silence and colleagues are reluctant to provide evidence. Nor is it easy to deal with incompetence or laziness.

The underlying choice is between continuing to treat the police as semi-military servants of the Crown enjoying a high degree of protection and self-regulation, or giving them the same status as other public service employees, as Mr Clarke is now endeavouring to do. If present arrangements were still effective there would be no case for change, but they are manifestly not. In recent years there have simply been too many miscarriages of justice, wrongful arrests and other examples of misconduct. The number of officers who have been retired on unconvincing 'health' grounds has become a bad joke. Public scepticism of the integrity and efficiency of the police has reached dangerously high levels and is contributing to rising crime because it deprives the police of the community support they need.

Mr Clarke has been told often enough that if the police are to be treated as ordinary public service employees, they will demand the rights that come with that status, including the right to strike and the full protection of health and safety legislation. This will be the unavoidable result of reform, but the price of too much compromise would be higher.

The resentful mood of the police is understandable. Their failings attract more attention than the arduous, honest and often dangerous work that most of them do every day. Mr Clarke should be unstinting in his praise for that. The police need encouragement as much as anyone else, and most of them deserve it. They must not be turned into scapegoats for the social ills that make their jobs so difficult. But they should be the first to realise that they cannot operate effectively without more public support than they enjoy at present. It will be Mr Clarke's task to persuade them that he is not trying to punish them for past failings but offering them a chance to regain the confidence of the public they serve.