Leading Article: Straw calls the police to order

REFORMERS or reactionaries, Home Secretaries have to deal with two of the most powerful trade unions in the country. Margaret Thatcher took on teachers and the TUC, but even she quailed before the Prison Officers' Association. As for the Police Federation, she needed the constables' loyalty in the miners' strike and stuffed their mouths with the generous Edmund-Davies pay formula. So New Labour inherits two inadequately managed services. Police efficiency is suspect; too many corrupt officers leave the force undisciplined. Their pension arrangements, along with those for fire officers, are an actuary's nightmare. They are not alone in resisting change. As recent events at Wormwood Scrubs showed, prison officers are still allowed to substitute group solidarity for effective and fair delivery of penal custody.

But Jack Straw is crafty. One of us, say the Tories, albeit in private, he is Michael Howard's legatee: look, he is keeping the prison building programme going. But they miss the distance between his populist rhetoric - for example in the Mary Bell case - and his attempt to do some liberal good by stealth, for example in youth justice. As for police and prison officers, Mr Straw has set two slow fuses burning. The police have to agree to a major reform of the disciplinary code: prison officers have to give up strikes and disruptive action, and in return they become partners in the running of penal institutions.

It is a start. But Mr Straw must know that if the police and prison officers are as powerful and potentially obstructive at the end of this parliament as they were at the conclusion of the last, he will have failed to make a much-needed contribution to the project of modernising Britain by which Tony Blair has set such store. No one is denying the difficulty of the custodial services nor how much we, the public, take for granted those who police society's marginal members. But that does not emancipate them from effective management, nor the need to show they offer value for money - nor the type of contracts now common elsewhere in the public sector.

It is not a question of breaking the unions, let alone preventing staff belonging to a legitimate representative body. It is about greater flexibility and the right of police and prison managers to manage and, as necessary, to subject service providers to fair external scrutiny and competition. Successive studies by the Audit Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Prisons Service attest to the need for change, inside police stations, in the mess halls of prisons. The Police Federation must accept that its members' job is assuring the public of their safety. That depends on trust, which in turn requires an end - as the Home Secretary proposes - to freemasonry and stonewalling when inquiries are mounted. Jack Straw this week faces the unions' contumely. He should face it down, and carry on.