Leading Article: The making of a better force

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The Independent Online
THE WOMEN'S stocking allowance will go. So will the typewriter allowance, the bicycle allowance, the uniform allowance, the promotion examination allowance, and the allowances for detective duty, dog handling and firearms expertise. Overtime will be effectively abolished, except for special cases such as riots, crashes and rapes. Payments for housing will be bought out. The Buggins's-turn promotion system will disappear, as will the ranks of chief inspector and chief superintendent. And to cap it all, police officers will be put on fixed contracts, for 10 years when first hired and later for five years, from which they may be booted out without ceremony if they do not measure up.

Yes, there are many things in Sir Patrick Sheehy's report on police responsibilities and rewards that will give ammunition to the Police Federation. As they brood over the report, some police officers will be tempted to believe that an unjustified attack is being made on their way of life; and their suspicion will be strengthened when they hear that the report was prepared by a motley committee containing an accountant, a professor, a television man and a former cigarette salesman with a knighthood. None of these worthies was ever required to stand up to an angry drunk, or face a burglar with a knife on his way back from a job.

Yet Sir Patrick's report, as might be expected from a businessman with no time to waste, is full of good sense. It has a 14-page executive summary to give the casual reader an overview; a list of 272 specific recommendations on how police pay and conditions should be changed; and two volumes, running to almost 400 pages, of argument and appendices explaining how things work now, how they might work better, and what steps would have to be taken to put the recommendations into effect by January 1995.

The basic Sheehy conclusion is that the way police officers are recruited, paid, rewarded and promoted no longer reflects either good management or what the public expects of police forces. Attempts to compensate officers for the costs and the danger they incur in doing their jobs have resulted in a horrendous mess. A combination of local rigidity and central interference has made the system, as a whole, expensive and ineffective; most worrying of all, the system makes it difficult to keep good officers in the force but does much to discourage bad ones from leaving.

In the past, investigations of the police have too easily accepted the special plea that police work is different from any other kind of job, and must, therefore, operate under different rules. The Sheehy committee has not. It recognises that some features of a police officer's life justify special treatment - it argues, for instance, for even higher bonuses for the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - but it has been resolute in insisting that others do not. The committee decided that police should be subject to the sort of fixed-term contracts that are now spreading across British industry.

If Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has the courage to put the Sheehy proposals into effect, the short-term consequence will be a period of low morale and protest as police officers get used to a new regime. In the long term, however, the results will be entirely beneficial. Britain will have better police officers, and they will be paid and promoted in a way that encourages them to do their best work.