The Government alleges that the police service will be made more efficient, to pursue the fight against crime with greater vigour. But the real imperative is simply to tame the budget - and the hidden agenda is undoubtedly the desire to tighten central control over the police.
Mrs Thatcher unwittingly called the bluff of the police who, for generations, had attributed growing crime and falling detection rates to inadequate resources. 'Give us the tools and we will do the job,' they insisted. Mrs Thatcher took them at their word. One of her first acts as prime minister in 1979 was to authorise the Edmund-Davies pay formula. Salaries increased massively, followed quickly by recruitment. The government gave the police additional legal powers and some of the paraphernalia that modern police forces find indispendable. But crime continued to soar while detection rates spiralled inexorably downwards.
In the early Eighties Tory backbenchers began to complain that the government had kept its part of the bargain, but the police had not honoured theirs. In 1984 the government started to get tough with chief constables, telling them that more money would not be forthcoming without assurances that it would be well used. The inspectorate was beefed up and performance indicators came to the fore as a method of assessment.
This week has seen the culmination of that process, with the twin assaults on what is now regarded in Conservative circles as a bloated, inefficient and expensive producer monopoly. On Monday Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced changes to the structure and accountability of police forces and their authorities. Yesterday, Sir Patrick Sheehy's committee reported on pay, rank structure and responsibilities within police forces. Though separate, these two initiatives must be regarded as a single centralising package.
This centralising tendency has been evident since modern policing was introduced in the 19th century. Sir Robert Peel never envisaged the patchwork of police forces that was to emerge - he wanted a single, national force under the control of the Home Secretary. But the balance of political power throughout the 19th century obliged the government to settle for less.
Since the 1850s the Home Office has gradually sought to realise Peel's intention. Its principal (but not only) weapon has been the power of the purse. Funding at first a quarter and later a half of local police budgets allowed the Home Office to impose government inspections and common standards. National pay scales and terms of employment meant that resource costs were centrally controlled. Restricting the amount of cash available in police budgets merely extends this tendency.
The Home Office has also pursued a historical mission to circumvent 'local democracy'. In the 19th century, watch committees in the large boroughs were composed entirely of councillors, because that was where power lay. However, one inquiry or review after another has gradually chiselled away at that power. Police authorities today comprise two-thirds councillors and one-third magistrates. Where forces span more than one local authority (which is the case in all the major metropolitan jurisdictions) locally elected representation is in effect undermined. Limiting the size of police authorities to 16, reducing council representation to a half (balanced by four appointed magistrates and four centrally appointed nominees), who will have precious little influence even over the budget, will seal the process of centralisation.
Yet by maintaining the pretence of devolving power to local police authorities and senior officers, the Home Office has been able to avoid taking responsibility.
Mr Howard's predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, once suggested that a police authority for London would be created. This aberrant notion has predictably disappeared, to be replaced by an ill-defined advisory committee. It would have been remarkable indeed if the Home Office had relinquished even the slightest measure of control over the Metropolitan Police.
Policing policy has also come increasingly under central control. Modern chief constables are very much products of the Home Office. Officers above the rank of chief superintendent must move between forces on promotion, and cannot remain in the same force for more than two ranks. This is designed to break down local ties that in the past had become so cosy that they verged on corruption. Senior officers are obliged to complete central training courses aimed at giving them a national consciousness, while a constant flow of circulars 'advises' them on the minutiae of policing policy.
The Sheehy recommendations further extend central control in the name of efficiency and managerial flexibility. Denied a 'job for life', police officers of all ranks, but especially those in senior positions, will be beholden to the Home Office for renewal of their contracts. Career and remuneration will depend upon the achievement of 'performance indicators' set by the Home Office. This will enable the Home Office to set police policy by remote control.
The elimination of a number of senior ranks might seem sensible, for there are undoubtedly some very senior officers without real jobs to do. This stems from a system in which there must be a sergeant for every three constables, an inspector for every so many sergeants, and so on up the tree. However, eliminating a couple of ranks is a crude, unnecessary and possibly unproductive method of pruning. For while the Sheehy recommendations replace promotion as virtually the sole means of rewarding good police officers with performance-related pay, they ignore the value of rank as part of the remuneration package. A chief superintendent is not only paid more, but is treated with more respect - an important motivator.
What is needed is closer scrutiny of the work that each officer, especially senior officers, must do, so that jobs can be matched to the appropriate ranks. The commander of a quiet suburban division need not be of the same rank as the commander of a crime-ridden inner-city division.
Will these reforms make for a leaner and fitter organisation, better able to fight crime? Almost certainly not. Experience throughout the industrial world is that organisational changes of this kind have little, if any, impact on the effectiveness of policing. Police activity has only a marginal impact on crime rates; crime is a product of processes well beyond their control.
The wider role of the police may well suffer as a result of these reforms. Performance measures are likely to have an adverse effect on the quality of service the public receives. Pressure to economise will mean that police officers will be replaced by civilians wherever possible. Non- conflictory contact between police and public will be reduced as police officers specialise on those tasks that are their special preserve - getting heavy with recalcitrant members of the public.
Victims of crime feel greatest satisfaction with the police when they are made to feel that their plight is taken seriously, rather than when the offenders are detected. However, a leaner and fitter police force will be obliged to conclude that time spent with victims of crimes that are notoriously difficult to detect, such as burglary, is unproductive. Instead of doing those things that reassure vulnerable victims - arriving quickly, taking statements, carrying out forensic examinations - a cost-effective police force will tell them to clear up the mess and impose an administrative charge for reporting the burglary for insurance purposes.
Sheehy disputes that the police are as special as they often maintain. What is peculiar, if not unique, is the extent to which police tasks are determined by the public. The police respond to public demand. It is the public who set their day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute goals. The idea of setting targets rests on the misconception that policing can be policy driven, like other services. Reforms based on that misapprehension will result in the public being ill-served.
Like the prospectus produced by Mrs Thatcher, this week's reform prospectus is fundamentally flawed. But then one suspects that the hidden agenda is not combating crime, still less improving the service to the public, but extending control. What we are witnessing is the latest instalment in the gradual accretion of central control over the police.
The writer is director of criminal justice studies at Reading University.
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