The introduction of elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) was a “bizarre policy” that left individuals with “unchecked power” over force budgets and policies, one of Britain’s most respected former police chiefs has said.
Calling for the government’s flagship policing reform to be scrapped as part of measures to stop a “feeling of lawlessness” in the UK, Sir Mark Rowley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve had eight years of policy misdirection that has been characterised by parochialism, the weakening of powers and by the cutting of resources.”
Sir Mark, who became the head of UK counterterror policing in 2014, two years after Police and Crime Commissioners replaced local police authorities. He served in the role until last year and now he has joined a group of retired senior officers demanding change after “eight years of policy misdirection” by the government.
They called for a royal commission to consider merging the 43 police forces in England and Wales, and for the government to reverse cuts that saw the loss of 30,000 officers and support staff.
“It’s that combination of factors in a time when threats are more joined up and policing needs to be more joined up,” Sir Mark said.
He added that the government needed to “have a really fresh look to set policing up to deal with the threats and challenges of today, as well as having the necessary resources”.
A system of 43 regional police forces, governed by elected politicians, was “not the way to structure policing when we’re dealing with global challenges” like cybercrime, online child abuse and terrorism, he said.
He was one of eight former commissioners of London’s Metropolitan Police and chief officers who wrote a letter to The Times warning that police resources had been drained to “dangerously low levels”.
They said the reduction of police officer numbers and “destruction” of neighbourhood policing had contributed to a “feeling of lawlessness generated by knife murders” and rampant drug gangs.
“Police and crime commissioners, however well motivated, do not have the skills or resources to address the emasculation of British policing experienced in recent years,” the letter added. “It is the first duty of any government to protect its citizens from harm. The responses to terrorism, cybercrime and the restoration of police resources and confidence cannot be provided by a fragmented system comprising more than 40 territorial police forces.
“If ever there were a time for a royal commission on British policing, it is now.”
The call came after an annual report by Sir Thomas Windsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who warned that “profound and far-reaching reform” was needed to prevent “unacceptable compromises in both the quality of service the police can offer the public and the level of public safety and security the police can uphold”.
Sir Thomas Winsor found there has been a real-terms reduction in police funding of 19 per cent since 2010-11, as officers are left to “pick up the pieces” of other public service decimated by cuts. He said there was a “pressing need for single-system operation” between police force areas.
“Localism has its place but we need to recognise that the 43 force model was designed and established when policing was very different to today,” Sir Thomas added, and said that while local accountability was important, regional and national effectiveness was “just as essential”.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, accused the Home Office of a failure of leadership in the face of changing patterns of crime.
“Ministers still aren’t responding to the gravity of the situation for policing because of the level of budget and staffing cuts and lack of leadership – especially as serious violence is continuing to rise,” she added. “They cannot continue to stand back and leave the police to cope and manage alone.”
The comments have reignited longstanding tensions between police officers and PCCs, after years of attempts to foster mutual respect and collaboration. The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners said PCCs have an “important role within the wider criminal justice system”, after a report last year found that some were “bleeding hopeless”.
Performance lead Matthew Scott, the PCC for Kent, said: “They have responsibility for commissioning the majority of local services to help victims of crime, ensuring they are supported throughout the criminal justice process and are receiving their entitlements under the Victims Code of Practice.
“In addition, the Ministry of Justice is developing new probation arrangements which will include a stronger role for PCCs.”
The Home Office said chief constables and PCCs were collaborating with other forces across the country on a daily basis.
“We have already made progress reforming the police system but recognise there is still more to do and are working with policing leaders across the country to build a smarter, more efficient system with crime prevention at its heart,” a spokesperson added. “Police funding has increased by more than £1bn this year, including council tax and money to tackle serious violence. PCCs have already indicated they plan to recruit over 3,500 extra officers and staff.”
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