Police reform: Home Secretary's speech of 16 August 2011

This speech was given by Home Secretary Theresa May on 16 August 2011. Content deemed political has been removed. This version is as spoken.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

One week ago, the whole country saw what a noble profession policing is.  When there was violence and disorder in our towns and cities, police officers from across the whole of Britain stepped forward, put themselves on the line, and used their skills and training to return order to our streets.

Some officers worked 18 hours straight through. Some were off-duty, but when they saw trouble erupt in their community, they rushed to put themselves in harm’s way, without protective equipment and without backup. Many officers who were supporting other forces through mutual aid ended up sleeping on police station floors. In some cases, forces doubled and tripled the number of officers on duty and more than 230 sustained injuries.

We owe all police officers a debt of gratitude. They are brave men and women, drawn from their community, living as part of their community, defending their community.They risk their own safety day in, day out to protect ours. And we should not forget the many police officers and staff who worked around the clock, staffing gold and silver command, operation rooms and call centres.

So let me be clear. When we ask how successful a policing operation has been, when we want to make things better for the future, when we ask questions about how the police can become more effective, more efficient, or more accountable to the public, that is not an attack on the men and women of our police force.  On the contrary, if we neglect to ask those questions, we will let down not just the public but tens of thousands of police officers and staff up and down the country.

So today I want to ask those questions. How successful was last week’s response? How do we make things better for the future? How do we ensure police forces are effective, efficient, robust, well-led and accountable to the people they serve?

First, last week’s response. I don’t intend to give yet another forensic examination of everything that happened last weekend, but as chief officers themselves have said, when faced with an unprecedented situation, the immediate police response was not enough.  Following the violence in London on Sunday night, the Metropolitan Police doubled the number of officers on duty on Monday, but it still wasn’t enough to restore order. On Tuesday night, West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police suffered similar experiences.  It was only when the police surged in even greater numbers - 16,000 in London’s case - backed by a tougher arrests policy and earlier intervention to disperse crowds, were they able to restore order.

And I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to our police leaders, who made those changes that led to the restoration of order on our streets. They worked tirelessly in leading their officers through a difficult time, and they deserve much credit for that.

Many of the questions that have been posed since then actually reflect the questions we have been asking ourselves in the Home Office since last May.  How do we make sure that the police are as effective as possible in cutting crime?  In these tough economic times, how do we make our forces efficient enough to cut crime on a tighter budget?  What powers do the police need to cut crime?  How do we make sure forces are well-led by single-minded crime-fighters?  And how do we make sure the police are accountable to the public?  I will take each in turn, because I believe the experience of the last ten days makes the case for police reform more urgent than ever.


As Home Secretary, I’ve been clear from the beginning that the test of the effectiveness of the police, the sole objective against which they will be judged, the way in which communities should be able to hold them to account, is their success in cutting crime.  I haven’t asked the police to be social workers, I haven’t set them any performance indicators, and I haven’t given them a thirty point plan, I’ve told them to cut crime.

How police chiefs go about cutting crime is up to them.The last government tested to destruction the idea that you can set policing plans and targets from Whitehall for communities as different as Brixton and Berkshire, Salford and Surrey, Lewisham and Lincolnshire.  So the responsibility for policing local communities will be kept local.  I will turn to accountability later, but that too will be kept local, through beat meetings, crime maps and directly-elected police and crime commissioners.

This devolution of responsibility in policing is the better-understood side of our reforms, but it is only half the picture.  Because as last week showed, while crime is mostly local, the police sometimes face challenges that cross force boundaries, or require forces to work together. That is why, alongside the devolution of powers in our police reforms, we are establishing for the first time a Strategic Policing Requirement. This will require local chief officers to have regard to national threats, as set out by the Home Secretary, and the need to maintain a national policing capability to meet those threats.

It is also why we will establish a National Crime Agency, an operational crime-fighting body, charged with taking on serious and organised crime, economic crime, border policing and child protection.  Like the Strategic Policing Requirement, the NCA will have a crucial role alongside ACPO in making sure that localised policing doesn’t come at the expense of regional, national and international crime-fighting.  And that at times of need, forces can pool resources and allow the kind of surge capacity that we saw work to such good effect from last Tuesday onwards.

And this brings me on to police numbers. It’s often said that policing is necessarily a numbers game, and, to a point, that is true.  We saw the proof of it last week, when order was restored after a massive show of police strength on the streets.  But what that proved is the need to be able to turn out officers where they’re needed in large numbers.  What matters is not the total number of officers employed, but the total number of officers deployed, and how effectively they are deployed.

I am clear that even at the end of this spending period, forces will still have the resources to deploy officers in the same numbers we have seen in the last week.  But even in normal economic times, such large scale deployments are not sustainable for any length of time.

The importance of how officers are deployed is made crystal clear when you consider that, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, only twelve per cent are visible and available at any one time.  Now of course that doesn’t mean that 88 per cent of police time is wasted, but it’s clear to me that we can improve the visibility and availability of the police to the public.


It’s more important than ever that we do so, because we are asking the police to fight crime on a tighter budget.  Let’s remember why budgets will need to be smaller.  We’re not cutting police spending because we want to, because we’re on some kind of ideological mission to cut the size of the state, or because somehow we have it in for the police.  We’re doing it because we have to.

We have just been through the gravest financial crisis since the Second World War. We face the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history. We have a deficit higher than Portugal and Greece, both of whom have had to go cap in hand to the EU for a bailout.  Even the United States of America has had its credit rating downgraded.  The risks of not dealing with the deficit are plain for all to see.  And it is only our decisive and unwavering action to reduce the size of our budget deficit that is taking Britain out of the financial danger zone.

And as we cut the deficit, the police are going to have to take their share of the burden. People often say there will be twenty per cent police cuts.  And that’s true, if you’re talking about central government police funding, in real terms.

But police forces get their money from the local precept too. And when you take into account the Office for Budget Responsibility’s precept forecasts, the real terms reduction is fourteen per cent.

But even this doesn’t quite give the full picture, because eighty per cent of police spending is on pay, and as we’re likely to freeze police pay for two years, the cash terms figures are actually closer to the reality than the real terms figures. 

And in cash terms, once precept forecasts are taken into account, we’re talking about a six per cent reduction in total over four years.  

I’m not saying that police budgets in this spending period aren’t challenging, but they are achievable. So we are working with the police to find savings and efficiencies that, eventually, could save more than the total spending reductions we are asking the police to make. 

For example, we know from HMIC’s work that if the least efficient forces brought themselves up to the average level of efficiency, we could save £1.15 billion per year.  And we know that if all forces caught up with the most efficient forces, we could save a further £350 million. 

We also know that money can be saved through better procurement. The police are a fragmented customer, buying the same things in 43 different ways from different suppliers, spending more than they ought and getting less than they deserve. We have already introduced regulations to join up procurement, with better contracts, more joint purchasing and greater private sector involvement. And I have already set out plans to create a police-led ICT company to help the police to buy equipment and systems together and achieve economies of scale.

I have already said we plan - subject to the recommendations of the Police Negotiating Board - to freeze police pay for two years, and that would save £350 million.  But I have also commissioned Tom Winsor to review police pay and conditions. Again, this isn’t because I want to reduce police pay packets, but because I want to protect officers’ jobs, I want to see frontline service rewarded, and I want to keep resources focused on getting the police out onto the streets.

Too often, police officers tell me, they make an arrest and then they get stuck at the station for hours processing forms, when all they want to do is get back out there.  So we’re also taking action on police bureaucracy.

We have already scrapped the stop form and we’ve scaled back the stop and search form, saving up to 800,000 police hours per year.  We’ve restored police discretion over some charging decisions, saving up to 50,000 hours per year. Now we’re streamlining performance management, crime recording processes, risk management, improving the handling of domestic violence cases and going even further on charging discretion. In total, that could save a further 2.5 million police hours every year. That is the equivalent of 1,200 police officers, out there policing your streets.


So we are reforming the police to make sure they are effective in fighting crime, and efficient to fight crime on a budget. But one of the questions raised in the last week was whether the police have the right powers to fight crime and keep order.

Many people in the room today will know that HMIC have been reviewing public order policing since 2009.  Their last report, published earlier this year, established that we are in a new era of public order policing - one that is faster moving and more unpredictable - and that police tactics will have to be as adaptable as possible to keep up.

Following last week’s events, I have written to Sir Denis O’Connor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, and asked him to provide clearer information to forces about the size of deployments, the need for mutual aid, pre-emptive action, public order tactics, the number of officers trained in public order policing, and an appropriate arrests policy.

Throughout last week, we said we would do what was necessary to bring the disorder to an end, and we meant it.

We made it clear to the police that there was nothing to stop them using baton rounds if they judged it necessary, and water cannon stationed in Northern Ireland was made available on 24 hour standby. The police were clear that they did not want to use them, and, in the end, what restored order was officers on the streets and robust policing with the help and support of local communities.  We risk that important public support if we rush to use things such as rubber bullets.

But on a more day-to-day level, the police need strong, enforceable powers to help them deal with anti-social behaviour, criminality, gangs and disorder.

Last week, dispersal orders - which allow the police to move young people away from specific places - were used to good effect.  They form part of the anti-social behaviour regime which we are currently reforming to make it more streamlined, effective and enforceable.  It’s clear to me that as long as we tolerate the kind of anti-social behaviour that takes place every day up and down the country, we will continue to see high levels of crime, a lack of respect for private property and a contempt for community life.

We have already said that we will give the police new powers, including new gang injunctions for young people and the right to remove face coverings, as well as considering new curfew powers.  For example, under existing laws, there is no power to impose a general curfew in a particular area, and while curfew conditions can be placed on some offenders as part of their ASBO, criminal sentence or bail conditions, there are only limited powers to impose them on somebody under the age of sixteen.  Those are the sorts of changes we need to consider.

So we will make sure the police have the powers they need.  But we also need to be clear that when they use them, and when they deliver the kind of robust policing that worked this week, they have the support of the politicians and the public.

Officers I met last week told me that because of criticism of police tactics in the past, they’re not sure they do have our backing: too often in the past the police have been damned if they do and damned if they don’t. 

I want police officers to hear this message loud and clear: as long as you act within reason and the law, I will never damn you if you do.


So the police need to have the legal powers to take robust action against criminals.  They also need strong leaders, single-minded crime fighters who get to the top and measure their own performance on nothing but taking the fight to lawbreakers. Too often in the past, the test of a police chief has been whether they ticked boxes, followed their performance indicators and hit their government targets. That is no longer the case.

And we need to open up the talent pool. This is one reason why, in addition to his work on pay and conditions, I commissioned Tom Winsor to produce a second report into the long-term future of policing.  As part of this second report, I asked him to consider how we can introduce direct entry into the police - including the most senior police ranks - so that suitably qualified outsiders may apply.

I also want him to look at how to encourage police officers who want to stay out there on the frontline to go for promotion.

Too often promotion means coming off the streets and sitting behind a desk, becoming a manager and no longer a police officer.

Too many talented officers turn down promotion as a result.  That’s a dreadful waste of ability, and we need to put an end to it. 

Policing is a vocation, so I want to see promotion opportunities for officers who want to stay out on the frontline and who are the best in their field.


For that is what the public want from their police.  And the final principle of our police reforms is to make sure that the police are directly accountable to the people.

From May next year, the public will be able to elect a police and crime commissioner for their police force area, who will have the power to set the policing budget, determine the policing plan and hire and fire the chief constable.  They will have a key role working with local community safety partnerships and bringing together all the local agencies with an interest in crime.  If local people are unhappy with the performance of their police force, or if they think crime is too high, they will have the ultimate sanction of booting out from office their local police and crime commissioner.

And I thought that was another lesson from last week’s events.  In London, the Mayor was on the streets of his city, working with the Acting Commissioner and representing Londoners to central government. The contrast with unaccountable, unelected and invisible police authority chairmen in other parts of the country could not have been clearer.

It is also clear that this desire for transparency goes further.  When I visited Manchester last week, one of the problems the chairman of the police authority raised with me was the apparent need for anonymity in the cases of young offenders involved in the disorder.  So when I chaired Cobra on Friday, I asked that the CPS reinforce that prosecutors can and should request, in the public interest, that the Courts lift the anonymity of young offenders once they have been found guilty.

Building on this public desire for transparency and accountability, I am keen to take crime maps on to the next level as soon as possible.  From May next year, the public will be able to see, at street level, what has happened after a crime has been committed. In addition,  Leicestershire Police are exploring how to develop online case tracking systems for individual victims so they can monitor the progress of their case online. Once this change has been trialled, I am keen to see it implemented across the whole country as quickly as possible.

Urgent need for police reform

The violence and disorder we saw in our towns and cities one week ago showed Britain’s police officers at their best: brave, selfless and determined to protect the public.

But they also showed that the case for radical reform of the police is more urgent than ever.

We need police forces to be as effective as possible in fighting crime.

Efficient enough to cut crime even as we cut budgets.

Robust enough to take the fight to the criminals.

Well-led by single-minded crime fighters.

And accountable to the communities they serve.

Thank you.


Published 16 August 2011