Police reform: Nick Herbert's speech to the IPPR on who runs the police

This speech was given to the IPPR on Monday 28 March 2011. Parts of the speech deemed political have been removed.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lord Herbert of South Downs CBE PC

I’d like to begin by thanking the IPPR for giving me this opportunity to speak today.  The IPPR has made a strong case for redressing what it calls the ‘accountability deficit’ in policing.  Rick Muir and Guy Lodge’s pamphlet in 2008, ‘A New Beat,’ cogently set out the case for local democratic accountability, describing police authorities as ‘weak, unaccountable and remote.’  I am glad that I am not alone in using blunt language.

It’s significant, though too often overlooked, that the case for reform of police governance is made across the political spectrum.  There is a party consensus in favour of the democratic reform of police authorities, albeit differences of view about the best model.

Nevertheless, I intend today both to re-state the case for reform and explain how we as a Government, implementing the Coalition Agreement, are going to swap the bureaucratic control of the police for democratic accountability, and how this will benefit police and public alike.

Who runs the police?

In Shanghai a few years ago, a Chinese businessman who was perplexed by the notion of parliamentary democracy asked me who, as an MP, I worked for - the government or the people? 

I once put the same challenge to Sir Ian (now Lord) Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He declined to reply. His answer should have been unequivocal: the people.  After all, aren’t the police a public service?

Who runs the police? We probably wouldn’t ask the same question about other public services.  Head teachers and governors run schools.  Chief executives of NHS trusts run hospitals, with medical directors at their side.  We know that politicians have a role in overseeing schools and health policy, but we rightly balk at the idea that they should try and manage the services.

And yet, when the Home Secretary told the Police Federation conference last year that she didn’t want to run the police - policing was their job - some raised their eyebrows.  She was surely right to say that “professional policing means policing run by you, the professionals, not us, the politicians.”  But this was clearly a significant break from the past.

Today, some of those who rightly ask questions about the policing of demonstrations forget that politicians should not direct the police - we hold the police to account.  But that is the way that policy was going. Police forces sprang out of the municipalities, yet in recent years they have increasingly looked to the Home Office rather than their local communities.  Instead of trusting the skills, decision-making and professionalism of those that actually do the work, politicians and policy makers became focused on raising standards from Whitehall with a plethora of targets. There were even detailed instructions on how to answer telephone calls.

This government is determined to end the decade of centralisation, by axeing policing targets, scrapping unnecessary forms and ditching the so-called Policing Pledge.  We have removed ring-fences on funding and we are restoring professional discretion, allowing police officers to be crime fighters, not form writers.

The need for stronger local accountability

But the police are a monopoly service - the public can’t choose their force.  Officers must be accountable for their actions and performance.  We cannot simply release the grip of Whitehall without putting in place some other means to ensure that forces deliver.  Most crime is local.  It is far better that forces should answer to local communities than to box ticking officials in Whitehall.  But if local accountability is to substitute for the centralised performance regime of the past, it needs to be strong.

And the problem is that police authorities are not strong enough to exercise this alternative governance, and they are not sufficiently connected to the public.  Only four out of 22 inspected police authorities have been assessed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Audit Commission as performing well in their most critical functions.

There is also a gap between the authorities and the public they are meant to serve.  Only 8 per cent of wards in England and Wales are represented on a police authority.  Only 7 per cent of the public understand they can approach their police authority if dissatisfied with policing.  Almost no-one knows who their authority chairman is.  A recent survey found that a typical authority receives barely two letters a week from the public.  They may be doing a worthy job, and I thank authority members for their commitment, but this democratic deficit cannot continue.

The absence of a direct line of public influence is problematic for forces, too.  The founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, said back in the 19th Century that “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions”.  After about a decade over which public approval of the police fell, it has now started to rise again - a welcome trend - but still only 56 per cent of the public say that the police do a good or excellent job.

A survey by Consumer Research last year found that nearly a third of those who come into contact with the police - and I don’t mean criminals - were dissatisfied.  Of the minority who complained, nearly two thirds were unhappy with the way the police dealt with their complaint.  The police were amongst the poorest performers of public services.

We should recognise and pay tribute to police success in tackling crime.  Every time I visit a force and see policing at its best I am reminded of the commitment of officers, PCSOs and staff.  And at a time when many rush to judgement on the police, as we have seen in relation to recent operations, we should remember the challenges they face.

Today I have publicly rejected criticism of the police over their handling of the riots in London, which I believe is unfair.  Of course lessons must always be learnt from such incidents.  But the readiness of officers to place themselves in harm’s way, and their can do attitude, is something for which the whole country should be grateful.  Over 50 officers were injured on Saturday; some had to be taken to hospital.  It is the violent thugs who attacked property and the police who should be condemned.

But we would be doing a disservice to officers, staff and the public if we failed to identify the areas where policing needs to improve.  Successful policing in future will rely on the bridge between the people and the police being strengthened.  Police forces will need to raise their game in relation to antisocial behaviour at one end of the spectrum, where public concern remains high, and the threat of serious organised crime at the other.  And this is at a time when budgets are necessarily being reduced, requiring chief constables to show real leadership and drive a fundamental redesign of policing to protect frontline services.

I believe that forces have the people and the will to meet these challenges, but that we now need radical change in the way we organise policing.

A Royal Commission?

To those who call for a Royal Commission to ponder these issues, I say - in common with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary - that there is no time for one.  Reform cannot wait; we do not have the luxury of delay while a committee of wise men ponder and eventually agree to differ.

We live in the age of accountability and transparency: as MPs discovered, institutions which are too late to see this will be damaged as a result.  From the beginning of the next financial year - starting in just a few days - forces will need to make the significant budget reductions that the economic recovery of our country requires.  In Harold Wilson’s words, ‘I see no need for a Royal Commission … which will take minutes and waste years.’

The police reform agenda

Direct local accountability and decentralisation are part of a coherent reform agenda to cut crime.  We are also creating a powerful new National Crime Agency, to improve the fight against serious and organised crime and help protect our borders.  We are dealing with an over cluttered national policing landscape, phasing out the National Policing Improvement Agency.  We have proposed new powers to tackle antisocial behaviour and we are toughening the licensing laws.  We are reviewing police leadership, training and skills, examining pay and conditions and moving towards a reformed, more accountable ACPO.  We will publish Peter Neyroud’s report on police leadership very shortly.

Central to this reform agenda is the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. They are a key element of the government’s programme of decentralisation, where power is returned to people and communities.

We will swap bureaucratic control for democratic accountability, replacing police authorities with directly elected commissioners in all forces in England and Wales save for the City of London, which is an exception.  London already has its Mayor.  He will be London’s Police and Crime Commissioner and will take over functions from the Metropolitan Police Authority, which will be abolished.  From the first elections in May next year, the public will have a real say over how their area is policed.

These new commissioners will be big local figures with a powerful local mandate to drive the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour.  They will decide policing strategy and the force budget, set the local council tax precept, and appoint - and if necessary dismiss - the chief constable.  They will do all these things on behalf of the public which elected them.

The role of commissioners will be greater than that of the police authorities they replace.  That is the significance of the words ‘and crime’ in their title.  They will have a broad remit to ensure community safety, with their own budgets to prevent crime and tackle drugs.  They will work with local authorities, community safety partnerships and local criminal justice boards, helping to bring a strategic coherence to the actions of these organisations at force level.  And in future their role could be extended to other elements of the local criminal justice system, ensuring that the police and those who manage offenders operate together, working to break the cycle of crime.

Strict checks and balances

Our aim is not to abandon the ‘tripartite’ arrangement of police governance, between the Home Office, local representatives and forces, but to rebalance it.  We are recognising, in the words of the Local Government Association, that the tripartite has “become unbalanced, with the Home Secretary acquiring more and more powers at the expense of chief constables and police authorities.” 

To prevent too much power from being invested in a single individual, we are putting in place strict checks and balances.  These will include local Police and Crime Panels, with representatives from each local authority and independent members, with the power to scrutinise the commissioner’s actions.  District councils will have a stake in police governance for the first time.

We need to strike the right balance here, ensuring that the panels will be effective, but guarding against appointees inappropriately cutting across the mandate of the elected commissioner.  Panels will not, and should not, have direct control over a commissioner’s decisions, and they will not be police authorities - it is commissioners who will hold forces to account, not the panels.

But the panels will have teeth.  They will have the power of veto over excessive precepts and the appointment of chief constables.  And they will have the weapon of transparency.  They will have the power to compel commissioners to release documents, summon them for questioning, and compel them to respond to any suggestions or advice.  All of this will be in public.  The thinking and decisions of commissioners will be laid bare for the people to see.

A single accountable individual

The strength of this model is that local councillors will still be involved in the governance of policing while an elected individual takes executive decisions, supported by a highly qualified team.  The principle of one accountable individual, directly responsible for the totality of force activity, is crucial to our vision. 

Policing governance by committee has meant that an unelected body has power over the level of precept.  It has meant that no-one is properly held to account for decisions or poor performance.  No-one is truly in charge.  Even police authority chairs are first among equals - they are not decision-making leaders.  Under our new system, commissioners will be able to appoint their own executive teams to support them.  But the buck will stop with commissioners, and the public will cast judgement at the ballot box.

Direct elections of police authority members would not produce this single focus.  Directly elected chairs of authorities - the previous government’s latest proposal - would be the worst of all worlds, a really bad idea, where an individual would have a mandate but be unable to deliver it, routinely outvoted by a committee of appointees.  What’s more, this model would cost more.

Direct accountability at Basic Command Unit or some equivalent level is an interesting idea, and superficially attractive, but it would result in lots of politicians with a mandate, none of them actually having strategic responsibility at force level.  Someone has to set the force budget, strategic direction and appoint the chief constable.  Without a single, clear mandate, the waters remain muddied, committees still take decisions and the public loses out.

Operational independence

It’s fundamental to the British system that the police remain operationally independent.  No politician can tell a constable - a sworn officer of the crown - who to arrest.  Forces will continue to be under the legal ‘direction and control’ of their chief constable.

I welcome Sir Hugh Orde’s comments in this week’s Police Review that ‘the government has listened to our concerns’ on this issue. 

There is general agreement that we should not try and define operational independence by statute.  But as Rick Muir has argued, “we need to clarify who decides what, when and how - and where politics ends and policing begins.”  A Memorandum of Understanding was recommended by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in a report last December.

The government has therefore committed to developing a new protocol -  which has also been described as a Memorandum of Understanding - to delineate the key responsibilities of Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners, the new local Police and Crime Panels which will scrutinise commissioners, and the Home Secretary.  The Home Office is working with ACPO and others to ensure these principles are reflected in this document, and I hope that it will be ready to be considered alongside the Bill in the House of Lords.

Ensuring strategic policing

It has been suggested that Police and Crime Commissioners will be focused on local issues to the exclusion of those which require a strategic response - that they will be too parochial.  I doubt that they would behave in this way, but in any event they will have a clear responsibility for tackling all crime in their area and for holding the whole of their force’s activities to account.  That is the principle which underlies the vertical integration of forces.

As I have argued before, there’s a paradox of policing over the last few years.  While central government has interfered too much in matters that should be determined locally, it has been weak in areas where a stronger grip was required.  The imperative of dealing with the threat of terrorism, backed by a huge investment, saw a strong national counter terrorist network developed.

But the fight against serious and organised crime, as Sir Paul Stephenson reminded us last year, remains patchy.  There has been too little focus on ensuring value for money.  And following the failure of compulsory force amalgamations, the centre was weak in setting a new vision or driving collaboration.

The time has come to reverse this situation - giving more space for local determination with stronger local accountability, while ensuring real leadership where national organisation and cross-boundary policing is needed.

So the new National Crime Agency will transform the fight against organised crime, working with police forces.  The Home Secretary will issue a Strategic Policing Requirement, which will guide forces on their responsibilities for serious and cross-boundary policing challenges - such as terrorism, organised crime, public order and responding to major incidents and emergencies.  Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables will be under strong duties to have regard to this Requirement.

Collaboration between forces

It makes operational sense for forces to work together.  But it also saves money.  The Home Office is providing stronger co-ordination and support for collective procurement of goods and services by forces, including IT, where we estimate potential savings of some £380 million a year.  Around a third of spending by police forces is not on the frontline - it is on back and middle office functions.  Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary will be reporting in detail on this breakdown later this week.  But it is clear that the opportunities for savings while protecting the frontline are immense.

I flatly disagree with those who expect Police and Crime Commissioners to be obstacles to collaboration.  In fact, I expect them to be strongly motivated to drive out costs as they seek to free officers to fight crime.  They will have a public mandate to do so that is stronger than any pressure brought about by Whitehall bureaucracy.

That means that PCCs will be powerfully incentivised to look hard at what their forces do and what opportunities there are for working with other forces and other partners to do things more efficiently and effectively.

But to allay any fears, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, currently before Parliament, also places commissioners and chief constables under a strong legal duty to collaborate.

The need to tackle serious and cross-boundary criminality more effectively, and deliver support functions more efficiently, are not new problems.  They have not been brought about by the introduction of PCCs.  They are the same challenges that we have been facing for some time.  But because we are strengthening the accountability of forces to their communities, we are also able to address weaknesses in our national response to serious crime without undermining the space, freedom and discretion for local decision-making which is so important.  Put simply, the Home Office is now focusing on the right things.

Driving value for money

I expect Police and Crime Commissioners to reap a return for taxpayers by driving value for money more strongly.  Their running costs will be no more than police authorities, because we will no longer be paying allowances to councillors.  The only additional costs will be those of holding elections once every four years.  Because these will be combined with local elections, this will be £50 million.  (The Association of Police Authorities’ estimate, at double this, is wrong.)  This sum has been provided additionally by the Chancellor for 2012; it will not come out of force budgets.  To put it in context, the equivalent annual cost is less than 0.1 per cent of total police spend.

Policing in the United States

And while I am dealing with one poor argument against reform, let me address another.  Police and Crime Commissioners are not a crude import from the United States.  As Bill Bratton reminded us when he came over here last year, with some 17,000 police departments, there is no single model of policing in the US in any case.  At least that’s a number that should give the proponents of force amalgamations here some cheer.

Of course there have been things to admire and learn from the United States - Bratton’s own remarkable policing reforms in New York; the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, similar to our own rediscovery of neighbourhood policing; the strong connection between public services and the people which direct elections create.  It was seeing Los Angeles’ street level crime mapping that persuaded me to promote that idea here - resulting in a new website, www.police.uk, which received over 400 million hits in the first two months, an example of the power of transparency but also the public appetite for information about crime and antisocial behaviour in their neighbourhood.

But there are other aspects of the US system which we emphatically would not wish to replicate, and many areas where our own model is superior.  In particular, we have an independent Inspectorate of Constabulary - which we are strengthening - a robust Independent Police Complaints Commission, and we have national measures to ensure the integrity of crime data collected by local forces.  Those who suggest that Police and Crime Commissioners would open the door to widespread police corruption simply do not understand our system.

The Mayor of London

And we don’t need to look across the Atlantic to see that an elected individual holding the police to account is popular.  In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has delivered on his pledges to tackle knife crime and put uniformed officers on public transport.   He has committed to keep cops on the streets - strikingly, at a time when most forces have frozen recruitment, the Met is about to begin hiring officers again.  How many Londoners would prefer their police force to answer to an invisible committee?

The office of the Mayor of London has proved to be popular amongst Londoners, precisely because the Mayor is sensitive to his electorate.  Since Boris took greater charge of policing in the capital, the Metropolitan Police Authority has received four and a half time as much correspondence.  The people know who to go to and who to hold to account - and they like it.

The politicisation of policing

Nor can it be said that the Mayor’s greater involvement has politicised the Met.  In any case I find the criticism of politicisation a peculiar argument when the Home Secretary is always an elected politician and a leading member of their party.  As the IPPR’s Director, Nick Pearce, has said, “one person’s politicisation is another person’s accountability.”  If the police aren’t to answer to an elected representative of the people, who exactly will they answer to? 

We judged that it would be both wrong in principle and unworkable in practice to ban political parties from fielding candidates as Police and Crime Commissioners.  But that does not mean that party politics will be introduced into police forces themselves.  Commissioners will not be permitted to appoint political advisers.  And, once again, the operational independence of officers will be crucial.

Police and Crime Commissioners will not be picking up the phone to individual officers, telling them how to do their job, who to arrest, and where to be.  They will not be permitted to sack or appoint officers, other than the chief constable - indeed under these arrangements Chief Constables will receive greater power over who they hire for their top management team than they have at the moment.

And the candidates for office need not come from the political parties.  There is a real opportunity for highly qualified independent candidates to come forward, and I hope they will.

It’s claimed that extremists will be elected, even BNP candidates.  This is nonsense: they polled just 2 per cent of the national vote in the general election.  The electoral system and size of constituencies means that their candidates will not succeed.  The same disreputable arguments - that you can’t rely on people to make the right decisions - were advanced against votes for women.

Dig deeper, and you find an elitist fear that elected Commissioners might be so brash as to reflect public concern and pledge to get tough on crime.  It’s strange that so many democrats are so wary of democracy, but I believe that we can and should trust the people.

The benefits of reform

This reform is essential to address the democratic deficit in policing, to end the era of Whitehall’s bureucratic control, to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour and to drive value for money.  I accept that police authorities will be losers, since they will be abolished.  But I believe that everyone else will gain.

Chief constables will be liberated to be crime fighters rather than government managers, free to run their workforces, and relieved of the burden of politics which they can safely leave to Police and Crime Commissioners.

Police officers will benefit from a less bureaucratic system where discretion is restored and where someone close to their force has a strong interest in driving out waste and prioritising the frontline.

Local authorities will benefit from a continuing say in the governance of policing, and district councils will have a role for the first time.

The taxpayer will see better value for value money as commissioners, who will have responsibility for the precept, focus relentlessly on efficiency in their forces.

Local policing will benefit from a strong democratic input, focusing attention on issues of public concern.  The streets will be safer.

The Home Office will be refocused on its proper role, especially to address national threats and to co-ordinate strategic action and collaboration between forces.

Above all, the public will have a voice in how they are policed.  Police and Crime Commissioners will have the mandate and the moral authority to reflect public concern on crime.

Finest service in the world

The Prime Minister said recently that we have the finest police service in the world.  Like the NHS, we should be proud of this British institution and protect what is best in it.  But we also need to ensure that the police are able to meet today’s challenges and command broad public support.

Sir Robert Peel, famously said that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’.  Forces will continue to be run by chief constables, but their legitimacy depends on the principle that the police answer to the people they serve.


Published 28 March 2011