Police reform: Theresa May's speech to the Superintendents’ Association Conference

This speech was delivered to senior police officers on 15 September 2010.

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

Thank you John for that introduction and thank you Derek for your speech, which I understand was your first as President. There was much there on which I am sure we can agree and on the areas where we differ I will always want to understand why you take a different view.

I know you will all have read about the reforms we have proposed - some people have called them the most radical changes in policing for at least 50 years.

I don’t want to get into a debate about exactly how radical our proposals are or how they compare with other changes in policing arrangements that governments have introduced over the years.

But I do want to use this opportunity to tell you what we want to do, why we want to do it and how our proposals will bring police forces closer to the communities they serve. They will increase the public’s trust in, and respect for, our police and will ultimately make our communities safer.

I also want to hear what you have to say about our proposals because we need you to support them and we need you to make them happen.

Tackling misconceptions

But first I want to tackle a couple of recent misconceptions head on. We have all seen the media stories about the upcoming spending review. I know as well as anyone that honest comments can be inflated into scare stories. But I will say this: the British public don’t simply resort to violent unrest in the face of challenging economic circumstances.

And I would also say that we must have a rational and reasonable debate about policing. Your association has a long and proud history of constructive and sensible contributions to policing policy making - long may that continue.

And let us also not pre-judge the outcome of the spending review. Budgets will be tight across the whole of the public sector but it is just pure speculation to start guessing at the final settlement.

Fair deal for policing

I will work hard to ensure a fair deal for policing but there will, most definitely, need to be savings made. It is ridiculous to suggest that there are not savings that can be made in policing. And lower budgets do not automatically have to mean lower police numbers - there are undoubtedly efficiencies that can and must be made in areas like procurement, operational support and the back office. The front line should be the last place you should look to make savings, not the first.

Savings targets will not be imposed overnight. You will have an entire five year Parliament over which to make these changes happen but you must make them happen. HMIC have said that £1bn could be saved without reducing police availability. In this economic environment, I am clear that the police service can make savings by finding new and more cost effective ways to do business.

We have now got more police officers than ever before but perceptions of crime have never been higher. But in many forces in the UK and in many countries around the world, we have seen significant reductions in crime alongside stable or even falling police numbers.

Look at the example of the New York Police Department where they have managed to cut crime at the same time as reducing the number of officers from 41,000 to 35,000.

Good management and leadership

As any experienced senior police officer will confirm, the effectiveness of a police force depends not primarily on the absolute number of police officers in the force but the way those officers are used.  We all know that in policing, as in every other walk of life, the key to success is good management and leadership. That’s why I look to you and your colleagues in ACPO to rise to the challenge of the spending review as you have risen to all the other challenges that you have had to face through the years.

Crime cannot be reduced simply by increasing the number of police officers. Not if these officers are going to be used on pointless tasks like form filling, bureaucracy or chasing targets. No, you cut crime by focusing on the specific tasks and activities that work and by responding to what the public needs in their area. We need to get officers out from behind their desks and back on the streets. And that is exactly what our reforms are designed to do.

So there is a challenge to you there. Sir Robert Peel’s first instruction to the police in 1829 was that “the absence of crime will be considered the best proof of the complete efficiency of the police”. This is the first government for more than a decade that will free you up to do what you joined the service to do, which is to cut crime. Seize the opportunity that reform gives you. I have faith that you can do it.

Problems to sort out

Crime and anti-social behaviour are still too high, too many communities still live in fear and too many people, rightly or wrongly, still do not believe the police will deal with their concerns.

As you yourselves have recognised, there are problems built into the heart of the current policing model and we have to sort them out.

At the same time we face new challenges. Technological change and the increasing pace of globalisation have been exploited by terrorists and organised criminals operating across international borders. And criminal exploitation of the internet has seen the growth of cyber-crime.

But above all of these monumental challenges we face the over-arching, over-riding priority to sort out our country’s finances.

Labour left us with the worst budget deficit of any major industrialised country, the worst in the G20 - higher than Argentina, Turkey or Mexico - and the largest deficit of any economy in Europe with the single exception of Ireland.

We can not afford to stay at the top of this league table.

We are spending beyond our means and we cannot go on like this.

What government will do

My priority as Home Secretary is to make our communities safer.

We will help you by getting out of the way and stopping interfering in policing. You are the professionals in operational policing and we, the politicians in Westminster, have no business telling you how to do your jobs. Nor have civil servants in Whitehall.

We won’t burden you with a never ending string of new initiatives. We won’t impose national targets and one size fits all solutions to local problems.

Instead, we’ll give you the space to do your job.

This is a government that truly believes in professional discretion. Unlike the last lot, we really do think you know best.

We believe that by trusting you to do your jobs without constantly having to look over your shoulder, you will do those jobs more effectively.
Of course, there still needs to be accountability. But you are public servants; you serve the public and so you should answer to the public not to unelected civil servants - so we will replace bureaucratic accountability to Whitehall with democratic accountability to local people.

We are determined to hand back power to the professionals and, even more importantly, to the people.

Our aim is to get the public more involved with policing, to build a stronger bridge between the police and the public.

We’ll do this in a number of ways. We are proposing a coherent and comprehensive package and I want to explain that package to you today.

Police and Crime Commissioners

Let me start with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners. Everyone recognises that there is a democratic deficit at the heart of the current policing model: Police Authorities just don’t work - you know it and the public know it - well in fact, the public don’t know it because only 7% of them have ever even heard of Police Authorities - Labour knew it but didn’t act.

This just doesn’t make sense. If something is broken, and everyone knows it’s broken, then we should fix it. Even if it is hard, even if it will ruffle a few feathers, we need to sort it out.

So we are proposing to replace the invisible Police Authorities and interfering bureaucrats and politicians in Whitehall with a single named individual, directly elected by the people and accountable to them through the ballot box. That person - the Police and Crime Commissioner - will have a mandate from the public to hold his or her chief constable and police force to account. They will ensure that the police focus on what local people want, not on what national politicians miles away and their civil servant advisers think they want.

There will be strong checks and balances in place for these new governance arrangements including a strengthened HMIC, a local Police and Crime Panel to scrutinise the Commissioner and a power of recall in the event of serious misconduct.

And let me make absolutely clear - Police and Crime Commissioners will in no way undermine the operational independence that you rightly hold so dear. They will not manage police forces and they will not be permitted to interfere in the day-to-day work of police officers.

Derek, you called for us to get this right first time. I agree we have to. The current system comes at a cost, but achieves little. I am confident that directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners will deliver benefits we could never get from police authorities.

Beat meetings and local crime data

But introducing Police and Crime Commissioners by itself will not achieve our aims.

That is why we will also support the police in holding neighbourhood “beat meetings” where the public will be able to scrutinise the work of their local police in tackling crime in their area and to put forward their concerns.

And for these meetings to be really useful we will give the public access to crime data at a level at which they can really see what is happening on their streets.

People really value the work done by neighbourhood officers and PCSOs. And in future they won’t have to justify their performance to some remote civil servants in Whitehall, they’ll have to justify their performance to the people that they serve, the people in their local area.

And that is exactly how it should be.

Stripping out bureaucracy

As Home Secretary, the visibility of police is an issue that comes up time and again. It will never be more important than in the economic environment left behind by Labour. So let me make clear - this government will cut red tape. It will slash the bureaucracy that stops you focussing on your real job - protecting the public and stopping crime.

That means getting your officers out from behind their desks and back onto the streets, where they want to be and where the public want them to be.

Labour’s heart was never in cutting bureaucracy; the Labour party is tied to bureaucracy. They talked about it of course but fundamentally they believed in central control.

I liked your phrase Derek about too many officers chasing targets instead of chasing criminals. Well I want your officers chasing criminals. I want them to be crime fighters, not form writers.

So we have already cancelled the top-down public confidence target and scrapped the Policing Pledge.

We’re reducing the reporting requirements for Stop and Search and we’re scrapping the ‘stop’ form in its entirety.

We will return charging decisions to officers for minor offences and we’ll reform the health and safety rules that stop your officers intervening to protect the public.

And this is just the start. 

We need you to take a hard look at internal processes: are we getting bang for our buck? Are you getting your officers out from behind their desks? You need to ask yourselves: what am I personally doing, to challenge bureaucracy? 

As senior operational leaders, you will be essential in empowering your teams to take decisions, in changing the culture, in making this happen because as you all know better than I do, police officers have to be deployed effectively to be effective.

Derek, you mentioned HMIC’s recent report Valuing the Police, which found that only 11% of police officers are visible and available to the public at any one time. I do not think that’s good enough. We might not agree on the numbers, but we both agree on the principle - that the priority is to get your officers back on the frontline.

So we’ll leave local crime fighting to local crime fighters.

It is one of the ironies of government that for years the Home Office has tried to micromanage local policing from the centre, while it neglected policing at a national level. That is why we have set out plans to establish a powerful new operational body - the National Crime Agency - who will go further than SOCA in fighting serious organised crime.

The NCA will also better connect national capabilities to those within the police, HMRC and the UK Border Agency to enhance the security of our borders.

By harnessing and exploiting intelligence and enforcement capabilities, the National Crime Agency will mean fewer drugs on our streets, fewer people trafficked into the country and fewer children exploited.


As senior leaders, I know you have long been advocates for changes to the way that talent is developed in the service. As you will have heard, I have asked Peter Neyroud to review leadership and training functions. I am sure you will engage with this review with your usual constructive and thoughtful approach.


There is, of course, one area of reform on which we differ, and that is force restructuring. I have outlined today an entirely new philosophy for how the Home Office interacts with the police. In that same spirit, we have been clear that we will not impose compulsory mergers.

If individual forces want to consider a merger as a means of achieving cost savings and more effective services, then we would consider that case on its own merits. But we will not force mergers on anyone. Any application to merge would need to be fully voluntary, have a robust business case and carry the support of local communities.

And while some Chiefs might therefore be focusing more on efficiencies at the BCU level than at force level - something I know you have concerns about - let me make it absolutely clear that I expect all Chiefs to be systematically attacking overheads throughout the force, not least at Headquarters. The public want local forces but they want them to be efficient too.

What we will expect you to do

I have set out today what the Government will do to improve accountability to the public, to strip away bureaucracy and make your lives easier and to support the fight against serious and organised crime.

In return, we will expect you to respond and to reap the benefits of those reforms.

I believe they offer a real opportunity to bring about change for the better. They offer the chance to make the service more efficient and more effective.

Reducing the deficit and sorting out our public finances is the single greatest challenge facing Britain today. Our over-riding objective must be to restore our economic health and to get our nation back up off its knees.

We are spending more than double the entire budget of the criminal justice system on debt interest every year. We cannot go on like this.

We know the Spending Review settlement will be challenging, although I cannot pre-judge its outcome, and over the next few weeks I will be working hard to ensure the savings required of the police are achievable.

But whatever happens, we all know that there are efficiencies to be made in policing - it would be crazy to suggest that there aren’t.

Superintending ranks will be key, as operational leaders, to making the real improvements in value for money that can ensure the quality of policing is actually improved over this period.

So we can support you on national issues, like ending the practice of procuring things in 43 different ways when it makes no sense to do so.

And I am afraid the country’s need for savings will mean we must look at pay and conditions as well. Over 80% of police budgets are spent on staffing. Pay restraint will be crucial to limiting the impact on the numbers of police officers and staff.  The review of remuneration and conditions of service will shortly begin its work and I know that you will be eager to feed in your views.

I also appreciate that there is concern about the future of pension provision in the public sector.  John Hutton’s Commission will produce an interim report in September 2010, in line with the Spending Review, and a final report in time for Budget 2011.

Difficult decisions may have to be made, but we have been clear, as Derek said, that accrued rights to benefits already built up will be protected. 

I know that everyone in the service will be concerned about what this means for them but this is a difficult time for everyone in the public sector.

There are no easy answers.

But I would really value your input to the remuneration and conditions review.

I know that you, as Superintendents, will be able to look beyond your individual interests - just as you have done on other areas of police reform - and to instead consider what is needed to secure the future of the service as a whole in these difficult economic times.

Our challenge to you

You represent the senior operational leadership of the service - the bedrock of policing in England and Wales.

You have tremendous power to inspire those under your command, to make things happen, and to drive the service forward.  You hold the key to delivering reform. 

Let me give you an example, based on the excellent work many of you are already doing. As money gets tighter all round, I want you to push the partnership boundaries further - to galvanise local authorities, local business, voluntary groups and communities themselves to work together with your officers to cut crime. That is operational leadership of the highest order.

Policing is a job like no other. Your operational expertise, and the expertise of those you lead, will continue to be your key strength.

But let us be clear and honest with each other - because of the crisis facing our public finances that the Labour government left behind, budgets will be squeezed and resources will be tightened.

So the challenge to you is to match your operational expertise with the ability to deliver even greater value for money to the public at the time the country needs it most.

You said, Derek, that those in this room can drive out inefficiencies and deliver better value for money - well, after a decade of financial mismanagement by the previous government, there has never been a time when we have needed you to do this more.

More responsive, more efficient

The aims of our reforms are your aims: to make the police a more responsive, more efficient and more effective force that can make our country safer.

That is what the public want you to do and that is what I want you to do.

Because the government won’t be in your way anymore, I believe you can achieve it.

This is a time of great challenge - for the police service but also for the nation as a whole.  But it is also a time of great opportunity, to make changes that are long overdue, to give the professionals and the people greater say in how policing is delivered.

I look forward to working with you to drive these changes forward.

Thank you.


Updates to this page

Published 15 September 2010