Reform by the police, for the police

Speech on police reform to Superintendents' Association conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Thank you, Irene. It is a pleasure to be here at the supers’ conference again.

May I first echo your words, Irene, about the national Police Memorial Day - it is an important and moving event and we should never forget the sacrifice and service of those killed in the line of duty.

In 2010 – not long after the general election – I gave my first full address to this Association. I was clear then that a great many challenges and changes lay ahead. I was straight with you about the need for spending cuts, but I also promised changes that would improve the police for the better. That my programme of reform is about giving you back operational control so that you can do what you do best – get on with fighting crime.

And you have. Crime is down by more than 10% since the last election proving that it is possible to do more with less.

You have adapted your ways of working to best deploy resources and deliver savings. You have been the link between your officers on the ground and important national issues such as organised crime and child protection. You have worked with other agencies on issues such as mental health to ensure your colleagues can focus on policing. You have worked to change the face and culture of the police to make it more diverse and better reflect our communities.

You rolled up your sleeves and got on with the job at hand. So I want to thank everyone in this room for your hard work and steadfast commitment to serving the public.

And of course there remains much to do. So today I want to talk to you about the importance of the police maintaining the momentum of reform.


Looking back now it is easy to forget why reform was so necessary in the first place. In 2010, the country faced a grave financial crisis and the worst budget deficit since the Second World War.

We had a higher deficit than any other country in Europe with the single exception of Ireland – and countries such as Portugal and Greece which had lower deficits than ours and had to ask the European Union for a bail out, still have economies that lag behind.

So we took tough, and necessary action. That meant spending cuts across the public sector, and yes, the police have had to carry their share of the burden. But reform has always been about much more than spending cuts. And when we consider what we inherited in 2010, we can see that the case for reform was compelling.

When we arrived at the Home Office we identified a host of issues that needed urgent attention: police productivity weighed down by bureaucracy and undermined by too much red tape. Institutions and structures that were inadequate. An unaccountable system of governance. Wasteful procurement. And a system of police pay that had been devised more than 30 years earlier.

So in addition to the work we are doing to improve ethical standards in policing, our programme of police reform has amounted to a systematic attack on each of these five problems.

We have ripped away reams and reams of oppressive bureaucracy.

National targets, key performance indicators and excessive regulations are gone.

Invisible, undemocratic police authorities have been replaced with local accountability through elected Police and Crime Commissioners, crime maps and beat meetings.

The National Policing Improvement Agency is no more. In its place is the College of Policing, a proper professional body with a clear remit to drive up standards and establish an evidence base for what works.

HMIC is now more independent of both the government and the police – meaning it can shine a light on inefficiency and poor practice as well as speak hard truths to the Home Office.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has been beefed up so that in future it can take on all serious and sensitive cases.

The new National Crime Agency has the power to coordinate and task law enforcement organisations and assets so that we can get to grips with serious and organised crime.

We have strengthened Regional Organised Crime Units so that they can work alongside the National Crime Agency and their local police forces. And direct entry is helping to open up the senior ranks of the police and bringing in new talent, skills and expertise.

There remains more to be done

But we still have some way to go.

We have made headway on procurement and police ICT but much work remains to be done to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer.

HMIC’s report last week, Core Business, made for sobering reading. Victims and communities have a right to expect the police to investigate crimes and pursue criminals as far as possible. It is imperative that we improve information management to give officers the right intelligence on the front line.

The recent appalling revelations from Rotherham have highlighted terrible failures by the police, Rotherham council and other agencies to protect vulnerable children. As I have made clear, this is a complete dereliction of duty. And I trust that the independent inquiry, whose chairman I announced on Friday, will look at these failings so that we can learn the lessons and put an end to these disgusting crimes wherever they occur.

And our work on Stop and Search is not yet complete. It is never acceptable for powers to be used inappropriately or people to be stopped and searched based on their appearance. That is why the Best Use scheme, which I launched in August, is so important, and why I was delighted that every force signed up to it voluntarily.

So we must go further.

But police reform is working. Overall crime is down by more than 10% under this government, according to both the independent Crime Survey and police recorded crime. The most recent Crime Survey data estimated that there were 7.3 million offences in 2013/14; a 62% fall since the peak in 1995 and the lowest level since the survey began in 1981.

About giving you back control over policing

Our reforms have been radical and wide-ranging. But most importantly of all they have been utterly necessary.

I know that you may not have always agreed with me. I know that change isn’t always easy. I know it can be difficult, disconcerting and unsettling.

That is why I have always appreciated the way you have always worked constructively with us to deliver reform that works.

But while these changes may not have been of your choosing, change doesn’t always have to be stressful and difficult. Nor does it need to be something that is imposed upon you from above.

Because when you look at the reforms we have introduced, what they amount to is an irreversible transfer of power from the Home Office to you – the police.

An end to Home Office interference, central diktats and a government-knows-best attitude.

Professional discretion over a raft of charging decisions.

Police-led prosecutions to cut the time you have to spend waiting for the CPS.

The College of Policing, led by the police for the benefit of the police, with a broad remit covering training, standards and leadership.

The Police Innovation Fund set up so that forces could come up with new and innovative ideas themselves, rather than having them foisted upon you.

I have stripped away power from the Home Office and put you in charge of police practice.

Because I don’t believe it is the role of the Home Office to tell you how to do your job. You are the professionals and you use your judgement to best fight crime in your areas.

Even as we have cut spending, you have helped to cut crime – showing that it is possible to do more with less. While the debt crisis we inherited made savings necessary, it has acted as a driver for change: encouraging forces to streamline processes, cut unnecessary spending and look not just at what they deliver, but how they deliver it.

And this is important. Because it is clear that whatever the outcome of the next election, police spending will have to fall again, as even Labour have admitted.

And if there is one important lesson we can learn from this government, it is that reform is often possible because, not in spite of, spending cuts.

In the next Parliament, we know to expect further reductions. So we are going to need to challenge old ways of thinking, review established processes, and find ways to make the best use of the resources that are available. We are going to need to develop ever smarter and more efficient ways of doing things.

But if budgets are simply cut without police forces using that as an opportunity to do things differently, then the service will deteriorate.

So I want to see more proposals for reform coming from inside police forces themselves – reform by the police, for the police.

That’s why I am delighted to support initiatives such as Police Now, an idea conceived by two frontline officers in the Metropolitan Police to attract bright young graduates into policing. The scheme will launch later this month in London, with the intention that it will be rolled out to other forces across the UK in the future. I hope that it will encourage people who would not normally consider a career in policing to apply, bringing with them fresh ideas, and new ways of thinking.

Police Now itself stemmed from another example of the police reforming for themselves – the Commissioner’s 100. This forum of officers and staff meets regularly to feed the best ideas from the frontline directly to the Met’s Senior Officer Team.

On a larger scale, the £50 million Police Innovation Fund encouraged police forces to come forward with new schemes to improve policing from within. Successful bids have ranged from body-worn video to mobile IT, and from integrated emergency services to responding to rural crime.

And I know that you, the Supers, have championed change, particularly on diversity and making policing a profession where people from different backgrounds can get on and thrive regardless of their gender, race or sexuality.

I am grateful for your work with us on direct entry to open up the senior ranks of the police. Irene, I know that you recently observed the selection process for direct entry superintendents at the national assessment centre and I hope that you were impressed by the quality of the candidates being put forward for leadership roles.

I also hope that you are engaging actively with the fundamental review of police leadership being undertaken by the College of Policing. Your expertise on how we can go further and faster with direct entry, open up the senior ranks of the police to people from different backgrounds, and encourage officers to gain experience outside of policing before returning later in life will be invaluable.

And your support on priority issues such as early intervention and vulnerable people is also greatly appreciated. And thank you Irene for your comments on the governments response on mental health. There is an increasing evidence base from street triage and liaison and diversion pilots that reform can deliver real improvement in the care of vulnerable people and reduce the amount of police time spent on such incidents. Next month I will be hosting a joint summit with Black Mental Health UK to explore further options for reform in this important area.

Merge or collaborate?

So you are demonstrating – loudly and clearly – that you can be a force for change, a force for making the police work more effectively and efficiently. I hope that in the future we will see even more new ideas.

As I have said, the Home Office no longer believes it runs policing. You, the professionals, do.

But I also recognise that even in a more localised landscape, there are some reforms that only the Home Secretary can deliver. I am thinking here of force structures.

I know that some people, including the Superintendents’ Association, have said that we must revisit the debate about the 43 force model and think about doing more at a regional level.

I have always said that if forces come to me with a coherent and comprehensive plan to merge forces at local level with local support, I would consider it. That invitation remains open.

But let me be clear - no Chief Constable or Police and Crime Commissioner has come forward in the last four years with a jointly agreed proposal, viable or otherwise, to merge with another force.

And in fact the opposite is true. Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners are demonstrating that all the perceived benefits of mergers are possible without sacrificing local accountability and identity.

Because what would we be trying to achieve by merging police forces?

If it is to deliver efficiencies, just look at Warwickshire and West Mercia. These two forces have entered an alliance which allows them to pool all of their resources below the level of deputy chief constable. They share not just back office functions, but also investigations, command teams, neighbourhood policing and a host of other activities. Earlier this year, they even opened a joint police and fire station in Bromsgrove.

HMIC has called this collaboration “ground-breaking” and it is expected to deliver 32% and 47% of each force’s respective savings by March 2015. And in both forces, crime continues to fall. Last financial year, police recorded crime fell across both forces by 3% and since 2010 both have seen it fall by more than 10%.

If it is economy of scale, then look to the East Midlands Strategic Commercial Unit, which buys services on behalf of Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire Police collaboratively. These forces – and others like them – are showing that shared procurement and common commissioning is possible across force boundaries, not just within them.

Or if it is to deliver increased capability and interoperability, then look at Surrey and Sussex. These forces now collaborate on major crime investigation, forensics and firearms, as well as back office activity like procurement. They are planning to extend joint working to include surveillance, police dogs and hi-tech crime in the near future. As HMIC said in July, “the forces share a joint vision to work as one, operationally and organisationally”.

There are many other examples up and down the country. Yet all of them retain local accountability to the elected Police and Crime Commissioner and maintain their identity to the public through a local force model.

They show categorically that the alleged benefits of bigger forces – greater efficiencies, economies of scale or increased capability – can be delivered through collaboration.

This is the model for police reform in the future. Common systems, shared procurement, working across force areas, integration with other emergency services and joint capability. In Warwickshire and West Mercia, these benefits have already been accrued. The only thing left on the table is the loss of local identity and local accountability.

And those who don’t believe me should heed the warning signs from the past.

When Charles Clarke was Home Secretary in 2006, Labour’s proposal to create 24 so-called “superforces” was dropped after opposition to the half a billion transition costs and the removal of local policing.

As HMIC said in their Valuing the Police report in July, there is still a long way to go in driving collaboration between forces at local level. I applaud the efforts of chief constables and police and crime commissioners to work together so far and urge them to go further – both between forces and with other emergency services.

But the evidence is clear - big, top-down restructure is simply not the answer.

You are the future leaders

I have talked today about the reforms that I have introduced. They have been radical. But we cannot stop reform here. We must continue to change policing for the better.

From your ranks the next generation of chiefs will emerge, and I want you to see yourselves as the vanguard of further change, not the recipients of it.

Our role has been to create the right framework in which you can act. We have given you greater control, greater freedom and greater discretion.

My reforms are about making the police better – better for you, and better for the public. And as operational leaders today, and future leaders tomorrow, police officers will look to you for guidance and support.

I hope that you will be able to bring your workforces with you through the transitions that lie ahead. We have achieved a great deal, but there is still a long way to go.

Published 9 September 2014