The report of the Labour-backed Stevens Commission on policing was finally published this week. Two years in the making and more than 200 pages long, it is a serious piece of work that makes a series of recommendations on the future of the police service. So what’s to like and what’s not to like?
Firstly what’s to like. Significant sections of the report are dedicated to promoting and embedding neighbourhood policing. This is perhaps unsurprising as it was, after all, invented’ by the last government, but the benefits of neighbourhood policing are well-known and the cuts are threatening its integrity. Alongside this, the report offers a realistic (if controversial) alternative to the current model of Police and Crime Commissioners as a way of holding the police to account at the local level. This constitutes a form of genuine localism that PCCs, with responsibility for large force areas, cannot deliver. Other things to like are the recognition of the need for a set of principles to underpin public/private sector collaboration (sorely needed if only for cost savings/efficiency reasons) and the introduction of a single integrated intelligence platform (although perhaps easier said than done).
Secondly, what’s not to like? It’s disappointing that a report that takes over two years to complete is unable to reach a definitive decision on major issues, such as local accountability and force mergers. In both cases it offers options and takes us no further forward than Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s Independent Review of five years ago (on local accountability) and HMIC’s Closing the Gap’ eight years ago (on force mergers). Are these issues so difficult (or so ideologically influenced) that there simply are no best’ answers? I suspect so. It’s also disappointing to see recommendations for things that are already happening, such as the Code of Ethics and some of the recommendations already made by Winsor’ and Neyroud’. But perhaps its most disappointing aspect is where the Commission makes recommendations that have not been thought through, such as merging the IPCC and HMIC. Here was an opportunity to address head-on the public’s deep cynicism of a system in which the police investigate most complaints against themselves and they didn’t take it. Perhaps Sir Hugh Orde’s suggestion that England and Wales need a Police Ombudsman just came too late.
Unsurprisingly, the politicians and the media have focused on the recommendation to abolish Police and Crime Commissioners. As well as straining the Commission’s claim to independence being Labour backed it could hardly have done otherwise it ignores the important point that it really is too early to tell whether this bold experiment is working or not. Nobody, not even the Home Secretary, would argue that the first year of PCCs has all been plain sailing, but any new system would have its own teething troubles and PCCs have only been in place for a year, barely time to bed in. Let’s at least learn some of the lessons before starting all over again.