Most ministers like a spot of publicity. For Home Secretaries, though, no news is usually good news. They are the perennial goalkeepers of government – only in the spotlight when something goes wrong.
The fact that Theresa May is now the longest serving Home Secretary in half a century is testament to the apparent uneventfulness of her tenure. Yet it would be wrong to view her record solely as a series of things that haven’t happened. Because, largely unnoticed, she’s pushed through the most radical reforms to the police service for a generation.
In a speech given yesterday to the Reform think tank, May looks back on the last four years:
“…when I first launched our programme of police reform, the response from ACPO [the Association of Chief Police Officers], the Police Federation and the Labour Party was to deny the need for change. Likewise, when we announced that we would cut central government police funding by twenty per cent in real terms over four years, the same people were united – the frontline service would be ruined and crime would go shooting up. Labour called it ‘the perfect storm’. The Federation predicted that the cuts and our reforms would destroy policing as we know it.”
With the Home Secretary still in her job, ‘the perfect storm’ was evidently of the tea cup variety:
“According to both recorded crime statistics and the independent crime survey, crime is down by more than ten per cent since the election. Police reform is working and crime is falling.”
So, what went right?
For one thing, it does help when ministers get straight to the point:
“There was a pay structure worth £11 billion – three quarters of total police spending – that was designed more than thirty years before. In those three decades, policing changed dramatically while the pay system failed to keep up. But every attempt to change terms and conditions were resisted bitterly by the Federation and successive Home Secretaries were forced to back down.
“…at last, we will have a system of police pay that encourages and rewards skills and frontline service, not just time served. Police forces will soon be able to recruit talented outsiders to senior ranks. And PCCs will be able to recruit chief constables from other common law jurisdictions.”
As well as following the money, reforming governments need to stop wasting it:
“We’ve scrapped all government targets and much of the bureaucracy created by the Home Office. In doing so, we have saved up to 4.5 million police hours – the equivalent of 2,100 full-time officers.”
The most significant passage in speech is of relevance to every department, not just the Home Office:
“What’s striking is that we have been able to make many of these changes not despite spending cuts but because of them. This is important, because the need to go on reforming will not end with this parliament. With a still-large deficit and a record stock of debt, there will need to be further spending cuts, as even Labour acknowledge.”
The real question, however, is whether the voters acknowledge it – not only in regard to the inevitability of further cuts, but also to the critical importance of the way in which savings are achieved.
In every department there is battle that needs to be fought and won. Ministers can either protect frontline public services or the vested interests of the public sector establishment. There isn’t the money for both.