Elizabeth Truss is deputy director of Reform, the independent, non-party think-tank, and is co-author of its new paper on police reform, A New Force, which is published today. Here she previews that paper.

Tuesday’s announcement that police forces will be obliged to cut officer numbers going into recession to get the budgets into shape puts a spotlight on how effectively and efficiently we police as a country.

Despite having the most expensive police service in the developed world per capita – costing 20 per cent more as proportion of  GDP than the US – Reform’s new report, A New Force, shows that there are major gaps in provision, particularly in tackling organised crime. The street price of drugs is falling – cocaine costs half as much as a decade ago. People-trafficking is rising. The recent SOCA Threat Assessment showed that criminal gangs are importing ever larger quantities of fire arms, fuelling gun crime in London, Manchester and Birmingham.

The 43 forces of England and Wales are neither fish nor fowl. They are not accountable locally or nationally and can be run like fiefdoms – ordering their own IT, uniforms and equipment. Chief Constables are nominally accountable to Police Authorities but they lack a direct electoral connection.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s 2005 Closing the Gap report
highlighted a huge gap in dealing with national serious and organised
crime, with many of the 43 forces lacking the capability to deal
effectively with high-level threats. Cooperation and
intelligence-sharing to deal with crime that crosses regional
boundaries is weak. The report declared that “the 43 force structure is
no longer fit for purpose”.

At the same time police forces are too large to be truly flexible or
local. Studies suggest that a small force with closer to 100 officers
solves more crimes per officer perform than one of 1,000. (West
Yorkshire Police has 5,000 officers.) The failed “superforces” model
proposed by Charles Clarke would only have exacerbated this problem.

The challenge of coordinating national crime fighting in Britain has
been a perennial topic. A national police force was first proposed by
Robert Peel in 1828. A minority report submitted to the 1962 Royal
Commission made the same recommendation. It has never quite taken off
as England and Wales does not fit a simple federal model like Germany
or the US, with a clearly defined balance between the local and the
national. The response of governments has been therefore to do nothing.

In the absence of anyone else filling the gap the Metropolitan Police
have taken a national lead role in many areas, often in conjunction
with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). The Met already
leads on counter-terrorism, coordinating “hubs” based in seven
locations around the country. These hubs are staffed by local forces
and funded by the Home Office. The Met also coordinates mutual aid (on
behalf of ACPO) between forces and Police Support Units, which provide
additional or specialist resources when needed.

The Government has acknowledged that the Metropolitan Police is the
only show in town for e-crime. After dissolving the National Hi-Tech
Crime Unit into SOCA in 2006, the Government has launched a new Police
Central e-crime Unit, sited at the Met, not SOCA – at a cost to
taxpayers of £7 million.

Reform recommends that the successful counter-terrorism hub model is
used to combat organised crime. The Met would coordinate while local
forces provide the manpower in local hubs and the Home Office provides
funds. Thus the serious crime work remains “embedded” in local police

Accountability should be sharpened up by making the Metropolitan Police
formally responsible for leading on national and regional serious and
organised crime. Models of operation should be much more transparent.
Both counter-terrorism and mutual aid are dealt with by bodies
commissioned by ACPO committees. ACPO is a limited company that is
exempt from FOI requests. Police forces do not publish itemised
accounts or details of their chain of command or accountability

Proper national accountability needs to be accompanied by proper local
accountability. This is best done by matching police force boundaries
to local authority boundaries in “natural” communities. Thus we could
see the development of a Leeds City Force or a Brighton and Hove Force,
free from the constraints of their amorphous regions.

Ours is not a “big bang” proposal. It would be up to local leaders to
decide – they could continue to joint commission forces, or they could
choose to secede and run their local policing independently. Our
research indicates that in 11 cases boundaries already match, and in 25
cases police Basic Command Units (BCUs) with boundaries that match
local government could form the forces. Only 7 of the 43 forces pose a
problem with current BCU and local government boundaries.

Compared to other public services, the police are in a good position,
with a strong record and an esprit de corps unmatched in health or
education. Our proposals seek to preserve this but at the same time
address the twin threats of low level and serious crime. The Home
Office must step away from interfering in operational practices and
reintroduce greater discretion, taking advantage of the professionalism
of police officers. In return the police must accept greater
transparency and accountability from local and national authorities.

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