Andrew Haldenby is Director of the independent think tank Reform.
The reshuffle is a reminder, if one were needed, that the General Election is nearly upon us. In terms of the big questions of taxation and spending, election giveaways seem to be back in vogue. There are calls for tax cuts and not just further increases in the income tax threshold. There are demands for spending increases, in particular on the NHS. Such promises are clearly hard to resist at this stage of the political cycle. They are nevertheless out of step with the fiscal reality to be point of being delusional.
The next Government will begin its term with a £75 billion deficit. The deficit will only be finally tamed in 2018-19. Net debt is still rising and is expected to peak at its highest level since 1966. Services like the police face cuts 50 per cent higher in the first three years of the next Parliament than they have faced in this. It is hardly the moment to loosen the purse strings.
Nor is it time to back away from public service reform. Under the pressure of budget discipline, a wave of innovation is spreading across the public sector. More change will be needed to cope with further reductions in budgets, and improve performance at the same time.
The police are a case in point. They are the shining example of “more for less” in this Parliament. Contrary to many predictions, a cut in police budgets of 20 per cent has gone hand-in-hand not with a rise in crime but a 10 per cent fall. Given further cuts to come, however, business as usual will not do.
The answer lies in the pioneering police officers who are enlisting expert citizens as assets in their work. The best officers talk of building safety and security, rather than of simply reducing crime.
Partly they are continuing the genuine revolution over the last 20 years in society’s ability to “design out” crime. In the 1990s car alarms were rare and now they are routine. It is no surprise that vehicle crime has fallen by 75 per cent over the period. Similar ideas are now needed to defeat crime online where society does not yet have the same defences.
More importantly, they are inventing a genuine neighbourhood policing which goes beyond traditional beat meetings in police stations and town halls, attended by just 3 per cent of the public in recent years. They are polling the public on their priorities (typically anti-social behaviour and nuisance). They are training officers in communication and empathy. There is much more to be done, including apps to report crime and conversations with the public via social media for example.
This new police culture will require a renewal in public confidence in policing. This has been damaged by national scandals, as Theresa May said to the Police Federation in a defining moment of this Parliament. Poor quality, frustrating day-to-day contact also matters. One idea would be for the police inspectorate to report annually on police forces’ success in building legitimacy with the public.
All this means a genuine transformation for the police, the way they work and how they see themselves. It will, over time, reduce the demand for policing and police spending, and cut crime. But it is back to the future, remembering Sir Robert Peel’s basic principle for the first force: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Police reform should continue after the election.
> The expert citizen is published today.