Following the recent vote in Scotland to maintain the United Kingdom, the question of more powers being devolved to local communities has gained momentum.
Much debate has been about the finances of the Union and a reassessment of the Barnett formula that currently underpins the funding of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. However questions have been asked in the nations great cities and regions as to how they may direct their own futures. How might these debates affect policing across the UK?
Policing too is at a crossroads; currently we have a single police force for Northern Ireland (the PSNI) a recently formed unified force for Scotland but in England and Wales there are 43 ‘Home Office’ forces. However there has been debate about regionalising these forces for the past 35 years. Efforts under the previous government to amalgamate police forces failed to gain critical mass although national policing agencies have been created and are now incorporated into the National Crime Agency. Also the governance of policing has changed with the introduction of publicly elected Police Crime Commissioners.
Policing never stands still and many of the changes described reflect the peace process in Northern Ireland, falling crime and anti-social behaviour over the past 20 years, the impact of the recession on public finances and the increasing challenges to respect for the police service from within and without.
It is clear therefore that with the political jolt of the referendum things are about to change. And with a general election slated for May next year it will be interesting to see where crime and disorder sit within the political manifestos.
So what is UK policing going to look like? Are there opportunities to create forces like Police Scotland with some 18,000 officers, although this nations force remains considerably smaller than the Metropolitan Police serving London. There are some local plans to share Chief Officers with other blue light services. There are considerations being given to reducing force numbers to around 10 services.
It is also true that local people pay a local ‘tax’ to maintain their police force and they look to how policing is locally provided with some interest. The people remain committed to their local officer and their local policing team. So how could these sinews between people and police be maintained if police forces become larger and their headquarters more remote? What happens when the police station is closed to save money? Does it matter if different areas have different policing models?
Well it does matter because wherever you live you will want to be assured that you will get an acceptable level of policing service, whether you have been the victim of theft, a cyber crime or of domestic abuse. You will expect to have the same opportunity to have your crime detected as your friends in another part of the country. Rural communities and inner city residents want the same thing, safety and security. The laws are the same across the land so the criminal justice outcomes should be too. So how can the police (and the wider criminal justice system) achieve this?
Interestingly neighbourhood policing, that is local policing by dedicated officers is in general decline as PCCs and Chief Constables have to address the savings necessary to balance budgets. Their decisions are on how to cut the funding to ensure public safety, specialist units are retained and still be able to respond to the public whilst retaining the confidence of the population. It can be argued that with the reduction in recorded crime there should be a “peace dividend” and that some police funds should be diverted to tackle social injustices as well as online fraud, child exploitation and the threats from extremism both internal and from overseas.
In attempting to apply resources to these rising threats public facing Dixon of Dock Green policing has to compete for funds. Although in most forces Neighbourhood Teams have been seen as successful they are under threat. I argue that local accountability is vital to the British Model of Policing.
If forces are called to amalgamate, you can imagine a Welsh police service along the Scots model, and others with a remit police several counties like Thames Valley Police do but how will local policing be maintained?
Could it be similar to the European model of local police embedded in the community perhaps with limited powers and equipment with a low cost base? Added to which would be a regional force covering the nation like the Italian Carabinieri and above a national force to address wider and borderless crimes?
Alternatively if the United Kingdoms cities get more political and financial clout will there be a town and country realignment of policing with rural cops covering wide (or wider) areas whilst the industrial or financial powerhouses are policed more intensively?
As we continue to move towards a less “social control” model of policing to a North American “due process” model how can we give local people a say in how they are policed? Will police chiefs listen to the public or will they mandate what the public get? How can they be held accountable?
Surely this is the role of the Police Crime Commissioners, the Home Secretary and the various Chief Constables? It is but will they have sufficient independence and authority to ensure the publics views are represented? We have seen recently the issues around trying to remove a PCC from office through lack of confidence in the individual.
Further more there are the National College of Policing and Her Majesties Inspector of Constabulary who have an oversight and training remit where will they sit with a reduced number of police forces and to whom will they report? If PCCs are scrapped then what will take their place?
Folk often say that the British policing model is the best in the world but it must change to be in with a shout of being that good. We must all be engaged, not only with the changes to local powers and national legislation but to achieve policing services that match local needs. These must accessible to all without fear or favour and have public support that will stand the test of time. If we rush legislation through to make changes without seeking the understanding and agreement of the electorate we may lose more than some police stations, we may lose the support of the people. That would be difficult to recover.
However we resolve how question of how Scots devolution affects policing in the United Kingdom we must work to ensure that it produces a fairer, more effective and inclusive police service accessible at a local level.