BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.03.02

Film: David Grossman reports on the obstacles facing the Government in trying to reform the police and change the criminal justice system.

DAVID GROSSMAN: In Sheffield, police are getting ready to storm a flat where they've been told a man's threatening his family with a knife. At the moment these officers in the Home Secretary's home city are concentrating on the immediate future - what they'll find on the other side of the first floor door. In the long term though there are fears that the Government's Police Reform Bill is about to launch Britain's police into dangerous territory. Every time crime hits the headlines the government know they're in for a hammering from the newspapers. But supporters of David Blunkett the Home Secretary would argue that when it comes to fighting crime he's actually constrained as to what he can do. Sure Parliament can pass laws, but when it comes to enforcing them, in England and Wales that's down to forty-three separate police forces. The new Police Reform Bill though seeks a radical extension of the Home Secretary's powers to intervene in policing and critics say that,combined with other aspects of the Bill, represents a huge change for the worse in the way that Britain's policed that hasn't been properly thought through. SIR DAVID PHILLIPS: If the Bill were to go through unamended it would allow for arbitrary intervention into critical operational policing decisions. LORD DHOLAKIA: We are saying to the Government that if you do not change, if you do not improve on what we are talking about, then there is every possibility that the House, the House of Lords will actually defeat the Government. GROSSMAN: Officers pull over a car for not having a tax disc. How Sheffield is policed is now really between the chief constable and the local police authority. If the Home Secretary has his way there'll be much more Government involvement - even removing senior officers deemed to be under-performing. Because the Bill also includes some provisions that almost no one objects to, like creating a new Independent Police Complaints Commission, one former Labour Home Office Minister says the Government should compromise on the contentious part to make sure the legislation goes through. MIKE O'BRIEN MP: What we must not have is a situation where the Home Secretary or as it will in practice turn out, civil servants in Whitehall, try to micromanage at a local level the way in which policing is carried out. That would make for very inefficient policing indeed and very ineffective policing. What we need to have is a level of operational responsibility on the Chief Constable to decide what's best for his constabulary area. LORD DHOLAKIA: Up to now we have had local policing in this country where there is local accountability geared very much in terms of the police authority having the powers to direct the chief constables and the community actually participates in that particular exercise. We're now being told that these powers aren't adequate and the Home Secretary wants to assume some of the powers for himself. Well we are saying no, you cannot do that, you cannot essentially change the local nature of policing in this country. GROSSMAN: They know all about political interference in policing in South Yorkshire. During the miners' strike of the early nineteen-eighties the police here were sandwiched between a Labour-dominated police authority that was trying to cut off its budget - and a national Conservative Government that was determined to use the police to smash the strike. The result was a breakdown in police community relations that took years to heal. RICK NAYLOR: We saw then, the political nature, political interference in operational policing. It was a very emotional and emotive time, but we saw some practical effects of how that actually held back the South Yorkshire police in the way that it wanted to develop after the strike. There is a fear now with the Home Secretary taking powers as he proposes to do in the Bill, that this could become something that is experienced across the nation. I'm not saying that David Blunkett or his ministers would want to do this but there is an opportunity there, and we must be very careful before we alter the constitution as it now stands. LORD DIXON-SMITH: When you write any law you have to consider what use can be made of that law by less than reasonable people and if we put this in place we're removing a protection which works very much to the benefit of society at the moment because you couldn't have a let's say a home secretary who could in theory control the careers of individual police officers, being able to say well now look you've got to do this, whatever it is, which, if you wish to progress and that would be completely unreasonable. GROSSMAN: You're talking about a police state really LORD DIXON SMITH: Yes, that is the ultimate possibility. GROSSMAN: This is along way from any totalitarian nightmare. Neighbourhood wardens employed by the council patrol one of Sheffield's housing estates. Today they're providing a reassuring presence outside the Post Office on pension day. They can call in graffiti removal, keep an eye out for vandalism, and a thousand other urban irritations the police just don't have the time to deal with. Now these wardens in Sheffield and the others like them up and down the country actually have no more legal power than you or I would walking the streets in a brightly coloured jacket but the Police Reform Bill could change that. The Home Secretary wants to create what would be called community support officers and they would have the power to detain suspects. Critics say that's dangerous new territory and would turn what are at present a useful supplement to law enforcement into a second class and cut price police force. LORD DIXON-SMITH: We think that this is not right in principle. We think that curiously enough the most important work that the police do is on the beat and if you're looking for one of the reasons for the rise in street crime, it is quite simply that the police have withdrawn from the streets to a considerable degree. FRED BROUGHTON: The policing function on the streets when you're stopping, searching, detaining people, and using force is the most difficult of all the policing functions. It's where the problems happen and it's where the disputes happen and it's where the criticism of policing happens and that's why we can't quite understand why a government would want to move to the most critical part of the policing role that at that point where you're dealing with aggression and hostility potentially, that you'd want to reduce the standards and the quality. It just seems unacceptable. GROSSMAN: When the Sheffield neighborhood wardens find something they can't deal with - in this case an abandoned car - they hand it over to the police. It's an arrangement that all seem happy with. The new style community support officers though would be under the direct control of the police, and so it's feared that over-stretched force commanders may be tempted to send them into potentially dangerous situations instead of their regular officers. PHILLIPS: Let's imagine that we have a call of distress, to a domestic dispute, to a missing child or whatever and we have one of these patrols nearby. Are we going to send them or not? Well if it's a life saving or life threatening situation, we clearly are and then we're going to put them in a situation they may not be trained to deal with. Would it be efficient anyway to have people, a proportion of your work force, that can only deal with a small part of the business? Will it be possible to isolate them to particular tasks? Wouldn't it be better to have police officers, at slightly greater cost, both in terms of training and whatever, who can do the whole task? O'BRIEN: There shouldn't be a creeping agenda, of them taking over some of the responsibilities of properly qualified British police officers. I mean policing is a profession, it's a profession which requires qualifications, standards an independent complaints procedure. It is a profession which has a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the British public, they don't want to see that undermined. GROSSMAN: This debate on reform is taking place at the same time as negotiations on new pay and conditions for the police. In the ranks they're not at all happy with what's being offered by David Blunkett. Among other things many believe changes to their overtime rates will make them significantly worse off. In a recent ballot the package was rejected by a 9-1 margin. O'BRIEN: I think ministers have actually put together a very good package but they haven't gone out and sold it, they haven't sold it to the bobby on the beat. Most police officers in this country, as we saw in the recent ballot by the officers, think that they will lose financially. Now they are putting their lives on a line for our fellow citizens on a day to day basis dealing with criminals and protecting our society. What they don't want is a pay cut - David's got to go back to Gordon and say, a little bit more money, we've got to then go back to the police officers, explain what the package really means and then I think we will get David Blunkett delivering on the sort of police reform that is so necessary. GROSSMAN: Another call - this time about a stolen van. The chances are that no one will ever be arrested let alone prosecuted for this, but many police are unhappy with what happens to the people they do catch. Senior police officers have been saying that the Government should spend less time telling them how to do their job and much more thinking how criminals can effectively be brought to justice. PHILLIPS: Far too many people commit crimes and in the end are not brought to justice, and when they are brought to justice the outcomes are often hugely ineffective, visibly ineffective to the public and to victims. So you know we, all of us who are involved in this process, police officers, prosecutors, the courts, the sentencers, all of us have got to recognise that the system at the moment is not working well. We're looking at some crown courts where the acquittal rate in contested cases is eighty per cent. GROSSMAN: From the control room in Sheffield, the support staff send officers all over the city. When it comes to the Police Reform Bill though, the Government isn't in complete control. That's because, despite their thumping Commons majority they need to get it through the Lords first and many in the Upper House have made it clear that they think the Bill is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, some predict that unless there are significant concessions, David Blunkett the Home Secretary risks losing the legislation altogether. DIXON-SMITH: We would say to the Government: look, please, this matter is very, very serious. You've got a very wide range of very knowledgeable and very experienced people who think that the Bill goes too far. If you want to get it through the House of Lords, if you're serious about having the Bill, then in fact some movement will be necessary. O'BRIEN: I think David Blunkett can get through this very good package if he just tweaks this Bill and the overall policing package just a bit. He wants to put a little bit more money in to police officers' pockets so they don't lose out financially, because of the overtime changes and I think most police officers would appreciate that. He also needs to make sure that Chief Constables do not feel vulnerable, that he will be able to sack them. GROSSMAN: In Sheffield police have a 999 call from a block of flats. The nature of the police service that stands ready to come to the aid of the public in the future depends on what's in the legislation going through Parliament right now. This time the emergency call turns out to be a false alarm. The Government though has a lot more work to do if it's going to convince its critics that fears about the Police Reform Bill are equally unfounded.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.