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
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
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
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.