David Raynes: Police minister Mike Penning is wrong. We should reduce the number of police forces

Hello, Hello. What’s going on here then? Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, President of the Police Superintendents’ Association, has said the number of constabularies  in England & Wales (there are 43 of them)  “should be cut to save money”. The Superintendent thinks the number of expensive chief constables  and police & crime commissioners could be reduced.  Police Minister Mike Penning (who I confess I never previously heard of), however,  thinks otherwise.  “Forced mergers”, he said last week, "would reduce the quality of neighbourhood policing”.

Since Mike Penning has been in his job all of five metaphorical minutes, I wonder how he knows.

It is quite reassuring that the cry for efficiency improvements in policing has percolated down as far as the superintendents. Maybe it took a woman to be this brutally honest?  Up to now the multiplicity of senior policing jobs has been mostly, “jobs for the boys”; it has served the purpose of many cops to keep the numerous high level Association of Chief Police Officer (Acpo) jobs, even to promote temporarily into them, to raise pensions.

To be fair Curtis is not entirely alone. There are some honest officers and ex-officers around who know policing needs major reform

Hugh Orde President of Acpo, has said much the same, as has Lord Stevens, former head of the Metropolitan Police.

Last year Scotland's eight police forces were merged into one - a move the Association there says will save £1.1billion.

It has been argued that the present UK model of policing needs reform because it dates back to 1962. In fact, for the small “shire” or county forces, the model goes back much farther, almost to before the bicycle.  These tiny forces, which lack the critical mass to deal with serious crime or many modern policing problems and special needs - for example, specially trained officers to deal with rape, fraud, cybercrime etc -  stem from a time when miscreants were often from the next village or at the furthest, from the local market town. Not as now,  when he may be from a remote village in Eastern Europe or just a highly mobile criminal within the UK

Mike Penning seems to suggest, as do his predecessors in the Tory party, with whom I have argued this case, that the quality of local policing depends on proximity to a chief constable.  If that is true, which I really doubt, then surely something is seriously amiss with police management?

Every chief constable means an expensive HQ building and a multiplicity of supporting roles from heads of human resources, purchasing, CID, and transport, all the way down to a chief constable’s car and driver. It is true that the Home Office has encouraged forces to share these resources, to share buying and so on, but sharing anything means endless meetings.

And on top of chief constables the Coalition has overlaid police and crime commissioners, an amateur role, the support for which, on voter turnout, has been anything but enthusiastic. They are also very expensive and, as we have seen in Rotherham, rather difficult to remove. Commissioners have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, regardless of efficiency

In my professional life I was as close to policing as it is possible to get without actually having been a cop. As head of a customs investigation region, I liaised with nine chief officers and sat, as an invited member, on two “Regional Heads of CID Groups” and two “Regional Coordinating and Tasking Groups”. When I started, and until I suggested a change, I was the only common member of two adjoining geographical groups.

Astonishingly, at one stage, only I was fully briefed on the serious policing problems in two adjacent “patches”. I saw, at first hand, the difficulty constabularies had with what they called “cross border policing”. They were, however, not thinking of the same “borders” that I was. Their borders were essentially county boundaries. Yet crime is not like that; it knows no boundaries. That is why larger constabularies are essential to efficiency and why Irene Curtis is right and Mike Penning is wrong.

The fixation the Tories have about local policing having to be near a police HQ is just that, a fixation. An evidence-free fixation as well. They just do not understand how policing works.

The local district chief inspector is a far more important figure in the life of local communities than the chief constable. I know mine. He has dropped by for a cup of tea. I am on a small parish council and with my wife run our neighbourhood watch.  I can give him a call about rural crime and drop into see him at any time. He calls meetings for all of us doing similar voluntary work in his area.  That is how local policing should work. The chief constable could happily be 100 miles away.

However I don’t suppose Junior Minister Mike Penning will listen to reason, will he?

No. 'Move along now, nothing to see here’. But millions of pounds to be spent.

David Raynes