Lord Dear: May failed the police service as home secretary and prime minister

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: Her move at a stroke moved policing back towards the 1950s, writes Lord Dear

A police officer stands outside No.10
PA Images

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyages of their life are bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Brutus, in Julius Caesar, knew that few golden opportunities exist. Theresa May had just such an opportunity to reform and modernise British policing when she became home secretary in May 2010. She served for six years as home secretary, longer than anyone since Chuter Ede in the 1940s and 50s, but she failed to seize that opportunity, and then allowed the service to drift and decline during her time as prime minister.

She started briskly in 2010 with a declaration that she would be tough on migrants (n.b. Windrush eight years later!) and announced cuts in the police budget, quickly followed by the decision to create the National Crime Agency.

The first two produced long faces, the third cheered those who had long advocated a streamlining of the current, fragmented police model. Perhaps here was a truly reforming home secretary? One who would take advice and re-energise a policing system that had its roots in the 1960s?

Her forthright confrontation with the Police Federation, too, was welcome. The Federation, representing officers up to middle rank, had become boorish and militant and needed a shock, which she duly administered and it is very much the better for it. But other early hopes of a visionary reformation were not realised.

With the Police Federation under control, and a tide of opinion flowing in favour of amalgamations leading to a greater national-international focus, she instead introduced police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in 2012. Local identity continues to be the bedrock of the British police model, but it was excessive local influence that stimulated the 1960 royal commission on the police, which scrapped watch committees and introduced a healthier system. By refocusing on sole, locally elected commissioners, her move at a stroke moved policing back towards the 1950s, with all the risks of undue influence and parochialism.

It was a decision that paid homage to David Cameron – who had imported the concept from the US where so much is different – and could only succeed here if the PCCs were of a universally high quality. And only then, if the service continued to maintain a broad, national and international view.

Previously that had, to a large extent, been fostered by the Police Staff College at Bramshill. The college provided courses for middle and upper ranked officers, both from the UK and abroad, and was internationally acclaimed. Theresa May sold Bramshill in 2015. It has not been replaced. It is now being developed as a housing estate. No staff training exists, of any real quality. This at a time when crime and social problems expand across boundaries, demanding the broadest possible innovative solutions.

There was some logic in those moves. They largely removed from the home secretary’s desk an otherwise never-ending pile of policing problems by providing the get-out phrase: “This is now the business of the PCC.”

Yet so many of those problems do not respect boundaries – county lines, high-value burglaries, slavery, sex-exploitation, rural crime to name but a few.

The continuing savage reductions in budgets have brought the service almost to its knees. More and more officers are being assaulted, stress-related sickness increases, police coverage diminishes. Most minor crimes are merely recorded, not investigated. Detection rates are woefully low. The public is increasingly disconcerted. Only in counter-terrorism can real success be claimed. There the record is admirable, though at the cost of drawing resources upwards.

Hers is a sad legacy. In policing, like the Brexit negotiations, there was too little heed to advice based on experience; an overriding reliance on a tiny handful of dubious advisers; a determination to plough on regardless, despite the warning signs. It will all take a long time to rectify.Lord Dear is a crossbench peer. Previously he was chief constable of West Midlands, and HM inspector of constabulary

Lord Dear is a crossbench peer. Previously he was chief constable of West Midlands, and HM inspector of constabulary