Committee Corner – Home Affairs Committee chair Diana Johnson on her in-tray
"It seems the wheels of justice are slowly grinding to a halt," says Diana Johnson
Amid a cost of living crisis and stretched public services, the next 12 months will be busy for Parliament’s select committees. Labour chairs set out their priorities – now, Diana Johnson.
In recent years there has been a seemingly endless series of incidents showing the police service in the worst light. Long-term concerns over issues such as the use of stop and search and historic police corruption have been compounded by recent cases of appalling police misconduct. Serving officers have been convicted of terrible crimes, including sexual offences and murder, and there is little confidence that enough has been done to eradicate a toxic culture that seems to pervade parts of policing.
This past year we have seen the resignation of the Metropolitan Police commissioner, and her replacement will have much to do, but with five other forces across the country in special measures it is clear that problems are not limited to the capital.
Beyond these headline-making scandals, there are growing concerns that the quality of service provided to members of the public is in serious decline. If your house is broken into, your bike stolen or you are the victim of online fraud, there is no longer an assumption that the police will be there to bring criminals to justice.
"There must also be a clear signal that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated."
Detection and charging rates have fallen significantly. According to the Home Office’s own figures, only six per cent of robberies and four per cent of thefts lead to a charge. Added to ongoing backlog issues in the court system and industrial action by the Bar, it seems the wheels of justice are slowly grinding to a halt.
There are fears that the police service has been hollowed out to the extent that they aren’t able to deal with the range of challenges they face. The government has set a target of 20,000 newly recruited officers, but even if this target is met it will only replace some of what was lost due to severe cuts over the past decade. While the number of police may improve, the loss of knowledge and experience caused by these cuts will take much longer to replicate and will have a lasting impact on how the police service is able to operate.
It is clear that policing needs to change if it is to be able to meet the current challenges it faces and respond to future threats. It is unlikely that there will be easy answers, and that is why the Home Affairs Committee has launched a new inquiry to understand what their key priorities should be for the police and what resources will be needed to meet them.
First and foremost, policing in the United Kingdom must be based on consent. Such a severe loss of public confidence is deeply concerning and restoring the trust of the communities they serve must be the top priority. This will require ensuring that sufficient numbers of officers and police staff are in place with the right mix of skills. It will also need nuance, so that there is the right balance between detection, prevention and evidence gathering.
There must also be a clear signal that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. The perception at present is that it isn’t just a few rotten apples, and the police service must demonstrate that the whole bunch has not been spoiled. There must be zero tolerance of racism, misogyny and homophobia amongst officers.
Our report last year, examining the progress made in the 20 years since the Macpherson report, found that more work was needed to improve ongoing racial disparities in policing. However, it also found that policing had changed for the better in many areas and that institutional change is achievable. It will likely take this level of focus again to rebuild policing and emerge from the current nadir.
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