Yesterday we heard the latest in a long line of speeches from Theresa May about her vision for our police force: cuts of up to 20%, changes to police terms and service conditions and pension arrangements, electing police commissioners at a cost of 3,000 police officers, and vitally, a lack of strategic vision on policing – a far cry from the speech we heard last week from Yvette Cooper. The Home Secretary believes that these changes will not effect the front line. I know, as we all know, that this is a catastrophic misjudgment and demonstrates a naivety of the work our Police force carries out.
We regularly hear the falling crime statistic which Labour achieved in government but it is worth mentioning again- a 43% fall in overall crime, 7 million fewer crimes a year and the first government in the post World War Two era to leave office with crime rates lower then when we took office. This is undoubtedly due to the extra police we put on Britain’s streets, the PCSOs and the community groups which were set up to tackle crime in their neighbourhood, but it is also due to a greater understanding of the causes of crime: that our children need an education, our young people need opportunities and adults need jobs. We had to be tough on crime, but also tough on the causes of crime.
Theresa May, in her speech cited Bernard Hogan-Howe, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner who has stated that police officers aren’t social workers, they’re here to stop crime, catch criminals and help victims. I couldn’t agree more, but, as I learnt from spending a week on the beat with South Yorkshire Police, Theresa May’s solution of cutting vital police numbers is not the answer.During my week with South Yorkshire Police I wanted to separate the government’s rhetoric with the police’s reality – to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty and to find out what life for a police officer in 2011 is really like. I was keen not just to be talking about the work but to be out on the streets, watching the CCTV, working with them to tackle the anti-social behaviour of a Saturday night.
From the week two clear messages emerged. Firstly, that you cannot separate the frontline from the backroom staff; that to cut the number of staff behind the scenes will inevitably damage the work of the officers patrolling the streets. In Barnsley we are lucky to have a fantastic team of police officers but even they will often be out on single patrols across the Town. They rely on the staff monitoring the CCTV and the phones to pick up on potentially dangerous situations and send reinforcements within 1-2 minutes if needed. To cut any of these staff would be to put at risk the work of our police officers, and make tackling crime much, much harder.
I know from my own frontline experience, that no battle is won without support in depth. It is clear that in order to continue to cut crime we need joined up policing. From the administration staff to the response units to the detectives and the frontline police officers, all of them have a crucial role to play in producing an effective and efficient police force.
The second message which was relayed is that the main problem our Police Forces have to deal with are those reoccurring faces and families who have turned to a life of crime. That 1% which will take most of a police officer’s time. In essence, the need for a government to be “tough on the causes of crime”. This is a complex problem, which Labour began to get right. The cuts this Tory led government are making across the board, threaten this and, as the police told me, rising unemployment, scrapping of the EMA and cuts to the voluntary sector will all dramatically effect their work.
Labour understood that in order to reduce crime, you had to improve people’s standard of living and enhance life chances. And that’s where the Conservative’s must face up to their biggest flaw. In government we reduced crime because we understood that to tackle it we needed far more than just an increased number of police on streets. Yes that helped, but the police’s success went hand in hand with a more strategic approach to tackling crime across a number of different government departments.
Of course we didn’t get it all right but we moved in the right direction and a cut of 43% in crime is a figure we should be proud of. Labour know that there is a lot more to be done – to stop crime, to lift families out of the cycle of criminality, to reduce the numbers of repeat offenders. But unlike the Conservatives, Labour’s team, led by Yvette Cooper, are looking at new and innovative ideas to build on our success and review our failures, and vitally this is based on an understanding of the complex issues faced by the Police Force.
David Cameron and Theresa May have got it fundamentally wrong – a lack of understanding on what causes crime, and a lack of understanding on the work of our police force. What is most worrying is that these reforms will dramatically reduce the number of frontline police officers we have in Britain.
And it is disingenuous of the Home Secretary to pretend otherwise.