Who will the Home Secretary turn to for an independent, experienced view on policing matters?

I know I’m not the only person who felt lost for words at the news that Theresa May is proposing to appoint Tom Winsor to head up Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

Really? On what basis? The deep understanding of policing that he showed in undertaking his recent review of terms and conditions? Or was there some other quality she was looking for?

I have always felt that external inspection was a useful role. That doesn’t mean I have always appreciated the implementation when I have been on the receiving end: the metaphor of digging up a plant to see how it is doing springs to mind when I think of my time in Hackney and the failure to intervene when Doncaster was clearly heading to a bad place troubled me. But inspection is an important role which is worth nurturing. There is an old joke that those who can’t do, teach and those who can’t teach, inspect. Not really the approach we would want. Just as we need high quality teachers and professional trainers who really understand the subject information they are passing on, inspectors must have professional experience and integrity. When HMIC says to a Force “this is not the best way of doing it”, it is important that the public and politicians can trust this judgment and act on it accordingly.

So what do we expect of HMIC? I thought I would start by checking what HMIC says about itself. Here’s what is says on their website – I thought it best to cut and paste in full before it gets changed:

Inspecting policing in the public interest

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) independently assesses police forces and policing across activity from neighbourhood teams to serious crime and the fight against terrorism – in the public interest.

In preparing our reports, we ask the questions which citizens would ask, and publish the answers in accessible form, using our expertise to interpret the evidence. We provide authoritative information to allow the public to compare the performance of their force against others, and our evidence is used to drive improvements in the service to the public.

Independence

HMIC is independent of Government and the police:

  • HM Inspectors of Constabulary are appointed by the Crown – they are not employees of the police service or government.
  • HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary reports to Parliament on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces in England and Wales.
  • HM Inspectors have powers to seek information from police forces and to access their premises.

Public interest

HMIC decides on the depth, frequency and areas to inspect based on our judgements about what is in the public interest.

In making these judgements, we consider the risks to the public, the risks to the integrity of policing, service quality, public concerns, the operating environment, the burden of inspection and the potential benefits to society from the improvements that might arise from the inspection.

HMIC’s annual inspection programme is subject to the approval of the Home Secretary in accordance with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011.

Generally I think HMIC lives up to this role. There has been some criticism in the last couple of years that Sir Denis was a bit too eager to supply reports to the Home Office which would support their political agenda instead of maintaining the independent role described above, but their detailed work in relation to individual forces has been very professional. There is a mix of inspectors with different backgrounds – three ex-Chief Constables, a former civil servant with experience at the Audit Commission and a former Chief Crown Prosecutor.

Had one of the current inspectors with a non-policing background been appointed to the top job, it might have raised a few eyebrows but few could argue there was a lack of experience.

Maybe there weren’t any experienced candidates prepared to take on the role, I wondered. But no – we are told that the chief constables of Thames Valley and West Midlands both offered their services and were rejected.

But the crux of the concern regarding the appointment of Tom Winsor is surely the combination of a lack of understanding regarding operational policing, lack of experience in inspecting and lack of clear focus on independence and the public interest. If Tom Winsor announces that the Government’s plans in relation to a particular issue are sensible is anyone seriously going to believe this is a professional judgement rather than dancing to his paymaster’s tune? I don’t even need to pick as an example the implementation of Winsor’s own recommendations. I have written previously about that report and my main criticism was that the change agenda is focused on saving money and forcing a particular view on the police service instead of negotiating changes. HMIC have a useful role to play in holding the ring in this debate – which is why putting the main antagonist in charge of HMIC is an extraordinarily bad idea.

Who will the Home Secretary turn to if she wants an independent, experienced view on matters of policing policy? And that’s the rub. Clearly, while the policing world felt that Sir Denis was a bit too close to the Home Secretary, she felt he just wasn’t compliant enough. This is a Government that isn’t interested in evidence. It sees evidence as something that gets in the way of implementing its policies. David Cameron’s former key aide, Steve Hilton, is reputed to have told staff at the Number Ten Policy Unit not to use the “E” Word.

The only hope is that the Police & Crime Commissioners elected in November do not share the narrow world view that all that matters is their own opinions and prejudices. Nationally Labour’s Yvette Cooper has set a clear agenda for policing, including asking former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens to lead an independent review into the future of policing. Labour PCCs will be committed to listening to the public and being a voice for them with the police, but will also be committed to respecting operational independence. The lack of checks and balances in the system is a problem – but PCCs can ensure that they consult communities on their policies – and with their Chief Constable and team who will have the responsibility for implementing the policies. I hope that PCCs of other political persuasions and none will also make these commitments.

What do you think?

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