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Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

The reality behind ‘police reform’

THIS SUMMER saw the publication of a new Home Office Green Paper on proposals for changes to the organisation and structure of the police force across the UK. Although steeped in New Labour-style spin and management-speak – as in the title, ‘From the neighbourhood to the national: policing our communities together’ – the Green Paper does raise some interesting questions, in particular about the role and accountability of the police.

An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) survey conducted in 2007 found that 37% of people thought putting a compliant in about the police wouldn’t make any difference while, significantly, 30% of black people surveyed were worried about police harassment if they lodged a complaint. The same survey revealed that only 14% of those spoken to were ‘very confident’ that complaints would be treated impartially. Confidence in complaints being treated impartially was significantly lower amongst those from an ethnic minority.

The IPCC survey reveals that a significant layer of the population has growing questions about the accountability of the police force. This has been exacerbated by a number of high profile incidents over the past few years: the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes; the botched ‘terror raid’ in Forest Gate; and in the press more recently, the sight of Omar Ahmet being held at gun point at Bournemouth train station after being mistaken for a suspected bomber. However, just as big a factor in this perception of the police is people’s daily experience; this is especially the case amongst young people and black and Asian youth in particular.

The Home Office’s Green Paper is partially a response to the growing prevalence of such attitudes and a key theme running throughout the document is "holding the police to account locally" (Policing Our Communities, p14). However, the solutions put forward are at best token gestures and at worst nothing more than spin.

The Green Paper proposes the introduction of "directly [elected] individuals, known as Crime and Policing Representatives (CPRs)" onto Police Authorities. These would sit alongside appointed ‘lay justice’ representatives, such as magistrates, and local councillors, but would make up the majority of the Police Authority under these proposals. It also proposes that "where a local area already directly elects a mayor, this person will automatically be their local CPR".

The direct election of police authorities is not unheard of. Indeed, when the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829 borough councils appointed watch committees which were responsible for local police forces. Then, the control of police was seen as a local government function and the watch committees were solely comprised of elected councillors, who had powers to appoint constables and officers as well as controlling their pay and work priorities.

This gave much greater local control and accountability of police than the minimal proposals put forward in the current Green Paper. However, this was before the majority of working people had the right to vote, never mind having a party that represented their interests to vote for! In reality, the watch committees represented the developing (and newly enfranchised) industrial and commercial capitalist class and their business interests.

Although working class people now have the right to vote at eighteen thanks to the huge struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century, we are faced with the dilemma of not having a mass political force that represents our interests. In that respect, the limited proposals to ‘democratise’ police authorities cannot put control of the police closer to working people’s hands. In fact, the report’s emphasis elsewhere on the role of business reveals the Home Offices’ intention to not only prioritise their interests but further the involvement of private companies in policing, as the government has already done in other public service areas: "We need increasingly to ensure that big business plays its part in crime prevention as well as local partners" (p10).

The further involvement of big business in policing is a step away from the sort of accountability that the Green Paper claims it wants to further. More than that, it is a worry for anyone who has seen the record of the private sector in other public service areas. It should not, of course, come as a surprise to anyone who has followed New Labour’s public service ‘reform’ over the past decade. To give just one example, security guards for court holding cells are now privately contracted and for the most part provided by the private firm Securitas. As well as the immediate implications for health and safety and accountability that bringing a private contractor in to provide this service, it means that these court workers are not on civil service contracts like other court staff and it cuts across their ability to defend pay, conditions and services in this particular sector.

Merging Police Authorities so that they cover wider areas is also being put forward. This was initially proposed in 2005 and would have meant job losses in police civilian support staff as well as associated agencies such as the court and probation service. Although at that stage the proposals were not carried out, the Green Paper again raises the idea of "close collaboration across a range of business areas… as an important first step for those exploring the possibility of voluntary merger" (p69). Again, this would raise the threat of job cuts as well as increasing Police Authorities’ unaccountability under the cover of the Green Paper’s other ‘democratic’ reforms.

However, although these moves to make the police seem more accountable are probably the most high profile section of the report, they are only one part of the Green Paper. For instance, the section on Community Support Officers (CSOs) stresses that CSOs are currently perceived as ‘policing on the cheap’. The Green Paper’s proposals to counter that attitude are not to increase pay or extend further training for CSOs but to give them more powers, without any redress in the form of increased local accountability.

Most worrying of all are the proposals relating to stop and search laws. Under the cover of "freeing officers to focus on what matters" (p39) the Green Paper proposes "scrapping the stop and account form entirely". At a time when police powers to stop and search have already increased through so-called anti-terror legislation, it is alarming that police could no longer have to record their reasons for searching someone or the outcome of the search but would only have to "record ethnicity information by radio" (p39). These proposals are put forward despite the fact that the Green Paper itself recognises that "young black men feel particularly disaffected from [stop and search] as they are often subject to it" (p22).

Although dense and filled at times with very confusing double-speak, the proposals in the Green Paper are important to know about. Working-class people are naturally concerned about crime, and violent crime in particular. But recent events undermine what trust there is in the police force. The fact, for instance, that no police officer faced charges for the shooting of Mohammed Abdul Kahar in the Forest Gate ‘anti-terror’ raid creates legitimate fear and anger amongst workers, and young Asian workers in particular.

We need to call for greater democratic accountability of the police via locally elected and accountable police committees made up of community members and trade unionists. The proposals drawn up in this Green Paper on the one hand offer elections to bodies with very limited powers, but on the other put forward proposals which would increase the ability of the police to act in an unaccountable manner. Like many public service ‘reforms’ under New Labour there is a dangerous act of smoke-and-mirrors taking place here.

Overcoming crime, for socialists, means fundamentally the eradication of the social conditions that produce crime. But within this present society, campaigning for democratic accountability of the police, far from undermining the ‘fight against crime’ helps raise questions in the minds of workers and young people about the true role and nature of an undemocratic, unaccountable and increasingly repressive force. Therefore, when the government recognises questions are being asked about the role of the police, and attempts to manoeuvre so it appears steps are being made to redress this, it is important for socialists to expose the processes actually taking place, which in this case are a continuation of the ‘reforms’ we have seen across public services and which have all been to the detriment of working people.

Greg Maughan


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