Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ts and Cs

Too much time spent singing

As we've blogged many times, the police are spectacularly inefficient. Detection rates are less than 25% - half what they were in the 60s - there's a wobbling mountain of paperwork, real coppers on the beat have been replaced by numpties in yellow jackets, police stations are being closed all over the shop, and you're only really safe if you buy your own private security.

Yet the police now cost us around £20bn pa - £800 for every single household. And as the Home Affairs Select Committee pointed out, over Labour's first decade their funding increased by 40% in real terms, but the number of police officers increased by just 11% - only one-quarter of the increase in money (see this blog). The rest has disappeared into some dark pit. Indeed, police forces such as Surrey's have moved into what's known as "mixed economy policing", under which they dispense with police officers altogether and replace them with cheap civilian staff instead.

One of the reasons for high police costs is what's known as Ts and Cs - Police Terms and Conditions of employment. These are the national arrangements governing everything from pay, to working hours, to those famous index-linked pensions at age 50. They encompass all the various Spanish practices under which police constables can boost their pay to £60 grand pa via various allowances and overtime payments. For example, an officer can apparently earn £100 simply for answering the phone and making a decision while off-duty. Overtime alone now costs us £500m pa.

Given that police budgets are facing the axe, this is a pressing problem. Which is why a couple of weeks ago, Tyler attended a discussion on how police costs might be cut.

The star attendee was a serving Chief Constable who has featured on BOM before. She was very impressive, clearly doing a very diffcult job, and Tyler could well understand why she occupies such a senior position. And there were others around the table with plenty of expertise on the police and their problems.

So what was concluded?

Well, the good news is that everyone agreed that police costs can be cut. And everyone agreed that Ts and Cs are a problem that needs to be grasped: it is insane that Surrey has to lose all its best officers to the Met simply because the nationally negotiated London pay weighting leaves Surrey unable to compete.

But there, the agreement stopped.

Those associated most closely with the police felt that costs can only be cut if the public are prepared to accept a different type of service. Which roughly translated means fewer policemen and a greater reliance on cheaper civilian staff and those yellow-jacketed guys. It also means yet more amalgamation and pooling of resources between police authorities, sharing of back office functions (eg payroll and HR), and - yes, I'm afraid so - yet another shiny new national computer system.

Those of us on the outside - or at least, Tyler - didn't like the sound of this at all. For a chunky £800 pa why should households have to accept fewer police officers patrolling their streets and tracking down their bad guys? Who sets the priorities? And why on earth should anyone believe more bigness will make the police any more efficient?

Tyler decided to ask the elected sheriff question. Wouldn't it be better if we had elected sheriffs so the police could know how best to shape their service to meet local preferences? And wouldn't direct elections incentivise the police to deliver what their communities actually want?

"Ah, if only it was that simple," came the response. "Local policing like that can't work because criminals have cars." General dismissive titters round the table.

And you can see they do have a point there. Local police who give up hot pursuit at the county line are not what any of us want.

But most crime is local crime. And for serious national crime, such as terrorism, we could surely bolster the national policing arrangements already in place. The car chase point hardly seems a show-stopper.

The truth of course is that the police don't want locally elected sheriffs because they don't want to be at the beck and call of local politicians. They'd rather manage themselves according to their own preferences and objectives.

But in reality, they are not free to manage themselves. They have to answer to their paymaster, which at the moment is Whitehall. And Whitehall has proved a very bad sheriff. Yes, it's poured in vast amounts of cash, but it's insisted on vast amounts of micro management to go with it. From stop and search paperwork, to Activity Based Costing bureaucracy, to inflexible national Ts and Cs, Sheriff Whitehall has weighed down the police with so much useless baggage they can hardly move.

This is precisely how we've wound up with such an inefficient police service so detached from the communities it serves. And this is precisely why we are desperate for locally elected sheriffs, targeting local priorities, answerable to local communities, setting local Ts and Cs, and ideally, providing most of the cash from local taxpayers (see forthcoming book from the TPA - How to cut Public Spending (and still win an election) - which includes a chapter on how localism can improve public sector efficiency).

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