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"The proposed reforms to policing will reshape the national landscape and change police accountability at a time when police numbers will inevitably fall." 


Police debate: five key questions

Neil Amos, Richard Bailey
Police Professional
2 September 2010

Policing will soon undergo significant change.  Within a few years, each force will have a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Forces will operate on much reduced budgets, and a new National Crime Agency will be part of the policing landscape. Concerns about Olympic security will be behind us, and we will be looking ahead – perhaps to the challenge of policing the 2018 World Cup.

What questions should we be asking now, to ensure that UK Policing in 2015 – the midpoint between Olympics and World Cup – continues to serve the public and meet the challenges ahead? 

This article looks to build further on the debate about policing in the 21st century. It identifies a key question for each of the Home Office document’s four themes – democratic accountability, bureaucratic accountability, national framework, and tackling crime together – and suggests a further theme – successful implementation – that will inform the way forward. 

Increasing Democratic Accountability

The debate on the discussion document must address the question of how Police and Crime Commissioners should be mandated to collaborate with others outside their own force boundary.

There has already been much discussion about the Government’s proposal to introduce Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) at force level, rather than at a more local level.  Much of the debate has focussed on the relationship between the PCC and chief officers and activities within the force area but less so on its impact on collaboration.    

A key risk is that elected PCCs may be tempted to focus their force exclusively on their own constituency. This may be particularly acute for forces finding themselves under the greatest financial pressures.  They may seek to withdraw resources from tackling cross-border (‘Level 2’) crime; they may reduce their contribution to national intelligence matters, leaving a new National Crime Agency isolated; they may view collaboration more cautiously, focusing on opportunities for their own force rather than looking for collective benefit.

This is a complex area, where aspects and interlinkages overlooked now – however small – may cause serious difficulty later. Sir Robert Peel’s description of the core police mission – “preventing crime and disorder” – is often quoted. Less frequently mentioned is his fifth principle, namely that “police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law”. 

Removing Bureaucratic Accountability

The debate needs to consider how we can devolve ‘professional responsibility’ further to the rank-and-file, whilst recognising the ‘democratic accountability’ requirement for public information and engagement.

The Home Office has already dropped a number of targets imposed on the police service.  .The discussion document notes that ‘the increased provision of accurate and timely locally focused information to the public will be critical in empowering them to effect real change in their communities’.   For this to succeed, it will be critical to ensure that bureaucracy does not just shift from a national to a local focus but leads to genuine empowerment and sufficient focus to enable senior officers to prioritise resources and effort. 

Police perceptions of professional risk, its management, and the preparedness of the force and society to ‘trust’ police officers and staff are important here.   Almost without exception, police officers and staff can be trusted to use their professional judgement and ‘do the right thing’. Checks and balances however need to be in place to pick up on the exceptions, whilst senior officers and the new PCCs will need appropriate management information to ensure they understand the bigger picture, and to reassign resource as appropriate. 

Yet officers are used to working in an environment of specific targets and rules. It will take time for officers to understand and act on the new freedoms.  The roles of HMIC and IPCC may need amendment to reflect any such change. In the new policing landscape, decisions on how the balance between ‘rules’ and ‘professional judgement’ is struck may rest with each PCC, in discussion with senior officers for each individual force. 

A National Framework for Efficient Policing

How can we provide a clear, simple and accurate illustration of how we wish the structure for policing within the wider CJS and community safety landscape to look? 

The Home Office discussion sets out a comparison between what the policing landscape looks like now, and the future landscape in an illustration.   

Whilst this illustration is appealing in its simplicity, the reality of the future state is that there will need to be more connections than are shown. For example, the HMIC is shown as interfacing only between forces and individual members of the public. In practice, the Home Office would take a keen interest – the discussion document acknowledges elsewhere that HMIC ‘will advise the Home Secretary where it is in the national interest to direct forces to collaborate’.

Beyond mention of “community safety and criminal justice partners” there is also no explicit mention of the CPS, and only one of the courts, within the discussion document in relation to the national framework. Yet we rely on the police, along with these and other criminal justice agencies, to work together to ensure the criminal justice system works well. 

We would encourage the debate to explore these connections in more depth and also ensure recognition of the role that funding has to play in encouraging behaviours – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. 

Tackling crime together

The consultation paper, in its section on ‘tackling crime together’, focuses on how to enable and encourage people to ‘get involved’. It also considers how the wider criminal justice system should work better together, as well as how ‘unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy’ can be stripped away.   

There is a great opportunity to ensure that policing reform acts as a catalyst for wider change and improvement across the criminal justice system (CJS), facilitated by the appointment of Nick Herbert as Minister of State in both the Home Office and Ministry of Justice.   This opportunity is acknowledged in the consultation paper’s questions, which ask about what more central Government can do to make the criminal justice system more efficient. 

However, other agencies outside the criminal justice sector have a role in tackling crime. Health and education sectors both have a role to play in ensuring that long term crime trends are down, and others may also have a part to play. 

So, our challenge here is for respondents to identify ways in which non-CJS agencies should be expected to contribute to society and the criminal justice system ‘tackling crime together’.

A fifth dimension: successful implementation  

What relevant learning is there that can inform the approach to implementation of such reforms to policing? 

It is essential to ensure that the four dimensions are considered, and taken forward, in combination.  The Sheehy Inquiry of the early 1990s provides some informative parallels, with details of integration and implementation not being considered sufficiently early.

The proposed reforms to policing will reshape the national landscape and change police accountability at a time when police numbers will inevitably fall. The implementation plan will be key.  Even if all the proposed changes were universally acknowledged as beneficial, it might not be prudent to tackle them all at the same time. Engaging with communities to explain how and why things are changing, and what the new priorities are, will be crucial to engaging their support. Change may carry additional short term cost (both financial and performance) – the implementation plan must seek to mitigate these costs, making the transition arrangements clear whilst driving forward to the benefits that must ultimately be delivered. 

As an example, for PCCs the major challenge will be to work through the detail, checking that their introduction is managed carefully, avoiding any unintended or undesirable consequences. Managing the winding down of Police Authorities, whilst maintaining relationships with members who may be local politicians, will also be important to maintaining relationships across force areas.

In conclusion

The Home Office issued their consultation document on 26 July, with submissions received up to 20 September 2010. Throughout this period, Police Professional and PA have sought to facilitate and contribute to this critical debate on the future of policing.  This has included a video debate hosted at the Home Office (see a short excerpt here, and the full film via www.policeprofessional.com); an active online debate via LinkedIn, now with over 100 members in the group (see http://linkd.in/PlcDbt); and now this article.

We would welcome your views on these questions (and indeed suggestions on other key questions that merit consideration) – you can do so either by email to Police Professional (editor@policeprofessional.com) or via the dedicated discussion group at http://linkd.in/PlcDbt


About the authors 

Neil Amos and Richard Bailey are part of PA Consulting Group’s police team.  They have long experience of working on policing and criminal justice matters, both within the United Kingdom and internationally. Their UK assignments include the provision of advice to the Police Federation of England and Wales on their response to the Sheehy Inquiry proposals some eighteen years ago; support in the late 1990s to the Patten Inquiry examining policing in Northern Ireland; and, more recently, over forty other significant policing and criminal justice assignments. 

To see PA's home affairs and justice pages, please click here 


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