Is the time right for a Royal Commission on the police?

Ian Blair on police reform: Helping with enquiries

November 12, 2013

Something strange is going on. I agree with the Conservative MP David Davis, with whom I often clashed during my time as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I also find myself in agreement with a recent Guardian leader, on the same subject, which is the need for a Royal Commission on the police.

I first called for a Royal Commission in my memoir which was published in 2009, and later in a short film I made for Newsnight just prior to the last General Election. At the time, the then Conservative shadow Home Office spokesman, Nick Herbert, declared that a commission would be too time consuming. And then once in office, he embarked upon a raft of unconnected reforms, which Labour has not found a narrative capable of stopping. There is a delicious irony in David Davis calling for a Royal Commission now because the current crisis facing the police is not with the public but with politicians.

In 2009/10, I was principally highlighting that the last Royal Commission was ordered by the Home Office in 1960 and reported its findings two years later. This was before the advent of personal police radios or panda cars, UK organised criminality or terrorism, let alone internet crime. There was little political disagreement about the sort of local policing which came to be enshrined in the Police Act of 1964.

In 2010, there was little consensus between the two main political parties on either the future of the police or its purpose. A 1992 Conservative white paper had stated that the principal task of the police was to catch criminals, whereas the incoming Labour government had declared in 1998 that the task of the police was to build “a safe, just and tolerant society”. In 2010, the Conservatives returned unhesitatingly to the status quo ante. It therefore seemed to me that a Royal Commission 50 years after the last one seemed an idea whose time might have come.

Those reasons remain valid but are no longer my main motivation for concurring with David Davis and the Guardian. However, I disagree with their shared view that a Royal Commission is now essential due to a crisis of public trust in the police as a result of the Andrew Mitchell “Plebgate” affair.

While it’s undeniable that Plebgate exposes very serious issues, as the recent report into the matter by the Home Affairs Select Committee made abundantly clear, any historian of the police could point to far worse crises such as the miners strike, networked corruption and the well-documented failings of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation. Public trust in the police remains stubbornly high, with a recent poll placing public confidence at 65 per cent, compared to 21 per cent for journalists and a mere 18 per cent for politicians. The real reason why a Royal Commission is required is to ensure the police is not reshaped without a coherent roadmap. Policing, the only service which is entitled and sometimes required to use force on free citizens, is too important to drift into an uncharted future.

So far in its reforms to the police service, this government has ridden roughshod over all professional advice—introducing legislation which the governing body, the Association of Chief Police Officers, has directly opposed including the advent of Police and Crime Commissioners—a solution in search of a problem—and replacing the Independent Chief Inspector of Constabulary with an outsider with regulatory rather than inspectorial experience. Worst of all, the police has been required to undergo 25 per cent cuts without any intellectual underpinning on how best to preserve neighbourhood policing.

So, what’s the latest solution? The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has announced that a code of ethics will be developed for the police. In 1993, one of her Conservative predecessors failed to support a similar suggestion by the then Chief Inspector of Constabulary, the late Sir John Woodcock, in an article commended years later by Sir William McPherson in his report into the Stephen Lawrence case. It is a good idea, but ultimately it is just another piecemeal suggestion. I know. I worked for Sir John and wrote the first draft of that article. A code of ethics is not in itself enough.

This country requires a Royal Commission in order to take a long hard look at what kind of police service we want and need. The commission needs to determine the purpose of the police in a modern democracy. It should provide definition on the nature of its governance; the entry and training requirements; the distinction between the work of the police and the security services; best practice in local accountability; discipline processes; issues of diversity and much more.

Because there are such differences of opinion across the political spectrum, it is imperative that this subject be examined on a cross-party basis. Both the present government’s reforms and the undoubtedly well-researched and long awaited Labour party report on the future of policing by Lord Stevens (my predecessor as Metropolitan Police Commissioner) will struggle to escape the charge of partisanship. It is now overwhelmingly clear that effective police reform requires consensus if we are to avoid the kind of political disagreement which has seen a localised approach adopted south of the border under the Police and Crime Commissioner, while in Scotland eight forces have been merged into a single police service.