HINDSIGHT IS A WONDERFUL THING: our scholar Isaac Rasmussen on his roundabout route to a career in journalism READ MORE

‘Where next for Policing and Criminal Justice?’ – Ian, Lord Blair of Boughton

Church House, London, Thursday 21st November, 2019


Good evening, 

I feel a bit like that man in a dinner jacket whom many of us have encountered who suddenly appears in front of the theatre curtains and announces that because the main star of the play is unwell, the part of King Lear ..you know how it goes.

I am sorry that Dame Cressida Dick is not giving this address tonight but I do understand the imperative of electoral purdah. I was honoured when she asked me to step in for her this evening. I should emphasize that this is my speech, not me reading one written by her.

By necessity, this has been a speech put together quite quickly and I am grateful to the many people who have helped me with research.

Possibly because of that speed, I am personally quite surprised by what I am going to say. I think a lot of us here know quite a bit about one part of the overall criminal justice system but not necessarily about all of it and I am alarmed by the way in which the pattern of decline in policing provision, which I know about, is not only echoed but sometimes amplified across the courts, prisons, prosecution services and probation. 

The British legal system and its police service were once the envy of the world… they look very tattered now. Forget the man in the bow tie: my overriding image of those of us who care about criminal justice in its widest sense is that of the frog being boiled slowly, so it does not really notice.

Little is being said so far about crime, policing and criminal justice in the course of this pre-election period, except announcements from the Conservatives about Parole Board hearings and some rather rehashed approaches to knife crime, apart from the main public offering, a rather unthinking bidding war about how many extra police each main party is going to provide in the future, at present varying between 20000 and 25000. The frog is not jumping out of the pan. I wish it was.

My title is ‘Where next for policing and criminal justice?’ and I can tell you now that my prescription will be for a systematic, holistic review of the whole system, concerned with outputs, not inputs, crossing departmental boundaries both inside and outside the criminal justice system, to see what works and what does not and where resources can best be spent to prevent crime and victimisation. In my view, the system is not yet actually broken but it is so neglected as to be a matter of serious national concern and our citizens need to be engaged in deciding how it should be repaired and improved.

I will speak only about England and Wales because the Scottish system is so different and the circumstances of Northern Ireland are complicated by other concerns but I would be surprised if some of what I have to say does not have resonance in those other parts of the United Kingdom.

However, we cannot get to ‘where next’ before we explore ‘where we are now’. I apologise if what I am going to say sounds a bit like the traditional lament of the elderly that ‘it’s not as good as it was in my day’.  But it really isn’t as good. It really is not.

Indeed, were such language not to be deemed unparliamentary, this cross-bencher would probably use the term old Station Sergeants, a particularly cheerful set of folk, used to tell young whippersnappers like me in the face of any proposed innovation that (Q) ‘the Job – which is how the denizens of the Met describe the Met to each other – is now stuffed’, (UQ) except that they did not use the word stuffed.

I left the post of Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, almost exactly 11 years ago. I was the 25th post holder. Dame Cressida is the 28th.  My basic contention tonight is to point out the complicity, by what the Book of Common Prayer describes as sins of commission and omission, of all United Kingdom political parties in either facilitating or allowing the substantial degrading of the criminal justice system in the time which has elapsed between Cressida’s and my terms of office.

In doing that, I will concentrate on those who have been in government for most of that period, the Conservatives, because from the beginning of the coalition in 2010 their grip on the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, to put it mildly, did not unduly advertise the existence of the Liberal Democrats. 

But that said, the relative silence from opposition parties has been noticeable. The Shadow Home Secretaries in that time have been Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and now Diane Abbott who are all well-known politicians and, as far as I know, decent people. However, apart from a very unfortunate interview about police numbers when Diane Abbott was ill, I cannot remember a significant intervention from any of them about policing and criminal justice, other than justifiable but rather unfocussed complaints about austerity. They should have been shouting from the roof tops. 

In contrast, I can remember a young Shadow Home Secretary who, with a single phrase, changed the strategy of his party, stole the topic of law and order from a complacent government and began a period of reform and energisation of this whole sector. Do you remember this: ’tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’?  I bet you do. It is said that there are few votes in criminal justice reform. Tony Blair understood that that received wisdom was wrong.

The thing about that phrase was that it served to underpin Labour’s approach to policing and criminal justice, one concerned with outcomes and partnership with other parts of the public service. It was central to the Met’s response to the Steven Lawrence report, it provided a new neighbourhood focus on the curse of anti-social behaviour through statutory, combined responsibilities between police and local government and it largely won for the government the confidence of the leaders of the police service. That is important, particularly in an emergency. It enabled the government quickly, for instance, to reorganise the counter-terrorism response to the threat of Islamist terror after 2005, over-riding territorial parochialism by some small forces in favour of national coherence.

Turning now to the actions of government over these last years, there have been some very favourable developments, such as Theresa May’s drive against modern slavery and her Domestic Abuse Bill, now presumably certain to receive parliamentary approval in the next session of Parliament. 

In a very interesting speech in Cambridge in September, to which I will return, Sir Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, also approvingly lists a number of reforms to policing that certainly have happened in the last decade. 

However, my take on the list is that it is rather inward looking and piecemeal. A number of existing bodies have had their names changed, from the National Police Improvement Agency into the College of Policing, the Association of Chief Police Officers into the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency into the National Crime Agency (in the cases of both of these last two, rather sadly, these are the fourth name changes for largely unchanged functions). There have been changes in police terms and conditions and the Inspectorate has changed also, becoming less directly interventionist and more regulatory, not necessarily for the good. But no government-led overview emerges from this section of Sir Tom’s speech nor any visible pathway to a national picture for improvement.

Oh and yes, in case you were not aware, the government sold off the National Police Staff College at Bramshill, reversing more than half a century of centralised training of senior police leaders: not as famous as Sandhurst but the same idea, with a less illustrious but nonetheless world-wide reputation in its own field.

This lack of long-term, strategic interest was made very clear to me when I was asked to make a short film by the BBC, shortly after the Coalition Government came to power, so 18 months after I had left office. At one stage, I stood outside what is now the Treasury but which had been the Home Office in 1962, when the last government-led, holistic review of policing, the Royal Commission on the Police, delivered its report to the then Home Secretary in that very building. It was a ground-breaking report which, through the Police Act 1964, shaped British policing for decades. But no report could do that for six decades: the world moves on. There have been two new Home Office buildings since, as well as two new Scotland Yards. 

In the film, I pointed out that there are Strategic Defence Reviews and NHS strategic reorganisations every few years. When the Royal Commission reported, police radios for individual officers and panda cars were an innovation, organised crime and international terrorism long in the future. The only subsequent national enquiry was the now long-forgotten Sheehy report of the early 1990’s, which achieved the unenviable record of having all of its principle recommendations turned down or, where implemented, subsequently rescinded. No major review has taken place since.

The response to the film by the Conservative policing minister, Nick Herbert, also a decent man, as to the question of whether it was now time for another Royal Commission, was illuminating. ‘There isn’t time’, he said.  I think he was wrong. By now, we would have had the Royal Commission and implemented its findings.

Meanwhile, the one enduring and visible reform of the Coalition Government, the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, a solution in search of a problem, has achieved nothing substantial but has had the deleterious effects of cementing the staggeringly inefficient 43 force structure into place and of shielding the Home Office from responsibility for the most completely obvious of all changes which have befallen the police, deep and unprecedented cuts in funding.

In an odd way, this is perfectly encapsulated by the embarrassing story of Operation Conifer, the fruitless investigation by Wiltshire Police into allegations against Edward Heath, the long-dead Prime Minister. There has been a rather striking postscript to it, a subsequent unseemly row over whether that investigation, which led nowhere, should itself be subject to an enquiry, for which many have been calling. The Home Office states that that decision is a matter for the Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner. He states that he won’t do it because he does not have the money. The Home Office washing of its hands to that response is perfect: its answer is that how he spends Wiltshire Police’s money is also his decision.

The story also seems to reveal one other facet of these new governance arrangements, which is the danger inherent in having the choice of chief constable being in the gift of one party politician, for that is who the vast majority of PCC’s now are – as opposed to the original idea, which was to encourage independent candidates. In this case, as in many selections now, the person appointed was apparently the only applicant for the top job, having been the Deputy Chief Constable beforehand and having therefore worked for the PCC. For many decades past, selection as a single applicant could never have occurred.

You couldn’t make it up. In the past, the Inspectorate of Constabulary would have been sent in to sort out the mess but, as I said earlier, they don’t do that anymore.

But before I talk about some suggestions about what could be done, as it were, in relation to ‘what’s next’, I need to offer a brief tour de horizon of the wider criminal justice system, with some parts of which, of course, many of you are more familiar than I am. 

To begin with, let me adduce in evidence part of the introduction to the latest annual report, published this summer, by Peter Clarke, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and coincidentally a former head of counter-terrorism at the Met:-

‘Category B and C men’s local and

training prisons account for the numerical

bulk of prisoners. With their high through-put

of prisoners, their often worn-out fabric, their

vulnerable populations and their levels of

violence and illicit drugs use, they were this

year the prisons that, as in previous years,

caused us most concern. Staff shortages had

been so acute that risks to both prisoners

and staff were often severe, and levels of all

types of violence had soared. Meanwhile, the

appalling impact of illicit drugs, particularly

new psychoactive substances had

been underestimated and as a result many

prisons were still suffering from the debt,

bullying and violence they generated. The

response to the deluge of drugs flowing

into many prisons in recent years has too

often been slow and neither robust nor

sophisticated. The introduction of new

technology that is necessary to help counter

the threat has been patchy.

I completely understand that there have

been resource constraints over the past

few years that have made it extraordinarily

difficult for many prison governors to

maintain performance, let alone improve.

The Ministry of Justice was apparently the first Department in 2010 to settle with George Osborne’s Treasury.  Given his long and deserved reputation as a Conservative with a little l liberal bent, it is perhaps surprising to recall that Ken Clarke was the Secretary of State. The result was a reduction in the MoJ budget of an unprecedented scale, which led to the deepest cuts to legal aid, prisons and courts in living memory. Despite a welcome reduction in young offenders, the prison service now holds roughly the same number of people as it did in 2010/11 before the Ministry of Justice agreed those cuts but last year it spent 14% less in real terms on those prisoners, according to the Institute of Government. The conditions Peter Clarke describes are the result, as may be the very disquieting levels of suicide in prison custody.

I will exempt the Labour Party from my earlier comments about their seeming absence from all of this battle, specifically in relation to the cuts in legal aid, which they vigorously and noisily opposed.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Dame Glenys Stacey, Chief Inspector of Probation, said this year that the reforms to the Probation Service introduced by Ken Clarke’s successor, Chris Grayling, were (Q) ‘irredeemably flawed’ (UQ). Even hiring a ferry company which had no ships as part of Brexit preparations pales into insignificance in comparison to Mr Grayling’s splitting of the Probation Service by handing much of its work to private sector organisations. As a former chair of a criminal justice charity, the Thames Valley Partnership, I watched this catastrophe unfold at close range. The reforms are mostly to be reversed but the damage has been severe.

The Observer reported on 11th November that the mother of a murdered 5- year-old is taking civil court action against the Ministry of Justice because the probation service failed to inform her of her new partner’s appalling record of violence against women and girls. Even the murderer complained about the Probation Service’s inaction. Official figures, according to the same article, reveal that the number of serious offences committed by offenders on parole has risen by 50% following the Grayling reforms introduced in 2014.

Elsewhere again, the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, has spoken recently about the unwillingness of people who have been through the criminal justice system – as witnesses or victims – to do so again. Deep concerns have also been expressed recently about the state of the criminal justice and family court systems by no less eminences than the retired President of the Queen’s Bench Division, the last President of the Supreme Court and the last Lord Chief Justice. 100 courts have closed since 2015.

I want now to go back to what I believe was the most important part of Sir Tom Winsor’s speech, in which he compares his experience as the rail regulator to what he sees now in the criminal justice system. He was describing his approach to the Minister for Transport about the implications he could see of the deteriorating state of the railways in 2003:-

‘The message I had been giving to the Secretary of State was this:  you cannot meet 100 per cent of projected demand for 60 per cent of its efficient cost.  Either demand and performance are reduced, or more money has to be provided.  In other words, you can’t get a quart out of a pint pot.  Those are the economic realities.  It is the same reality which prevails in all other public services: you can’t have 100 per cent of whatever it is you want for 60 or 70 per cent of its efficient cost.  That truth applies in the criminal justice system, in policing, prosecutions, courts, prisons and probation, as it applies everywhere else.  The laws of economics are as immutable as the laws of physics’. 

Let me now turn to the police. I will concentrate on London, which I know best.  In 2008/9, when I left office, the paid workforce of the Met, that is excluding volunteers and Special Constables, was 51600 people: in 2018/19, it was 40200, a reduction of more than 11000, or more than 20%. Excluding counter-terrorism funding, which this government like others have maintained, the funding to the Met in 2008/9 was £3.2 billion pounds: in 2018/9, ten years later, it was £2.6 billion pounds, £800 million pounds less. 

I understand that the inflation rate over these 10 years is recognised to be 32%. My calculation is that that means that the Met’s budget, Cressida Dick’s budget, is 39% less than mine was in real terms when I left office. Many, many parts of the Met’s service to the public have had to be reduced in scale, perhaps none more deeply than neighbourhood policing, the most visible component in public reassurance. As Tom Winsor says and I repeat his words again, ‘you can’t have 100 per cent of whatever it is you want for 60 or 70 per cent of its efficient cost.’ 

But we also have to look at the supporting agencies. The CPS in London had a budget of £153 million in 2008/9: it was £79 million in 2018/19, a cut of nearly half. Calculations by the Greens on the London Assembly suggest that spending on youth services by London Boroughs between 2011/2 and 2018/9 fell by £26 million pounds or 46%. The YMCA has published figures for England and Wales as a whole, noting a fall in expenditure of £750 million pounds on youth services between 2010/11 and 2016/17, a 61% cut.

So, where do we go from here? Well, the good news is that, in this election period, everyone is agreed that something must be done. But what seems likely to be done is partially wrong.

Just like they are for the NHS, all political parties are promising more money for criminal justice but only, as far as I can see, for policing. But here we hit the first problem. In this age, politicians appear to be wedded to inputs. So, for the NHS, the main two parties are offering billions of pounds of spending on more doctors and more nurses, without exploring whether expenditure on these kinds of employees, rather than say District Nurses, nursing auxiliaries, public health or, probably far more importantly, expansion in social care expenditure is the right answer to the outcome of the healthy society which we all want.

So too with criminal justice: there is an obvious need for some significantly more expenditure on police officers, even while noting that these promises only restore numbers that have recently been lost. So what about a political decision to offer the police the opportunity to recruit half the promised numbers of extra police officers at 10000 or 12500 but then saying, while that is happening, which will take, together with the simple need to replace the 5000 or so who leave every year, probably three or four years to deliver, we will have a Royal Commission or better still a set of Peoples’ Assemblies to give end to end consideration as to how the other half of the money implicit in these promises could be better spent? 

The consensus might come to a conclusion that that money might be better spent perhaps on other kinds of employees in the police service (analysts dealing with cybercrime, for instance) or, likely of even more importance, on other services which help prevent crime in the first place.

It is already clear, for another instance, that the cuts in youth services are having a deleterious effect on young peoples’ involvement in crime: it is already clear that far, far too much police time is being caught up in dealing with mental health issues: it is already clear that school exclusions are fuelling the ‘county lines’ drug explosion: it is already clear that cut backs in prison education and probation services are reinforcing reoffending. It is probably true that cuts to schemes such as SureStart are failing families with complex needs.

We have to consider what decent, safe prisons would look like with rehabilitation at their heart, how offenders can best be helped in the communities from which they come, how victims and witnesses can best be served and, in all of those subjects, what works, as opposed to what we think works. 

And now, I come back to Cambridge and in particular to its Institute of Criminology, the venue for Sir Tom Winsor’s speech. A small revolution is in progress there, in the shape of the Cambridge Centre for Evidence-Based Policing, led by the redoubtable criminologist, Professor Lawrence Sherman, which has borrowed from medicine the idea of random control trials, to determine what tactics reduce crime. 

Do body cameras worn by police officers reduce conflict with suspected offenders? Yes: that is what random control trials prove. Do Tasers given to all officers on a shift make citizens and officers safer? The evidence says no. Can specific patrol patterns make crime hotspots less dangerous? Answer yes, very simply and counter-intuitively, please ask me how later this evening. What proportion of the harm caused by crime – a new, simple but intriguing concept in a given area – in this proven case, Northamptonshire – is the responsibility of a very few, very felonious individuals? Answer: a huge amount – 80% by 7% of offenders. Should we not be targeting them relentlessly? 

That does not mean that this small group commits the majority of shoplifting or even of burglaries. It means that most of the murders, rapes, robberies and other serious crimes are committed by a tiny group – a group that can only be spotted by changing the rules of crime statistics in the way the Cambridge Centre has proposed – which would mean stopping worrying too much about overall crime levels, which are rising inexorably because of the internet, and concentrating instead on deploying police resources on the most harmful of criminals, including on the internet. 

That is the purpose of the recently developed Cambridge Crime Harm Index, developed in this Centre and informed by the judgement of the National Sentencing Council as to the likely sentence for different types of offences by a first-time offender. This would stop the nonsense, as Professor Sherman puts it, of an area’s crime rate being described as rising, because shoplifting offences have increased but while murders have fallen by 75% – harm matters.

How much support has this movement towards evidence-based police work received from the government, indeed, how much interest in its work has been shown by her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition?  The technical term I would suggest is nada: practically nothing.

Decent government needs to be an organised, coherent regiment for good, not separate battalions criss-crossing people’s lives, as Matthew Arnold describes in his poem Dover Beach: ‘on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night’.

Just as the NHS is facing the impact of a collapsing social care system, so an embattled and neglected police service is unable to cover the contraction of the remainder of the criminal justice system and the inadequacy of mental health provision and of crime-reducing local authority youth services – and an enlarged police service may still not be able to do that.

Presumably the apparent lack of thought through policies revealed in the election process about criminal justice means that Brexit is hiding all this but, when that is over, there must be a public debate to answer Sir Tom Winsor’s question about 100% demand and 60% supply. All major parties need to acknowledge that the criminal justice system is in genuine trouble, which will not be solved by throwing more money only at what is supposed to be the most visible part of it, the police, without a plan.

Some words – a plan: the visible part of the criminal justice system: what resonant ideas. 

I gave a lecture in Oxford last week to a group of very bright young people from India. One of them asked me to explain the British system of policing because he could not understand it. In India and many other countries which he had visited, he said he always saw lots of police. In the six weeks he had been here, he could not remember seeing any. 

How did the British police carry out policing without the police being visible, he asked. He genuinely thought that we had a cunning plan. 

As the Commissioner who had had the privilege of leading the biggest expansion of neighbourhood policing in generations and subsequently  watched crime falling across London, a policing function which is, as I said, now a shadow of its former self, I felt ashamed as I had to explain that we didn’t have a cunning plan.

Unlike Baldrick. 

And just look how that ended, ladies and gentlemen.