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Police reject Tory plans for elected chiefs

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The relationship between police and central government may be about to become a whole lot less harmonious, as senior police officers call for a fundamental review of policing in the UK and politicians look for a quick fix.

Polite language was the order of the day as party spokesmen Chris Huhne (Lib Dem), Chris Grayling (Conservative) and David Hanson, Home Office minister for crime and policing, followed ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde into the Today studio to discuss the future direction of policing in the UK.

Behind the pleasantries, it is clear that Sir Hugh believes that there is a great deal that needs fixing right now – and none of the parties are coming forward with suggestions he is likely to consider helpful in this respect.

First and foremost, Sir Hugh reckons we are long overdue a fundamental review of the way that England and Wales are policed. The last such review took place in 1962 – and as far as he is concerned, a lot has changed since then. Police face new challenges – from cyber-crime to international terror.

The police are now far more involved in supervising offenders after they have been returned to the community. Some issues that they would have been advised to stay away from in 1962 – such as domestic violence – are now central to the policing role.

Sir Hugh envisages a major strategic and structural review of policing in the UK, and the best time to carry out such an exercise is now – before some crisis forces knee-jerk change on the police force. All aspects of policing should be under review, save one: the operational independence of chief constables.

This contrasted with the views expressed by the two main party spokesmen, who felt a full Royal Commission would be a distraction. Chris Grayling was enthusiastic about putting police back on the beat, ducking questions as to whether such a move would actually be effective, and predictably unhappy with red tape and form filling.

David Hanson spoke enthusiastically about getting value for money from policing. In response to accusations by Sir Hugh that policing had become "over-codified", he explained that police were only now targeted on one single measure – public confidence - before explaining that as far as he was concerned, confidence and crime reduction were both important.

Chris Huhne thought a Royal Commission would be a splendid thing, as well as more direct election of police committees - under proportional representation, naturally.

The source of greatest controversy is likely to lie in Conservative plans for the direct election of police chiefs. Sir Hugh sees this as a seriously bad idea, running the risk of introducing inappropriate US-style politicised police. Chris Grayling sees it as a panacea for many of the current ills besetting the police force.

On current showing, Sir Hugh makes a great deal more sense than the various politicians. Since his appointment to the post in 2009, it has been clear that he is a serious copper prepared to give serious thought to the issues that beset policing in the UK today. He understands the importance of policing by consent, and has gone on record as being prepared to give up many of the police’s scarier surveillance databases if that would help solidify public confidence in the police.

If, as still seems likely, the Tories have some form of majority in the next parliament, we can look forward to the unusual spectacle of the police and the Conservative Party going head to head on law and order. ®

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