Hazel Blears: Effective policing led by communities is threatened by cuts and centralism

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I RARELY speak at length on policing issues, partly because I spent three years as Police Minister and I do not think that reprising my experience is terribly helpful for Members in that same role. However, I have made an exception because I am becoming increasingly worried about the direction of travel of our police service.

Part of my concern is about finance, but many of my concerns are about the stresses and strains on neighbourhood policing. The biggest bit of reform that Labour introduced, it is now established not only in this country – for all time, I hope – but increasingly in other European countries and countries across the world, where it is recognised that sustainable policing must be done with people, not to them. It must be done with consent, gathering the community around who then become the eyes and ears of the police. Much more intelligence is obtained that way, and the police become far more effective in fighting crime.

Convincing the police service that neighbourhood policing was not a fuzzy, warm community development project but a hard-headed reform to make the police service more effective was quite a job in changing culture. I well remember that when I started talking to chief constables about neighbourhood policing and how we needed to build relationships – to get to know the head teacher, the shopkeepers, the children and the people in the community – some of them looked at me as though I was from Relate marriage guidance.

I am very concerned about what is happening to our police service. Greater Manchester’s force has had a fantastic record over the past 10 to 15 years, but we are now seeing cuts totalling about £135m over the five-year period between 2011 to 2015, and already 1,000 police officers have had to go.

I saw a worrying statistic from Greater Manchester Police which showed that anti-social behaviour has started to creep back up. Anti-social behaviour, before it was even defined by the previous Labour government, was sometimes dismissed as petty or low-level crime – the sort of crime that we almost have to accept if we live in an inner-city environment. We had a massive drive to tackle anti-social behaviour, with a whole new set of powers and the Respect campaign. We said that we wanted to be on the side of decent people in communities and to drive out the behaviour that made people’s lives such a misery. There was long-term harassment and really serious crime, which could not be dismissed as low-level.

Huge warning bells ring for me when I see a statistic that shows that that sort of crime is now beginning to break through again.

What I would say to central Government, and I say it to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is that five years ago I said to the then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, that I was amazed that the success of a Cabinet Minister is judged by how big their budget is, how big their legislation is, and how big a beast they are in the Cabinet jungle. The new world requires people to be collaborative.

Why do not several Cabinet Ministers have jointly shared budgets? Why are they not incentivised to collaborate? Why are they not judged on their success in terms of their ability to do teamwork? Why do we still have so many silos in central Government?

When we said to local government, “You’ve got to break down your silos”, people there stepped up to the plate. It is about time that we changed the way in which national Government works, so that my success as, say, Education Secretary is dependent on another Minister’s success as Justice Secretary or Home Secretary.

At the end of the day, the people who use the public services the most are all from the same families. We know this from the troubled families project, which is making a difference but is still primarily run by one Department. Why do we not have joint commissioning of the services we need to be able to deal with all those families?

My final point is about reform. I am never short of ideas about reform and I like to talk about it. I remember that somebody once said that we are at our best when we are at our boldest.

I make this plea to all Ministers involved in public services. If they want to get the best out of people and to get innovation and change, and if they want to get more for less, they have to be prepared to empower the people at the front line – the people in the service – to be able to make that change.

There is a culture in Government – I do not make any allegation in respect of any individual Minister of keeping power at the centre despite fine words about localism. It is about time that central Government acted in a way where they modelled good behaviour, as any good leader is required to do.

If we want to survive these next few years, the funds are inevitably going to be less, and therefore central Government must take a lead in being innovative, creative, collaborative and independent, just as on the board of any company where the directors would be collaborating for the greater good.

• Hazel Blears is a former Home Office minister who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on policing. This is an edited version.