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The potential folly of a single police force [Wales]

Image of Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael

The roots of policing in Wales must stay local………

It’s a vital central principle that the roots of policing must be local if we are to get the balance right.

That doesn’t mean that a Police Force should be too small (the incorporation of Merthyr, Swansea and Cardiff into South Wales Police took place 52 years ago) nor should it be too large (we fought off the incorporation of Gwent in the 1990s because it would have been a step too far).

But as soon as the leadership of policing becomes too remote from the communities it exists to serve, we will be in trouble.

  • I have great respect for Richard Lewis and I’m sure he will be a great success as the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys, an office that he has only just taken up.
  • I also believe that the devolution of Policing and Criminal Justice to Wales is both right and inevitable but that - far from helping - his concept of a single police force for Wales would get in the way.

Could it be done? Yes, of course, because it’s always possible to do things wrong. It’s always possible to run the reactive element of policing on a bigger footprint – Wales, perhaps, or the regions of England.

But the price of that spurious simplicity would be the loss of identity, loss of roots and most important of all the loss of partnership and accountability.

That’s why “regionalisation” has always been a step too far. It used to be a concept beloved of bureaucrats in Whitehall who brought it out every time there was a new Home Secretary. They seemed to think it would make their job of running things easier, but of course it’s not the job of officials to run things in policing - that’s the responsibility of the Chief Constable. It’s interesting that the idea hasn’t surfaced there for a long time: Perhaps it has dawned on most policy-makers that the further away the Chief Constable is from the public, from communities and from reality the bigger the problems grow.

Remember the words of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Windsor, who said “there is nothing that can be achieved through merger that cannot be achieved through collaboration“. The important word is “can” and by making that choice together it has become “the Welsh way of doing things” and our acknowledged strength.

Over the last 10 years I have seen the four Chief Constables in Wales increasingly work on a basis of cooperation and collaboration, not just with each other but also with the four Police & Crime Commissioners and with partners in local government and in the wider criminal justice system as well as with Welsh Government. It’s working.

That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s happened because of the way that the principle of cooperation has run like a golden thread through everything we have done together. The pandemic has accelerated that development – something that Richard Lewis may have missed during his time in England – because for the first time the legislation that was being enforced by the police was Welsh Law introduced to protect the public during the pandemic, because Health is devolved.

That period showed Welsh Government coming of age after 21 years of devolution. The First Minister showed great leadership both by his decisions and by understanding our sense of “community” in every part of Wales and putting at the centre of his approach. Ministers in Welsh Government consulted us as Commissioners and Chief Constables to ensure that regulations would be proportionate and effective. Working as a team has become the way of doing things in Wales and has been acknowledged in Whitehall as well as in Wales.

It’s worth reinforcing the message given by Mark Drakeford in his Public Sector Lecture in Swansea some four years ago. He spoke powerfully then of the need for “Dispersed Leadership” meaning that you don’t need to be the person at the top of the heap to show leadership or to take decisions. It was a rejection of the “Napoleon Syndrome” through which some individuals think that all can be well if only he or she controls everything. We all make choices and sometimes those choices, at whatever level they are taken, make life better or worse for the people we serve. Sometimes the choice is to do nothing – and far too often that means a poor service or a failure to prevent harm. Sometimes people at any level in an organisation can show leadership and make life better for others.

Explaining his concept of “Dispersed Leadership”, Mark referred to the time when he and I both worked with young offenders on a large estate in Cardiff when workers in a number of agencies simply chose to work together to make things better and to make a difference – to exercise “dispersed leadership” without having to be told to do so.

Another example was the South Wales Police screensaver with the message to every officer and every member of staff, “YOU ARE A LEADER”. A chief constable who respects the individual decisions taken by every one of his team at every level has a chance of getting it right, but he or she also needs a clear line of sight and to know the qualities of the members of that team.

Neither Policing nor Criminal Justice is devolved – but we all work in a devolved environment. That is what led us to create both the Policing Partnership Board for Wales and the Criminal Justice Board for Wales to enable non-devolved bodies to work together and with Welsh Government and Local Government and all our other devolved partners.

Surprise, surprise - we succeeded in reopening courts quicker in Wales than in any region of England. It was the Lord Chancellor who then commented in an England and Wales meeting that “You seem to be better at doing things together in Wales“. It was another tribute to the cooperative ethos that we have developed in the policing and criminal justice system in Wales and between non-devolved bodies and Welsh Government that has become commonplace over the past two years.

Such successes may look as if they are simply about administration, but they are not:

  • they are about effective & efficient delivery of Justice to people in Wales,
  • they are the result of respecting people and places
  • they are about devolved and non-devolved bodies working together for the benefit of the public we all serve.

It’s a massive change in the way things are done, and success has been built on painstaking efforts to work together and to solve the real problems that affect our communities.

I am puzzled that Richard Lewis, a homegrown leader who I welcome back to his new role in Wales in the knowledge that he will be a success, has suddenly appeared from left field with a suggestion which has so little merit. He knows that everyone – inside and outside a police force - looks to the Chief Constable for leadership and if that figure is remote and removed from local engagements, as would be inevitable with an all-Wales Force, problems soon follow as night follows day. One immediate problem may get solved but others quickly grow like mushrooms in local communities and throughout the organisation. It is puzzling because Richard himself is anything but an aloof figure.

I know that people in North Wales don’t want to see Policing in Wrexham or Llandudno or Caernarfon run from Cardiff or Bridgend. Any more than I’d want to see the Policing of Cardiff or Newport run from Carmarthen or Colwyn Bay. Or to have those towns placed under the responsibility of a Chief who would look like a remote god to be propitiated rather than a locally engaged and supportive leader.

We’ve seen what happens when a police force becomes too big so that the person at the top isn’t visible to those walking the streets. The Metropolitan Police casts a very long shadow over the whole of Policing in England and Wales and it should be a lesson to us all to keep a sense of size and accountability.

And, by the way, I say that from experience, having been the “Police Authority” for the Met in London during my time as Minister of State. It was impossible to see past the one large man – and in those days it always was a large man – who headed up the force. I would not want that prospect to face the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in Wales, a role that I sincerely hope we will see in my lifetime. Far better to continue to build on the excellent relationship we have now, as Commissioners and Chief Constables, with the Ministers in Welsh Government and for us to continue developing Wales as a beacon of “democratic policing”.

With a single force you might have fewer chief constables but the number of short-lived ACCs and deputies would grow and the length of the hierarchy would become as impenetrable as that of the Met. To make that choice would be administrative and organisational illiteracy.

That concept of “democratic policing” seemed slightly strange when I first came across it in Sarajevo in 1997 when I went there to see the work of British Police Officers who were helping to re-establish the police service in a war-torn country where police had long been seen as the agents of the state rather than the servants of the people. But it taught me the fragility of our model of policing and the importance of reasserting two of the basic principles set down by Sir Robert Peel when he established the first police force in London in 1829.

If you think that fragility doesn’t apply in Wales, remember the care that was needed on the part of police leaders when the government of Margaret Thatcher certainly saw the police as “their” agents. The issue went deep in the mining communities of South Wales, with police officers and miners often from the same family. The period saw an existential struggle between control and survival. The question that was asked is a frightening one: Are these the Police of the Public or The Police of the State? There are signs that the same question could emerge again in the UK.

Sir Robert Peel was in no doubt about the right answer: “The Police are the Public and the Public are the Police” was one of his two key principles of policing. The phrase “policing by consent” is often used glibly as if it is the key to policing in Britain but his concept is much more sophisticated than that. I often paraphrase it by saying “the Police are the Community - and the Community are the Police” because that reflects the sense of community that has been our strength in Wales through the Pandemic. Unless there is a sense of identity with every community the police are an occupying force rather than the police of the public – and you can’t achieve a sense of community remotely or at arm’s length.

The other key principle set out by Sir Robert Peel was “the First Responsibility of the Police is to PREVENT Crime. That is sometimes expressed as “success in policing is demonstrated through the absence of crime and not through the presence of activity”. It’s the “Public Health approach to crime and harm” - a principle that only very rarely peeps out in police drama programmes because, by its very nature, prevention doesn’t lead to exciting chases or fights or visible activity. It’s a principle that is at the heart of the role of the Police & Crime Commissioner and has been pursued with energy and success together by the four Welsh Commissioners.

Sir Robert’s exhortation to the police is indeed an exhortation to partnership working because very rarely can the police alone prevent some of the greatest harms that damage our communities such as substance misuse, domestic violence & abuse, hate crime, modern slavery, street violence and the rest of it.

That’s why the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act introduced Community Safety Partnerships as well as joint working through Youth Offending Teams and the Youth Justice Board. “Together we achieve more than we can achieve alone” and that is a principle that does work. Of course, the Chief Constable trusts the local team to show leadership and skill in contributing to those partnerships but they – and their partners in local government and the NHS and the voluntary sector and the general public – will expect to know they are valued personally by the Chief Constable.

The core consideration is the same: If the hierarchy is too long, if there are too many links in the chain, if the line of sight is extended……. then the principles of policing will be stretched beyond breaking point.

Could we create a single Welsh Force? Yes, but then as in Scotland we could spend a decade trying to undo or dilute the damage instead of building on our home-grown Welsh success story of partnership and cooperation.

Let’s do it our own way and play to our strengths as a nation, for goodness sake. We don’t need to repeat a mistake because it has a Scottish badge on it. Surely we now have the confidence and maturity to make Welsh decisions for Wales?

Following devolution of Policing there will be a single Minister for Policing in Wales - of that I have no doubt – and that is where the strands of responsibility for policing must be drawn together - within Welsh Government. A Chief Constable who thinks that the overarching role should be held by an operational officer should be advised that it’s a political role and that the place for the strands to be drawn together and for democratic accountability is in the hands of that Minister. That is not a role for a Chief Constable.

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