Why won’t Britain’s politicians take police reform seriously?

I have written a number of times about the British police, and been highly critical of its senior management – “institutionally stupid” being my verdict. The specific cases that have provoked me were Operation Midland, the Daniel Morgan affair, the harassment of a female back police officer and, most recently, the Plymouth shootings (which, unlike the others, did not involve the Metropolitan Police, the country’s top force). Now the Met is being heavily criticised after one if its officers was sentenced for raping and killing a member of the public, Sarah Everard, after arresting her. And yet on each of these occasions the police respond with nothing much more than “stuff happens” and “lessons will be learned”, and carried on much as before. And Labour and Conservative politicians have backed them up. We have to ask why.

The Everard case is particularly chilling to me as the false arrest took place very near where I used to live, on a stretch of road that I often used, by car, bus and on foot. It is almost always busy, and it is well-lit at night. It was another attack perpetrated by a man on a woman, simply because of her sex. It is an extreme example of a serious societal problem, that does not seem to be getting better, in spite of more liberal education. At the other end of the scale, a recent study showed that sexual harassment is at epidemic levels at secondary schools and sixth-forms – a problem that seems to be much worse than it was a generation ago. Murders of women by men they don’t know as they go about their daily life are still quite rare – but only after most women are advised to be “sensible” and take precautions over their own safety that men largely don’t bother with.

The response from senior police officers, and the ministers they are accountable to, has been underwhelming in the Everard case. Advice on how people might avoid false arrest by lone officers comes across as victim-blaming. Ms Everard should have been more “streetwise”, it is suggested. Could the perpetrator have been identified as a risk beforehand? Again the response so far has been pretty defensive. Alleged offences of indecent exposure committed by him beforehand were “minor”; vetting procedure had turned up “no evidence”. It’s all just too difficult. The man was a “bad apple” – a lazy way of expressing that it just one of those things that happens once in a while, like rotten apples. Lazy because, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde points out, the actual proverb is that “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel” – and there is plenty of evidence of bad apples in the police being left to do just that.

What are the management failures here? The first has been a complete failure to judge the public mood over such an enormity. Something more that the normal institutional defensiveness was surely called for. Beyond that are questions about the vetting of recruits, the management of misogynistic attitudes in the force and the prioritisation of crimes against women. There is also the question of how the police dealt with the indecent exposure incidents. These are all related to each other. Without understanding the evidence more clearly – and which of the various stories floating around are true – I find it hard to form a clear view myself. But it has been known for a long time that there are cultural problems within the force, and nothing much ever appears to be done about it. We are often assured that things are getting better, so reminders that the problems are still rampant are shocking. However it is also clear that police attitudes reflect those of large parts of wider society.

And so to the question I started with. Why don’t the politicians try to take control and act against police deficiencies? So far all the serious ones have rallied round the Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick. That includes Conservative ministers, and also Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, who, unlike Sir Keir, actually has the political authority to act. It seems that, to them taking on the police creates more problems than it solves.

The first question is over the position of Ms Dick. Her fingerprints are on many of the serious management problems that I have written about, if not as Commissioner, then in her earlier career. And yet the politicians have stood behind her, and extended her contract only recently. They may well know something I don’t – that she is, contrary to appearances, the best hope for making progress behind the scenes. She certainly recently had the support of my fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle. And the dismal truth is that there probably are few, if any, serving senior officers with the grasp to take on what needs to be done. It is an institutional problem. It clearly calls for an outsider to take charge – and that has been heavily resisted in the past.

Which highlights the wider problem – taking on police culture is likely to make things worse in the short term. This can be seen from the case of George Floyd in the US. His murder last year was in its way even more shocking than the Everard murder. It was in full public view and carried out by a policeman on duty, with the support of his colleagues. The outrage it provoked was extreme, and many politicians did attempt to act. But crime rates rose, and there was a political backlash – fears over changes to policing were among the reasons that Donald Trump and the Republicans did inexpertly well at the presidential and Congressional elections.

The Labour and Conservatives have identified law and order as a central issue in winning over the white, older, working class and lower middle class voters they feel are critical to their success. So they tone done criticism of the police, and trust that the outrage will blow over before the next general election. And the public continues to be let down by institutional failings in our police forces.

3 thoughts on “Why won’t Britain’s politicians take police reform seriously?”

  1. Politicians will now likely create bad laws in an attempt to be seen to “doing something”.

    We saw that in the Stephen Lawrence case. The 800 year law on double jeopardy was overturned. This gave the police powers to have a second try if anyone was acquitted of murder in a way they didn’t like. Which is usually the case! Now the police, the same police who lack public confidence, can simply look into their evidence bag pull out sample of DNA which they somehow “missed” previously and have another go. I know of one such case which has almost certainly resulted in a huge miscarriage of justice. There doesn’t seem to be any requirement for police and expert witnesses to be truthful in their evidence. They can claim an accused to be 4 inches taller than he is, for example. There is still supposed to be laws on perjury and perversion of the course of justice but getting them enforced when police and their paid “experts” break them is not a trivial matter.

    The next thing to go will be a denial of an accused to be able to present all the available evidence. So if Liam Allan were to be tried under the new proposals to give alleged rape victims total confidentiality over the contents of their text and email messages, his chance of an acquittal would be slim.


    1. A Police Force in a Democracy is in an ambiguous position. It is an arm of the State set up and paid to uphold and to maintain the laws and order as laid down as by the government of the day. The question is to whom, or what is it answerable. To the Government? Government’s change. To an individual Minster? Ministers can and do leave office. To the State? When the Weimer republic collapsed the police force continued to function as an independent separate body
      So where does a policeman’s loyalties lie? Who judges Him? I think it is inevitable that it must be to the Police Force itself, to themselves. To that body of men and women whose tribulations needs and beliefs that they all share .The nature of their job means they live a life, that is a step removed from normal society , and it is easy to take that a further step ,that societies rules need not apply to them.. If I am correct in that belief, then closing of their ranks to protect each other is understandable, if not inevitable
      And if some senior officers do in fact feel separate and apart, from current changes in accepted social behaviour it would explain how and why they viewed and then glossed over the litany of complaints about Wayne Couzens’s behaviour in the past
      And as the man said “Quiz custodies ipod custodies?”

      1. Rallying around your friends, family, work colleagues, etc is a deep human instinct. We can’t expect the police to be different. Changing culture in any organisation is hard, and it is especially hard in police forces. I’m not sure if there is anywhere else in the world that does it better. My main concern with the police is that they seem to be badly managed. The key is to find better leadership which can on the one hand win the confidence of rank and file, and on the other start to persuade them to do things differently. Instead we get senseless thickets of rules, tactics and doctrines, combined with macho centralised squads at the expense of local policing.

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