The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill is one of the few really worthwhile and substantive pieces of legislation currently being taken forward by the Government. But it must not be the last word on police reform.
Instead, it’s time that the Home Office took a serious look at a long-overdue overhaul of our national policing structure, namely breaking up the Metropolitan Police.
At present, the Met is a strange hybrid of an institution. It is expected to serve as London’s local constabulary whilst also housing a variety of specialist units with a national remit, such as armed protection and counter-terrorism, as well as the Territorial Support Group, the main riot control and public order unit.
This creates an obvious accountability problem: who can Londoners hold to account for the growing litany of local policing failures (including officers failing to turn up to make the arrest when the victim of a crime had done all the work) when the Met’s senior leadership also play an important role in our national security architecture?
Priti Patel has more than sufficient grounds for opening a thoroughgoing inquiry into the Met, and there are several potential upsides to what ought to be quite a simple reorganisation.
Take public order, for example. I have written before that the new powers contained in the PCSC Bill won’t be sufficient to ensure a more pro-active response to public disorder if it isn’t accompanied by a change in police attitudes. They need not only the authority but the will to act, and to shake off the idea that it is better to allow people to commit property damage safely than intervene to stop them.
Hiving off the TSG, and turning it into the core of a new national public order police unit, would give the Home Secretary the chance to build a new organisation with a new command culture and a different understanding of its responsibilities. It would also ease the tension mixed forces face between maintaining relations for community policing and providing effective riot control; the two roles would be performed by discrete forces.
At the same time, the upheaval would provide an opportunity for a change of leadership at the Met, with a new guard focused on the needs of day-to-day policing in London without the distraction of counter-terrorism and other responsibilities (these could be rolled into another lean, specialised force).
Of course, this feels like an inauspicious time to be pitching reform to this Government. Boris Johnson’s interest in it is patchy at the best of times, and his political capital is all but exhausted. Given the status of ‘partygate’, it’s also likely he’s especially uninterested in doing anything which might provoke a reaction from the police.
Patel should start looking at it anyway. There is increasingly no escaping the fact that the Met is in dire need of a serious overhaul. It would be very foolish to allow Labour to steal the initiative – especially given the Conservatives’ increasingly precarious position in the capital.
The Prime Minister might not smile upon it. But he won’t be in office forever. Besides, Met reform could provide a distinctive law-and-order pitch to anyone who might wish to succeed him.