Home affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 379

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 3 July 2012

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Mr James Clappison

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Alun Michael

Bridget Phillipson

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

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Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir Denis O’Connor, CBE, QPM, out-going HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Sir Denis, thank you very much for coming in, I apologise for keeping you waiting for what will be your last appearance before this Committee as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. I will be saying a few words about that at the end. May I begin by referring you to the devastating report that you published yesterday in which you have told Parliament that there has been quite a substantial reduction in the number of front-line officers. I think you put the figure at 5,800. Is this a surprise to you?

Sir Denis O'Connor: No, Chairman.

Q2 Chair: How do you think our police forces are going to be able to cope with this kind of reduction?

Sir Denis O'Connor: There are two things about it: that is a projection and it is relatively stable now but subject to the £300 million outstanding. How well police forces cope essentially comes down to this: how efficient they are at each component that they offer the public; how efficient are they on the visible availability aspect, and we know there is a range there of about 9% to 16%. How efficient are they behind those officers who come to your address when something goes wrong? We know they have got to squeeze by a third, which is a significant squeeze in any business. So the short answer is that the critical mass depends on how well supported the people are at the front end of that in terms of how many you need and what you can deliver. I think if they become very, very efficient in each of their services then I think they will cope well, if they do not, because they do not support those officers at the front end, well, it will be much more problematic.

Q3 Chair: But you are referring in particular to three police authorities: the Met, which is obviously of particular interest to this Committee, Devon and Cornwall, and Lincolnshire, which you say are at risk of not being able to provide a proper service. That is a very serious statement from Her Majesty’s Inspector, is it not? You say that, post-Olympics, the Metropolitan Police will not be able to deliver proper services.

Sir Denis O'Connor: We talked about this last week, Chairman. We are in the serious nudge business and this is a serious nudge to those three police forces’ authorities that they have not got a plan at the moment which covers the four years and they have quite a lot of pressures. I have to say that the Met’s issues are at a different level-

Q4 Chair: This is £233 million they have to save?

Sir Denis O'Connor: First, it is £233 million; secondly, they have relatively high crime rates, antisocial behaviour and general victim satisfaction is relatively low. It is a combination of issues, and they have to find that on top of over £500 million they have already charted and it is a question then of timescales. The timescales for that are relatively short if you begin after the Olympics. As you know, if you have to do things in haste, it is much more difficult to do them so that it is a smoother process for the police officers and others in the front-line and the public, otherwise it can get very clunky, very problematic.

Q5 Chair: Now, you came before us when we had a discussion about the riots last August and we have just had another report published in The Guardian yesterday about the effects of the riots. Would the Met be able to cope with the kind of reductions that you have referred to in the report you published yesterday if there was another series of disorders this summer?

Sir Denis O'Connor: There are two provisos. They could cope, providing one thing-that they recognise what is happening a lot quicker than last time, that is, from the point of communication to the intelligence information, and there was a lot around last year. Recognising things is important. They will be better now at social media recognition; they have a hub, as we recommended. Secondly, you have to mobilise the officers. In some cases last year, the officers were actually phoning in to find out where to go. The mobilisation last August was poor.

Q6 Chair: But in terms of sheer numbers?

Sir Denis O'Connor: In terms of sheer numbers-

Chair: They are going to have less.

Sir Denis O'Connor: If the Met lost a few thousand, and we have to remember they are 32,000, if the mobilisation was very strong, they could supplement that loss by a much better mobilisation. If you look at our report from last August, Chairman, you will see that actually they failed for two days to get enough-

Chair: We understand that, but that is tactics, and we have already published a report on that. I am talking about numbers.

Sir Denis O'Connor: I am saying that if you are better at using the quantum, then the precise number you need is less. If you are better at mobilising and recognising, you can use those officers in a much smarter way and they will feel they are being used well.

Q7 Chair: So provided the tactics are different from last August it does not matter if there is a reduction along the scale we are talking about?

Sir Denis O'Connor: It does matter at a certain point but I do not think that we-

Chair: When does it matter then?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I do not think that the numbers we are talking about at the moment on the front of policing are enough to compromise that, particularly if they get smarter behind what they do. I think if there is more erosion in those numbers, and if they push jobs from the back to the front-for example, if they push more administration for crime reporting because they take away a crime bureau-I think there is an issue. If neighbourhood policing actually becomes more response policing, you very well know from Leicester, Kent or anywhere else that they will be doing less of the public’s general priorities and more calls. That did not work before very well and I do not think it will work very well in the future.

Q8 Michael Ellis: Sir Denis, the Metropolitan Police has one of the largest police forces per head of population in the world, doesn’t it, in the Western cities?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Yes, it does, yes.

Michael Ellis: So isn’t this about efficiency, tactics and having proper plans going forward as opposed to just raw numbers? Would you accept that?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I would accept that it is about both to a degree. You have to have good tactics and smart ways of operating. You also have to look at the spectrum of operations they are deployed in and the Metropolitan Police probably have a wider spectrum of operations as a single entity than people in other capital cities who are supplemented by other third and fourth forces, as it were, who do other things, such as the FBI, CRS, and so on.

Q9 Michael Ellis: There are special factors as far as the Metropolitan Police are concerned given the wide remit that they clearly have, but one would expect them to have plans for the years ahead, as any large entity would be expected to have and one would also expect a degree of efficiency. So, for example, the report from two or three years ago indicated that a very small percentage of police officers were available and on duty to the public at any one time, was it 11%, 12 %? That was in your report, wasn’t it?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Your memory is very good, Sir.

Michael Ellis: Thank you, Sir Denis, but that was a wholly unsatisfactory figure, wasn’t it? I mean, to have only 11%, 12% of police officers available to the public at any one time has got to be a figure that is improved upon.

Sir Denis O'Connor: It is, and at the top end it is 16% and so it can be improved upon, that is a fact.

Q10 Michael Ellis: When you say the top end, you mean other more efficient police forces in the country?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Yes, so we already know that can be better. I think the thing about the Metropolitan Police is they have a wide spectrum of operations, but I think the Commissioner and the new Deputy Mayor both feel, I think with good reason, that there is a lot they could do better. Effectively, and I have mentioned it to the Committee before, you have to look at the wrap they put around individual police constables and there is too much of the ’70s in that wrap for the world we are operating in now. Those officers, if they are well supported, can do an awful lot more. But that needs a very good plan and smarter ways of handling things.

Michael Ellis: I think your successor, Tom Winsor, would probably agree with you as to the 1970s aspect of things.

Sir Denis O'Connor: But may I say, it is not just technology; it is about quite a lot more than that if you want to help them to succeed.

Q11 Michael Ellis: Yes. You told us last year that the Home Secretary’s new measures to reduce bureaucracy were "music to your ears", I think is the phrase that you used?

Sir Denis O'Connor: The sentiment, definitely.

Michael Ellis: How do you think the police are responding to the attempts to reduce bureaucracy?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think there is work on missing persons and domestic violence but, bluntly, in the great scheme of things, this is a relatively small proportion of the whole bureaucratic ensemble that has developed over the years. It is substantial and one of the officers put it very well to me when I was out recently when he said to me, and it relates to Mr Winnick’s question, "I don’t have the right to be wrong". That stems from concern if something went to a coroner’s court or somewhere else. We have to deal with not just little packets of bureaucracy, but that kind of regulatory pressure that officers feel. We can talk at them but if we do not deal with that, they will tend to actually try and insure themselves and do a lot of administration that you may not be happy with.

Q12 Michael Ellis: Do you feel, therefore, that people are doing unnecessary bureaucracy because of the culture of protecting themselves from getting into trouble, or because of some other reason?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Quite a lot of the training and the bureaucracy the officers receive once they do two years is about de-risking the organisation because somebody says, "You didn’t do X" and de-risking themselves, and that is a fact and I am sure if you got operating officers, unlike my old self here, you would get plenty of that from them.

Q13 Bridget Phillipson: Your report showed that Northumbria, my force area, faces some of the largest reductions in the country, with staffing reductions among the highest as well, and you predict up to 730 police officers could be lost by 2015. You have talked this morning about the reductions and the changes that could have on the way that the police forces operate neighbourhood policing. Could you say just a little bit more about that and whether you think that will have an impact on how people feel in their communities about how safe they feel and the relationship they have, often with named officers?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Thank you for the opportunity to say something about that. Neighbourhood policing is very close to my heart and about 10 or 12 years ago I was part of trying to re-establish and reinvent that. What we learned along the way, and there is independent evidence of what works here published in 2006, is that if you want to succeed there has to be somebody local that people can relate to, they have to listen to those people’s problems and those officers have to tell them what they are doing. If you do that, and from 2004 it occurred, you start getting rising confidence in the police. Now, I do think that was a good intervention, of course. I have some concerns that if they are given a whole lot of other duties to do then that will be diluted and we will be in what we called at the time the re-invention cycle. You do something and you start doing it well but then other pressures come on so you switch out of that mode and now the bond you established is broken and it is not as well delivered. That is a big challenge for the police, which is why I do think that because of the efficiency with which they support those people, we really need to put a huge amount of effort into it. It is a very big challenge for PCCs to come and for police chiefs, and I do think it is important for this Committee and national institutions-I might say to you and the Chairman-to be able to monitor what is happening here and be vigilant about how that is being done. Otherwise you could end up with a service that is just a much smaller version of what we have now that will not deal well with the future.

Q14 Bridget Phillipson: We are also seeing a 42% reduction in the number of police community support officers. Obviously they play an important part of neighbourhood teams, particularly in building relationships with young people in terms of antisocial behaviour. What do you think of their role? How do they work within the teams? Do you think they will be a big loss or do you feel that their old work can be taken over by police officers?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Well I think they will be a loss, I think PCSOs actually are a strong communication link and indeed more than that in some places. The fundamental lesson out of the research on neighbourhood policing shows that, if you have to make a choice-and I think we are in the year of hard choices-what people want in neighbourhoods is control, as well as communications. Ultimately, control really lies within the hands of constables because they have pre-emptive powers of arrest, they can actually do something about the person on your estate; to a degree the PSCO cannot. So we may have to face those hard choices but I think the way to do that, to anchor it, is to know what works and what works for people is control in the end. That is what they are looking for.

Q15 Bridget Phillipson: Do you think this reduction in front-line police officers and PCSOs will lead to an increase in crime?

Sir Denis O'Connor: It goes back to what I said at the beginning. If Northumbria and others are smart about how they support those officers behind the front-line and how well and how carefully they manage these reductions, I think they can do it with this Comprehensive Spending Review. I think we will very soon know what the next Comprehensive Spending Review will be and then I think we will be into a much deeper question about more radical reconfiguration of what happens in policing.

Q16 Alun Michael: You are aware of the declaration of interest that I made earlier. In view of the fact that the Welsh Government has opted for additional community support officers, it will be interesting to contrast what happens in Wales and in forces in England in relation to PCSO numbers. The definition of the front-line is an issue that has come up again and again, and it came up again last week. You define the front-line as those who are in every-day contact with the public and who directly intervene to keep people safe and enforce the law. Should that not be those who are in every-day contact with the public or who directly intervene to keep people safe and enforce the law?

Sir Denis O'Connor: We actually regard both as possible, so however poorly it is worded, we regard them both as part of the equation and that can include people who make hard decisions along the lines of, "We’ll actually send somebody to this call instead of that call" in the control room, because they are actually intervening. That bit can get left out of the equation but if it goes wrong, we will all know about it.

Q17 Alun Michael: Because we know that visibility is important but it is not the only factor, is it?

Sir Denis O'Connor: It is not the only factor.

Q18 Alun Michael: In the 2010 report, you said that 80% of forces were not sufficiently prepared for the cuts. What impact has that had on police performance since you wrote those words?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Well, I would like to think that we were among a number of people-this Committee has also had a number of sessions on the matter-who were urging forces to take this very seriously and plan well. The signs are that they have covered off nearly 90% of the budget now this time around, whereas when we looked last year, it was 74%, so their planning is getting stronger and stronger. The numbers are settling, apart from the Metropolitan Police and one or two other bits and pieces. So I think people are getting more and more serious about this and what it means. My only concern, as I say in this report, is if you remain incremental, tactical I think as Mr Ellis put it, and you do not lift yourself above this and say, "Where are you going next?" then we could end up managing in the short term but not in the medium term.

Q19 Alun Michael: Sure, and obviously we have not had an opportunity yet of reading in full what you have said. All of us as MPs, I am sure, have seen senior, highly experienced officers, having to retire in the last year at what might be regarded as their peak of career and with a build up of knowledge and experience. What sort of impact do you think that is having on the current state of forces?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think it has an effect on morale and an effect on individuals but the bulk of police forces and police officers, whatever they say when I meet them, whether they are dealing with a murder or the late- turn response, they are getting on with it. They are a big can do outfit and they are getting on with it.

Q20 Alun Michael: I think we respect that fact but, nevertheless, we have to look at how they are able to manage in terms of getting on. You have referred to the importance of partnership working as well as neighbourhood working. Indeed, the first time we met I think you were launching the partnership approach in London. Do you have any worries about the extent to which that partnership working, which has been so successful over recent years, might become fragile?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think in some places partnership working is already fragile and the results it delivers are indifferent and I think it is something that should be watched closely and I hope that the Police and Crime Commissioners watch those partnerships and are very vigilant about whether they are producing strategy or results.

Q21 Alun Michael: Is there anything that can be done other than just watching?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think watching tends to make people fitter and sharper on their feet and it makes them think about what they’re doing, as well as what they’re writing. I would thoroughly commend that. We are talking to would-be candidates now, as you know, and we commend them to probe.

Chair: Sir Denis, I am sure you will be talking to Mr Michael afterwards about-

Sir Denis O’Connor: Indeed, indeed. I am trying to do it in general, Chairman.

Chair: We are very grateful for that. Dr Julian Huppert then Nicola Blackwood.

Q22 Dr Huppert: Your report that you have given us has some very interesting figures in it and I notice that despite what we have just been talking about, it says that, "Crime levels fell by 3% …levels of victim satisfaction among members of the public who contacted the police increased." Why do you think that is the case? Why do you think we are getting better service at the moment?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Why don’t I think we’re getting better service?

Dr Huppert: No, no. The figures suggest that victim satisfaction is going up, crime levels are going down over the last year, why do you think that is?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Because I have to look behind that headline. Behind that headline, if you look in the report, you will see there are 11 police forces where crime is rising and you will see that the actual satisfaction levels in some forces has not risen appreciably and is quite an issue. We have gone from a period-if you look at it in the slightly longer term-from where we were making very deep cuts in crime to the situation where it has levelled out now, so it’s two cheers, not three. Does that make sense to you?

Q23 Dr Huppert: A 3% overall crime level reduction still seems quite good but can I just move on to ask about-

Sir Denis O'Connor: Yes, but we must be ambitious.

Dr Huppert: I agree with that. Your previous report made a number of recommendations about how we could make efficiency savings.

Sir Denis O'Connor: Yes.

Dr Huppert: I think there were six particular things in your system redesign. Have those happened and what efficiency savings, that are genuine efficiency savings, have happened in the last two years?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think that most of the things we identified have been tackled to varying degrees. It tends to turn about where forces start from. Some of them, in the jargon "leaned up", they took some money out of the soft areas, as it were, two or three years back, so they do start from different places. What it is is a checklist. I think we are fast moving to the point though where we have to look at what you can get from major collaborations, public or private-and there are issues around that, big issues-and I think we have to look at the design around the constable.

We have redesigned through reform-and I know the Committee have rehearsed it here-what is happening to enable localism. We are en route-and I hope the Committee will be strong on this-to redesigning our national safeguarding of safety services in NCA, counter-terrorism and so on. What we haven’t done though is redesigned what we are doing around constables and there are over 88,000 of those, detectives or uniformed people, who are doing a great deal every day but the infrastructure around them-and I am going back to what I said earlier-is certainly not as strong, as I think if you look at it and you can spend some time as you would like.

Chair: Thank you, very helpful.

Q24 Nicola Blackwood: I am interested by this figure that you found that there was a planned increase of 9% spending in public protection roles. There was obviously a lot of concern that public protection would suffer in the cuts because obviously it is not really such a visible policing role and yet you haven’t found that. I wonder if you could just explain why you think that is and whether you think that this is a sustainable increase, given your concerns about sustainability, which you have expressed in this report.

Sir Denis O'Connor: Well, I think in the new environment with a Police and Crime Commissioner it is an increase that will have to be argued for because of the reductions in other areas. I think there is a logic behind it, though. Following Baby P and all the special case reviews across the country about the young and most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, I think police forces are moving behind that to provide a service that has a bit more grip than it had before. In parallel, the number of people on registers for sex offenders or dangerous offenders rises year by year and they have to be monitored. We have a MAPPA process to monitor what these individuals are up to.

Unless you are going to dilute that monitoring or what you do around young children in the light of some of the terrible tragedies we have had, the forces are making a deliberate choice, and I think we should give them some credit for doing it but I would expect, from November, all of those kind of decisions would be ones that would be probed and tested to ensure that they were taken on some reasonable, rational, risk basis.

Q25 Nicola Blackwood: Do you think though that there is also a public demand for these kinds of services among the police and that Police and Crime Commissioners will be recognising that as well?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Well, I think that is a tension in the system. Putting it bluntly, there may not be immediately a big constituency around little babies and children but I think there is something we can all relate to about their vulnerability. It is the sort of thing that only appears in the news as an event, a tragic event. It is not, as it were, in our line of sight all of the time. But I think all of us feel strongly about the most vulnerable in society.

Nicola Blackwood: Yes.

Sir Denis O'Connor: I do think it is arguable but the case will have to be made, as it will have to be made for all the other investments in the future, in a much more transparent and exposed way than it has been in the past. But, frankly, people have tried to get by more than they should have done and that is one of the reasons why we have problems with little children.

Q26 Mr Winnick: Sir Denis, would it be appropriate for the police forces, certainly in the metropolitan areas, to be ready for the possibility of the sort of disturbances which we saw last summer?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think it would be very unwise not to be prepared.

Q27 Mr Winnick: Do you think the police would be in a better position? When we went to Croydon to look at the result of the disturbances and the outright hooliganism that occurred last year, time and again we were told by residents that they phoned the police force for help and we know what the response was-obviously you know, Sir Denis. At the time, there certainly weren’t sufficient police to respond. Can we hope, despite all the cuts that have occurred or are occurring, that a different response will be possible?

Sir Denis O'Connor: To repeat August 2011 would be completely unacceptable to everybody. I think you can and should expect a much better response next time, a much faster mobilisation. Saturday to Tuesday is a long time to get a decisive force on the street in Croydon.

Q28 Mark Reckless: Do you feel that police forces have the right balance in reductions of police officers versus reductions in police staff?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think on balance if crime is still being reduced and satisfaction is still rising, then we have to give some credit for the choices being made and I think so far that is working. Just so we can put a practical feel on this, we are about halfway through the cuts. By 2013, 75% of the staffing cuts will have been made for the whole comprehensive spending period. I think it is not an unreasonable thing to say that the balance they are striking so far is pretty good, in the great scheme of things, if you look at the outcomes, which is what we are doing, of course, in this report.

Q29 Mark Reckless: You are saying that for policing we will have had three-quarters of the cuts by early next year, so we will be through the worst?

Sir Denis O'Connor: You will appreciate more than most I think, that this Comprehensive Spending Review is front-loaded, two-thirds of the cuts had to be made in the first two years.

Q30 Mark Reckless: For policing as opposed to generally?

Sir Denis O'Connor: For policing particularly. What I am saying is by 2013 they project to have taken 75%, not two-thirds, so they are running ahead of the curve and on the choices they have made so far the outcomes are generally held up. But the space to watch very closely-and this is where this Committee will be vigilant no doubt and the Public Accounts Committee will be next year-is when they get past that 75% to check whether the outcomes are still holding up. I do think there are big opportunities to reinvent the support around policing and I think that is pretty urgent because we should be thinking about it now, not in 2013 when the next CSR is announced.

Q31 Chair: Sir Denis, you are now coming to the end of your term as Chief Inspector. If you were leaving a letter, a brief letter for your successor, Tom Winsor, what would say in it? What would your advice be to your successor?

Sir Denis O'Connor: Well, there is a very famous letter that says something about money. I would say there is an enormous amount of goodwill for policing and some of it is within this Committee and a lot within the public, please use it as well as you possibly can.

Q32 Chair: How would you assess morale at the moment in the police service?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I think the expressed morale is low, in terms of large audiences. However, if you were out and about with them on the late turn or an early turn, as I have been, or in some of their offices and they are doing things, you would think, for some of them, what they do is magnificent, despite what they say, their actions are very well intended. They are masters at getting by, whatever the infrastructure that the hierarchy has provided for them, whatever bureaucracy they have given to them, which is why we should do as much as we can around their goodwill because it is a very precious asset to hold on to.

Q33 Chair: You give private advice to the Home Secretary, we know this. I have spoken to Ministers about your appointment. If you were saying something public now about the new landscape of policing, what would that be?

Sir Denis O'Connor: I would say we have a new design and, as the Committee has said, there is an awful lot to do at once, both locally and nationally. I hope that this Committee, HMIC and the Public Accounts Committee can be very vigilant so we all know what is really happening and we can all contribute to it because we are going to have to make hard choices. As long as they are well informed and we all feel that at least we have had a say in it, and we have been intelligent about it, maybe for once in this country-and I say this to someone who came from Ireland-we can feel better about ourselves instead of worse.

Chair: Sir Denis, on behalf of this Committee I thank you most warmly and sincerely for all the work that you have done as Chief Inspector. You have always been very willing to come before us to answer questions. You have had telephone conversations with me many times and we do appreciate it. I believe you have been an outstanding Chief Inspector and I wish you well in your future.

Sir Denis O'Connor: Thank you, and thank you to the Committee for your courtesy.

Chair: Thank you, Sir Denis.

Prepared 17th October 2012