The home secretary has signalled another U-turn on law and order with the return of Whitehall-set targets to cut crime and warned police there will be no excuses for failure.
Priti Patel told the annual conference of police chiefs that the addition of 20,000 officers over three years as promised by government meant forces should rigorously “investigate every type of crime”.
She said: “This extra injection of taxpayers’ cash must deliver the crime cuts the public desperately want. In three years’ time when the 20,000 additional officers are through the door, people must see a difference. Less crime, safer streets, no excuses. The public won’t accept them and neither should we.”
Patel said a national policing board and a new crime and policing performance board would set “outcomes” on cutting serious crime and other offences. She also promised a cut in bureaucracy.
Police chiefs see this as the return of nationally set targets introduced under New Labour and then derided by the Conservatives when they came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
The Tories at that time said local communities should set priorities through elected police and crime commissioners rather than Whitehall. Police believed targets were too rigid and could skew priorities.
Patel accepted confidence in the criminal justice system had fallen and there were fewer police visible on the streets. Charging rates had halved in four years, to 8% in 2018/9, she noted, and one police watchdog had said the public had “rumbled” that police were not investigating crimes such as car thefts, lower-level assaults and burglaries.
Patel said: “We need to investigate every type of crime with the rigour the public expect.”
She said the government had given police an unprecedented boost in resources and also new powers, and would back them in fighting crime.
The government would demand reductions in murders, serious violence and neighbourhood crime, and improvements in victim satisfaction and diversity in the ranks, she told the conference. “These outcomes will be non-negotiable and I will be unapologetic about holding you to account.”
Some of those listening criticised Patel. Labour’s Sophie Linden, the London deputy mayor for policing, who oversees the Metropolitan police, said: “It’s the return of nationally set targets. It’s the return of ‘Whitehall knows best’. We know from previous experience they skewed the way police can operate. They can be dangerous. They damaged public safety and confidence. She also forgot she was a member of the party that cut policing and she voted for the cuts.”
Paddy Tipping, the Labour police and crime commissioner for Nottinghamshire, said the home secretary did not have the powers to order police what to do. “We don’t want to go back to targets. The legal powers belong to chiefs and PCCs,” he said.
The chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, addressing the conference after Patel, attacked the Conservatives’ record of cuts, which he said had blighted the police, courts and prisons and had left justice “extinguished in some cases”.
Prisons were in chaos, the prosecution service plagued by “disgraceful” delays and courts hit by decay and left empty, he said. “So why did the criminal justice system come to this state. Funding cuts are the basic answer.”
Dave Thompson, the West Midlands chief constable, said local services had been decimated, leaving police to pick up the pieces, especially in mental health. He said police had come “close to emptying the bins” instead of preventing or detecting crime as services were cut.
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said the courts and prosecution service were under such strain that adding more police officers may fail to deliver big cuts in crime.
“We can all see it’s [the criminal justice system] not coping now. It’s creaking and in places it’s breaking. More importantly, it’s letting down victims and leaving criminals to walk free,” he said. “Without serious change, more policing won’t mean more justice. And more policing without more justice is a recipe for corroding legitimacy – both in us as the police and in all parts of the system.”