Police reform: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

How should the police be held accountable politically to the communities they serve? What kind of redress should citizens have when things go wrong? And how should the service be organised, particularly when money is tight?

Under Labour, the service in England and Wales saw the introduction of:

  • Statutory local partnership working
  • New civilian Police Community Support Officers and a national model of neighbourhood policing
  • New national bodies, such as the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC)

Reforms under the previous Government emphasised localism. The Government replaced national targets with a “single mission” to cut crime.

It also made huge changes to the "policing landscape", the main one being replacing police authorities with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners.

Other reforms included:

  • New national organisations, such as the National Crime Agency and the College of Policing
  • Reformed pay and conditions following the Winsor review
  • Replacing the Association of Chief Police Officers with a new coordinating body, the National Police Chief’s Council 

The challenge of austerity

Policing in a time of austerity has also been a huge challenge for the service. In October 2010, the Government announced a 20% real terms cut in the central government funding grant up to 2014/15.

Police forces receive funding from other sources too: the chart below shows total funding expenditure in cash terms over the period. This has fallen by 8%, equivalent to about 14% in inflation-adjusted terms.

Chart 1: Gross revenue expenditure police forces

England and Wales 2010/11-2014/15 (£ billions)

Chart showing the gross revenue expenditure of police forces in england and wales between 2010/11-2014/15 in £ billions

Police officer numbers decreased by over 16,500 between March 2010 and September 2014: a reduction of around 11%. PCSO numbers decreased by just over 4,000 over the same period: a reduction of nearly 25%.

Chart 2: Police force strength

Percentage change in full-time equivalent police force strength, Mar-10 to Sep-14

Chart showing the percentage change in full-time equivalent police force strength between March 2010 and February 2014

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary found that overall the police’s response to the financial challenge had been good; however it did have concerns, in particular that neighbourhood policing risked being eroded in some places.

A period of consolidation?

The Home Affairs Committee, reviewing the Government’s changes to the policing landscape in February 2015, recommended that it was “now time to allow these pieces of the policing puzzle to settle into the new landscape, so that they might achieve the aim of making policing more effective.” 

It seems unlikely that the service will escape further reform. Even if the basic architecture remains unchanged, other reforms are likely. For example, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have pledged to reform stop and search, and the Tories would also legislate for this if the police failed to make changes.

Issues for the new Parliament

Local political accountability?

The Conservatives want to develop the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). They accuse Labour of “micromanaging” the police when they were in Government.

In Opposition, Labour commissioned an Independent Commission on Policing. The report called PCCs a “failed experiment”, not least because of the average 15% turnout at the first election in 2012.

Labour has pledged to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners, putting the cost of elections into front line policing. Plaid Cymru and the Green Party also want to abolish PCCs, and the Liberal Democrats want to replace them with local police boards.

The police complaints system

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the police complaints system. The Home Office has been consulting on reforms, including more involvement of PCCs in the complaints system. 

Labour would abolish the IPCC and replace it with a “stronger” Police Standards Authority. Legislation on this is very likely.

Force structure

Many argue that the current model of 43 geographic police forces of varying sizes in England and Wales is no longer viable. UKIP’s manifesto questions the structure, although it says it won’t impose “top down” changes.

The Independent Commission on Policing found “broad agreement” that the present structure “is no longer cost effective or equipped to deal with organised and cross border crime.”

Concerns like these led the Labour Government to introduce proposals for mergers in 2006.  But they abandoned them in the face of strong opposition. Theresa May and David Cameron both rejected arguments for compulsory top-down mergers, urging greater collaboration instead. But, as spending restraints continue to bite in the next Parliament, will voices urging reform get louder?

As arguments continue about how the police should be organised and governed, it is clear that more change is coming.

Party Lines

  • Conservatives: finish off the job of police reform, develop the role of PCCs and extend the use of police led prosecutions
  • Greens: abolish PCCs
  • Labour: abolish PCCs, overhaul the police complaints system and introduce a statutory commitment to neighbourhood policing
  • Liberal Democrats: abolish PCCs and focus on evidence-based policing
  • UKIP: reduce the number of PCCs

 

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The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library produces new briefings as topics evolve.

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