Case Studies

A note to the next Home Secretary

by Mark Rowe

Next week Britain will have a new prime minister and she (or he) will, presumably, reasonably, want to have her (or his) own person as Home Secretary, in place of Priti Patel. That makes now a time for taking stock, writes Mark Rowe.

This week the think-tank Policy Exchange used the occasion of a new PM to bring out a report by former Met Police man David Spencer, titled ‘Crime & Policing: What do we want from the next Prime Minister?‘. It was as shrewd and wise a document as you could wish for, picking out the right nails to hit, and hitting them exactly. For example; taking only the headlines; ‘British policing has lost its way’, that requires ‘significant interventions’ from the prime minister and Home Secretary – in other words, any problems are for those in charge to fix, not the rank and file doing the job on the ground (a wider point in David Spencer’s paper); and in a particularly sharp point, Spencer (in as many words) queried whether the Conservatives are any longer the ‘party of law and order’.

Priti Patel (pictured) is not named in the think-tank’s document, but her three years as Home Secretary – she was appointed by Boris Johnson in July 2019, very much his appointment, as she had been out of office for a couple of years – are implicitly judged by Spencer.

What ought to be our verdict on her? From her words or deeds? In her first interview as Home Secretary in August 2019 she infamously said that she wanted criminals to ‘literally feel terror’. Have any of the fraudsters, shoppers and retail thieves who have verbally and physically abused shop staff (to name only two crime topics featured this year in Professional Security magazine) felt terror? As for the shocking murders in Merseyside last month, it has been noticeable that Merseyside Police detectives leading the investigations have repeatedly acknowledged that those who have evidence about the cases may feel too frightened to come forward to the authorities.

Grotesquely, the opposite of what Priti Patel spoke of in 2019; law-abiding people are too frightened (or indifferent) to admit to what they know about even the most serious of crimes.

If a security, police or prison officer had said what Priti Patel had said in August 2019, sitting in a van with a colleague or over a cup of tea, they would have been laughed at and those fellow officers would have doubted that the speaker was fit for the job. Priti Patel has had the power of her office, but her remarks showed that she was without credibility. It reflected also on the man who promoted her.

As for border control, in the September print edition of Professional Security Magazine are two separate reports; one, by the Australian (?) Alexander Downer, concluded that Border Force was at a ‘sub-optimal level’ because it was forever in crisis management. Again, that points to a gap between those on the ground doing their best to handle cross-Channel migrants, in all weathers and at all hours; and those in charge and out of touch.

It is an example of a wider failure in delivery of public or semi-public services, that anyone can notice if they travel by train (especially at a weekend), seek a dental or GP appointment, or call for an ambulance.

In home affairs and crime prevention, the three Boris Johnson years have been fruitful in terms of strategy – a crime strategy and a drugs strategy released in 2021 and featured in the August 2021 and January 2022 print editions of Professional Security. Also Boris Johnson and ministers have been diligent in appearing in public to have their photographs taken. One of the final photo-opportunities by Johnson was the dawn raid with the Met Police this week. Such photo-ops have been highly successful, giving the Government ministers publicity, and attaching themselves to the good deeds of others.

What is most needed from a Government minister however is the part in between the two, albeit the less visible and glamorous: the seeing through of policies, action leading to delivery of outcomes. Note for example that the Met described that its dawn raid was part of Project ADDER; as mentioned in the drugs strategy document. Briefly, ADDER involves besides criminal justice – arresting drug dealers and addicts – offering the addicted rehabilitation services.

It may be incontestable, or at any rate no longer controversial, that the state cannot win any ‘war on drugs’ (a phrase you seldom hear now); that (a phrase you regularly hear about various crimes) the police cannot ‘arrest their way’ out of drugs crime. To treat drug addiction (or criminality more widely) as a health issue does require various departments of government to work together: police (Home Office) with courts, probation and prisons (Ministry of Justice) and treatment services (private sector or the Department of Health), and maybe social housing (housing associations). That requires yet more attention from ministers that departments are talking to each other and delivering, because it’s no good one or most parts of the jigsaw coming together, to disrupt the drug dealing and treat the addict, if one part does not do its bit.

With the fall of the Boris Johnson regime and incoming new ministers, the risk is that all those strategy documents gather dust, and each branch of the public sector carries on doing its statutory minimum. Yes, working together does require some investment, but also goodwill and will to make change work – another point raised by David Spencer in his document, that the austerity of the 2010s was ‘reform …. without investment’ while the opposite, the ‘uplift’ in ‘extra’ police from 2019, has been ‘investment without reform’. Spencer in any case notes that ‘there are fewer police officers in England and Wales now than there were 12 years ago’. He also points as others have to the funnel of cases going through the criminal justice system; it’s only stoking problems over capacity if more beat bobbies are collaring criminals, if forensic investigators, crown prosecutors and others are lacking or over-worked.

What of the prospects for the Protect Duty, the proposed legal responsibility on ‘publicly accessible locations’ to protect people from acts of terrorism (although not knife or gun crime generally), a policy that will affect UK private security the most since the founding of the Security Industry Authority (SIA) 20 years ago? As with any new person in charge – in a government department or business or football club – the possibility is of a new broom; a new person in charge may have their own ideas and priorities. The question then is whether the Protect Duty preparations by civil servants and Nactso (National Counter Terrorism Security Office) are too far enough advanced for any incoming Home Secretary to scrub.

Even if the Protect Duty gets parliamentary time to become law (and as featured in the June edition of Professional Security magazine, Prince Charles did not mention it in the Queen’s Speech, not a good sign for its advocates), the details of any Duty, namely the ‘Competent Persons Scheme‘ are unlikely to emerge before 2024. That will make it seven years since the terror attacks of 2017 that prompted the campaign for such a Duty. Further testament to quite how slow and inefficient British government is; which comes back to its leadership.

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