Windsor – the outsider

June 12, 2012

In nominating the lawyer and former rail regulator Tom Winsor as her choice to be the next chief inspector of constabulary, the home secretary has stoked more discontent among the ranks of the Police Federation. Not only is he the first non-police officer ever to be nominated to the role, but he is also the author of a bold review of pay and conditions that made long-overdue recommendations to modernise the police workforce.

For this reason alone, the Police Federation is dismayed by the nomination, and MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee (meeting today) may yet try to block him. But the appointment is likely to be approved, and it speaks volumes about the government’s wider police reform agenda and the role they see, not just for outsiders, but for a different kind of oversight of the police.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has often been seen as part of the policing establishment. But it has been changing under Sir Denis O’Connor, who as chief inspector helped reassert HMIC’s independence, challenged police authorities and spoke out about public concerns like poor officer visibility and anti-social behaviour, where the police had lost their way.

O’Connor was a class above and, although the next head of HMIC did not have to be a civilian, clearly it was felt that someone as talented as Winsor should not be barred from applying, and that the time might be right for an outsider. Since the Police Reform Act of 2011, the inspectorate reports directly to parliament, and the head of HMIC is no longer the principal policing advisor to the Home Secretary. These measures enshrine HMIC’s new autonomy and make a civilian head more appropriate.

Under Winsor, the inspectorate can evolve further towards becoming a public auditor of standards and an economic regulator — a role first envisaged in 2007 in the Conservative Party’s ‘Policing for the People’ green paper, which argued for a beefed-up police inspectorate, a sort of “Ofcop”, that was more powerful and could be truly independent of both the police and the government.

The unavoidable budget cuts in this parliament (and in all likelihood the next) will lead to smaller police forces, so they will need to become much leaner and get much smarter about how they use their resources. Here, the role of an Ofcop-style regulator is most valuable. With the abolition of the Audit Commission, taxpayers need an economic regulator that can flush out waste and ensure all forces are doing what they can to spend wisely and protect the frontline.

Add to this new inspection regime the arrival of directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in November, and you have a whole new layer of oversight of the police. Chief constables will report to powerful figures with large democratic mandates. Some of the elected PCCs will be complete outsiders with no career in policing. But these figures will hold the police to account on behalf of the public and HMIC can help them in that task. That is the proper role of an inspectorate — an external guardian of the public interest — and it is one in which Tom Winsor has excelled before.

There is no doubt that Winsor will have to work hard to earn the respect of officers, but he will not and should not be loved. That is not the point. Back in the late 1990s, beleaguered rail commuters were probably unaware of Tom Winsor while he was battling ministers and clashing with Railtrack over the company’s poor performance. But they benefited from having a politically-detached regulator who was able to expose bad practices. Policing would benefit from that type of regulator, and in Tom Winsor the government has a natural fit for the role.

This article originally appeared on The Spectator’s website

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