The home secretary has seen through reforms of the police others dodged. If her luck holds the rewards could be great
Few cabinet ministers remain long in the collective memory. Ministers’ days in office may be full of heady self-importance, but when they leave the trace rarely lingers. Premiers and chancellors apart, most sink into oblivion and the House of Lords, never to be remembered.
A few major figures manage to buck the trend. Nye Bevan as minister of health stands out from the anonymous crowd, still umbilically linked in the public mind to the creation of the NHS. In the 1960s, my generation still associated RA Butler with his wartime period at education, but he is largely forgotten now. More recently, perhaps Kenneth Baker at education or Norman Tebbit at employment managed a lasting mark, as Donald Dewar also did in Scotland.
For the rest, they came, they saw and they sat in the ministerial chair, sometimes usefully, sometimes not, but rarely leaving anything that can be glamorised as a legacy. Who (apart from those, like me, who thought highly of him) now remembers who Des Browne was or what he did? Or in earlier times Jeremy Hanley, Gavin Strang, Michael Jopling, Albert Booth or Joe Godber?
The Home Office is routinely described as one of the great departments of state. But the “who? what?” rule still holds, even there. Only a specialist could list the achievements as home secretary of Jacqui Smith, David Waddington, Merlyn Rees or Gwilym Lloyd George. James Chuter Ede was home secretary for most of the Attlee government, but little endures of his tenure beyond his unusual name.
Asked to name a truly notable home secretary, many people would probably think of Roy Jenkins. They would be right. Jenkins’s first period at the Home Office lasted barely two years, from December 1965 to November 1967, but it covered the legalisation of abortion, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of theatre censorship, divorce law reform, and a major reorganisation of the police. He made a real difference.
In my view, Theresa May is building a case to be regarded as the most significant reforming home secretary since Jenkins. Her claim is very different from the social liberalism of Jenkins. But May is a real and, thus far, an effective reformer. If her luck holds, by the time she moves on she will have carried out the most thoroughgoing and desirable reform of the police force in many decades. Not a Bevan, certainly, but perhaps not all that far behind.
January has certainly been a month to remember for the home secretary. It started with her announcement that police pay would from now on be skills based, not service based. This may not sound like a massive change, but in British policing it was well nigh revolutionary. Out went a pay structure whose essential features were established in 1920, which had not been substantially reformed since 1978 and to which the police remained committed. No other public service pay structure had been unreformed for so long or had become, in the process, so distorted.
May’s real boldness, though, was political. Ever since the 1970s, British politicians have told the public that the answer to crime and disorder was to recruit more police officers and pay them more. Margaret Thatcher started this bidding war in 1979, when she fought and won a general election on a pledge to give the police an immediate pay hike. There was no proof that the strategy worked, but both parties bought into it. The police, now significantly better paid and more numerous than other emergency services, and in some places on 60% more pay than median local earnings, naturally had no complaints. But it meant that 80% of an annual police expenditure of more than £9bn was on pay. It was not only unsustainable but indefensible.
It has fallen to May to look the police in the eye and to dare to change the system. To be sure, she owes some of her focus and success as a police reformer to others, notably Nick Herbert, who crafted much of the Conservative frontbench thinking on criminal justice before and after 2010. Most of what she is doing also involves following through on the two authoritative reports on police pay and conditions produced for her by Tom Winsor in 2011 and 2012. But it was May who commissioned Winsor in the first place, and May who has consistently stood up for his reports since they were published.
May was at it again yesterday when she announced major changes to police recruitment. Like the skills-based pay structure, the direct entry proposals come straight from Winsor’s report. Once again, however, their boldness and radicalism have not been fully understood. The strategy aims at breaking the old recruitment and training system. Through doing so, its goal is to elevate the whole science and status of policing.
The various direct entry schemes that May endorsed yesterday are not primarily about allowing an American to take over as a UK chief constable, interesting though that would be if it happened. The bit that really matters across the whole service is the plan to fast-track hundreds of new police graduate recruits to inspector level within three years. That generates fewer headlines, but it matters more. The consequence will be a cadre force of new police leaders. The effects will be felt in every force for generations to come.
It is too early to be conclusive about May’s achievement at the Home Office. Her police and crime commissioner reforms are unlikely to outlast a change of government. Few cabinet posts are as vulnerable to unexpected events. Mishandle a riot, a serious crime or a terrorist bombing, and even the most effective home secretary’s reputation can crumble overnight. So far, though, she has been surefooted.
And a figure of substance, too. Serious police reform has been long overdue but May has committed to it, rather than just talked about it. Labour repeatedly ducked the task, always content to sing the old get-tough songs to the tabloids rather than grip a problem that has needed gripping ever since Michael Howard failed to push through a more modest reform nearly 20 years ago. Labour’s recent silence on May’s reforms suggests to me that they know she has got it right.
This government has no shortage of public service reformers. Andrew Lansley tried and failed in health. Iain Duncan Smith is emulating him at welfare. Michael Gove is a man in far too much of a hurry at education. Meanwhile May just gets on with it, quietly outsmarting the vested interests and recasting the service in smart and, hopefully, enduringly efficient ways. One to remember. And one to watch when bigger jobs come vacant.