by Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas
President, Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales
The College of Policing estimates that between 20 and 40% of police time is spent dealing with mental health issues.
Officers are also finding themselves having to check on the welfare of the elderly; waiting with patients at hospital; returning children who have run away from care; and multitude of other things – all of which need to be done – that used to be activities undertaken by others.
Our colleagues in the fire service now spend 29% of their time dealing with non-fire related incidents, the highest proportion this has ever been. Non-fire related work includes road traffic collisions, helping during flooding, releasing people trapped in lifts, as well as co-responding to certain medical incidents.
The Knight Review, published in 2013, is arguably the architect of the current reforms in the fire service. It identified that deaths from fires in the home were at an all-time low, down by some 40% in the last decade. Whilst the role of the fire service in bringing down demand was acknowledged, the report also identified inefficiencies similar to those in policing perhaps a decade ago.
The service has successfully transformed itself to absorb preventative and wider rescue work, but the review was clear for the need for them to “transform themselves again to reflect the completely different era of risk and demand”.
There has been no reduction in demand upon policing and, in many cases, we are now picking up tasks previously carried out by others. I worry about the health and well-being of officers who are being required to do more with less.
Significant reductions in police funding over the last six years have led to massive change in the way that policing is delivered across England and Wales. A lot of the changes have been driven by the need to reduce costs, but there has also been a desire to drive out inefficiencies and to do things more effectively.
However, such changes have not been introduced consistently across the country resulting in something of a patchwork quilt of policing developing, with individual police forces of varying sizes and viability; strategic alliances; collaborative working arrangements; regional collectives of forces; regional and national capabilities.
Whilst these ‘solutions’ are about trying to do the either same, or more, for less money, my Association has long argued that such an approach is sub-optimal. During my speech at our National Conference in September, I made the case for a clear vision for policing that extends beyond just the next few years.
The enactment of the Policing and Crime Bill will enable much closer working between the police and fire services, both of which now sit under the same Minister. Whilst this will have the potential to deliver considerable benefits, I urge a note of caution.
Taking an ad-hoc approach to closer working between these two emergency services is likely to muddy the waters further, rather than adding greater clarity or a unified sense of purpose. It needs to be properly thought through to determine how benefit can be maximised.
Let me extend this thinking to encompass the wider public sector – because we need to start thinking beyond simple binary arrangements as they are now inadequate for tackling the complex societal challenges with which public services are having to deal.
I started this article by talking about activities that police and fire personnel are now undertaking that traditionally they did not. Austerity-driven reforms have taken place, and continue to take place, across the public sector. Agencies are taking a close look at what it is that they do and, in many cases, whether consciously or not, they are dropping off some of the things that they used to do but which they can no longer afford.
That would be alright if it was not the case that some of these things really must be done by someone.
Instead of being discontinued, out of necessity they have been picked up by other agencies – even if such activities are not really their core business. The law of unintended consequences has come into play.
Those of us involved in the public sector are only too aware of the interdependencies and cross-overs that exist between policing, health, education, social services, probation, housing and the emergency services to name but a few. We do not, cannot, and should not operate in silos.
Undoubtedly, reductions in funding are a threat to service delivery. However, where there are threats there are also opportunities. I would argue that a great opportunity to develop a world-class public service has been presented to us.
Instead of each agency embarking upon its own programme of reform unilaterally, it is time to take a good hard look at what the need is across the public service; what the priorities are; and to develop a clear vision and supporting strategies for each agency to deliver against; recognising the interdependencies and cross-overs and identifying those organisations whose responsibility it is, either individually or collectively, to deliver on them.
Only if we do this can we make best use of scarce resources at the same as improving the service we all give to the public, which obviously includes the most vulnerable members of society.
What I am proposing here is not easy. It will require energy, enthusiasm, commitment, vision and, most of all, co-ordination.
It will also require the political will for it to succeed, as such a complex piece of work will undoubtedly take longer to deliver than one parliamentary term.
The alternative, however, is to continue to meet 21st century demands and expectations and expectations with 20th century structures, approaches and working cultures.
It is time to change . . .
This article was originally published in the CoPaCC/Policing Insight thematic report, ‘Police and Fire Mergers and Collaboration’. The full report is available on the Policing Insight website.