Published: Fri, 12 Oct 2018
Police Reform Act 2002
Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
The sociological and political context was one of increased strain on police resources and widespread problems with the police response to problems at a local level. It was widely felt that police time was being consumed by minor matters which could be adequately dealt with at a lower level. It also came in the context of the general policies of the Labour government which emphasised the importance of criminal justice as an opportunity for reform of behaviour as opposed to punishment. It followed from this rationale that the involvement of the police was undesirable unless absolutely necessary, and that where alternatives (such as the newly-introduced community support officers) could be used it was preferable to do so.
The Act also reflected the general tendency of left-wing government to centralise power. Prime Minister at the time of the Act Tony Blair had expressed this concern specifically in the context of policing, suggesting that to allow municipal governments to establish their own police forces would give rise to a risk of ‘Balkanisation’ (the geopolitical situation in which a region fragments into uncooperative or even hostile smaller regions). This attitude is likely to have motivated the increase in Home Office control over police strategy and management.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The Act addressed the supervision, administration, functions, and conduct of police forces and officers and others carrying out police functions. It also significantly altered balance of power between the Home Office and local police forces in favour of the central government.
What main changes did it make to the law?
Addressing the relationship between the individual forces and national government, the Act introduced provision to allow the Home Secretary to determine the strategy for the government of the police, producing an annual policing plan to establish the priorities of the Home Office for policing in that year. Alongside this it introduced a requirement for police authorities to produce a three year strategy consistent with the Home Office. It also greatly centralised power within the police system in favour of the national government, the Home Office increased powered to monitor the performance of each individual force and take direct action to address problems, including: to compel the force to produce an ‘action plan ' when judged to be insufficiently efficient; to intervene directly within the force, for example by dismissing police chief constables. It also increased the accountability of the police with the creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission with the power to examine cases using its own investigators.
The Act was passed in the context of increased strain on police resources. In an attempt to address this, the Act introduced the position of ‘Community Support Officer’ (a civilian, non-uniformed officer) and accredited members of the ‘extended police family’ (such as neighbourhood wardens). It was also hoped that these officers could provide a more proportionate response to low-level problems which did not require the attention of involvement of the police, particularly where children or teenagers were concerned. These measures were also intended to counteract the risk that increased control of policing by the central government might cause communities to feel more disconnected from their local forces. Attempting to pre-empt concerns that these provisions would be seen as a ‘watering down’ of policing, the Act also introduced ‘Community Safety Accreditation Schemes’ to maintain the confidence of the public.
Perhaps the most prominent substantive provision of the Act which is regularly used by forces today is section 59, which allows police to seize vehicles which are being used in an anti-social manner. This has proved a valuable tool in combatting crime and remains in place today.
The Bill was intended to allow the police to use its resources more effectively in the face of increased demand. However, many of the reforms were controversial, in particular the increased powers of the Home Secretary. Critics, foremost amongst them the opposition Conservative party, suggested that the powers afforded to the Home Secretary under the Act compromised the autonomy of the police force, giving rise to a risk that they could be manipulated for political ends. There were also objections from the police forces themselves, who felt that they were better placed than central government to manage their own strategies and priorities in view of their extensive local knowledge and relationships within the community.
The government were also accused of ‘contracting out crime’. It was suggested that this was an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government and that it was likely to diminish public trust and confidence in the police notwithstanding measures such as the ‘Community Safety Accreditation Schemes’ introduced by the Act.
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