Friday, 16 March 2012

Collars and Cornettos

The recommendations of the Winsor report into the police service have predictably been framed as a story about fat coppers. This serves to distract from the real meat of the review by offering an amuse bouche of lese majeste with a soupcon of fatty-taunting (French is the language of cuisine, you know). It's like supersize foie gras.

The real meat in the bun, you might be thinking, is the plan to cut pay and conditions, or you might even have spied the intent to upgrade the role by attracting and fast-tracking graduates, though that hardly marks a change in policy. The piece by Alan Travis in the Guardian just linked to explains some of the thinking behind the move: "[Theresa May's] wider changes emphasise that fully qualified and expensive warranted officers should be concentrated on the core tasks for which their skills are needed."

In other words, the introduction of community support officers and the plans to outsource non-core activities to private providers are part of a wider long-term strategy. In essence, the desired model looks like a highly professionalised core service with much of the traditional "low value" activities handled by commercial third parties.

Winsor talks about ending the "blue collar" mindset, as the skills and attitudes now required by the police "are distinctly above those of factory workers". He goes on to outline his vision: "We want the brightest and best to think of a police career on a par with the professions of the law and medicine." This has been welcomed by the likes of Geoffrey Dear, former Chief Constable of the West Midlands, who talks about "a chorus of support in Middle England ... for new recruits with business backgrounds to join senior ranks directly".

Clearly, what we are witnessing is the embourgeoisement (more French) of the police. In plain English, the job will move from blue collar to white collar. This is a metaphor, but it's interesting to note that in the post-war decades most UK police forces wore light blue shirts, with the exception of the Met which wore white. Since the 1980s, most forces have adopted white shirts. I don't think this was meant as a homage to IBM. In the US the shirt colour remains a clear indication of grade.

The irony of all this social engineering is that the police officers of the future are now more likely to spend their days sitting on their lard-arses behind desks, rather than pounding the beat or dealing directly with criminals. These latter chores (the "dirty work") will be left to the blue collar periphery of community support officers and private security firms.

There is a strong whiff of managerialism about all this, which you can guarantee will lead to more police incompetence due to their increasing distance from, and lack of empathy for, the wider policed community. Coincidentally, you get a flavour of the class-based contempt that senior police have always had for the lower orders en masse in this week's leak concerning Hillsborough.

Looking at this in a wider social and economic context, the move to a more professionalised police force will probably reduce the number of warrant officers, but it will simultaneously increase the number of well-paid middle-class jobs. In aggregate, the numbers involved in security will probably stay constant (allowing for demographic change), but this will be down to increased low-wage jobs in the periphery. You can also expect the overall cost to increase (despite the promise of savings by Winsor and others), due to the added overheads involved in a multi-tier, multi-provider organisation. Cornettos all round.

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