Irene Curtis’ Final Address to Conference

Irene Curtis, President of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England & Wales gave her final address to Conference on 9th September 2015, the content of which is reproduced below.

“Home Secretary, distinguished guests, members and colleagues – good morning to you all.

Firstly I’d like to thank you, Home Secretary, for re-arranging your diary at short notice in order to be here this morning. I would also like to place on record my thanks for giving me the opportunity to undertake the Independent Review of the use of Targets in Policing that you commissioned in May this year. I hope that my report, and its recommendations, will contribute to a more healthy and effective future performance culture in policing in the future.

I’m delighted to have the privilege of speaking to you all today in my role as President of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously and I feel incredibly proud to hold this office, as well as the Office of Constable.

Sadly, for me anyway, this is my last Conference as your President. However I want to use this opportunity to share with you my thoughts about the challenges that lie ahead for the service, which you and your colleagues will need to address long after I have gone.

But firstly, I want to share with you an experience that I enjoyed earlier this year. Many of you will know that I’m a keen cyclist, and in July, along with over 100 others, I took part in the Police Unity Tour. The Unity Tour is an annual bike ride from London to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which raises money for the charity Care of Police Survivors. The ride takes place over several days and participants include serving and retired police officers and staff, but more importantly, they also include survivors – family members of police officers who have lost their lives whilst on duty – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and partners. They all have a story to tell about their loved one which brings home the reason why we do the ride and the risks that officers take every day whilst doing their duty to protect the public.

This was the second year I have completed the Unity Tour and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It is an incredibly humbling experience that brings both tears of joy and tears of sadness, as well as a few aches and pains along the way! But the one thing that really sticks in my mind is that feeling of unity. Being part of the police family that we all refer to – and that we all feel incredibly proud to be part of. It’s a reminder that policing is about more than the job that we do, it’s about the families of those involved, and it’s about the public, whom we all joined to serve.

And that word unity has got me thinking about how important unity will be as the police service faces what is probably its greatest challenge for several generations. I truly believe that unity, in its many forms, will be critical in ensuring that we can continue to protect the public from harm.

And that unity has to start from within the service.

I’ve already mentioned the police family, and I believe this is one of our true strengths. You kick one of us, and we all limp. But I genuinely fear that the pressures that we all find ourselves under at the present time risk eroding that bond of the police family.

However the make up of the police service in England and Wales is varied. There are 43 forces (46 if you include our additional branches); 9 ranks (11 if you’re the Met); over 200,000 officers and staff, each with their own different views.

And in many ways that is good. Many of you will have heard me speak over the last few years about the need to value difference and to create an environment within the service whereby everyone is able to make a positive contribution, to give of their best, and to realise their full potential.

But where difference isn’t managed constructively, it can create dysfunction and disunity. As we move forward, I think it is more important than ever that, from within the service, we stop pointing the finger at, or blaming each other, and start to think about how much stronger we would all be if, wherever and whenever possible, we spoke with one voice and worked together, as part of that policing family.

Having a dig at another part of the service – whether it be another rank or another department, for example – might make us feel better at that moment in time, but it doesn’t help the service move forward and it certainly doesn’t help us do a better job for the public.

And we could also be more united across the 43 forces. Yes, reform means that some forces working closer, but some forces are still reluctant to share good practice, or to work with others for the benefit of the wider service. There may be many reasons for this, but I believe that one of them is because they see themselves in competition with others – a situation that’s exacerbated by things like the publication of Most Similar Force tables.

This is a crazy situation and it has to stop. Surely every force should want to develop and deliver better policing methods that will benefit the whole public across the whole country, not just their force area? Policing is not a competition – it’s a public service.

When you scratch beneath the surface, I believe that everyone in policing actually has more in common than they have differences – the main factor being our purpose: to keep people safe from harm.

Yes, there has to be space for chief officers, staff associations and anyone else to express different views about how this should be achieved, but if we could all unite in agreeing what we are trying to achieve this would be a good starting point.

There is also a pressing need within the service to do more to look after each other, and this won’t happen unless we unite in this view and respect each other. We need to move away from the blame culture that currently exists, and recognise that people are human and make mistakes. I’ve spoken about this many times before.

Mistakes are usually unintentional and in many cases not that serious, but we seem to have developed a culture whereby as soon as something goes wrong, we look to find someone to blame and respond totally disproportionately. And this works both ways – not just in terms of the response of bosses when staff get something wrong, but also the attitude towards bosses if they make a poor decision. We must give everyone the space to try different things and to learn from mistakes.

If we can respect each other, care about each other, and support and help each other, then I’m sure that we will all find life that little bit easier, and provide a better service to the public. But we must all play our part in this.

There is no doubt at all that everyone in the service is feeling the pressure more than ever before and I will say more about this later and, whilst I will focus on the superintending ranks because that is who I have been elected to represent, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other officers or staff, who I know are facing their own pressures and challenges.

But the service also needs to create better unity with the public

I don’t know of anyone in policing who would disagree with the comment that is often associated with Peel that says “the police are the public and the public are the police”. This is at the heart of the British Policing model, a model of which many countries around the world are incredibly envious.

We could not effectively police without the consent of the public. We are utterly dependent on them: they give us our workforce; they give us our funding; they give us our information and intelligence; they give us our legitimacy. And, most importantly, they allow us to police them.

Police officers are members of the public who take an oath in order to serve the public – we are the public. And we need the public to work with us to help keep them safe.

And whilst the public’s confidence in the police service has remained relatively stable despite some of the challenges and criticisms we have faced in recent years, we must acknowledge that there are occasions when we have let the public down. When either the service, or individuals within it, have broken that trust.

And there are a number of reasons why that might be. My recent review of the use of targets, for example, identified that the unhealthy performance culture that had developed across the service led many of us to focus on the wrong things – on chasing numbers rather than doing what is best for victims. There has been much discussion of late about the use of stop and search as a policing tool and how, if not used correctly, it can alienate some communities at a time when we really need their support and co-operation. And then there are individuals within the service who don’t have the same public service values as we in this room have, and who choose to seek personal gain from, or to abuse their position, rather than use it to protect others.

All of these influence how the public views the service, but both now and in the future, I believe that unity with the public is critical to our effectiveness as a service. We need the public to understand policing and to work with us to help to create a society that can protect its most vulnerable members from harm.

And now, more so than ever before, there is the need for unity with other organisations.

All public services have duties and responsibilities towards the public. The police service has a lot in common with many other organisations, in health, education, community services, social services and other areas. And we are all facing a difficult financial future. There has been comment about other organisations retreating into their silos – of partnerships ‘shrinking apart’. Many in the service, myself included, have challenged others for not fulfilling their responsibilities, leaving the police service to pick up the pieces. The reality is that none of this is helpful and it will not result in a better service to the public from any of us.

As public services we might have different organisational goals, but I believe we all have a contribution to make to a common purpose – to create a safe, secure and healthy society.

And I don’t believe that we will achieve that effectively unless public services work together more closely than they do now.

There are some great examples of public services working together in an integrated way to deliver better services, and just as importantly to reduce demand. But this way of working is far from being the norm. And this is what I believe it will need to be in the future.

And finally, and some certainly won’t agree with me on this one, but there has to be a degree of unity with the Government, whichever political colour, or combination of colours, is in power.

That doesn’t mean that as police officers we have to agree with everything the Government does. And on a personal level we might be totally opposed to what they do. But as police officers, we must remain apolitical and professional at all times.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in a democratic society. In other countries people give their lives for democracy. When a government has been elected by the public, it has a mandate to govern and to introduce change. It is not the role of the police to determine what laws are introduced. It is our role to uphold them and to be accountable to them.

But that mustn’t stop us from raising our professional concerns, whether about proposed changes to legislation or wider policing issues. Indeed, this Association has done this for many years. And it is important that this is a two way process. The government must be willing to listen to those views, with a genuine desire to hear what is being said and respecting our professional judgement.

There have been occasions when we have felt ignored or have been labelled as scaremongering, and in the case of the Police Federation accused of ‘crying wolf’. All I ask is that we are shown respect as professional police officers, who care immensely about the job that we do – who are prepared to put our lives on the line to protect others from harm.

To be fair there have been times when our views have been taken into account, where we have been listened to and policy changes have been made as a result. And I honestly believe that this is because we ultimately have the same aim – we want to keep people safe from harm and to prevent crime.

We shouldn’t forget that, even if our views might differ on how best to achieve this.

So, it is through the lens of unity that I wanted to reflect in this speech on some of the major challenges facing our members and policing more widely.

It’s probably an understatement to say that the last 5 years have been particularly challenging for the police service – and that’s not just because of the significant cuts to funding, but the service has also had to adapt to new governance arrangements since the introduction of PCCs, as well as dealing with the changing nature of demand and crime at a time when other organisations are also cutting back on their services. Within the service we have seen compulsory redundancies for police staff, and, for officers, significant changes to pay and conditions, as well as their pension arrangements.

And, of course, the national landscape has changed with the introduction of the NCA, the College of Policing as the first professional body for policing, and the HMIC and the IPCC have both received greater powers and an increase in resources.

During that time, officers and staff have done their best to continue to serve the public to the best of their ability… and on the vast majority of occasions they have done a great job. There are lots of examples out there of officers who have ‘gone the extra mile’ to help the public, who have given amazing care to victims, and also those have been injured or even, sadly, lost their life whilst trying to protect the public. But these stories rarely hit the media.

What we do hear about are the occasions when something has gone wrong and the public have been let down. No-one likes to see this happen, least of all police officers. We chose this vocation because we of our desire to protect the public. I don’t know of a single officer who would want their actions, or lack of action, to result in someone becoming a victim. For every mistake that is made, there are thousands and thousands of positive interactions with the public. It’s time to move on from this blame culture – yes hold officers to account where that is necessary – but let’s focus on learning from mistakes so that we can improve how we police instead of making everyone risk averse.

But I think everyone in policing knows that the greatest challenges have yet to come.

The next Spending Review will determine the scale of the financial challenge for the service – we don’t know what that is yet, but forces are anticipating having to deal with further cuts of anything between 25% and 40%. That means that by 2020, the policing budget will have reduced by at least half over an 8 year period.

We are also aware of the changing and, in some areas, increasing demands on the service – including the increased reporting of both recent and historic sexual offences, and the issue of cyber-enabled crime, including sexual offences and fraud, the full extent of which is still unknown.

There are huge risks ahead about the future nature and quality of policing that forces will be able to provide and we must, as a service, get better at presenting the evidence to support this. And the government must listen to what the professionals in the service are saying – and more and more are now speaking out as we head towards the next spending review.

But, as leaders of the service, we must also be thinking about how we will meet the challenges ahead, and in some ways they could actually provide an opportunity for change that could define the future of policing, and of other public services, in this country for future generations.

And this is where I return to my theme of unity.

I do not believe that, individually, forces can meet the financial and organisational challenges that lie ahead.

And with the scale of cuts that are forecast, I do not believe that, collectively, 43 forces working together can meet these challenges without it leading to dramatic, unfair and potentially dangerous reductions and variations in the level of service provided to the public from one force to the next – particularly when you take into account the current funding formula arrangements. I’m not going to repeat the arguments I’ve given in previous years as to why I believe that the 43 force structure is inefficient and is an inhibitor to both change and consistency, but the reality is that different service levels across the country are bound to impact on public confidence, which has stayed at levels we can be proud of despite all of the difficulties the service has faced in recent years.

And I do not believe that the solution is to draw up a list of what forces will stop doing in the future. Policing is just not that simple.

The reality is that the cuts to policing budgets are no longer just policing’s problem. They are everybody’s problem. The police service, government, our public sector partners and, in particular, the public. Because if we can’t provide an effective police service with the resources that are provided, that becomes a problem for society. We might not quite be there yet, but given the scale of the challenges ahead, I believe this is a real risk.

We can no longer afford to look at policing budgets, or services, in a silo.

Almost everything that we deal with has an impact on, a crossover with, or a root in another public service; whether that is health, education, adult or children’s social care, housing or something else.

It is time to think differently about how public services can be delivered better, in a more integrated way that not only benefits our communities but also reduces future demand for everyone. This is happening in pockets around the country where forces are working closely with partners developing local early intervention projects, including the excellent Troubled Families work.

But what I’m talking about here is taking this to a whole new level. I’m talking about truly joined up Government, with a new philosophy of joined up public services. Where Government departments don’t fight each other for scarce resources, but collaborate and work together to determine how best those scarce resources can be allocated for the benefit of the public.

I’m not talking here about the need for a short-term fix. It isn’t even a 5 year plan. We must have the courage and vision to look beyond the next 5 years and to lay the foundations for a new way of delivering public services; one from which future generations will benefit.

Now I’m realistic enough to know that even if the Government did think this was a good idea, it wouldn’t happen overnight. But there is a real urgency about doing something different. At the moment we have 43 forces all trying to work out how they’re going to respond to a huge budget reduction – some will undertake more collaborative work, more strategic alliances are being formed, and more work is being done on joint procurement arrangements. Will this be enough? Only time will tell but, as I said earlier, I do not believe that you can remove 50% from the policing budget over an 8 year period and still provide an effective policing service that will protect the public from harm.

And you also can’t remove that scale of money and expect those people who remain within the service to sustain the level of commitment they have shown thus far. The superintending ranks have seen a 25% cut in their numbers across England and Wales in the last 5 years – greater than any other rank group in the service. During this time the demands on them haven’t reduced at all, in fact for virtually everyone these have increased.

Many Chief Superintendents, and in some cases Superintendents, are taking on force wide responsibilities that in the past were held by Assistant Chief Constables. Some forces have removed Chief Superintendent and Chief Inspector roles from their structure without ensuring there is an appropriate reward or support mechanism in place for those who are taking on additional roles and responsibilities.

Many of our members lead public protection departments, areas of policing that deal with a huge amount of risk on a daily basis and are responsible for protecting the most vulnerable in society, as well as dealing with some of the most dangerous offenders. Many of our members hold commands with responsibility for more police officers than can be found in many forces. The Chief Superintendent in charge of the Transport Command in London leads 2500 officers and staff. We also have members with commands that cross two or more force areas. These are not insignificant responsibilities and I don’t believe this position is sustainable if numbers reduce further in the future.

And our members are having to lead teams of staff who are working harder than ever themselves and yet feel de-motivated because they are working in an environment where they don’t feel valued by government, the media and, in some cases, the public.

And so it is more important than ever not to lose sight of the importance of looking after ourselves and after each other. Wellbeing needs to be top of every force’s agenda – the most important asset we have is our people and we cannot help the public without them.

In concluding then, there is no doubt at all that the next few years are going to be challenging for the police service, and for those who work within policing and who are passionate about wanting to protect people from harm. Over the last 5 years those within the service have shown that they can respond positively to challenges. But it’s time for the government and, Home Secretary, for the Home Office too, to genuinely listen to the concerns being raised by people at every level of the service about how the scale of the anticipated cuts will impact so significantly on our ability to keep people safe.

It’s been said many times that the first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens. I believe that this Government will be at serious risk of failing in that duty if it continues to pursue the scale of cuts to the policing budget that have been forecast without an adequate understanding of the impact of such cuts on the service’s ability to continue to protect the public.

It is time to think differently about how, not just policing, but all public services are organised and funded in the future, and the public needs to be part of the debate.

And there is a role for the Home Office too, not to provide leadership or direction – the service is able to do that – but in a co-ordinating and supporting role. The extent of change needed cannot be achieved without a cohesive national approach and the voice of the Home Office needs to be at the table when determining the future of policing. Home Secretary, I know you are committed to localism, but policing in this country is far too important for its future to be developed on a piecemeal basis.

And most importantly of all, we need to ensure that the health and wellbeing of those who are expected to protect the public are being taken seriously. You can’t provide a policing service without a healthy workforce.

Whatever the future might hold for us all, I believe that unity will make us stronger. Home Secretary, you have an opportunity, together with policing leaders, including the senior operational leaders in this room and beyond, to develop that sense of unity and to work with us to ensure we have a police service that is fit for purpose to serve and protect the public for generations to come. A police service that we can not only be proud of, but one that is built upon strong foundations and that will leave a legacy for future leaders.”