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The Spectator on the appointment of Sir Paul Stephenson as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

When an institution is plagued by internal feuds, a loss of public trust and a muddled sense of mission, the elevation of an internal candidate to its helm is rarely a matter for celebration. But the appointment of Sir Paul Stephenson to be the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is an exception to this generality. Unlike his predecessor, Sir Ian Blair, and his chief rival for the job, Sir Hugh Orde — head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland — Stephenson is not a politician in uniform. The new commissioner, who still commutes from his home in rural Lancashire, should bring a much-needed dose of common sense to the Met and return it to its core mission of fighting crime.

The appointment process, and the fate of his predecessor, will have alerted Stephenson to one of the biggest challenges that he faces: keeping both a Tory Mayor of London and a Labour Home Secretary happy. The Met’s counter-terrorism, Royal and diplomatic responsibilities make it a national force as well as a local one. In an ideal world, the Met would divest itself of these responsibilities, allowing it to concentrate on crime in London, while the Commissioner reports to the Mayor alone. But as there is no chance of that happening during his tenure, Stephenson should not try to serve two masters but one: the public.

It is an encouraging sign that Stephenson, who faced one interview panel at City Hall and one at the Home Office, was a unanimous choice. In uniting both the Mayor and the Home Secretary behind him, he has already achieved something that his predecessor never did.

This is just as well because the task that Stephenson faces is immense. He must restore the pride and prestige of the Met, tackle the fear of crime that is as corrosive as crime itself, prevent the rise in crime that normally happens during a recession and protect the capital and the 2012 Olympics from terrorism. As his predecessor but one, the excellent Lord Stevens, would say, this task is not for the faint-hearted.

The Stockwell shooting and its aftermath have done immense harm to the Met’s reputation. The incident itself was self-evidently ghastly and tragic. But considering the high state of alert gripping the capital in the days following the 7/7 atrocities, much about the shooting was at least explicable. The same cannot be said of the attempted cover-ups and the obstruction of the investigations into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. This shabby process revealed a police service in which senior officers did not trust each other and which regarded public accountability as tiresome. That feeling was exacerbated by Sir Ian Blair’s behaviour during his final year in office and the breakdown of discipline in the Met.

Repairing this damage will take time. First, Stephenson must put a stop to the public squabbling between the Met and the National Black Police Association. It is disgraceful that, through the London branch of the NBPA, senior employees of the Met should be urging ethnic minorities not to join the force. The idea that there needs to be a separate association for minority officers is the most pernicious kind of balkanising, multiculturalist cant. That said, Stephenson must also come down hard on any signs of the canteen culture that for so long dissuaded minorities from joining up.

Next, he must put the police on the street in uniform and fighting the kinds of crime that worry Londoners. In the British Crime Survey, no police force scores worse than the Met for understanding local concerns. A force that is responsive to the community’s concerns is one that will both command the public’s support and reduce the fear of crime.

Stopping the traditional increase in crime associated with recession will require making it clear that crime does not pay. Currently, only 13 per cent of burglaries in the capital result in charges being pressed. Those odds are far too generous to the criminal fraternity and do not act as a sufficient deterrent. Stephenson should learn from New York, where the application of the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing, the idea that preventing minor crime prevents major crime, led to burglaries falling from 88,370 a year in 1994 to 22,137 in 2006. No crime should be too small to be investigated.

On the counter-terrorism front, Bob Quick must be replaced as the assistant commissioner in charge of this beat. Quick’s decision to arrest Damian Green and his intemperate outburst at the Tories after the Mail on Sunday revealed that a hire-car business was being run from his house revealed a man without the judgment or the temperament required for this most sensitive role.

The new assistant commissioner should be tasked with improving the Met’s community intelligence. Peter Clarke, Quick’s predecessor, bemoaned the fact that in his time the Met never made a counter-terrorism arrest based on local information. The Met must also, like all branches of government, be careful about the groups with which it engages. Too often, the Met’s Muslim Contact Unit has been hoodwinked by those with agendas at odds with the British state’s.

The security planning for the Olympics is — as John Patten, an adviser to the 2012 and a former Home Office minister, revealed in these pages last month — woefully inadequate. The initial bid contained no budget for security and the day after the Games were awarded to London, 7/7, the requirements changed dramatically. Indeed, the task is so big and requires cutting across so many different agencies that Stephenson would be well advised to appoint a czar to oversee the process. Peter Clarke or Peter Ryan, who oversaw security for the Sydney Games, would be ideal for the role.

It remains to be seen if the Met can be reformed from within. If Stephenson fails in his task, the case for elected police chiefs will grow stronger still. But Stephenson does, encouragingly, seem to be more interested in policing than the theory of policing. He calls the Met a police force not a police service, and that is what London needs: a police force.

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