Last week’s terror alerts were yet another reminder of the dangers we face and the importance of international co-operation in the fight against terrorism. The increasing sophistication of the terrorists can only increase the challenges facing our intelligence services and police. As we approach the 2012 Olympics, the threat could become greater still, especially if Irish republican dissidents resume activities on the British mainland.
As a responsible opposition, we will support the government in the difficult job it faces in dealing with these threats. And while we will rightly reserve judgment until we see the outcome of the review of counter-terrorism powers, we will seek to support the government where we can. A consensus should be our shared goal.
But we must also fulfil our proper role by holding the government to account. And while I commend the government for its response to this incident, I would not be fulfilling that role if I did not express my longer-term concern that a combination of factors risks jeopardising our security and undermining the fight against crime.
At this time of heightened pressure, the coalition has embarked on an unnecessary, expensive and distracting upheaval of our policing system. I have yet to meet anyone who believes the prime minister’s obsession with bringing in directly elected police commissioners is a good idea. This top-down experiment will do nothing to improve the responsiveness of neighbourhood police teams to the concerns of local residents. It will risk politicising the police and compromising the operational independence of chief constables – and it comes with a price tag of up to £100m.
Not content with one upheaval, quango-axing targets also mean effective, specialised organisations such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre will be swallowed up into a new National Crime Agency.
As well as allowing these bureaucratic changes to be imposed by Downing Street, the home secretary has failed to protect the police from the Treasury’s demands for deep and immediate cuts. The Home Office is one of the biggest losers in the spending review. Policing and the UK Border Agency will both be cut by 20% over the next four years. Even counter-terrorism policing faces a 10% cut. This already goes way beyond what experts believe can be achieved through efficiency savings, re-organisation or better procurement. KPMG estimates that 18,000 police officers will be lost, while the Police Federation estimates 20,000 as well as tens of thousands of community support officers and civilian staff – the very people who help to free up officers from administrative tasks to get out on the street.
Worse still, it has now emerged that the policing cuts will be front-loaded. The bulk of the cuts will come in the next two years, and it beggars belief that the largest annual cut of all – 8% – will be in the year of the Olympics itself.
The impact of these cuts will be compounded by the short-sighted decision to make additional deep cuts in the local government services that ensure young people are steered away from drugs and gangs and given better things to do in their spare time than hang around the streets.
Neglecting early intervention and prevention and imposing unnecessary organisational upheaval on the police – as well as 20% cuts – would be a dangerous combination in any circumstances. But add to that the immense pressures of tackling new terror threats, and the home secretary risks stretching the thin blue line to breaking point.
Defending the safety of our communities and the security of our nation should be the first guarantee of any government – not a question of making do and hoping for the best.