County police force to combine functions

DEALS on policing of terrorism and other cross-border serious crimes are expected to be approved by Cambridgeshire s police authority in the autumn. At the same time, the county force and some of its eight neighbours are set to combine some of their back

DEALS on policing of terrorism and other cross-border serious crimes are expected to be approved by Cambridgeshire's police authority in the autumn.

At the same time, the county force and some of its eight neighbours are set to combine some of their "back-office" functions, such as recruitment and computer technology to achieve greater efficiency and financial economies.

Paradoxically, the agreements are likely to go much further than would have been achieved if new Home Secretary John Reid had not abandoned his predecessor Charles Clarke's plans to merge Cambridgeshire's force with Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Cambridgeshire authority - which opposed the merger plans, preferring the sort of federal arrangements that are soon to be put into place - wanted to keep lower-level policing local and to develop "community policing" with citizens and officers working in tandem to reduce crime and address the things local people believed important.

It is a major coup for the authority's refusenik chairman, Michael Williamson, a Huntingdonshire magistrate, who lives in Needingworth. His "federal solution" was picked up by many of the other 42 English forces that opposed forced marriages - even if "some of them didn't really understand it in the same way", as he told The Hunts Post a couple of months ago.

Five years ago, Cambridgeshire police was a bit of a shambles - one of the worst-performing in the country and regarded as "failing". Now, on most measures, it ranks among the top few in England, which was why the merger proposals rankled so grievously.

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The turnaround was started by former Chief Constable Tom Lloyd, who resigned last year after a social incident at a police function in Birmingham, and implemented by his then deputy Julie Spence, now his successor.

With most crime figures dipping and successful prosecutions soaring, the force is currently on a bit of a high. But successful implementation of the community policing initiative - most Cambridgeshire citizens are more concerned about not being burgled or harassed on the streets than about terrorist threats - is key to restoring public confidence in the "boys in blue".

Nonetheless, cracking down on drugs-related offences is vital when a huge proportion of petty offending is driven by a craving to buy addictive narcotics.

But, while the crime statistics may be heading in the right direction, financial management seems to be lagging some way behind. There are still serious concerns about the force ability to monitor its finances credibly.

A recent report by accountants Pricewaterhouse Cooper identified a series of failings that could have laid the force open to fraud and hacking. At the same time, Mr Williamson acknowledges that its budget-setting process was primitive.

For a demand-led public sector organisation - the public creates one set of demands and criminals another - to allocate global budgets to categories of policing with no way of identifying what the money is actually spent on is risky.

But Mr Williamson accepts that the system was far from perfect but asserts that the overall budget was always under control. The figures support that to the extent that the authority has remained within budget.

He is confident that, with the recent appointment of a new authority treasurer and with a new force finance director arriving in the autumn - the appointment was delayed by uncertainty over Cambridgeshire's future as a stand-alone force - the bugs will be fully removed by the end of the financial year next March.

He is adamant that the lack of fraud in the meantime is not just a matter of luck.

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