Copping out

The UK Home Office is going global in its search for police constables.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

A leaked UK Home Office consultation document reportedly proposes recruiting chief constables from abroad (1). The document, Getting The Best Leaders to Take On The Most Demanding Challenges, had reportedly been prepared for the police development board and handed out to senior police officers.

This is just the latest example of Britain’s public institutions looking overseas to recruit. Both the National Health Service (NHS) and the educational system have sought to find new staff and ideas outside Britain.

Of course, a French or Sudanese national could bring as much to the job as Britons born and bred (indeed, the NHS already relies upon the contributions of foreign doctors). But these overseas recruiting drives spring less from open-minded pragmatism, than from an attempt on the part of these institutions to find a mission for themselves. When such institutions cannot find the resources within themselves to maintain coherence and overcome their problems, they tend to look elsewhere for a bit of dynamism.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that the police recruitment consultation document was about ‘expanding experience at the top of the service to ensure as many new ideas are being brought to bear as possible’ (2). She said, ‘We make no apology for opening up this debate. It is very important for new ideas to be aired and discussed’.

This attempt to improve leadership and policy through ‘new ideas’ and ‘expanding experience’ suggests that certain institutions have run out of steam, and are casting around for solutions. Rather than suggest a coherent institutional mission to motivate leaders, or attempt to bring leaders up through the ranks, the emphasis is on injecting leadership from outside. New and diverse ideas and experiences seem to be valued just because they are new and diverse.

A Home Office spokesman told me that it was just a matter of ‘making sure that we had the best leaders that were available. New leaders increase dynamism, whether they are foreign or local. We are looking for quality men who can provide good leadership’. While there is no reason why foreigners couldn’t provide decent leadership, there is something strange about a police service that goes looking for its ‘quality men’ in the four corners of the Earth.

A similar issue underlay the Tory Party’s global wanderings in search of ways of improving the NHS. In 2002, Tory health secretary Liam Fox travelled all over Europe to find new policy solutions to the problems of the British health service.

No doubt that these countries have better health services than we do (chiefly because they put more money into theirs) – and no doubt different systems can learn from each other. But the thing that set the Tories on the road was their inability to suggest homegrown solutions. Whatever the Germans or French were doing looked more attractive, just because somebody else was doing it. When you can’t think of new ideas yourself, there is a temptation to head across the seas to find them.

The government considered asking European healthcare companies to staff and run NHS hospitals (3). And in 2001 the NHS launched a global advertising campaign to recruit doctors from Asia, America and other European countries. Some patients have been sent to have their NHS operations in France and Germany.

In these cases, the health service was looking abroad to solve a short-term shortfall – and to help meet targets in doctor recruitment and waiting times. But the plans were criticised as a ‘crisis measure’, attempting to make up for the fact that ‘We are simply not training enough homegrown doctors’. The hard questions, of how to expand medical training or medical facilities within Britain, are avoided by contracting out abroad.

But the overseas recruitment drive is particularly interesting in the case of the police. Before the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002, there had been a 170 year-old ban on foreigners entering the police force.

The sentiments behind this restriction, articulated by the Tory shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, were that those who joined the police force should be loyal to the British state, in the person of the monarch, by swearing allegiance to the Queen. Being part of the police was not just about being able to perform specific technical tasks, but also about having a certain allegiance and worldview.

Today, the police service seems keen to get away from these old associations – the ‘canteen culture’ is viewed suspiciously as a hotbed of racism and sexism, and publicity emphasises ‘valuing diversity’ and ‘working with local communities’. This is perhaps why the question of the allegiance of foreign recruits is not seen as such a problem. ‘It’s not particularly an issue’, a Home Office spokesman told me. Perhaps some are even hoping that ‘expanding experience’ at the top could help to break up some of the force’s traditional values.

Of course, it is easier to break values up than to put new ones in their place. All public institutions need to stand for certain principles – to give employees a focus and a sense of loyalty, to guide strategy and leadership decisions. It is the erosion of these principles that has sent public institutions on their worldwide search – for staff, policy, and ideas.

But the key to institutional dynamism and leadership cannot be found in some far-off land. Whatever the solutions are, they can only be discovered by a broader engagement with society at home.

Read on:

Public services: Stalin meets Enron, by Jennie Bristow

In the firing line, by Jennie Bristow

(1) UK may recruit top police abroad, Guardian, 6 June 2003

(2) UK may recruit top police abroad, Guardian, 6 June 2003

(3) Foreign companies could help NHS staff shortage, epolitix, 21 August 2001

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Topics Politics


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