The Thinning Blue Line

Since Greater Manchester Police began tweeting the calls that they receive, 12,000 people have joined their Twitter feed. The minute-by-minute pleas to find lost cars, to clear litter, to tackle men with knives, are a gripping picture of the vital and the frivolous that the force copes with. If this experiment helps to restore a bit of public sympathy for the police, so much the better.

Public confidence in the police has halved in the past 30 years. Officers are widely regarded as being visible in overly large numbers at minor incidents, but invisible in too many dangerous ones. While there have been falls in many lesser offences, serious crime is on the rise. And this is despite the extraordinary levels of spending on the police in the past decade: up 47 per cent in real terms since 1999. According to the Reform think-tank, the police in England and Wales are the most expensive in the developed world, costing a fifth more as a share of GDP than in America.

An expensive and inefficient police force needs radical reform. The Government rightly believes that excessive central direction has skewed policing priorities. It intends to cut bureaucracy, restore professional discretion, reduce targets that are not directly concerned with cutting crime, and make local forces accountable to local people through elected commisioners.

Ministers claim that considerable savings can be made by efficiency measures, without cutting numbers. But with the Home Office facing 25 per cent budget cuts, it will be almost impossible to avoid a reduction in officer numbers. We may see fewer bobbies on the beat, not more.

Such reality seems adrift from government rhetoric on law and order. In his party conference speech last week, David Cameron talked tough on crime. "I have no time for those who sneer at public attitudes to punishing criminals," he said. "Offenders who should go to prison will go to prison. Justice must be done". His audience was left somewhat mystified about how exactly this fitted with his Justice Secretary's apparent determination to send fewer people to prison.

Kenneth Clarke is right to argue that rehabilitation would be preferable to the short sentences from which many criminals emerge to reoffend again and again. But the way that the policy has been presented, it looks as though the coalition will be letting criminals avoid a jail sentence before a proven rehabilitation infrastructure is in place. Mr Clarke is piloting a "payment by results" scheme that aims to improve the effectiveness of community sentences. But those sentences have an 80 per cent reoffending rate. There is a long way to go to prove his alternative.

Michael Howard was right that "prison works", in the sense that keeping persistent criminals in jail prevented them from committing more crimes. Crime rates fell dramatically in the 1990s, soon after prison numbers rose. It would clearly be better if offenders could be convinced to go straight. But at the moment the Government is sending a message to criminals that they can get away with more.

The first duty of any government is to protect the public. The previous administration's stubborn refusal to build more prison places led it into the absurd position of early release. This Government has some innovative and radical policies. But as well as talking about justice, it needs to ensure that justice is actually done.