Police watchdog Tom Winsor: ‘I’ll arbitrate pretty much anything’

Fifty years ago the incoming head of the Metropolitan police, Robert Mark, defined a good police force as “one that catches more crooks than it employs”. The test is simple enough, but many Londoners are again wondering if the Met passes it.

A serving officer killed Sarah Everard last year. Other policemen shared photos of murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Still others exchanged racist jokes. Last month it emerged that officers had strip-searched a black 15-year-old girl on her period without an appropriate adult present, because they suspected (wrongly) that she was carrying cannabis. Racism was likely “an influencing factor”, a review found. The latest head of the Met, the defensive Dame Cressida Dick, had already resigned after losing the confidence of London’s mayor Sadiq Khan — the fourth successive commissioner to be pushed from office.

What on earth has gone so wrong? If anyone should be able to get to the bottom of it, it’s Sir Tom Winsor. The flinty Scottish lawyer guards the guards, or at least inspects the inspectors. As the chief inspector of constabulary until his retirement at the end of March, he spent 10 years scrutinising the police of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Met, by far the largest force, was at the heart of the job.

Amid the charlatans in British public life, Winsor has a reputation for hanging tough for a principle. In an earlier role as Britain’s rail regulator, he used his legal powers to give the country’s railways an extra £7.4bn: when the Treasury fumed, he waved two fingers. He was the first outsider to become chief inspector, and has spoken his mind, calling the police’s record-keeping “inexcusable”, the criminal justice system “dysfunctional and defective”, and tech bosses “complicit” in horrific internet abuse.

So I wait in a French bistro near Farringdon, ready to meet someone quite unlike the average diffident Brit. The man who walks in turns out to be extraordinary, but for different reasons.

We start by talking about Theresa May, who first brought him in to review police pay and conditions in 2010. “She did more to reform policing than anyone since Sir Robert Peel in 1829,” he says. May was a home secretary who, unlike many Tories, believed that being tough on crime meant being tough on the police. She allowed outsiders to join as inspectors, created elected police and crime commissioners, and established a new College of Policing and National Crime Agency.

Winsor saw “extraordinary inefficiency” in the police and wanted to fix it. His review called for a cut in starting pay. Coppers were furious. His later naming as chief inspector, a job traditionally handed out to senior police officers, led to 20,000 letters of objection. “As Humphrey Bogart said, of all the individuals in the world she could have chosen, she chose me,” Winsor says, somewhat over-glamorising the appointments process. At an event in 2013, he wore his uniform, further incensing officers who felt that he hadn’t earned it. Winsor was unfazed. He survived to be the longest-serving chief inspector. Surveying the scandals of recent months, he insists that public trust in the police has “been damaged” but “it is restorable”.

By now I am recording our conversation; so is Winsor, who has placed his recorder next to his water glass. I slowly realise that, of all the people I have interviewed, none — not Nigel Farage, certainly not Sarah Ferguson — has as much naked obsession with their public image as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. He was rail regulator between 1999 and 2004, a lifetime ago. He reveals: “I’ve got 29,970 press cuttings in my shed about me or stuff I was doing in those five years.” If I’d been chewing at this point, I might have needed the Heimlich manoeuvre.

He not only remembers that Boris Johnson once compared him to a boy who “earned additional marks for the neatness of his handwriting”; he tells me the date in 2004 that the article was published in the Spectator. At various points, I’m reminded of the lieutenant in the film Good Morning, Vietnam who boasts that Reader’s Digest is considering publishing two of his jokes.

We inspect the menu. It’s typically French, which means that the vegan option is cheese. “I haven’t brought any money. I assumed you were paying for this,” says Winsor. That’s the rule, I say, although I express concern for how he’ll get home. “No, I’ve got a driver.” He orders beef tartare, followed by a fishcake and pommes frites. “I didn’t eat much at the weekend, because I knew you’d be buying me a nice lunch.”

Early in Winsor’s tenure, crime fell quite sharply despite cuts in police numbers. The latest picture is mixed. Crime rose last year, even as lockdowns reduced knife crime and burglaries. Winsor insists the police have made “very significant improvements” in handling domestic abuse and child protection, but not in other areas. The Met’s anti-corruption efforts are “not fit for purpose”, the inspectorate has said.

Can they root out the sexists, the racists, the abusers? Wayne Couzens, who murdered Everard, served for 16 years despite apparent concerns about his behaviour. Among the WhatsApp messages shared by officers based in Charing Cross, one officer told a female colleague: “I would happily rape you.” Winsor warns that too often the police assume they can “knock the edges off” troublesome recruits; instead they should fire them.

The police are failing to keep pace in technology as well as attitudes. Fraud and computer crime now represent half of all crime. “It’s not trivial. People can lose all their money . . . It’s appalling how little is done in relation to fraud. It’s too difficult.” If you report a fraud, “in almost all cases, nothing will happen”. One force closed “96 per cent” of worthwhile leads with no further action.

Our starters arrive. As usual, I wonder how to eat hazelnuts with a knife and fork, but the beetroot is nice. Was Khan, the London mayor, right to force out Cressida Dick? Winsor declines to comment, as he is leading a review for the Home Office. Is the Met the worst police force? “No, Cleveland is the worst.” Two other forces, Greater Manchester and Gloucestershire, are also in so-called special measures. The fire services are mostly worse than the police services, too. Running the Met “is the second most difficult job in Britain”. But Winsor opposes simplifying the Met by taking away its national anti-terrorism work. Local policing is the “best way” of identifying terrorist threats. The force is also rated “outstanding for serious organised crime”, has “fantastic” co-operation with MI5, and has “brought down homicides and violent crime”. 

He emphasises that crime is not just a matter for the police. A third of those in police custody have mental ill health. Some prison conditions are “appalling”. “I went to Wandsworth and I could see why people would top themselves if they thought they were going to be there for a long time. The Victorians weren’t very kind to prisoners, but they built those cells for one man per cell. In Wandsworth now there are always two, sometimes three men in the same cell.” Many released “walk out the door with £46 in their pocket, with nowhere to live, no job”. Four in five reoffend. “Something is very, very, very badly wrong.” Forget defunding the police, Winsor’s emphasis is on properly funding the whole system.

I ask about one of his own inspectors who (unsuccessfully) sued the home secretary, claiming that he was paid less than a colleague because he was a white male. That seems odd from an inspectorate focused on rooting out misogyny and racism. “Can we talk about something else?” he asks.

What he loves talking about is his time as rail regulator, particularly how he tried to stop the New Labour government renationalising the track in 2004. Due to government power grabs, civil servants now have an unprecedented “micro-managerial function” over the trains. “Are civil servants the right people to decide the menu in the dining car on the East Coast mainline? I don’t think so.” To left-wingers who say Britain’s railway must be nationalised, he cries: “It’s already nationalised! . . . See my article in the Financial Times on August 1 2005.” 

Winsor insists the public would pay more for the police if they realised the threats. “If they knew just how much significant risk they are carrying from organised crime groups, predatory paedophiles, fraudsters, I think they would be furious,” he says. Behind him a young couple are gaily drinking champagne.

I ask Winsor what kind of child he was. “Shy. Um. Really, really badly bullied. I was 13. There were six boys who were two years older than I was. They were bigger, they were older, they were stronger. They got me time and time again. They would get me in the playground or in the sheds. It was very unpleasant assaults. In one respect, I was assaulted and I still live with the consequences. I won’t say what it was, but it was a permanent injury.”

Suddenly his obstinacy has come into focus. “Teachers saw it in plain sight. Nobody else helped. Until these guys produced a blade, they decided they were going to cut my hair . . . Only then did the school authorities take any action at all. I think that was one of the major factors that led to me becoming a lawyer and a regulator and what I do now. Because bullying is the abuse of superior power. I could have been killed.”

It is impossible not to feel deep empathy for Winsor. I ask whether a legal career can really cleanse the horror of bullying. “I’m not haunted . . . You know what? These guys disappeared into obscurity, and I’ve got some really interesting jobs.”

He moved from Edinburgh to London in 1984. “I’d never go back.” Why? “The weather.” As a lawyer, he saw Railtrack, the track operator after privatisation, as a bully. “I used to get so angry.” He gained the ear of John Prescott, then transport secretary, who appointed him rail regulator. “Prescott was great. He was bright and he cared.” Railtrack didn’t know what hit them, Winsor says. “I slapped them with a £42mn fine in week four of my five-year term!” In the job, Winsor had a foldaway office bed, made to resemble an oak-panelled cabinet, so he could work almost through the night. He has taken it to each job since, and now plans to sell it on eBay.

Winsor’s inspectorate cleared the Met of being “heavy-handed” in their policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard in 2021, which horrified many Londoners. Indeed, it had encouraged the police to act tough: two days before the vigil, it warned that policing may be tipping “too readily in favour of protesters”. The High Court ruled last month that the Met police had erred by not properly considering whether the vigil could be within lockdown rules. Winsor dismisses the court ruling. “I don’t think [the Met] did fall into error.” He saves his criticism for Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader who impulsively called for Dick to quit.

I think I can guess where Winsor’s review into the resignation of “Cress” is headed. After all, the current home secretary, Priti Patel, is more interested in backing the police than reforming it. She has pushed stricter protest laws, which I suggest could lead to more conflict between police and young people. “XR [Extinction Rebellion] can make their points without ruining people’s lives or stopping ambulances getting to hospitals.” I say I’m not sure there’s evidence of XR stopping ambulances. “Well, I am.” A pause. “Oh no, I think that was Insulate Britain. Anyway, it was one of them.” 

Winsor applied to be chair of the media regulator Ofcom, but withdrew. “If you look at the relationship between ministers and the independent regulators, that independence is being squeezed.” Aged 64, he says he’s unlikely to take another public job. “I’d be a far wealthier man if I’d stayed as a law firm partner. I won’t tell you the calculation I’ve made, I just won’t, it upsets me.” (At a guess, two decades in the public sector reduced Winsor’s earnings by at least £20mn.)

“Last year I took the professional exams to be an international commercial arbitrator. Got 92 per cent.” I can’t quite believe that a 64-year-old man is telling me his exam results. “I’ll mediate and arbitrate pretty much anything.” His other plan is to try to convince US states to create their own inspectorates to examine how efficiently their budgets are spent.

Winsor spurns the dessert menu. “Nyet,” he says. We flick through topics: Scottish independence (“catastrophic”) and the inaccuracy of TV police dramas such as Bodyguard where bullets penetrate an armoured car (“You’d need to hit the same spot in the glass 17 times with a high-velocity round. Nobody can shoot that well when the car is moving!”). 

It strikes me that he is largely silent on how to improve police culture. He keeps bringing the subject back to his long-forgotten rail disputes, when he defied a Labour minister’s attempt to force him out. “I remained in office for the remainder of my five-year term and my powers were increased!” He plans to call his memoir No, Minister.

By the end of our lunch, I realise I have only seen Winsor smile twice — and one of those was off the record. There is something grimly fascinating about someone so sure of himself, so committed to minor procedural battles. “I hope you get the arbitration bit in. Mediation and arbitration,” says Winsor as he leaves.

A couple of weeks later, he calls to ask if this interview will be published the next day. I explain that the Ukraine war has meant changes to the schedule. “Right then,” he concludes. “I won’t buy the paper tomorrow.” Britain needs more hard-nosed inspectors and regulators — but not for the first time, I wonder where public service ends and ego begins.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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Letter in response to this article:

A lunchtime engagement leaves lots to chew over / From Sir Thomas Winsor, East Grinstead, West Sussex, UK