Does anyone remember H’Angus the Monkey? He was the Hartlepool Football Club mascot who famously won the town’s mayoral race back in 2002 on a ‘free bananas’ platform. The result showed the dangers of creating directly elected figures at a local level – and the case is now highlighted by many of those who oppose the Coalition’s plans to introduce directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012.
What’s government planning to do?
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which outlines the brave new world of elected Police and Crime Commissioners, is currently making its way through parliament. Until now, police forces and their chief constables have been held to account by Police Authorities, bodies typically made up of nine locally elected councillors plus eight non-elected lay members and supported by a (relatively) small administrative staff. Under the new Bill, this will change. New directly elected police and crime commissioners will take on police authority powers, including most importantly the right to appoint and dismiss chief constables. They will also draw up a Police and Crime Plan (a strategy, which must agreed with chiefs) and control Police Funds, the pots of money that will be allocated to each police force area by central government. Elected commissioners won’t have unfettered powers, however. New Police and Crime Panels (which will have a similar composition to current police authorities) will provide a slight check on commissioner powers and the Home Secretary will also retain highly limited rights of intervention when commissioners are failing to deal with national threats or are in breach of the law. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary will also remain in place to provide independent assessments of commissioners and their forces.
What are the main objections?
The proposals are expected to get a rough ride in Parliament, particularly in the House of Lords, where a number of former Metropolitan Police Commissioners (now ennobled) are already quietly campaigning against the changes. The police themselves are known to be generally resistant to the changes and local councillors continue to actively campaign against changes, despite the Coalition’s clear determination to push the changes through. Two main objections keep cropping up. First, cost, with the Association of Police Authorities (the big losers in this reform, it should be noted) claiming that new elections will cost the country in excess of £100 million. Second, politicisation, with concerns that the police may be corrupted by populist new commissioners, particularly if low local election turn-outs allow fringe parties (or monkeys) to gain power.
I tend to think the cost argument here is a little spurious. It’s hard to trust the £100million figure given its source. And the government’s budgeted £50million figure, or £12.5 million per year (0.0000009% of annual police funding) could easily prove good value if new commissioners really do deliver a better service that is more responsive to citizens’ needs. The fear of monkeys is also somewhat paranoid. After all, monkeys can do rather a good job. After being elected by a tiny margin in 2002, H’Angus took off the suit and revealed himself as 28 year-old Stuart Drummond. ‘I haven’t tried to make a mockery of anybody – I believe that the mayor should be independent, as I am’, Drummond said. His promise was that his election was ‘going to be a positive step forward for Hartlepool’. Such seriousness was rewarded. His second election victory was a landslide, as he polled 16,912 votes to the 6,707 votes received by his nearest rival, the Labour candidate. And in 2009 he became the only English mayor to be elected for three consecutive terms.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that police and crime commissioners are a good idea, of course. It just means that monkeys, as mayors or elected police commissioners might be the least of our worries.