Policing Minister Nick Herbert laid out a cogent defence of elected police and crime commissioners in today’s Telegraph. He writes:
“Over the years, the police have become estranged from the municipalities from which they sprang and increasingly look to the Home Office. But they are a monopoly service and officers must be accountable for their actions and performance. Far better, surely, that they should answer to local communities than to box-ticking officials in Whitehall.”
Now, I quite like this argument. Yes, it would be great for police to be responsive to local communities, engaged in local life and freed from bureaucratic excesses. But there’s something wrong here. While Herbert correctly diagnoses the problems in policing, in my view, it really isn’t clear that the proposed model of directly elected police and crime commissioners is the solution to these problems.
First, if he wants localism, why has Herbert decided that police commissioners should represent the 43 rather large English and Welsh police force areas rather than local authority areas, or at least city-regions that local residents can identify with? Do you know anyone from Shropshire who would say ‘I’m from West Mercia’? And can you really tell me that the priorities of residents of Norwich will be the same as those of the surrounding rural areas of Norfolk?
Second, if he wants to ensure that police are not ‘estranged from the municipalities from which they sprang’, why has Herbert decided to create a structure that parallels the political structures of local government, rather than being integrated within them? Currently, local councilors use their democratic mandate to ensure that police activity is aligned with local priorities. And we should note that it is locally elected councilors sitting on police authorities who, along with some lay members (magistrates and experts), currently hold chief constables to account. Is it really feasible to say that a new source of democratic accountability will improve integration and co-ordination with local authorities?
Third, bureaucracy, as Herbert himself recognises, is not a problem that is automatically solved by police commissioners.
What’s more, the Coalition’s attempt to characterise opponents of directly elected police commissioners as anti-democratic are clever, but unfair. Herbert writes: “The same disreputable arguments – that you can’t rely on people to make the right decisions – were advanced against votes for women” – the implication being, of course, that the opponents to police accountability reform are anti-progress. But wait again. This debate is not about whether or not there should be democratic influence over policing, it is a question of how that influence should be managed. I agree with Herbert that the current system of police authorities might not be the answer and I doubt police and crime commissioners will be disastrous but I’d argue that there are much better ways of enhancing democratic influence.
The first best option, in my view, is probably a mayoral system, where the mayor holds both the police and other public services to account. This gets your democratic mandate and control without adding the cost of extra elections or the confusion of multiple sources of local democratic authority. Systems would need to be put in place to avoid undue political influence over areas of policing which should be apolitical, such as decisions over who to investigate – but these could controls could be relatively easily designed. That the Coalition has not gone for this option is rather strange, in fact, not least because the Government supports the mayoral model and has promised to hold local referenda on their introduction. But apparently mayors are good for improving local democracy in all areas except for policing – an inconsistency that is exacerbated by the fact that the Coalition deems referenda necessary for imposing mayors but is unwilling to provide local people with a say on whether or not they want police and crime commissioners.
The second best option for improving police accountability would probably be to introduce elected crime commissioners but at a local authority level. Again, checks and balances would be needed but these would surely be more ‘local’ and ‘democratic’ than figures elected at the police force level, if less likely to be politically Conservative. This approach involves a more fundamental reform of policing, however, not least as it would require a radical shift of police power and resources from large police force areas to smaller Borough Command Units. This degree of change may be unappetising given the current flurry of reform across the public sector.
If so, there is a third, simpler option: to strengthen existing police authorities by ensuring that the local councillors sitting on police authorities are directly elected. If I lived in Worcester, for example, I’d vote for my local city councilor at the local election and I’d also vote for Worcestershire’s police commissioner at the same time. This police commissioner would then work with three other police commissioners (from Herefordshire, Shropshire and Telford and Wreckin) and potentially with other lay members to hold the West Mercia Police Chief Constable to account. This would help to make police commissioners more easily identifiable with a local area that people understand and relate to. But it would also provide a check and balance on abuses and better connections with local government services.
The Coalition’s proposals for directly elected police and crime commissioners are going in front of parliament again tomorrow. Let’s see if any of these arguments are raised in opposition. I predict few will be, as Labour appear overkeen to adopt the relatively specious argument that direct election will compromise police independence. But I’m pretty certain that these argument will crop up when the proposals reach the House of Lords. Expect a legislative delay as the Lords (as on AV) once again demonstrates its commitment to fully debating any constitutional reform, and as leading policing figures (such as former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair) rally the troops in opposition.