Until today, I was certain that 2012 was certain to see the first direct elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. The political will behind this manifesto commitment is, after all, palpable and insiders will testify to the fact that both Cameron and the up-and-coming Minister for Policing Nick Herbert are resolute in their support for reforms.
But at a policing conference today, I found myself involved in a six-person panel discussion in which only one person – the Conservative Lord Wasserman – wholeheartedly supported the government’s plans. The rest of the panel had one of two views. First, some panelists (including me) felt that police and crime commissioners may not have a radical impact. Generally, this group was unclear how new commissioners would actually help to address commonly recognised problems in British policing (for example, weaknesses in working with other public service organisations to prevent crime and difficulties in tackling serious and organised crime). Second, other panelists (and in particular Jessica de Grazia) argued that the introduction of police commissioners could have dangerous consequences, including improper political influence over decisions that it was felt should be apolitical, such as who is subject to police investigation. Those fearing corruption felt stronger checks and balances were needed to protect against individual commissioners using their powers (which include hiring and firing officers and fixing budgets) inappropriately.
This strength of opposition made me think that perhaps the Coalition will be forced into a rethink their proposals. The Lords have after all been pretty vocal on constitutional reform generally. And with many Lords, including former chief constables and law lords, known to be vehemently opposed to police commissioners, there will be no shortage of candidates to lead the opposition charge. This could lead to such a delay that the Coalition will be forced to accept a compromise measure in order to move onto other pressing parliamentary business.
Any compromise will still need to deliver on the thrust of the Coalition’s proposals. An element of democratic influence must be injected into the system, clearly. But there may be reform options that better deliver the end goals of the Coalition than current proposals, including reforms that would require only minimal amendments to the Police and Social Responsibility Bill currently going through the Commons. Here are a couple of options, both of which would create greater checks and balances on police commissioner powers and would help to ensure that policing doesn’t become remote from other public services.
- Introduce directly elected police and crime commissioners but instead of giving them complete executive powers give them a leadership role within a larger accountability body. This reform would basically translate into the current system of police authorities, but with a directly elected police authority chair. This measure would be unlikely to see police authorities scrapped, as the Government intends, but would see them strengthened with a higher-profile more visible leader. The composition of the police authority could be tweaked but would essentially remain a mixture of local councillors and lay experts, who would act as a check on the individual power of the new commissioner.
- Introduce directly elected police and crime commissioners, but ensure they are elected for the local authority level rather than the police force areas. If I live in Worcester, for example, I’ll vote for my local city councillor at the local election and I’ll also vote for Worcestershire’s police commissioner at the same time. This police commissioner will 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 will make commissioners more easily identifiable with a local area that people understand and relate to. It will also, again, provide a check and balance on abuses and better connections with local government services. This doesn’t, however, give the single point of accountability that the Coaltion appear committed to – except in the areas where county/unitary council seats and police force areas are coterminous (as in Norfolk, for example).
Another option, even better in my view, would simply be to encourage mayors and ensure that mayors, as in London, are given responsibilities for policing. This won’t deliver accountability reforms to all areas because many won’t opt for mayors but it will ensure that local democratic influence over policing increases while, crucially, maintaining closer co-ordination between policing and other local public services.
The problem with this last option, however, is that it won’t deliver the headline-grabbing reform that the Coalition are clearly after, even if it would deliver the results they want. As a result, they may simply push through current plans against objections. Still, they might, just might, opt for a compromise strategy like one of the two highlighted here.