Thursday, 2 December 2010

Elected Police Commissioners. Is this a good move?

The previous post on this blog took an early overview of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill presented to Parliament on 1st December.  Existing Police Authorities will be abolished and there will be elected Police and Crime Commissioners.  There will also be Police and Crime Panels which will be set up by local authorities.

One may wonder why all of this is seen as so essential at a time when Police Forces have stopped recruiting new officers and are enforcing the retirement of the most experienced officers.  (As an example see BBC report regarding Greater Manchester Police).  The government claims that it will improve the democratic accountability of the Police given that the Commissioners will be elected and the Panels will comprise elected local councillors.  (Police Authorities are mainly Councillors anyway).  According to the Home Office it will put the public at the heart of the fight against crime.

The system proposed by the Bill will hardly be less bureaucratic and its implementation will be very costly.  The Police and Crime Panels will be made up of local councillors but, because local authority and police area boundaries overlap, each Police and Crime Commissioner will be subject to a cumbersome structure of scrutiny by a panel made up of councillors from each of the local authorities involved with the police area.

During October 2010, the Commons Home Affairs Committee heard evidence about the proposals and issued their report "Policing: Police and Crime Commissioners."  A Press Release issued on behalf of the committee indicates briefly some of their concerns - here - including recognition of the point that one of the more likely sources of applicants for Commissioner posts will be from senior Police Officers.  The committee suggests that such officers should have a "cooling off period" of 4 years before being eligible for election.  If that were not the case, an ex-Chief Constable might be elected commissioner and then have to sit in judgment on some of his own previous decisions.

The Association of Police Authorities is, perhaps inevitably, opposing the proposals.  Nevertheless, their measured response is worthy of considerable respect and may be seen via their website - Assoc. of Police Authorities.  They also refer to an independent financial analysis of the proposals which clearly involve huge costs - see here on their website.
It has also been reported (The Times 2nd December) that several former Metropolitan Police Commissioners are in opposition to the plans.  Lord Stevens has said - "...... big cuts (are) coming to police resources.  Is this really the time to be doing this?"  Lord Imbert does not think it right that one person alone can hire or fire a chief constable" since Police chiefs could be put under pressure to take decisions that suited a Commissioner from a particular political party.  Lord Condon said that he would test the legislation in the House of Lords to ensure that it did not threaten the character of British policing.  "The whole basis of policing is the independence of the office of constable.  Whether it is the PC on the beat or the chief constable, no politician can tell him to use his powers in a particular way.  That historical legacy, a covenant with the public that those awesome powers will be used independently of politics, is uniquely British and must be preserved."

A further interesting interview may be viewed via Youtube in which Bill Bratton (a former Police Commissioner in both New York and Los Angeles) is interviewed along with Cllr. Rob Garnham (Chair of the Association of Police Authorities).  Mr Bratton has also been interviewed by the Home Affairs Committee - here.

The Association of Chief Police Officers states that how the Police are subjected to democratic oversight is a matter for Parliament but they raised practical points with the government during the consultation - see here.  Beyond that they reserved further comment.

This Bill seems to be a change which will achieve not very much but will entail excessive election and transition costs and it is being introduced at a time when, according to the government itself, we are in a desperate financial climate.  Sensible?  Probably not.  As ever, constructive comments are welcome.


  1. One has to wonder why this is being driven through. A single commissioner, even with staff, is never going to be able to interact with as many of the public as the current 17 or members of a current police authority. The current model has a majority of local councillors, representing the political mix. The independents provide a gender and racial mix reflective of the communities in which they live. A few practicalities. The Thames Valley force includes a number of unitary authorities andcounties. From where will the commissioner come? How will he (or remotely possibly, she) represent those areas from which he was not elected as a councillor? If he lives in Slough, will he properly represent Oxford dons? This is ahrd enough at single county level. corruption opportunitiesare blindingly obvious. But above all, this marks the real politicising of police. If a government supported an unpopular cause leading to demonstrations (say over poll tax or war) the commisssioner might lean on the chief constable to police the event in a particular way. Current police authorities, without exception, do not seek to direct operational policing matters. Police Authorities work quietly in the background, dealing with the myriad of stuff (I could be less polite) which emanates from the Home office. Budget planning, policing plans, community engagement, senior officer appointments and so on are all dealt with. Meanwhile, the Home Office struggles to agree what to do with independent members whose term expires before the 2012 handover. This appears to be a major challenge for them. Bringing 41 elected commissioners (or is Wales getting just one)to heel is going to make herding cats look easy. the met and the City of London have a different model proposed.
    Running costs of provincial authorities are a bit below one million per year, which includes external audit of the police force. members allowances and expenses (and remember there are 17 of them) is below 200,000 per year. A commissioner's salary is set at 122,000 plus pension, medical cover, car allowance and so on. Easy to be more expensive.

    Not a smart move, even if we could afford it.

  2. The reason it is being pushed through is because it is democratic. The present makeup of authorities is of appointed members. Either appointed councillors, or appointed independents. None of these people are directly responsible to the public at large for the determination of policing policy. The councillors are elected on their party tickets later appointed to the authority by the usual cabal in the Town Hall. They never mention their policing role at election time (even if they know they may continue or become a member of an authority). The independents are beyond parody. What standing do they have? This system is a typical paternalistic set up. Designed to avoid giving the Chief Constable any difficulties as he or she proceeds in their meglomaniac ambitions - ignoring what the man in the street really wants. Commissioners can not come too quickly for me.