‘We can’t,’ said the minister, who shall be nameless, ‘be the only party to go into the election without promising direct elections to police authorities.’ To which the reply was: ‘Why not? It won’t sway a single vote.’ Even Louise Casey’s report on engaging communities in fighting crime, quoted in the policing green paper, didn’t list such elections in the top 10 policing approaches sought by the public.
But quite apart from the fact that these proposals are unlikely to arouse any great interest, confirmed by the virtual absence of reporting – let alone comment – on them, there are substantive reasons to question their merits.
Let’s be clear: policing should be more accountable, both at force and local level, and especially at the local level there must be much more public engagement. But you don’t need a system of direct elections to police authorities or crime and disorder reduction partnerships to achieve that. There are already people elected at local level to represent the community and be their advocates over a range of services – they’re called councillors. Why set up a parallel, and potentially conflicting, system with a competing mandate?
And if that is so for policing, why not education, health or transport? Why not, in short, fragment local democracy into a series of single-purpose bodies and establish a system of perpetual elections? To ask the question is to answer it; because to do so would weaken, not strengthen, the necessary links between services, and the influence of programme-based party politics on which our democracy depends, not to mention potentially opening the door to populist, sectional or extremist elements who would otherwise be unlikely to gain a foothold.
The green paper, astonishingly, proposes that ‘at least one councillor’ will serve on each police authority. How generous! But the majority will be formed by directly elected individuals – Crime and Policing Representatives (CPR), elected in numbers and on an electoral basis unspecified, save that they will be based on current CDRP/CSP boundaries, or perhaps not, if the latter are too small, or too big! For the uninitiated, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) in England, or Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) in Wales, are partnerships of police, councils, the NHS and others in an area, working together to fight crime and antisocial behaviour.
This band of elected brothers will sit on the local CDRP, whose constitution in other respects is not specified, and one of them will chair it. Where there is an elected mayor he or she will be the sole local CPR.
Confusingly, the green paper proposes that ‘a number of councillors from some or all of the upper tier councils in an area should be invited (by whom?) to sit on the police authority’. Whether all upper tier councils will be represented depends on the number of upper tier councils, since they cannot outnumber the independent and CPR members. But then why stipulate ‘at least one councillor?’ Note that district councils, with highly relevant services like housing, planning and recreation don’t get a look in. But the green paper suggests that some councillors might stand for election as CPRs, so enjoying both a dual and competing mandate!
As to the powers of police authorities and CDRPs, the green paper is effectively silent. This dog-handler’s breakfast does little except clutter and confuse the governance arrangements and devalue local government. Police authorities spend 10 per cent of the total revenue spend of local government, and their precepts average 11.3 per cent of the English – and 15.3 per cent of the Welsh – council tax bills. It is absolutely unacceptable that this significant proportion of local expenditure and taxation should be removed from local government’s influence.
Accountability would be better enhanced by strengthening council scrutiny of policing at local council and force level, including the involvement of independent members indirectly elected by CDRPs and the third sector. Similarly, independent members of police authorities themselves should be indirectly elected by CDRPs. Elected members serving on police authorities should be better supported by the councils that nominate them. And they should be in the majority.
The Improvement and Development Agency should assist in training and developing the skills of all police authority members, and the Centre for Public Scrutiny should do the same for the scrutiny function.
Coupled with many of the more sensible and practical proposals about consultation and information at local and basic command unit level, we could make accountability more meaningful and effective than the half-baked ideas about direct elections would, and foster the essential close links between policing and other local services which councils are best placed to deliver or coordinate.
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