Police commissioners: Where are we now?

The controversial issues surrounding the introduction of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) have already been well documented. There is little public understanding of the role, a lack of an effective mandate, questions about police operational independence, populist agendas, maverick decisions, inadequate scrutiny, rising costs, unmanageable ‘constituencies’, gender imbalance, plummeting police morale and the Tories’ antagonistic police reform agenda. Now, fourteen months into this experiment, and following two significant recent developments, the future for PCCs looks even more uncertain. However, the principle of democratic police governance, even with the election of a Labour government in 2015, is likely to remain.

Last November, the Stevens report, ‘Policing for a better Britain’ – The report of the Independent Police Commission made a strong argument for abolishing PCCs. Democratic governance of the police, for Stevens, raises significant constitutional questions about the balance between legitimate external oversight and police operational independence. The report alludes to the potential for PCCs to follow narrow, populist policies in order to secure re-election, rather than developing evidence based policies. While defending the concept of democratic police governance, Stevens concludes that the current model is fatally flawed and instead recommends greater local authority control, where police areas and local authorities share their boundaries. Local councils, he says, should be consulted about the appointment of local police commanders and lower tier local councils should be able to retain some of the police precept, in order to commission local policing, as well as being able to set local priorities. At force level, Stevens recommends the creation of a force board, comprising the leaders of all the local authorities in that area, to set the overall budget, appoint and dismiss the chief constable and formulate and agree with the chief constable the force level policing plan setting out the strategic priorities for the force.

The other significant development was the home affairs select committee’s hearing into PCCs on 7 January 2014, when oral evidence was given by two Tory PCCs, Anthony Stansfeld and Katy Bourne and their respective chief constables, Sara Thornton and Martin Richards. Unsurprisingly, both Stansfeld and Bourne thought they were doing an excellent job and that, despite criticisms of the model, PCCs were an important development in respect of democratic police governance. Despite powerful evidence to the contrary, both commissioners argued that their police and crime panels were an appropriate and effective scrutiny body. When the two chief constables were asked to comment on Lord Stevens’ recommendation to abolish the PCC model, both were understandably circumspect and took great care not to be seen as ‘party political’. Neither took the opportunity to criticise their commissioners, despite the concerns of many commentators about the potential for politicising policing. It was an object lesson in neutrality. Sara Thornton came close to acknowledging that her PCC’s emphasis on rural crime would not necessarily have been hers but then defended him on the basis of his democratic mandate.

When giving evidence, both Lord Stevens and Professor Ian Loader expressed considerable doubts about PCCs. While supporting the principle of democratic governance, they insisted that the PCC model was fatally flawed. The allegation by Tory MP, Michael Ellis, that the Stevens’ report was nothing short of a partisan Labour party document, was challenged robustly by Lord Stevens. He agreed with Labour MP, David Winnick, that he and Professor Loader had faced hostile questioning simply because of their opposition to the current PCC model.

It is clear that, despite government claims to the contrary, there remain very significant criticisms about the efficacy of PCCs. The Stevens report is probably the most authoritative commentary on democratic oversight of the police, and Yvette Cooper has stated she will use it as a template for future Labour policy. However, the model proposed by the Stevens’ team is not without its problems and will be open to criticisms that it is little more than a sophisticated return to the old police authorities. Much more thought will need to be given to obviate such concerns. The shadow home secretary now has some powerful, articulate and persuasive advisors, including former chief constable, Peter Neyroud, to help her translate Stevens’ recommendations into policy. She will also need to consult with the current Labour PCCs, who will have valuable insights to contribute. With the general election just sixteen months away, I hope we’ll see a detailed statement of Labour policy within the next few months. Watch this space.

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Roy Bailey, a former Thames Valley Police superintendent, is a Labour councillor on Bracknell town council and vice–chair of Bracknell CLP. He tweets @RoyBailey

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Photo: Megan Trace

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