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Police helmet

So that oxymoronic entity – the Labour Party’s Independent Police Commission – has finally produced its report. It comes out firmly against Police and Crime Commissioners. It wants to see them abolished and the 2016 elections cancelled. It makes sweeping references to PCCs being “riddled with failings.” While the report is hopelessly muddled as to quite what to put in their place, the general idea is to go back to the Police Authorities model.

This is not surprising. Labour recruited as the chairman Lord Stevens, the former head of the Metropolitan Police, who was known to be a staunch opponent of the PCCs. In the legislation setting up the posts he gave the warning that such elections could mean “we will never sleep soundly in our beds in the future.” However a year since the PCCs were set up crime has fallen – despite the challenge of reduced police budgets. Already the system is working smoothly.

The Stevens Report pretends to support democratic accountability of the police, but it doesn’t really. It just descends into a mush of “indirectly elected” boards, stakeholders, community engagement, rule by committee, “participatory budgeting units”, etc. In practice chief constables would be less accountable – as they would be harder to sack and they would have less clarity as to their priorities as any democratic process deriving them would be so blurred.

The level of enthusiasm for making chief constables accountable can be judged by the following passage in the report:

Much was made in the debates leading up to November 2012 about the power of the PCC to dismiss and appoint chief constables. The concerns expressed about these powers have thus far proved well founded. We judge there has been too much reliance placed on this mechanism as the principal means of coercing different behaviours from the police service.

“Coercing?” Clearly the approach Lord Stevens favours is a return to talking shops. In a way it doesn’t matter whether the committees he has in mind are directly elected, indirectly elected or unelected. They wouldn’t have any power anyway.  They could make suggestions but not have the power to “coerce” chief constables into doing anything.

The report goes on that here was “disquiet” about a Chief Constable in Gwent being removed. But why was she removed? It was simply that she refused to accept new arrangement of accountability and transparency. Ian Johnston, the PCC, said in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee:

We did not get off to a very auspicious start when I found in the first week that the Chief Constable issued a written report, followed up by a verbal report, that anyone having direct contact with the PCC would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. That, to me, did not show much evidence that the Chief Constable had embraced the Act of Parliament that created Police and Crime Commissioners. I had weekly meetings from November going through to April, and we had a particularly poor time in April. I decided then that this thing was just not going to work.

No democrat could object to Mr Johnston’s stance (although various Labour MPs on the committee sneered at him.) So there was a challenge in Gwent and the PCC overcame it. Overwhelmingly though the chief constables have adjusted well to the change and are working well with the PCCs. They have found it an advantage to have PCCs who can help to communicate with the public and secure better working arrangements with the NHS and local councils.

The Stevens Report complains that most PCCs are “male, white and middle aged.” An ingenious anti democratic argument. Only with a committee of appointees (the larger the better naturally) can one really ensure all the quotas are met – rather than the uncertainty of an election. The report also grumbles that most people don’t know who there PCC is. But how many knew who there Police Authority board members were? Indeed only seven per cent of people knew that police authorities existed. Ten times as many – 70 per cent – know that Police and Crime Commissioners exist.

So far as other issues covered in the report are concerned they are also pretty uninspiring. It talks about “plummeting morale” from police officers having now reached “rock bottom.” It gives as evidence a survey provided by the Police Federation but that doesn’t seem to offer a comparison with police morale in earlier years.

In any event if there is a problem with morale could it not have something to do with the antics of the Police Federation itself. An Ipsos/ MORI poll for the RSA found that most police officers feels the Federation does a poor job or representing them. I understand that there are over 30 applicants for each vacancy to become a police officer in the Metropolitan Police and that there is similarly high demand to serve in other police forces. Often applicants have already served as PCSOs, police cadets or Special Constables. Their experience does not seem to have put them off.

On the related mater of police pay and conditions it backs performance related pay, with those who do well progressing to higher salaries more quickly, but at the same time “rejects” a lower starting salary for police constables. The starting salary is cut from £23,000 to £19,000. How much would the extra salaries cost? How would Lord Stevens fund it?

The wider point is the absurdity of having national pay scales – even with London weighting and so on. Pay should be set locally according to circumstances. Is the labour market the same in Surrey and Cumbria? Is the rent for a flat the same? Why does it make sense for the starting salary for a PC to be £19,000 in both places?

The Stevens Report proposes merging the HMIC (which deals with inspections) and the IPCC (which deals with complaints). But these are distinct roles. Why muddle them up?

There is potential for great savings by using the private sector for non policing work freeing up the police to get on with their job. This report covers the matter at some length without a clear conclusion of whether or not it agrees with that approach. It does suggest saving money by cutting down the number of police forces from 43. Do they need to merge to save money? Hammersmith and Fulham Council has saved money by sharing services with Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. Yet we are still distinct local councils with our own policies. It might well make sense for two or more police forces to share the payroll departments, or jointly procure uniforms. That doesn’t mean they need to merge and have the same policing priorities.

This is a long reporting but offers little of merit. There are all the dated New Labour references to stakeholding and diversity. Yet it is short on practical new ideas and marches to he beat of centralisation, targets and bureaucracy. The talk about following Robert Peel’s principles. (“The police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence.”) An astonishing nerve. This report is contemptuous of the public and the antithesis of Peelite principles.

 

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