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Max Chambers is Head of Crime and Justice at Policy Exchange. Follow Max on Twitter.


Screen shot 2013-08-22 at 06.56.10Elmo from
Sesame Street was once called to give evidence before a US Congressional
Committee. The subject was musical education policy, but for some reason the furry
red muppet seemed more interested in eating the microphone, dancing in his
chair and telling Members of Congress how much he loved them than discussing
the important policy issue of the day. Elmo’s appearance followed other
brilliantly attention-seeking stunts by committees, including inviting Jane
Fonda to give evidence on agricultural policy on the basis that she once played
a farmer’s wife in a 1980s film.

Some of our
Select Committees appear to have worked out this trick. For a committee chair,
inviting celebrities (no matter how limited their expertise) to give evidence
in front of the cameras is guaranteed to get your face on the news.  In
the last year alone, Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee,
has invited Russell Brand to give evidence on drug laws (qualification: he used
to take them) along with Mitch Winehouse – who agreed to appear but warned the
Committee that he didn’t know anything about drugs policy and didn’t want to
talk about his daughter, Amy.

Hopefully,
this kind of attention-seeking behaviour isn’t symptomatic of how Select
Committees approach their reports. The production of forensic, apolitical and
evidence-based research – at the expense of grandstanding or playing to the
gallery – should always be the focus of these important organisations.

The Home
Affairs Select Committee is currently working on a report on Police and Crime
Commissioners (PCCs) due to be published in November. As the first think tank
to recommend the introduction of PCCs, at Policy Exchange we naturally want to
see these new figures given a fair crack of the whip, but the Committee’s last
report on PCCs left something to be desired. It amounted to a comparison of the
costs of running PCCs’ offices with the costs of the Police Authorities that
they replaced. This choice of subject matter alone suggested that Vaz and the
Committee don’t really understand the nature of the PCC role, which is much
broader, more significant and far more transformative than Police Authorities
could ever have hoped to be.


It also
suggested that the Committee believed that a few thousand pounds of crucial
support was more important than whether these extra staff were helping to drive
down a £12 billion police budget while maintaining record reductions in crime.
So it is to be hoped that their next report is a rather more impressive effort
and will be focused on the substance (how the new localism model for policing
is actually working), rather than on more peripheral and misleading issues.

The autumn
will also see a major intervention in the policing debate from the Labour
Party, with the publication of a long-awaited review led by former Metropolitan
Police Commissioner Lord Stevens. It’s not clear if the review has been taking
evidence from children’s TV characters, but it is rumoured to contain a
controversial proposal to move towards regional police forces, which met
widespread opposition last time it was floated.

It will also need to address the
Party’s position on PCCs. If Labour decided to scrap PCCs and change the model
of police governance again, emergency legislation would need to be passed by a
new Government in order to cancel the next set of PCC elections in May 2016.
Scrapping PCCs would not only need to be the first priority for Ed Miliband if
he makes it into 10 Downing Street, but it would also extinguish the progress
made by a number of influential former Labour Ministers who are thriving as
PCCs of large police forces in the North and the Midlands. For both of these
reasons, the smart money is on PCCs remaining in place and being given the time
to demonstrate their significant potential.

So the time is
fast approaching when politicians and policymakers will begin to turn their
attention to the future rather than quibble about the past. Today, we are
publishing a report
which is
an attempt to do just that. As PCCs develop over the next few years, we believe
that they should increasingly expand into other areas of policy such as
criminal justice to maximise their ability to fight crime.

We set out a series of steps which
would see PCCs increasingly assume a role similar to that of a ‘Minister for
the local criminal justice system’ – with the political power to set the
agenda, hold agencies such as the prison, probation and courts service to
account, and increasingly hold budgets in key areas such as youth justice and
crime prevention. In the future, we envisage much more powerful PCCs able to
appoint local prison governors and probation chiefs, opt out of national
contracts and play a key role in integrating services at a local level. We
suggest that the Government create a number of ‘Super’ PCCs who can blaze a
trail for this new model and take on new powers much more quickly.

Our ambition is for a system where,
instead of local criminal justice leaders looking upwards and inwards to
Whitehall for direction and validation, they increasingly look outwards to each
other and downwards to the citizens they serve. It will mean cheaper, more
effective justice for a system that desperately needs an injection of dynamism
and innovation.  It’s the right way of making sure that PCCs fulfil their
potential and meet the promises they made to their electorate. And ultimately,
it’s the best way for PCCs to answer those critics who want them to fail, and
are happy to try to make them look like muppets in the process.

Power Down: A plan for a cheaper, more effective justice system is available from Policy Exchange

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