Jonathan Clifton is associate director for public services at IPPR.
On Monday, 40 newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will start work. Their election will go largely unreported amid the Conservative gains in Scotland and Sadiq Khan’s arrival as Mayor of London. But they represent an important part of the government’s reform agenda – and their role should be expanded.
The PCC model is certainly not perfect. As Rick Muir points out, when there are more white men called Kevin standing for election as PCC than there are candidates from minority ethnic groups, it is hard to argue that PCCs reflect the communities they claim to serve. But PCCs are here to stay and can make an important contribution.
The newly elected PCCs have their work cut out. They will have to preside over continuing cuts to the police force budget and after a decade of falling violent crime rates, it looks like the tide could be beginning to turn the other way.
Meanwhile, the difficulties recruiting Chief Constables following scandals such as Rotherham’s child abuse are likely to continue.
But while the first wave of PCCs had to focus narrowly on police strategy, the real gains from having elected commissioners will come from their ability to think beyond these traditional roles. Much of the harm done to communities stems from social ills such as poor mental health, homelessness and drug abuse. Huge amounts of police time are spent dealing with low level repeat offenders who cycle in and out of the prison system – at vast expense to the taxpayer.
The challenge for PCCs will be to establish how they can work with local services, probation staff and prisons to tackle the root causes of these problems. This is the only way to make our communities safer and stem the flow of offenders into our clogged up courts and dangerously full prisons. In his new book Criminal, Tom Gash shows that many crimes are the result of ‘in the moment’ decisions and can be averted with small changes.
Some of the early PCCs embraced this sort of broader role – and it is paying off. In Northumbria, Vera Baird created an innovation fund which has been used to support perpetrators of domestic violence to change their behaviour, in an attempt to break their cycle of abuse. In Durham, Ron Hogg has introduced the ‘Checkpoint’ scheme, which enables the police to defer prosecution for people who commit low level offences – provided they accept help and successfully change their behaviour. This ‘tough love’ approach helps to break the cycle of reoffending – on the condition that offenders who don’t change their behaviour will end up back in court.
But we must go further. The real gains from this approach will come from bringing together the big budgets used for policing, prisons and probation so that they can be used to try and tackle the causes of crime – rather than handing offenders from one agency to the next like a game of pass the parcel, without ever supporting them to turn their live around.
This approach has worked very well in places like New York – where the city has control of the budget for youth prisons and probation, as well as the police. They decided to pool some of these resources and invest them in smaller institutions with an emphasis on training and mental health programmes – bringing about a drop in the number of young people falling into a life of crime.
IPPR have argued that we could try a similar approach in England and Wales. In some places, the Police and Crime Commissioner could take on more of these responsibilities. In other places, the creation of city mayors under the Chancellor’s devolution agenda could hold the answer. This model works particularly well given that mayors in places like London have oversight of both the police (since they act as the PCC) and many of the services which can help to reduce offending. Greater Manchester has already asked for control of the prisons and probation budget, and the new Mayor of London should follow suit.
The first wave of PCCs proved their critics wrong. In general, they did not lead to an overt politicisation of the police and have not meddled in operational decisions. But if they are going to make a real dent in the persistent low level offending that blights so many communities, they need to play a much broader role in the criminal justice system.