Chief Constables should trust the people – and welcome accountability to directly elected police commissioners – says Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance.
This week the police have launched a new crackdown. It’s not on guns, or knives or drugs – it’s not even on the petty offences that many forces love to go after to boost their success statistics. It’s a crackdown on the concept of accountable policing.
Sir Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), laid into the concept of elected Police Authorities this week with all the enthusiasm that one would rather have focused on fighting crime.
His criticisms were the usual, tired generalisations. Elected oversight for the police would “politicise” the service. Voters don’t have the right priorities for such an important service. The police should be operationally independent.
These arguments have been addressed and dismissed in this column and elsewhere many times. Policing is already “politicised”, but the relationship is purely between the police and the Home Office, rather than local residents. Ordinary voters more than anyone have the incentive to get policing right – if they don’t, then it is them who suffer the consequences of rising crime. Elected authorities would maintain the operational independence of the police but increase their accountability and their legitimacy.
The interesting development that Sir Hugh’s latest intervention brought into play was an open threat that Chief Constables will resign if they are forced to answer to the people.
About ten days ago, I spoke alongside Sir Hugh at ACPO’s Autumn conference. I should note at this point that I found him to be a pretty impressive guy. He has the natural authority of an experience police commander, his exercise in diplomatic but firm policing in Northern Ireland has left him easy to get on with, and he was even welcoming despite my having criticised ACPO in the front page story of the day’s Sun for issuing absurd guidelines on how to ride a bicycle.
The topic of the session that I took part in was “The future of ACPO and Policing”. It’s normally safe to assume that when the TPA is invited to what is effectively a trade association or lobby group for senior public sector officials, the audience are expecting at least a touch of controversy. Therefore, I was frank with them.
ACPO, and the police in general, I told them, have a clear choice. There is a new tidal wave of transparency, accountability and democracy rushing towards our public sector institutions – and they can either swim with it or against it.
If they choose to welcome the concept of accountability, they could use it to harness the public’s innate and traditional good will towards the police and restore much of the respect that has been lost by the rise of pernickety, jobsworth policing in recent years.
If they had a little bit of faith in the people, and trusted that they were on the side of the fine traditions of proper British policing, they would be pleasantly surprised. This would make their job a lot easier.
On the other hand, they could choose to shut their eyes, plug their fingers in their ears and attempt to deny that times are changing. They didn’t have to take my word for the consequences of that tactic, I pointed out. Instead, they could simply look at its most famed practitioner – Michael Martin.
He tried to refuse the right of the people to scrutinise MPs and hold politicians to account, and as well as bringing popular wrath down upon himself he also severely harmed the institution which he was meant to protect. No Chief Constable would fare any better.
It is clear from Sir Hugh’s outburst this week that the argument I put forward then has far from universally won over senior police officers. I know that some of them are a lot more open to the idea of elected police authorities, though, than Sir Hugh has been willing to publicly accept.
That ACPO’s leadership disagrees with what I told them does not make my argument any less correct – and I stand by it in full. The tide of democracy is on the rise, and there is nothing they can do to stop it. They could delay it, at great cost to themselves and – more importantly – to the crucial institution of the police, but their attempts would ultimately be fruitless.
There is another, interesting footnote to this latest furore. Sir Hugh’s warning that Chief Constables would resign was based on the assumption that in so doing the police would lose talent that they would struggle to replace. However, when Sir Ian Blair was rightly drummed out of office by Boris Johnson, a leading applicant for the job was none other than…Sir Hugh Orde. If he himself is not afraid of policing with the oversight of an elected authority like the Mayor of London, why should his colleagues have anything to worry about?