Two hours before writing this, I was sitting in stark council offices in a small market town. A distressed father explained his fears. His severely autistic son is in trouble with the police. The case goes back to a fraud suffered by this son.
Both father and son believe this crime was not investigated properly. The son’s frustration and sense of injustice lead him to lash out at the police. They arrest him. His frustration increases. The situation worsens. It has run for several years.
Two years ago, neither father nor son would have had someone to go to.
They could have complained to the police. A department, mainly consisting of police officers, would have investigated the complaint within tight legal constraints.
They could have approached a member of the Police Authority, if they could find one. That member would have raised it with the Chief Constable, who would have delegated it to a subordinate, who would have reported that everything was being dealt with. Ordinary people had little meaningful leverage against a mighty bureaucracy.
In two years’ time, father and son may find themselves once again navigating the Kafkaesque world of committee corridors in the hope of getting their voice heard.
Labour wants to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners. Their ideas are a shambles. They propose a system where local commanders are jointly appointed by Chief Constables and councillors; Chief Constables are jointly appointed by council leaders; and, police force numbers are set by Ministers in Whitehall.
Who is accountable in that dog’s dinner? The public would lose their voice and the police would lose their operational independence. You could not construct a more cock-eyed system if you tried.
More than anything else Police and Crime Commissioners have given people a voice. They are a public figure, answerable to the public, with real authority over the public’s police force. They are able to represent victims of crime in an often fortress-like criminal justice system. They cannot interfere in legal processes, nor with the independence of a Constable. No one can. But they take the public’s voice to the very heart of that system, where they can demand changes in the interests of the public who pay for it.
Our work as voice of the public, and particularly victims, is the overriding achievement of Police and Crime Commissioners. Public correspondence has increased tenfold compared to police authorities. We have spent thousands of hours listening to our public and have more local coverage than almost any other politician. The government’s decentralisation and police reform have put the public interest unambiguously ahead of organisational interests.
In Dyfed Powys, the largest force area in Wales and England, I have responded to public demands with 30 extra rural officers. Investment in mobile IT will release an extra 100,000 hours of officers’ time next year. We have more than doubled the capacity of domestic violence advocates, funded two rural rape crisis centres and created two joint mental health teams with local nurses.
We have clamped down on the use of cautions, with their use dropping from 17 per cent to 15 per cent of cases. I have established a long-term partnership with a local housing association, Grwp Gwalia, to tackle antisocial behaviour. They have the skills and experience from their work as housing providers. Why not make the most of that, to relieve the burden on the police? There are many similar opportunities.
We are jointly commissioning drug treatment services with the local health board, saving at least 20% from both budgets. Money and a public mandate allow me, as a commissioner of local services, to find and exploit opportunities quickly: we are as close as you get to public sector entrepreneurs.
In response to problems raised by the public, the Chief Constable and I agreed to replace the entire complaints department. We have drawn on innovations in other areas. Our work has already informed Home Office thinking on national reform, announced by the Home Secretary on 11 December. In future, our complainants will receive a phone call within 24 hours to understand their concerns. We will use the majority to improve services, as the public want, and avoid losing them in complicated formal processes.
We have achieved this while saving £8.8m from the budget in my first term, including cutting 20% from the top 10 salaries.
How? Because by empowering local, accountable leaders these reforms enable quick decision making near the action. I have been able to take on entrenched local officials, who previously avoided scrutiny. I can respond to my area’s biggest challenge – its huge geography – by prioritising visibility and access, without interference from Whitehall.
Localism, direct democracy, devolved responsibility – all reflect sound Conservative instincts. They acknowledge that, on the whole, individuals make better decisions than governments; they empower people to take control in their communities; they recognise that accountability matters. Power comes with responsibility.
As we face the challenges of another austerity Parliament, we must rethink the relationship between society and state. The state will have to shrink because the money is not there. But a smaller state can be more effective. It can leave room for society to expand.
Police reform shows you can cut crime even as you cut police numbers. Police and Crime Commissioners show that when you empower local leaders you can deliver rapid, radical, change. You can do more with less. More importantly, from council offices in small market towns to national policing, direct election gives people a voice.
Their experience so far should serve as a beacon for Police and Crime Commissioners’ evolution in coming years – into mayors or sheriffs with wide responsibilities across criminal justice and other local services.