“We would like to support the Government,” says Sir Keir Starmer in one of his favoured soundbites. “But they make it difficult for us to do so.” A tone of responsible opposition – more in disappointment than in anger. There might be some scepticism about such sentiments. But when it comes to Police and Crime Commissioners, the phrase encapsulates my sincere view. When David Cameron brought in the reform I was an enthusiastic supporter. So was Mark Wallace. True, there was little fanfare from the media when the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act was passed in 2011, or interest from the voters when the first PCC elections were held a year later. But I hoped that in time the radical nature of this change would become apparent. That real accountability, the power to sack chief constables, would ensure that police cut crime, provided value for money, and pursued the priorities that reflected the wishes of the public.
There have been some successes. Many PCCs have written for this site to record some tangible achievements. They have helped push through innovation. Joined-up Government has been assisted – PCCs have helped the police work together with the NHS and local authorities to better cope with such challenges as mental illness and drug addiction. Stephen Greenhalgh was the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime in London during Boris Johnson’s second term as Mayor. This really meant that Greenhalgh was carrying out the PCC role for London. While the budget was cut, the number of front line police officers was maintained and crime fell. Progress was made outside the capital too. Initially, Labour proposed scrapping the PCCs but soon ditched that policy. Before the PCCs we had Police Authorities – they were expensive talking shops. Chief constables would go along to the meetings but they didn’t need to take any notice of what was said. The Police Authorities were toothless. So while the arrangements we have now are an improvement that is setting the bar pretty low.
But among those of us who remember that PCCs exist, there has been great frustration that they haven’t made their presence felt. It would be alarming if chief constables were being constantly sacked. Also simply for a chief constable to be aware of this possibility must, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “concentrate the mind wonderfully.” Yet for this power never to have been used does suggest a lack of rigour. It is hardly as if it is obvious that all is going well. In recent months we had the police in Derbyshire denouncing people for taking a walk in the countryside. In February we had Extinction Rebellion protestors dig up a lawn at Trinity College, Cambridge – with the police doing nothing to impede the vandalism.
Then we have had the failure of the police to protect statues and public monuments. We had Ben-Julian Harrington, Chief Constable, of Essex, make the pathetic comment about “trying to protect property if that’s the right thing to do” – while adding that it was not a priority. This followed the appeasement of the mob in Bristol by Andy Marsh, the Avon and Somerset Chief Constable, with the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down.
If the message had been that in Avon and Somerset you can smash away at any statue or war memorial to your heart’s content, but elsewhere you can expect to be arrested and prosecuted that would be one thing. If the PCC for Avon and Somerset (an independent called Sue Mounstevens) wished to see the rule of law upheld, then she could advise Marsh that if he was unable or unwilling to do so, she would find a Chief Constable who would. Should Mounstevens favour a policy of mob rule then her electorate, should they happen to disagree, can choose another PCC when they go to the polls in May next year.
That is part of the answer. That we get the policing we deserve. The democratic remedy is there should we be willing to take it. As Conservatives, we can do our bit by ensuring we select strong PCC candidates – both in terms of their ability and their beliefs. Those who feel that the political parties have not come up to scratch with the candidates they make available can put themselves forward as independents.
There is a bit more to it though. The media seem to think that just as interesting as Harrington being the chief constable of Essex is that he is “the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for public order”. They are shrewd to do so. The NPCC is not just a trade union for the chief constables. It’s much worse than that. It provides national “coordination” for police strategy and law enforcement. It is a replacement body of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which was established under Section 22A of the Police Act 1996. It has statutory force and acts to neuter the localism that is the whole point of the PCCs.
While Cameron was a true believer in police accountability, he trusted Theresa May, his Home Secretary, to deliver. This proved a mistake, as she did not believe in it. Though she could scarcely refuse altogether, the result was an emaciated version. Home Office officials were allowed to bring in constraints in the small print to help ensure that centralisation, group think, and political correctness prevailed.
There is plenty wrong with policing in the United States but there is great scope to allow an initiative to be tried out in one area to see if it works. Rudy Giuliani applying the “broken windows theory” in New York was a famous example.
Should PCCs have the power to vary sentencing along with policing priorities? To return to the US model we have capital punishment in Missouri and Montana but not in Maine or Michigan. That might be going a bit far. But some greater local decision-making would be welcome. Surely we should go beyond our minor local byelaws varying the level of fines for dropping litter in parks.
So rather than a retreat, the answer is to advance. The National Police Chiefs’ Council should be abolished. The trend towards giving PCCs power over fire services is welcome – the potential for greater efficiency from joint working being pretty obvious.
A test on the changes needed would be for Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to make a speech urging PCCs to exercise a far greater role. Where the PCCs are prevented from taking the bold measures need to defeat crime then those obstacles should be removed.
Police accountability has not failed. It has not yet been properly tried.