Today and tomorrow the House of Commons will put its finishing touches to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. It is a long title for one key reform, putting a directly elected individual “in charge” – as the Home Secretary put it on Monday – of each police force. That reform will have huge ramifications as power in policing shifts from the Chief Constable to the elected Commissioner.
Unsurprisingly, the Chief Constables don’t much like that. However, unlike police authorities, which have spent public money fighting their own abolition, most Chief Constables, if not necessarily their Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), accept very professionally that it is for elected politicians to set policy under which they operate.
Police authorities are generally considered to have been the weakest of the ‘tripartite’ pillars of police governance, the others being the Home Office and the Chief Constable. Our plan to deal with that, which I passed to Douglas Carswell to develop further when he replaced me at the Conservative Policy Unit in 2004, was to transfer the police authority powers to people who are elected, so as to reinforce those powers with a democratic mandate.
David Cameron wrote that plan into our manifesto in 2005 and has evangelised it ever since, so much so that he appointed the hugely impressive Nick Herbert as Police Minister, having seen him make the case for democratic control of policing when leading the thknk-tank Reform. The Prime Minister then promised in July 2006 that “We will enshrine operational independence in legislation”.
It is unfortunate that some concessions have since been made to ACPO, but any apparent increase in Chief Constables’ powers will surely prove illusory once they face Commissioners empowered with a democratic mandate. If this bill fails to give the elected Commissioners the power they need to deliver what the public wants, then they will come back and demand that power, and Parliament will give them the power, as we have for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
I will nonetheless make the case today and tomorrow for us to get it right first time, to give the elected commissioners the powers they need now, and to give a clear steer to the courts that, in the Home Secretary’s words, the elected commissioners must be “in charge”. Chief Constables must of course make operational decisions regarding investigations and arrests independently of politicians, but it is for the elected commissioners to determine policy and set priorities.
Moreover, if panels of elected councillors are to scrutinise elected commissioners and potentially second-guess their budgets, then we shouldn’t need the Secretary of State to third-guess that process. It may make sense to give the Secretary of State a reserve power to require a referendum if a local council wants a really excessive council tax increase. For policing, that power would surely better be exercised in extremis by the Panel which will scrutinise the police budget and represent the local councils and electorate which would pay for a referendum.
David Cameron, Theresa May and Nick Herbert are truly driving home the Direct Democracy agenda with the police. They deserve our support.