The new Commissioners will replace weak and invisible police authorities who, despite costing £65m a year and spending £25m in the last 3 years alone on expenses and allowances, have failed to hold chief constables to account. As a result, police chiefs have become too powerful, too detached and too risk-averse – with failure to tackle crime often just excused.
Commissioners will be elected to oversee strategy and set force budgets, including how much local taxpayers contribute towards policing. Despite the scaremongering of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the risk of extremists winning election is wildly overstated. Political parties will run candidates and successful PCCs will have mandates from up to several million electors each. The preferential voting system will make the election of extremists highly implausible, as candidates will need support from all sections of very large geographic areas.
Likewise, the Labour charge about politicisation is based on a fundamental misconception. The governance of policing is rightly, and by its nature, political – in practice if not in theory. It is only ever day-to-day policing operations that are and must remain non-political and the Home Office has pledged to guarantee this operational independence.
A clear coalition concession to Liberal Democrat concerns about appropriate “checks and balances” is the creation of Police and Crime Panels. These will be made up of nominated councillors, which sound suspiciously like existing police authorities. But if they can be kept as small, informal panels with no funding from central government, then they should not override the PCC’s democratic mandate. The Home Office will need to watch out for mission creep though – nobody wants police authorities resurrected by the back door.
This distinctive British model will make police chiefs truly accountable for the first time and the public will notice the difference. New ideas and the best police leaders will be promoted and local oversight will make the police more attentive to public concerns – especially the quality of life crime neglected by too many current chiefs.
Today’s proposals show the Home Office is serious about devolving power. In driving through the legislation, Theresa May and Nick Herbert should not allow the scaremongering from opponents – including some senior chief constables and peers – to dilute their plans. By creating these Commissioners and giving them real responsibilities (with the prospect of a wider remit in future), they are ending Ministerial control of local policing and terminating the monopoly of Whitehall over crime policy. The public, who have been so badly served by politicians for decades on crime, will finally have the say they deserve. It will be very hard to ever go back.
Blair Gibbs is the Head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange