As Harold Macmillan is widely reported to have suggested, the best of plans and ideas can catch us all out (or events, dear boy, events). Tonights Channel 4 news focused extensively on the Tottenham Riots and ended up with an interview in front of the iconic revolving New Scotland Yard sign of Richard Barnes, Deputy Mayor of London. If this was his finest hour I can only imagine that few colleagues would want to be around during his more difficult moments. Richard was being interviewed in the place of Boris who was presumably unavailable (according to a statement made at 5.20 this evening he explained ‘We have a massive programme of community engagement from City Hall’) Richard Barnes was challenged on the tactics and impact of policing over the last 48 hours and at one point suggested that sometimes you don’t always have minibuses full of police officers waiting around the corner, just in case!
Whatever the truth of the matter, local communities do not want to be left in doubt that should the proverbial hit the fan, that the local Police Support Unit is far away. The Deputy Mayor (and for this read the quasi Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner) has made it clear that this was not the case last night and the concern in the rather more comfortable areas of London such as Harefield that Richard represents, let alone the areas such as Tottenham which are experiencing the third night of unrest, may be that if they could misjudge matters two days after the death of 29 year old Mark Duggan, then how much worse could it be in settings where tension was unexpected.
It is clear that Richard Barnes is not unused to mispeaking. His own website carries a recent apology for a comment about the Irish community in his role on the Transport Committee. It is also easy to understand why the Deputy Police & Crime Commissioner may not have the flair of the PCC himself. However these words and the rest of his unscripted comments were not what the Capital needed on Sunday evening of a weekend that has seen police cars and a bus set alight, 26 years after riots that impacted the whole nation.
This raises a couple of concerns which I suggest the Policing Minister needs to consider as he unrolls his plans to use the London Mayoralty as the model for the PCC (over and above the question of where Boris was this evening).
1) If we are to press ahead with a Police and Crime Commissioner for each of our police force areas, then some thought needs to be given to the deputy PCC. Events will continue to happen when the PCC is not available and if we need our PCC to be accountable to us, someone is needed who can deputise and instill confidence in the community being policed at those moments. It is clear from the interview on Channel 4 that whatever Richard Barnes understanding and competencies, that his capability as Deputy to Boris is woefully short of what many Londoners (his own constituents presumably excepting) need and one imagines want. Although Boris was elected to great process, I personally don’t recall Richard Barnes being a key player at the time. It is telling from his own website that Richard proudly refers to his own opposition to the formation of the GLA and elected Mayoralty. He might as Deputy Mayor feel the time is right to re-write this element of his web site. By all means change your mind and move on, but don’t keep your words of opposition to an office you now hold on your own website.
2) As I have suggested in a previous comment (The compromise in British Policing) the reason why London is without a Chief Constable and Deputy is as a result of national matters and not local ones. It was clear in watching Richard Barnes making a poor job of explaining policing tactics, that had Paul Stephenson or John Yates been available, that they would have been able to speak with authority and a level of intelligence that Richard Barnes does not have. The need to seperate the role of the London Police force from the role of National Policing agent is evident this weekend. That is not to suggest that in any way the policing itself is in question, but having a leadership available to explain what is happening is vital.