As part of the famous handbag scene in Oscar Wilde’s farce, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell declares ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.’ This same epithet could be applied to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London in connection with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. As Ken Livingstone pointed out on Newsnight recently, the current Mayor will have worked with three different Commissioners within his 4 year term. The real concern is will the third appointment at this post in six years be made in a safe and effective manner?
From the end of World War II until 2005 (60 years) the Capital was served by a total of ten Commissioners. In 2008 whilst the process was being modified to make future appointments a fixed 5 year arrangement, the Mayor instructed Sir Ian Blair who was only three years into his post to clear his desk. However until the phone hacking scandal, the tenure of Sir Paul Stephenson looked secure to run till 2014, but in July Sir Paul and his deputy John Yates both resigned, leaving the Mayor and Home Secretary with two vacancies to fill.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is the most senior of all Police Officers in our nation. They are knighted on appointment and paid around £60,000 more than other Chief Police Officers, in part as a reflection of this seniority. This role would be the biggest job if all this person had to do was take responsibility for policing the Streets of the Capital City with some 8 Million inhabitants including the Royal Family, Government and the Foreign Embassies. However the architects of our current policing arrangements have also added to the work of the Met, responsibility for what are known as Specialist Operations. These include protecting the Royal Family and Government even when not in London, and Counter Terrorism across the UK. In addition the Met are often called upon to deal with matters such as the phone hacking scandal.
Too much power and profile is focused on this force creating a huge disparity between the Met and the other forces across the country. This affects recruitment with wages at the Met being higher than elsewhere, in part because of London weighting. Morale is an issue, particularly when the Met descends into a setting outside of London, often leaving the local force unsighted and unheard on what it taking place in an area that the local force will need to police long after the Met has returned to London. It is very noticeable in Sussex for example, that the street chatter gets busy and angry whenever a Met badge is seen on the uniform of a police officer. This is partly due to the apparent arrogance amongst some of those who work for the London force.
The phone hacking scandal could easily have been handled by another local force or possibly by a force dedicated to matters that have national significance. Phone Hacking has a clear political dimension and almost no local policing elements. With British Transport Police and the City of London force we already have two agencies that operate outside the usual profile of County or Region wide Police forces. It is time that the issue of national policing is considered and separated out from the Metropolitan Police.
Policing the Capital needs a force that is single-minded about this work so that the loss of leadership over something like phone hacking does not risk compromising the local policing function. Mark Duggan was shot in Tottenham on 4th August and the first riot did not occur until several days later. Early accounts suggest that there were significant failures to engage effectively with the local community and while Sir Paul Stephenson would not have carried this out personally, it could not have helped responses at New Scotland Yard to have vacancies at a senior level as we moved from a tragedy in Tottenham to a week of rioting that impacted the whole nation. All forces should be investing resources in their relationships with the wider community so that when tragedies do occur, local people can be reassured and kept informed.
Bearing in mind the importance of this role for the Capital and our Nation, one would imagine that all stops would be pulled out to appoint the best candidate possible and as part of that, that all due processes would be followed. It is vital that the new man is someone who commands the support of the Mayor and Home Secretary, but also that they are chosen in a manner that would be consistent with the processes they will need to oversee for the rest of the force. That is such an obvious statement that you may wonder why it needs making, but sadly the report in the Telegraph on 20th August paints a picture which is very different.
If Hugh Orde is appointed at the end of this process, the Mayor and Home Secretary will have undermined his appointment and their own judgement at best. If however he is not successful, the candidate who is appointed will always have a question hanging over their head as to why they did not apply in the time allowed, and more importantly that they might have been the second best person for this post, apart from the political judgements. That in effect they have been appointed to satisfy Boris or Theresa May or both. We need a new Commissioner to be appointed as a matter of priority, but the process needs to be one that all of us can have confidence in. If the process was to be changed to create a balanced shortlist, why not ensure it included at least one female police officer and someone who is not white. Someone capable of the job needs to take hold of this situation and stop this farce once and for all. The worrying aspect is that Nick Herbert sees the Met and its relationship with the Mayor as his model for the new Policing and Crime Commisioners. Is this a foretaste of things to come for us all?