The failure by three Police Officers to give a fair, just and reasonable account of a meeting with Andrew Mitchell has cost all of us a great deal of money, let alone the deep reputational damage done to Policing. The Home Affairs Select Committee which met last Wednesday spent several hours interviewing various witnesses including the three officers and their three Chief Constables. This follows a great deal of investigation and the working of the committee which does not come cheaply. The committee does not release a transcript of the proceedings as far as I can tell, so the only way of knowing what took place was to watch the event on TV. Last night I watched the replay of the cross examination of the Chief Constables on the Parliament Channel, it was very revealing in many ways. One of the revelations was the extent to which Parliament itself struggles to make sense of the rules it has created. At one point the Chief Constable of the West Midlands, Chris Sims explains that the force will ensure that their officers who are working on behalf of the Police Federation will not in the future embark on what was in essence a response to a national issue without a discussion from his office. The comment was picked up by the MP for Walsall North, David Winnick. The two men presumably know each other quite well, as Walsall falls within the West Midlands force area. David Winnick challenged his Chief Constable to ensure that officers are free to engage in responses to cuts in budgets and similar matters that Mr Winnick views to be appropriate. The Chief Constable made it clear that he was not suggesting curtailing reasonable behaviour and the discussion moved on. One of the challenges hidden in this short exchange is that Police Officers according to their regulations “shall in particular… not take any active part in politics” according to an answer provided by Policing Minister, Damian Green to a colleague on 16th October. He went on “Further, it is a criminal offence under section 100 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 for a police officer to canvass in a parliamentary or local election. There is similar legislation applicable to European Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and local referendums.”
The challenge for Police Officers is to find a middle line between enjoying the freedom proposed by David Winnick to challenge issues such as funding, and obeying the regulations as enunciated by Damian Green. This challenge is not new, Policing regulations were prepared with the understanding that Parliament would ensure that Police Officers did not need to take part in politics. The assumption is that pay and conditions will be agreed in a constructive manner between Parliament and the Police and there will not be any Party Political interference in the running of the Police. This Government is not the first to let officers down on the matter of pay and conditions, although their introduction of Party Political candidates for the Police and Crime Commissioners has moved the goal posts in a manner that previous governments have never attempted. One of the terrible ironies of the PCC elections was that one of the groups of electors that were most impacted by the change, were denied the opportunity to engage with the process. All this from a Parliamentary System that allows MPs to control their own pay and conditions, set their own political boundaries, determine the date of elections etc without a by or leave from those of us who they are intended to serve.
This sort of confusing inconsistency is about to be rolled out to the charity sector. In the future, once the “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14” becomes law, unless major amendments are made, there will be 1000’s of charities unsure how to act when it comes to engaging with MPs and prospective MPs in the run up to elections. The idea of holding husting meetings for Parliamentary elections is already being reviewed by a number of local charities, fearful that the Lobbying Act will call these sorts of actions into question. This will have a damaging impact on local democracy, reducing the scrutiny to which candidates are put. The deterrent effect of a law which is supposed to prevent MPs from being unduly influenced by lobbyists, on small organisations that believe that local democracy is important cannot be overstated. Their actions may be seen by MPs as being over cautious and perhaps even irrational. However many of these MPs have voted for the third reading of this Bill, with no attempt to take soundings from charities in their constituencies. I wrote about this previously here. There are good reasons for Police Officers to be seen to be impartial from a party political point of view, just as there are good reasons for charities to be independent from political parties. Just as with Police Officers, guidance and legislation already exists to ensure that charities remain free from campaigning. What is most frustrating is that our MPs are making significant changes to the world around them with little or no attempt to understand the impact they are having on others. That is not how a mature representative democracy is supposed to operate.