For anyone interested in how Policing operates in our communities and how police forces impact on our lives, last Thursday in the House of Lords an informative debate took place on the subject of the responsibilities of Police and Crime Commissioners. Coming 6 years after the introduction of these posts one of the key contributions came from Sir Ian Blair, who was previously the Senior Officer in the Metropolitan Police. He is now a Crossbench member of the House of Lords. He focused on a number of important issues.
IB: “The creation of PCCs has had presumably unintended but certainly unfortunate consequences. It was an unnecessary reform ……. The reform Act, which introduced PCCs, allows central government to wash their hands of controversial police investigations…..whether an investigation should be inquired into is a matter for the local PCC. The local PCC has equally often stated that they are not going to do anything about it. Apparently, that is okay by the Government, but it used not to be okay”
Ian is referring to how the relationship between the Chief Constable and the Home Office and the Police Authority was slimmed down to that of the Chief Constable and the PCC and a great deal of middle ground has been lost in the process. In theory had the role of the Police and Crime Panel been given greater powers as they are supposed to hold the PCC to account, then I believe that Ians very legitmate concerns could be substantially diminished. However that did not happen.
IB: “Lord Dear, then an inspector of constabulary, three times in the 1990s declared Derbyshire constabulary to be inefficient….. led to legislation replacing the then police committees with police authorities with a new class of independent members. This was a Conservative Party reform in the face of the failure of a Labour county council, based on the idea that police and politics—especially local politics—is an unhealthy mixture. The successors to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, do not have any authority over PCCs, whereas they could inspect police authorities.”
It should also be remembered that along with the change introduced by Lord Dear another Lord, Lord Macpherson who reviewed the murder of Stephen Lawrence came up with a number of recommendations including Recommendation 7 “That the Home Secretary and Police Authorities should seek to ensure that the membership of police authorities reflects so far as possible the cultural and ethnic mix of the communities which those authorities serve” Had the Police and Crime Panel been set up with a larger number of Independent members then some elements of this would also have been retained.
Ian Blair then referred to another strand of the same theme which explains why I stood in the election in 2012 “A bit like the Brexit bus, the reform was partially also sold on a false prospectus that independent members of the public would become PCCs. Not any longer. Worst of all, leaders of local authorities—of all parties—are complaining loudly that their services are on the point of collapse. Where are the PCCs saying exactly the same thing? What was offered was supposed to be an exercise in the delegation of central government power, but it has turned out to represent an abrogation by the Government of national responsibility for a vital public service.” This is of course spot on in Sussex where the PCC is clearly keen to become a future Home Secretary and so is determined never to criticise her own Party for its abject failings over the last 8 years.
Then Blair speaks about one of his previous roles and raises an issue that is very evident across the nation: “The main job of the principal staff officer to HMCIC was to co-ordinate selection for chief officers. In the 1990s that job was managing down shortlists to five or six. Now the shortlists are two at most, even in great forces, because the PCC has almost untrammelled power to sack a chief constable by press release. With the advent of PCCs all centralised planning for career progression has ceased”
I am not sure that this is the full story. I think that there is also less of an incentive for senior officers to move up to such a senior level, partly because of the lower levels of public support for Police Officers, most of whom remain relatively anonymous until they get to the top few rungs. Also the funding issue which Ian refers to means that running a Police Force is much more about dealing with financial challenges (often made worse by the party politics brought in by the PCC) than addressing the needs of our communities. Then there is the lack of respect towards policing from both Labour and the Tories. However whatever the reasons, the fact is that our Police Forces are all very vulnerable at the top level and this seems to be the most concerning matter. Thankfully Ian ends by stating something which may offer a way forward:
“Every couple of years there is a defence review. Every few years there is a health service review. The last strategic review of policing reported in 1962. This is a total failure of strategic oversight by the Home Office. It simply has no overarching central and coherent strategy for the future of policing and, apart from some rather curious statistics about police numbers, Labour does not seem to have any voice in this matter either. This represents political failure of a serious degree for the public, the victims of crime and the men and women of the police service. The case for a royal commission on the future of the police has never been clearer or more compelling.”