As a Libertarian, I support the transfer of power from patronage to the ballot box (including House of Lords reform) and I genuinely believe the police reforms are courageous and a move in the right direction. Which is just as well as I am charged with winning the election!
There are reasons people can question the reforms of police governance, the most obvious of which is why we are having elections in November when they could have been delayed six months and held in May along with the County Council elections.
The one argument which has least virtue is "you are politicising the police". It's an understandable position for a lay person to adopt, and it is our duty to ensure the reasons for these changes are explained and understood. However, it is not a position an experienced politician should take as it simply does not stand-up to scrutiny.
Here are a few thoughts on this subject:
- Firstly, the Police & Crime Commissioners are replacing the Police Authorities, and the members of local Police Authorities being replaced are already politicians! In the case of Kent, a majority (nine out of 15) of Kent Police Authority members are politicians. I believe every Police Authority is similarly constituted.
- Police Authority members are appointed by the direct and personal patronage of the Leader of the Council(s) in the Police Authority area. I am in the fortunate position to know Paul Carter (Leader of KCC) and Rodney Chambers (Medway) and can say that leaders of their calibre would always take an altruistic approach and appoint people on merit, but is this the case everywhere? I imagine there are many Leaders who see this patronage (with a £9,000 annual salary) as a reward for a loyal lieutenant or a sweetener to stop a malcontent causing trouble.
- Therefore, Police Authority members are dependent for their continued appointment on the patronage of the Council Leader. They have little or no reason to feel accountability to those who pay for the service (ie, the Council Tax Payers). Nor do the local authorities who appoint Police Authority members have any real reason to promote best value as they are not responsible for the police precept, which is shown separately on the Council Tax bill. There is no clearer example of taxation without representation.
- Whether we like it or not, policing is political. I don't think I have ever been involved in an election, from Parish Council to national government, where crime, law and order has not been an issue. From 'gangs of noisy youths' to vandalism to crime and the criminal justice system, every politician has a view on the police and every voter wants politicians to do something done about it. And why shouldn't they? At the end of the day, they pay for the service. The Home Secretary (an elected politician) appoints Chief Constables. The Lord Chancellor (Justice Secretary) appoints judges.
- Accountability - if you don't like your MP or Councillor, you can vote for a new one. If you don't like the way your local Police Authority is holding the Chief Constable to account, there is bugger all you can do about it. You cannot replace them, and let's be honest, apart from a few inhabitants of the Political Village, no-one knows who their Police Authority members are, how to contact them, what powers they have or what power they have to change anything.
These reforms are not perfect - they seldom are. But for the first time ever the tax payers, who write the cheques, will have someone directly responsible for the money spent, and the outcomes achieved.
Chief Constables, who will rightfully retain total operations control, will, for the first time, face an individual person with a large and democratic mandate, and will have a duty to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. Police & Crime Commissioners will know that, sooner or later (either at public meetings or through the ballot box) they will be held to account for the enormous amounts of money spent and crime levels in their area of responsibility.
And all this will be done for far less cost than the present system, as the PCCs salary will be around 50% of what is paid to the 15 appointed members of the Police Authority.
These are brave reforms; they transfer power to taxpayers and away from quangocracy, they focus responsibility and accountability on an individual who will be judged on their success (or failure) and give people a real say in outcomes for the money they pay.