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Nick Cuff: Local policing without local accountability

Nick Nick Cuff is a Councillor for West Hill Ward in the London Borough of Wandsworth.

The four aims of the Government’s Neighbourhood Policing Programme read: access, influence, intervention and answers.  This new style of policing aims to make local police accountable to local communities. At the same time, the emphasis is on partnership working with civilian panels to help solve crime.  Unfortunately, as far as London local democracy is concerned there is a danger that the bright ambitions may turn into empty gestures.

The reason for the down beat assessment lies with the Metropolitan Police’s decision to try and gag London councillors. The Met has distributed a draft constitution to all ward panels which includes a clause barring local councillors from voting rights.   

What happened to having a say over neighbourhood policing priorities? Clearly the Met doesn’t what councillors to have too much of a say.

There are several reasons why councillors should oppose this initiative.  First, the Met seems to forget the silent majority, who may vote in elections, but take no active part community affairs, would at least expect that their elected ward representative to have a stake in police priorities.  Yet, under the clause, the presumption is that councillors should not vote.   It goes against the spirit of partnerships whilst also doing a good job of stifling the legitimacy offered by democratic mandate.   

Furthermore, a nasty side affect is that it is presented as a fait accompli, not a discussion item. Participating community representatives take it as a given that local councillors should not possess voting rights. 

In effect, councillors are relegated to second-class citizens. From a councillor perspective, it makes arguing against the clause an uphill challenge, as I found in my capacity as an elected member sitting on a ward panel.

The police contend the reason for the clause is to avoid committee meetings being hijacked for political purposes. There is also concern that panels might be hijacked by councillors representing extreme political views.   

Yet a well-run ward panel can always out-vote a councillor’s views, and there are provisions within the constitution to halt members taking an overtly political stance.

Besides, is it really the right response to rob the vast majority of elected members from having a say at the expense of a tiny minority?

In my own ward, I argued against this clause and won narrowly. Yet, in many wards this constitution is being passed with little resistance.

Is this really the kind of partnership we want with local police - the kind where elected representatives are second class committee members?  If the Government is serious about local democracy and giving back a bit more local accountability then it’s time this sort of practice was stamped out.


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