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We need directly elected police commissioners

Wallace Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance urges Home Seceretary Theresa May to reject the vested interests and press on with her plans

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth. It was a privilege because of the admirably straight-talking, good-humoured nature of the audience and because of the crucial issue under discussion: how do we best make the police accountable?

My message was quite simple. 40 years of increasingly complex monitoring and reams of paperwork demanded by Home Office statisticians have yielded almost no benefits.

Treating policing like a science that can be perfectly measured and controlled on a one-size-fits-all basis by detached technicians manipulating spreadsheets in a basement in Whitehall is futile. Rather than being out and about catching criminals and serving the public, huge numbers of police officers spend large amounts of time form-filling and interpreting Whitehall diktats.

Pure numbers and targets can never tell the full story about a service that is in essence human and hugely varied from place to place. Worse, measuring performance through an arbitrary target actually perverts the priorities of those running the police, and encourages box-ticking and target-chasing rather than truly successful policing.

Instead, I argued, the police should do two things.

First, they should become fully transparent. As well as adopting the new policy for councils to publish all spending over £500, they should extend the innovation of crime mapping as far as possible. The public should be given full information about what the police do with our taxes and how the crime-fighting effort is going.

Second, the people must be given the power to make use of that information. Show-piece local consultations are not good enough, nor does the Home Secretary in London have any real idea what is going on in the streets of any given party of the country. It is time to elect our police authorities.

Gratifyingly for the TPA and myself, the Home Secretary promptly went on in her speech that same day to promise that the coalition Government would pursue both those policies.

But already, the voices of vested interest have struck up to oppose the plans. In a letter published in the Observer yesterday, the Association of Police Authorities objected to the idea of directly elected commissioners.

This is hardly surprising. For a start, the Association of Police Authorities are precisely the people who will be replaced by these elected representatives of the people. As a result of the proposal, they will lose their pay and prestige.

Furthermore, elected commissioners are being introduced because the toothless and ineffective Police Authorities have not done a good enough job. In most cases that is not due to any personal failing on the part of Authority members, but it is understandable that some of them seem to have taken offence at plans to replace them with something more effective.

The absurdity of the existing Police Authorities can be seen in the Observer letter itself. The councillors in question purport to hold the police to account on the people’s behalf, and yet they have barely any democratic legitimacy to carry out that role.

The Chairman of the Association of Police Authorities – Cllr Rob Garnham (Conservative) - was elected to Gloucestershire County Council last year by 2,716 people and to Cheltenham Borough Council this year by 1,917 people. Many of those voters will be the same people, as he represents many of the same areas in Cheltenham on each body.

At most, 4,633 people elected him – and they did so on the basis of his views on council tax, or bin collections, or care for the elderly in Cheltenham. None of those voters would have voted on the basis of Cllr Garnham’s views on policing, because the public weren’t asked about who should sit on the Police Authority.

His role as a member of Gloucestershire Police Authority would have been decided after the election by the ruling group on Cheltenham Council. His Chairmanship of the Authority would then have been sewn up amongst the other handful of Authority members, and by the time the Association of Police Authorities went about picking their executive the wider, taxpaying public had less influence than the coffee machine in the corner of the meeting room.

The fact that Cllr Garnham reached his position as the national  Chairman of the APA thanks to the political wrangling of their fellow councillors adds a distinct irony to his dire warning that directly electing police commissioners would risk bringing “party political interference” into the world of policing.

This is a cipher for allowing the people to interfere with policing. Cllr Garnham would object strongly if Cheltenham Borough Council was shut down and replaced with an unaccountable committee of self-nominating “local government experts”, but he seems happy to argue for such a system to be in place for policing.

The fact is, the people are extremely interested in policing – and so they should be. They have a strong personal interest in it being done correctly, because if it goes wrong it is they who will end up being
stabbed, burgled or raped.

When I made the case for the direct election of police authorities at the Police Federation conference, the officers present were remarkably open-minded to the argument. I think they realised the political tide was turning, and as practical people their concerns were practical ones.

The main concern amongst officers is whether the public at large really understand policing. Each time I was asked it, this was my answer:

Because of the amount of money spent on policing, and the importance of the police as a public service, the police will never and can never be an island unto themselves. They will always have to answer to someone for how and why they do the job in the way that they do.

Therefore, the choice is not “do the police have to answer to anyone?” but “who should the police answer to?”

There are two choices: bureaucracy or democracy.

We currently have the bureaucratic system. We have tried putting the police at the beck and call of officials in the Home Office, quangos like the National Policing Improvement Agency, self-appointed secretariats like the paperwork machine at the Association of Chief Police Officers and the unelected police authorities. This has buried police officers in a fountain of forms and repeatedly let down the public.

The alternative is to ask the people what they want through direct elections. Every officer I asked in person – including those who are sceptical of the idea – admitted that they heard more sense on policing from the people who live on their beat than from the Home Office officials hundreds of miles away from the front line. Ally the public and the police together and we would eventually stand a chance of getting a common sense, effective approach to fighting crime.

The Home Secretary has made the right choice on policing. She must override and reject the voices of vested interest and do the right thing – for the sake of the people and the police.


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