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Blair Gibbs: The case for directly-elected Police Commissioners

Police Theresa May will today outline a massive shake up of Britain's system of policing. Blair Gibbs, Head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange, examines the central feature of the Home Secretary's reforms; directly-elected police chiefs.

Policy Exchange first advocated wholesale reform of police accountability arrangements in a series of reports from 2005.  In the face of high crime rates, we recognised that the fundamental handicap of British policing was not just a dysfunctional Home Office obsessed with central direction that had eroded local discretion, but a serious and deepening democratic deficit that prevented police forces from serving the public, encouraged operational retrenchment and undermined public confidence.  To correct the drift towards illegitimate, bureaucratic policing, the police as a public service needed some form of direct accountability structure that would shake-up the institution, loosen Whitehall’s grip, and provide real oversight of Chief Constables.

This week, following on from the early signals sent by the Home Secretary on abolishing targets and ending central direction, the Home Office will finally set out proposals to bring this reform about.  The Conservative manifesto commitment to establish directly-elected oversight of the police originated with Nick Herbert in 2007, survived the Coalition negotiations and is now set to be the centre-piece of a green paper ahead of primary legislation in the autumn.  Along with far-reaching proposals to reform the national policing landscape and deal with the shortcomings of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the bloated and largely discredited National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), it will represent the biggest structural reform of policing for fifty years.

The directly-elected individuals, or “Commissioners” as they will be known (no, not “sheriffs”), will replace failing and invisible police authorities entirely.  Commissioners will have the power to hire and fire Chief Constables and set force budgets.  The new structure itself will be based on the existing police force areas (outside of London), so the elections when they happen – probably to coincide with local elections in 2012 – will create strong local personalities with large, personal mandates.  Liberal Democrat MPs – who favoured retaining police authorities albeit making them directly-elected – have wanted proper assurances that these new Commissioners will be subject to proper checks and balances.  What these may be and how much they might neuter the executive potential of Commissioners remains to be seen.

In Opposition, some senior Conservatives feared the creation of dozens of “mini-Home Secretaries” who could challenge the authority of Ministers over law and order policy.  But these objections were misplaced.  Commissioners will be accountable to their own electorate, but to be effective they will need to collaborate with others agencies and manage policing in their area with the budget that Ministers will continue to provide.  At their best, Police Commissioners will be able to shape their force’s strategic priorities in a way that reflects the public’s overwhelming desire for visible common-sense policing and cost effective crime fighting.  This will be instead of reacting to the misguided priorities of a succession of recent Home Secretaries and police leaders who have obsessed about equality agendas and performance targets while undermining beat patrolling.

The speed of all this reflects the political priority that David Cameron attaches to police reform, but also the fiscal pressures on the horizon.  The Home Office has moved quickly to secure an early opportunity for legislation, but for the reform to survive it will need to deliver some obvious improvements to policing at just the time when budget cuts will have drastically reduced the resources that police can spend.  With cuts of up to 25 per cent in prospect, the danger is that police forces will respond not as they should – by reforming workforce arrangements, tackling overtime costs and outsourcing more back office functions – but in the way that causes them the least internal resistance: by letting staff go and reducing frontline police numbers by siphoning off more neighbourhood constables into invisible ‘specialist’ units.

Police authorities under the old regime – with no expertise in driving out cost and managing with less – would take this approach and blame Ministers, but with elected Commissioners to answer to, they will need to be more imaginative.  Good police authorities will take their responsibilities seriously now and try to innovate while anticipating the priorities of their incoming Commissioners, but not all of them will.  If police authorities facing abolition feel they have nothing to lose, they may not cooperate in the interim and local policing will be left leaderless just when the cuts start to bite.

However, if Commissioners, working with dynamic Chiefs, can deal with what recalcitrant authorities leave them and improve policing and public confidence in the years of austerity ahead, then the reform will have been worth it.  Vested interests in the police establishment will spend this week attacking the proposals, raising the spectre of politicisation – as if this was something we aren’t already used to – and perpetuating myths about American policing.  Not all the criticisms will be misguided, and these radical reforms do raise many questions, but democratically accountable policing is one of those powerful and unusual reforms where it is liberating for Ministers, empowering for the professionals, and good for the public all at the same time.

The Home Office will see its own role change – with operational oversight devolved, Ministers can focus instead on big national policing priorities, like cross-border crime and counter-terrorism.  Chief Constables will give up reporting to Ministers – no more suited Chief Constables filing into the Home Office for pointless summits.  Instead their new Commissioners will take charge of force budgets and management issues so they are free to concentrate on crime-fighting – a novel concept for some.  And most importantly the public will finally have a way of ensuring the policing that they pay for reflects their own priorities and through a vote, can pass judgement on whether their Commissioner and his team has made their neighbourhood safer.

These proposals will transform policing, even if it does not happen overnight.  To work it will need careful implementation and real commitment from Ministers.  In time, it will finally challenge the producer interest of a largely unreformed public service and force it to truly respond to the people it is meant to serve.  In five years time, even if budget cuts mean there are fewer police officers, we will see better policing as a result.  People will no longer be looking to Whitehall for ways of making their street safer and national politicians will have learnt to let go – and that will be no bad thing.


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