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Peter Walker: Police Commissioners. Don't let the bad news from Cumbria drown out the good news from Sussex, Leicetershire, Yorkshire...

Peter Walker retired as Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police in 2003.  He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.  Follow Peter on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-04-20 at 10.46.21I may be wrong, but I'm probably not alone in thinking that when you've been elected as a Police Commissioner and are facing a budgetary reduction of some millions of pounds over the next few years, the words "chauffeur-driven Mercedes" should ring alarm bells when they are used to describe your transport arrangements for the evening.

Clearly not for Richard Rhodes, PCC in Cumbria, who settled into the back of such a car to carry out his duties for not one, but two events, before the bills started to arrive and, according to the Commissioner, he decided the expenditure was excessive.

He changed the arrangements and has now been provided with a vehicle, but as this has been at the expense of his force having that vehicle to use operationally, he may have merely moved from the frying pan to the fire.

Unsurprisingly, the costs associated with the journeys caused adverse comment when they entered the public domain.  However, here events took a turn for the worse - because far from being revealed by the Commissioner by way of a transparent entry in his register of expenses, the local newspaper was "leaked" the information.

Reaction by the Commissioner's office to enquiries about the matter compounded the issue, as the taxpayers of Cumbria were expected to swallow the line that having a chauffeur was to ensure Mr Rhodes "personal safety" due to the number of commitments he had.  Given the same statement indicated that a car was to be provided to him and he would drive himself in future, it was obvious that the spade was out and the hole was getting bigger.

Yet as if that wasn't enough, shortly after, two members of police staff were arrested on suspicion of Data Protection Act and Misconduct in Public Office offences by Cumbria Police.  A third person was then arrested, and a fourth (another member of police staff) has also been suspended.

Reaction to this news has been predictable, with questions to the Home Secretary at this week's meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee and demands for her to intervene, because of the inference that the arrests may have taken place as a result of influence by the Commissioner on the Chief Constable.

Once again, Mr Rhodes mishandled things, protesting that the arrests were an operational matter for the Chief Constable, whilst at the same time saying that he would speak to the Chief about the scale of the investigation (which, of course, is an operational matter for the Chief Constable.....................).

By the time a hurriedly put-together press conference was held yesterday, Commissioner Rhodes was announcing he had paid for the chauffeur-driven journeys himself.  However, The Times ran a story on Friday under the headline "Police commissioners accused of spending sprees and cronyism" (£) which has prompted a letter to that newspaper's Editor by the Vice Chairman of the Police Federation, in which he argues this case demonstrates political influence by PCC's on Chief Constables.

As Theresa May said in response to the Home Affairs Committee, the electorate will be the final arbiters of whether Mr Rhodes remains a Commissioner for more than one term, because we now have direct electoral accountability for a single individual responsible for police governance.  Notwithstanding the present woes of Mr Rhodes and the mess that Anne Barnes, his opposite number in Kent made of her "Youth Commissioner" proposals, Police Commissioners have, in general, settled in and got on with the task at hand.

The Police & Crime Panel in Cumbria are already on the case, exercising their powers of scrutiny by demanding answers to some rather pointed questions for Cumbria's PCC. They might want to add some about the long-running investigation into Stuart Hyde, the Temporary Chief Constable, who has been suspended for the last eight months on a salary of £130k and who has yet to be interviewed about the allegations made against him.

Given that disciplinary matters for Chief Constables are the direct remit of the Commissioner and that Hyde is due to retire in August, if Mr Rhodes doesn't get on with things, he will face even more presentational problems when that officer takes his pension.  £700 on a car and driver will pale into insignificance in terms of the money involved - let alone the personal cost to the Temporary Chief of being left in limbo for so long.

Before the "I told you so" brigade, who argued against the election of people responsible for police governance start to get too excited, we need to apply the first rule of journalism these days - good news doesn't sell papers.  The work of the many Commissioners up and down the country, who have settled in and just got on with the challenges of this new role in local government does not get mentioned enough.

So please spare a thought for the excellent work they are doing - Katy Bourne in Sussex on Domestic Violence; Clive Loader in Leicestershire driving community cohesion; David Lloyd working on "Offender pays" in Hertfordshire, and Julia Mulligan creating greater independence in the investigation of complaints in North Yorkshire.  Their work, and similar initiatives coming forward from others, is a direct consequence of this policy: fresh thinking; new ideas; challenging the status quo.

I wrote in these pages some months ago that there would be a normal distribution of talent amongst those who were elected as PCC's.  Just because some seem to be bidding for the "simply not up to the job" category at this early stage does not evidence a flawed policy.  Natural talent is coming out and the additional scrutiny the role always envisaged is demonstrating areas for improved performance where needed.

Or, to put it another way, "I told you so".


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