Labour considers whether to axe police and crime commissioners

Labour is considering the abolition of police and crime commissioners, even though it holds many of the posts.

Police Commissioner Vera Baird,
Police Commissioner Vera Baird,

Labour leader Ed Miliband is considering the difficult question of what to do about Police and Crime Commissioners, the directly-elected representatives designed to be a “voice of the people” and hold police forces to account.

They replaced the old police authorities, which scrutinised the work of police forces and contained councillors, magistrates and co-opted independent members.

Police and Crime Commissioners were a Conservative idea, prompted partly by a belief that many people didn’t know police authorities existed, and certainly didn’t know the name of the chairperson or how to contact them.

But Labour always opposed the idea, fearing that directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) would politicise police services.

Labour also argued that a single person, however dedicated, could never represent every section of the community in the same way as an authority made up of 17 people.

And there was concern that PCCs would clash with their local Chief Constables, the people who actually run forces.

Now a Labour inquiry has called for PCCs to be scrapped.

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce, set up by Mr Miliband to consider what the next general election manifesto should say about the future of councils, has called for PCCs to be abolished.

The taskforce included senior Labour figures in local government, including Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, and Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council.

They published a report which highlighted the findings of Lord Stevens, the former chief constable of Northumbria Police and later commissioner of the country’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police, who also criticised PCCs in a separate report produced for the Labour Party last year.

The council leaders said: “The Independent Police Commission, chaired by Lord Stevens, set out a comprehensive package of reforms to policing, including democratic governance which it identified as a core component of credible and legitimate policing.

“The Taskforce supports the Commission’s analysis of the PCC model introduced by the current Government as ‘systemically flawed’ and the conclusion that they are a ‘failed experiment’ which should be discontinued.”

They added: “The ‘single individual’ model of accountability creates distance between a PCC representing an entire force area and the many communities within it.

“The result is less opportunity for local engagement and weakened accountability to local people who are detached from existing structures. The separation of police accountability from local government also reduces the scope to align decision-making and resources to produce better outcomes.”

Ron Hogg, Durham’s police and crime commissioner
Ron Hogg, Durham’s police and crime commissioner

Their proposal is to replace PCCs with new “policing boards” which include council leaders.

With such clear views expressed by two inquiries, both commissioned by the Labour leader, it may seem surprising that Labour has not yet committed itself to abolishing PCCs.

But responding to the local government report, Mr Miliband said his party would legislate so that councils can “set priorities for combating crime and help every neighbourhood get value for money from our police”.

This isn’t a pledged to scrap PCCs. And Labour is still consulting on whether PCCs should be abolished, according to party spokesmen.

Perhaps one problem the party faces is that promising to abolish PCCs would effectively mean it was pledging to sack the 13 Labour PCCs who were elected in 2012.

Three of those - Northumbria’s Vera Baird, Durham’s Ron Hogg and Cleveland’s Barry Coppinger - are in the North East, and since being elected, each of them have become reasonably prominent figures both in the region and wider afield. Only yesterday Ms Baird was on the national airwaves calling on Lady Butler-Sloss to stand down from the Government’s inquiry into institutional child abuse (just hours, in fact, before she resigned from the post). Ms Baird has also made tackling domestic abuse a priority while Mr Hogg hit the headlines when he backed Durham chief constable Mike Barton in saying the authorities should end the war on drugs.

If the posts were to be abolished, they wouldn’t lose their jobs immediately. Even if the next Government does scrap the posts, the incumbents would presumably be allowed to serve out their current four-year term.

But many sitting PCCs will hope to stand again, when the next elections come around in 2016.

Some, like the late Bob Jones, PCC for the West Midlands before his death last week, were always clear that they thought the creation of PCCs was a mistake - even though they were effectively arguing for their own job to be scrapped.

But not every Labour PCC takes that view.

There’s little doubt that some of the fears of critics have come true.

Turnout in the 2012 elections was very low - 16.8% in Northumbria, just 24.7% in Durham and 15.1% Cleveland. Natonally, turnout was just over 15%, with many blaming the Government for keeping the public in the dark over the new posts and what they actually meant. Many candidates reported voters declining to go to the polls because they didn’t know what they were voting for.

Jenny Wilson, the chair of watchdog the Electoral Commission, warned in a report on the elections last year: “The extremely low turnout – at just 15.1% – must be a concern for anyone who cares about democracy.”

She predicted turnout might be higher in future, but warned that more efforts needed to be made to inform voters about the post.

It’s hard to see how Labour can ultimately make any decision other than to abolish PCCs, but for now their future under a Labour government remains unclear.

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