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Police and Crime Commissioners - Is There a Need for Stronger Scrutiny?

Commentary, 29 May 2013
Europe
The Home Affairs Select Committee has issued a highly critical first report on Police and Crime Commissioners. Already criticised for politicising policing, the report highlights the need for greater scrutiny of commissioners to enhance their authority in the eyes of the public.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has issued a highly critical first report on Police and Crime Commissioners. Already criticised for politicising policing, the report highlights the need for greater scrutiny of commissioners to enhance their authority in the eyes of the public.

UK Police

The Home Affairs Select Committee has issued a highly critical first report on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Its calls for stronger scrutiny and more transparency and consistency in the role should not go unheeded. Otherwise this key law and order policy of the Government could be undermined. The failings of a few need to be addressed, though this should not be allowed to overshadow the dedicated work of the majority of PCCs.   

This is not a balanced  report. It concentrates not on the successes but on concerns about a small number of PCCs . It finds that 5 of the 41 PCCs in England and Wales have failed to fulfil obligations to publish financial information by the time work on the report concluded. The Committee believes greater scrutiny locally and at a national level would deter this lack of transparency.

But its biggest concern - and rightly so - is the lack of a Register of Interests - along the lines of Chief Constables, as are those  published by most others in public life. The Home Affairs Select Committee has attempted to fill the vacuum and collate such a register itself. It has not been able to get full information from every PCC although it has some on most. Its data exposes inconsistencies in for example hours worked (ranging from 35 hours to 60 plus per week). It shows that many PCCs work fulltime but at least seven still work as councillors and at least five have other part time jobs. Three PCCs are quoted as saying they see the job as a demanding, full time role. In the light of this it may well be a worthwhile exercise for the Committee or the Government to review whether part time jobs are feasible, once the new PCCs are better bedded in their jobs - perhaps after their first year in the role.     

Collating this unofficial register is a worthy exercise. It is vital information. But it would be better for this to be done not by a Parliamentary Committee, but by an independent body. The report's suggestion that this job could fall to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary seems sensible.   

Keith Vaz MP, the Chairman of the Committee believes what is needed is a register of interests to 'guard against Maverick decision-making'.[1] The Committee cites evidence of what it appears to regard as questionable actions by PCCs. It quotes one who submitted an expenses bill of £700 for two chauffeur driven car journeys. It draws attention to what it calls the 'fiasco' of the teenage Youth Commissioner who had to resign over Twitter comments.

The Committee also refers to the case of the Lincolnshire PCC who suspended his Chief Constable, only to have the courts overturn the decision, with the judge noting a 'serious error' on his part. In the Lincolnshire case the public was not told why the Chief Constable was suspended and the local Police and Crime Panel which should have scrutinised that suspension, failed to meet for two months to evaluate the decision, asking instead for greater clarity on its position. There is little doubt this was a costly and damaging incident which highlights both the potential power of the PCC and weaknesses in the Panel system of scrutiny.   

The work of the Police and Crime Panels is particularly important because it is their job to hold PCCs to account. The Panels are made up of elected local councillors and two independent members. Scrutiny beyond them rests in effect largely lies with the electorate, and the next elections are not due to be held until 2016.   

Politicisation

The report also lists five PCCs who have appointed one or more political contacts onto their staff on salaries of up to £70,000. This suggests up to thirty-five other have not appointed former colleagues. Nevertheless the appointment of political allies, however small in number, could compound public fears which emerged in a RUSI/YouGov-Cambridge Poll published just before PCCs were introduced in November 2012.

The poll showed public concern that PCCs, many of whom were affiliated with political parties, could politicise policing. A key concern was the fact that scrutiny of a force would no longer be in the hands of a Police Authority made up of around seventeen local people (mainly elected) but would pass into the hands of a single person (the PCC).  

There was reason behind such fears. Analysis in the Home Affairs Select Committee report shows that 51.56 per cent of the 99 candidates who stood for a PCC had been or still were elected politicians and of the 41 eventually voted in, 25 had a background in politics.

Of course it may well be that those appointed from the political world are the best people for the job - but without public scrutiny it is hard to establish this for sure.  

In conclusion it seems sensible to call for a national register. This would ensure those PCCs who do not declare interests or publish budgets are exposed. It would allow the public to compare PCCs and come to an informed judgement on their performance and the appropriateness of extra jobs or income earned. And it would also show which PCCs are fulfilling their obligations to be transparent about the public money they spend and about their personal interests. 

There does, too appear to be a need for stronger guidance and possibly even extra powers for Police and Crime Panels which are tasked with scrutinising and holding PCCs to account, but which in a number of cases according to the report, have not felt able or empowered to do so. They need the confidence to question decisions they or the public are not entirely happy with - such as the decision made in Lincolnshire.

This report has exposed big variations in the standard, quality and transparency of this first generation of PCCs.  And though it fails to extrapolate from the data collected the fact most PCCs are open, transparent and fulfilling their obligations - further scrutiny would not only enhance the authority of these PCCs but expose those who should be doing better.

 

NOTE

The Home Affairs Committee, 'Police and Crime Commissioners: Register of Interests',  Thursday 23 May 2013 (First Report, Session 2013-14, HC 69).

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