For the last couple of days I’ve been trying to get my head around the proposal from the government to elect Policing and Crime Commissioners. This Guardian piece got me interested in the issue but offered more questions than answers, while a good discussion at Toby Harris’s blog spurred me on.
The accountability (or lack of it) in UK policing has been brought into sharp focus by the UK riots – who has what power to direct the police, and who determines what they should and should not do?
The problem is that police forces are organised in a way that does not always respect boundaries of levels of government (see the map of forces in England and Wales here). Conversely, policing is done by regional forces and not one national force.
So rather than try to organise police according to the boundaries of levels of government, Theresa May and the Tories want to elect 41 Policing and Crime Commissioners. The BBC has a diagramme of how it could work here.
There are a whole bunch of problems with this.
Firstly it means yet more elections – notably not at the same time as other local elections due to Lib Dem concerns raised in the Lords. What percentage of the population of England and Wales (excl. London) is going to bother to turn up to vote for Police Commissioners? Does a 20% turnout really improve police legitimacy?
Related to that is the sort of people who would put themselves forward, and the sorts of campaigning they would do. This tweet from @Sean__Butcher sums up the concern – that those elected would be responsive to narrow, populist concerns, rather than aiming to treat all citizens equally and hence ensure respect for the police according to Peel’s traditional principles (and according to William Hague, Tories are supposed to like traditions and institutions). It’s almost inevitable that the appointees as PCCs will be party politically engaged – see The Guardian about the Lib Dems and Conservative Home about the Tories’ plans.
As a citizen I want clear and simple lines of accountability, with powers clearly matched to levels of local, regional or national administration. I can balance up whether I want my council to spend more on refuse collection or on local parks, or the national government to spend more on defence or the health service. I want policing to be part of that mix.
The elected PCCs form a messy middle level, where the everyday operational aspects of policing (something most people have no clue about, or interest in) are separated from other levels of government accountability while, in the meantime, it’s still central government that determines police budgets. Confused? I’m sure you’re not alone…
The same debate is brewing in Scotland and there the proposed solution… is to merge all 8 Scottish forces into one, ensuring the accountability of the police is achieved through the Scottish Parliament. A similar arrangement exists in London between the Mayor/GLA and the Metropolitan Police Authority. So if accountability of the police can be achieved through political institutions in Scotland and London, why can the same not be done in the rest of England and Wales? But then reorganising police forces would not be respecting of traditions… oh, hold on, didn’t we go there once before?