Police (Justice Commissioners)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 11th November 2008.

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Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich 3:34 pm, 11th November 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the replacement of police authorities with elected justice commissioners;
to make provisions regarding the duties and powers of justice commissioners;
and for connected purposes.

Louise Casey, the Government's Home Office adviser, is right: there has indeed been a collapse in trust in the criminal justice system. The Government's former respect tsar is right to be concerned about surveys that show that only one third of people still have great confidence in the police. Louise Casey is not alone in recognising that public confidence in the administration of public justice is beginning to break down. The Secretary of State for Justice said recently that the justice system needed to "get tough" with criminals, and there has been no shortage of Home Secretaries and Ministers talking about the need to make the criminal justice system work, or of Westminster insiders talking about the need to get tough on crime. The trouble is that that is all it is—just talk.

Politicians are largely powerless to fight crime, and they are not able to make the criminal justice system work for those who elect them. We might fight elections with lots of talk about fighting crime, but policing today is almost entirely outside democratic control, and no one, least of all those in this Chamber, likes to admit it. At election time, national or local, the candidates of all major parties wearily pledge to "put more bobbies on the beat", but they promise something that it is not in their gift to deliver. The deployment of police personnel is wholly at the discretion of chief constables, and the only voice that elected representatives have is as a minority on police authorities, which is perhaps one of the many reasons why voters, hearing the ritualistic promise of more police but never seeing much change, have increasingly given up on the whole charade.

Today, I propose a different approach. Let us imagine that local people, not Home Office officials, determined the priorities of the police where we lived. What if we, as local residents, could hold our local chief constable directly to account for fighting crime? Let us suppose that the justice commissioners we elected to our county or city decided how to deploy resources, and had to decide whether to spend their budgets on more patrols or on more speed cameras, and then stood for re-election on the basis of their record.

The link between police and the public was a founding principle of the police force. Sir Robert Peel said:

"The police are the public and the public are the police," and, indeed, lip service is still paid to that notion. The Metropolitan Police Service's expensive logo at Scotland Yard proclaims: "Working together for a safer London". But behind that façade sit thousands of police officers doing anything but working together with the community. We do not need more top-down crime and disorder reduction partnerships, more Whitehall initiatives, or more community safety plans imposed on local communities; we need recognition that the tripartite system established under the Police Act 1964 is broken. Chief constables are much more accountable to Home Office target-setters than to local people, and through targets, funding streams, audit and inspection, the Home Office has imposed de facto national control over police forces.

Police authorities, which are supposedly the third pillar of tripartite accountability, are not up to the job, because they fail to hold chief constables effectively to account, and they do a poor job representing local people. Police authorities are largely appointed, and some are quangos with local worthies but without democratic verve. Too often, the authorities see it as their job to defend "their" chief constable against attacks on his or her performance; instead, they should hold the chief constable to account. Few people know that police authorities exist, and even fewer know who sits on them.

My Bill would abolish police authorities. Instead, a simple, effective and transparent system of local accountability should be introduced: directly elected individual justice commissioners. Justice commissioners would appoint and dismiss chief constables, set targets for the force, make their own policing plans and control their own budgets, which would be allocated as a block grant. Initially, there would be one commissioner for every one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, but, in time, it would make sense to bring the forces into line with local government boundaries. My Bill would enshrine in law the operational independence of chief constables. It is possible to have policing that is both democratically accountable and operationally independent of untoward interference. Where there was a directly elected mayor whose jurisdiction was congruent with a police force area—a situation that currently occurs only in London—the mayor would exercise the function of the justice commissioner.

The criminal justice system is not, however, simply about chasing criminals through the streets. Criminal justice is about pursuing wrongdoers through the courts, determining their guilt or innocence and managing offenders justly. People are losing confidence in the criminal justice system not merely because of failures of policing, but because of failures further downstream. Some have argued that we need a measure of justice commissioner involvement in prosecution, although it is not included in my Bill. Similarly, there is a case to be made—I stress that I am not making it today—for a joined-up system of criminal justice that allows the justice commissioner some involvement in probation. That might give greater local legitimacy to some of the more compassionate and just forms of offender management that we now need.

Throughout the ages, those opposed to greater democracy have argued that things are best left to the experts—so, too, with those opposed to democratic policing. They say that it is too technical, too difficult and too sensitive and that it is far better left to qualified professionals rather than elected populists. Really? Are they thinking of the same qualified professionals who presided over one of the highest per capita crime rates in the western world, or of the legal system that sends a seventh-conviction burglar to prison for an average of 21 months?

Is there perhaps a danger that a rabid populist might take charge of local policing? Not at all. The police would remain entirely operationally independent. The law would still be the law, and it would continue to be enforced without fear or favour. As for populist politicians, we might well end up with a Rudy Giuliani or a Ray Mallon in every town.

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