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Clause 1 — Police and crime commissioners

Part of Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 12th September 2011.

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Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 7:00 pm, 12th September 2011

I endorse the opening remarks of Jack Dromey in as much as I pay tribute to the police for the way they handled the recent riots and the like. Where I differ from him is that I would argue that recent circumstances have strengthened the argument in favour of elected police commissioners.

Two of the most widely used words in Government and public administration are “transparency” and “accountability”, and rightly so, yet the idea of proper meaningful oversight by a democratically accountable individual is being rejected or it is argued should be watered down in such a way that it would do little more than maintain the status quo. The question has been asked, “Where is the demand for this from the general public?” Of course, that demand is inevitably somewhat limited. Those such as ourselves, local councillors and the like, who take a day-to-day interest in these matters, will argue the case one way or the other. The general public—most of them, anyway—come into contact with the police only on relatively infrequent occasions, and it is then, if something goes wrong, that they want to know who to turn to for assistance.

Police authorities are anonymous and deliver no real accountability. To give an example from my constituency of Cleethorpes, which is part of the Humberside force area, the two councils on my side of the Humber—North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire—have three representatives on the police authority, which has 17 members. On alternate years, they have only two representatives; it is a bizarre situation. People do not know who to turn to because the authority is completely and utterly anonymous.

In the same way that the profit motive energises the private sector, the democratic process and the electoral mandate that it generates energises and gives vitality to public bodies and authorities. Without it, they face a real danger of becoming inward-looking and, very likely, of not delivering the service expected of them by the public. I reject the argument that having elected commissioners brings politics into policing and destroys Sir Robert Peel’s vision, which has served us so well for many generations. As Keith Vaz said, there will need to be clear ground rules that establish the working relationship between the commissioner and the chief constable. I was pleased that the Minister addressed that and recognised that we must get exactly the right protocols in place.

Once these ground rules are in place, it is imperative that neither the commissioner nor the chief constable move away from them. Inevitably, the commissioner will have to articulate the concerns of those whom he or she represents and ensure that the policies put forward at the time of their election are implemented. He or she must not publicly undermine the authority of the police chief; neither must the chief constable or his officers undermine or publicly criticise the commissioner.

I said that recent events—the riots and the like—have strengthened the argument for commissioners. The exchange of arguments between highly placed officers who made some very unacceptable and unwarranted remarks was unseemly and undermined the authority of Ministers—or the police, depending on which side of the argument one was on. These attempts to undermine political authority go further than the outspoken comments during the recent riots: such political interventions by the police can trickle down even to parish level. I am sure that many Members will have experienced in their past days as councillors, and so on, the arguments that are constantly put forward to councils—parish councils and the like—that the problem is all due to budget cuts made here or there. In effect, that undermines the elected authority that oversees the police, despite the fact that it is, as I said, somewhat anonymous.

There are alternatives. We could muddle along with the existing system of anonymous authorities manned by sincere, hard-working individuals. However, that system does not meet the needs of a modern democracy, which, if it means anything, must give our constituents a choice between competing candidates and their views on how we should be policed. There have been arguments in favour of elected police authority chairs. Many years ago, I was an advocate of that, but the more one looks at it, the more difficult one can see that it would be. What if the unelected appointed individuals on the police authority disagreed with the elected chairman? Who would win out in that situation? There is a parallel with planning inspectors overruling planning committees; we all know the arguments that that can give rise to. Because of the artificial geography of police force areas such as mine—Humberside—we are not quite moving towards localism, but getting there.

This is not the end of British policing as we know it but a major step towards introducing a system that can deliver the transparency and accountability that I am sure the whole House would approve of.