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Clause 1 — Police and crime commissioners

Part of Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 12th September 2011.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 7:30 pm, 12th September 2011

I was not going to speak in this debate, but so many interesting points have been made that I decided I would. The most interesting and perverse point was made by Mr Burley when he reached his conclusion. He said—I do not have the exact quotation; I am sure that it will be in Hansard—that he envisaged non-political elections taking place. I think that all elections—certainly all those to major positions representing millions of people, as they would in the case of the west midlands, Greater Manchester and our other great urban conurbations—are necessarily bound to be political. I would therefore suggest that he think through a little more what he is saying and doing, because what he described is completely impossible.

I am going to vote with my party against the Government on these Lords amendments for two reasons, even though Government Members have made significant arguments that I support. The first reason is that having elections in November is difficult to say the least. Some older Members of this House may remember that local government elections used to be held in the autumn. They were moved from the autumn because turnout was low, and also because they were a long way from the rate-setting process—it was thought that the finances and the elections should be put together so that the electorate could have a direct impact. They are solid arguments: it would be a mistake to have low-turnout elections in November.

However, that is not the most significant reason why I will not vote with the Government. The second reason is that there is clearly a democratic deficit with the police. There are many good councillors on police authorities in the metropolitan authorities, but they are not directly elected to that position, which means that it is more difficult for elected politicians to have real political accountability to the electorate. However well the chair of the police authority in Greater Manchester does—and Councillor Paul Murphy does an extremely good job in that position—he is not directly elected to that position. However, although I recognise that democratic deficit—I believe in direct elections for local politicians to control the police—it is not just the relationship with the electorate that is deficient; it is the relationship with other local public services.

It is good for the police to have to argue for their budget against other services. It is good for police forces to have to sit down with people whose jobs are about child protection, care of the elderly, transport and so on and argue for their priorities, so that they can understand more what is going on. Unfortunately, we are 30-or-so years into a series of ad hoc changes to local democracy—many have been made for good reasons; some have been made for poor reasons—which have left us in a mess. We need to take a more fundamental look at what is going on in local democracy than just saying, “We’ve got a problem with policing; we can make it more effective by introducing democracy.”

Those are the reasons why I will not be supporting the Government. On the other hand, I should like to remind some of my hon. Friends that democracy is expensive. If we asked most members of the public whether they would prefer money to be spent on two nurses or one Member of Parliament, virtually all of them would say that they wanted two nurses. However, if we asked them, “Do you want to be denied the right to determine locally who provides services?”—whether it be transport, policing or whatever—they will say that they want that right, and that right comes with a cost. Therefore, when people on this side of the Chamber say that now is not the time to spend money on improving and increasing democracy, I do not agree with them. Democracy is important and we have a deficiency; it is just that the Government’s proposals are not good enough at the moment.

The second thing that has been said is that rascals or the wrong people might be elected. Unfortunately, the electorate sometimes get it wrong—some people in the Chamber will know and respect that fact—but that is the nature of democracy, and hopefully they will put it right next time. However important policing is, it is not right to say that we can have a bureaucrat, however high up they might be in the police service, telling elected police commissioners or polices authorities that they have got it wrong. The people who tell elected representatives that they have got it wrong are the electorate at the next election, not bureaucrats, and I do not think that we can have those decisions made failsafe.

The third point on which I would take issue with some Members on my side is this. I support the police—as I suspect every hon. Member in this House does—but that can sometimes be taken to mean that we cannot be critical or say that they could do the job better. They clearly could, and the riots are an interesting example to look at policing in this country. When the riots took place in Greater Manchester, the police could, in my view, have done a more effective job. That is not to criticise individual police officers who were on the streets, showing extreme bravery; it is to take issue with, potentially, the tactics and strategy used on that night. It is to take issue with the Greater Manchester police’s procurement policies, which put officers from tactical aid units on the streets of Greater Manchester with 17 or 18-year-old equipment that was too heavy. It is to take issue with the tactics and strategy that sent well trained police officers from Greater Manchester to sit in coaches in London. This is essentially about saying that we should have been able to do better than we did in protecting the property and people of Greater Manchester on the nights of the riots.

That is not about not supporting the police; it is about saying that however brave they are, things can be improved, as in every other public service. That is part of the democratic process, which is about being able to be open and critical and about trying to improve those services. However good Councillor Murphy and the other members of the police authority are, having somebody directly elected for the whole of Greater Manchester would have meant a more creative and better public debate about what was happening that evening. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that not being the case.