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Twenty-six years and 13 days after his original election, I call Mr Keith Vaz.
I had no idea you were keeping count so very carefully, Mr Speaker, but thank you for reminding me.
I am delighted to be able to raise the issue of police and crime commissioner accountability on the Floor of the House tonight. I am pleased to see the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice here to answer the debate, having appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs only last week.
Allegations today that undercover officers spied on the Lawrence family are just one of a number of recent events in policing that have shown why this new element of democratic accountability is vital to the landscape of policing. In creating the commissioners, the Home Secretary was seeking to construct a new and better, more accountable policing edifice. However, it has become clear that there may be a number of structural faults, and if these are not addressed quickly, this gleaming new building will collapse.
The birth of the commissioners was a long and difficult one. The original election date had to be changed, voters did not receive a formal election mailing—they were asked to look at websites—and there was a record low turnout. In Devon and Cornwall, Commissioner Tony Hogg was elected by only 5% of the electorate. In Wales, at a Newport polling station, not a single vote was cast. The commissioners are a new breed, although some of them are known to us. Six commissioners are former Members of Parliament, including Alun Michael from South Wales, Jane Kennedy from Merseyside, Paddy Tipping from Nottinghamshire, Vera Baird from Northumbria, Sir Graham Bright from Cambridgeshire, and Tony Lloyd from Greater Manchester.
Subsequent to their election, the first actions of some commissioners were to make appointments to their offices, which vary hugely in size, from 40 staff in Tony Lloyd’s Greater Manchester office to just four in
Vera Baird’s office in Northumbria. There are 16 Conservative, 13 Labour and 12 independent police commissioners. The House will know that there has been much controversy over political appointments. The Committee heard from the West Yorkshire commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, for example, who appointed the wife of his party’s regional director in Yorkshire and Humberside, who oversaw his selection, to become his deputy on a salary of £53,000. Both the Labour West Midlands commissioner, Bob Jones, and the Conservative Northamptonshire commissioner, Adam Simmonds, made political appointments to the post of assistant commissioner.
Not a week has passed without articles in newspapers about the activities of some commissioners, and I shall give just four examples. Newspapers reported that three police officers were arrested after allegedly leaking details of Cumbrian Commissioner Richard Rhodes’s undeclared expenses to the press. Richard Rhodes has written to my Committee to clarify the position, and we have published his letter on our website. The Mail on Sunday ran a splash raising questions about the office of the Thames Valley commissioner, Anthony Stansfeld, who is the Prime Minister’s local commissioner. Last week, the Watford Observer said that in April alone, in his capacity as Hertfordshire commissioner, David Lloyd accepted hospitality with outsourcing companies Serco and Capgemini. It was also revealed by the newspapers that the Surrey commissioner, Kevin Hurley, ran a private security firm, and it was claimed that that was a conflict of interest. Mr Hurley denies that. The House and the public need to decide if that is just press speculation or something more serious reflecting general unease about the activities of some commissioners.
So much is not known about the commissioners that the Select Committee decided to produce a report to set out all the issues and to provide an easy way to refer to what the commissioners were doing, effectively creating a central register of interests. I want to thank Richard Benwell for his hard work on the Committee’s register. Our report was prompted by a lack of transparency: the fact that the Government refused to collate such a register themselves led to our decision to produce one.
In May 2013, four commissioners had still not published the required budget data online: Humberside’s Matthew Grove; Norfolk’s Stephen Bett; North Wales’s Winston Roddick; and Suffolk’s Tim Passmore. Twenty-three commissioners have yet to publish the full statutory information required.
Despite the permanent secretary telling the Committee on Tuesday that he had e-mailed his own staff saying that the Home Office needs to be much more transparent, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has refused to disclose details of meetings that have taken place between the Home Office and commissioners. His excuse was that it was on the website, yet he answered in full a similar question from my right hon. Friend Mr Hanson on
Transparency is vital to allow a full and fair analysis of the momentous decisions that some of the commissioners have to make. The biggest power they wield is the ability to hire and fire chief constables. This month Gwent’s commissioner, Ian Johnston, apparently forced the chief constable of Gwent, Carmel Napier, to retire. The reason he cited was that she was hostile to the idea of commissioners and their relationship was “never going to work.” We hope to hear from both the Gwent Commissioner and the former chief constable at the Committee in the near future. In Lincolnshire Commissioner Alan Hardwick’s suspension of Chief Constable Rhodes was later reversed by a High Court judge, who called it “irrational and perverse.” Ten chief constables have resigned or retired since November 2012.
The police and crime panels are meant to hold commissioners to account on all these issues. They are the only groups standing between commissioners and a four-year period in which they can, in effect, do whatever they like. However, as soon as the cold light of scrutiny was shone on them by the Committee, we found that these panels were often compromised by political allegiances, and some lacked the guidance, legal advice and legal powers that they required. The Kent police and crime panel never scrutinised Commissioner Anne Barnes’s decision to appoint a youth and crime commissioner on a salary of £15,000. Gwent’s commissioner, Ian Johnston, admitted to a group of Labour Gwent MPs that until the details of his meeting with Chief Constable Napier were leaked, he had had no intention of informing the panel of the full details of her departure.
The Lincolnshire police and crime panel did not meet for two months to discuss the suspension of Chief Constable Rhodes. The panel chairman told the Committee that it received poor and confused legal advice and in the end the chairman had to write to the Minister asking what to do. Just a few days after appearing before the Committee, Lincolnshire’s panel chair, Councillor Ray Wootten, resigned after “inadvertently misleading” the Committee. Apparently it was he who was confused, not the legal advice that he had been given. He and the other panel chairs we heard from, Councillor Patricia O’Brien in Suffolk and Councillor Peter Box, issued a plea that the Home Secretary had left them alone in their mammoth scrutiny task and they needed more help and support to achieve proper scrutiny.
The situation is so serious that Sir Hugh Orde, one of the country’s most distinguished police officers and the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has branded the system for holding commissioners to account
“the worst system you can possibly have” and demanded a meeting between chief constables and the Home Secretary—an astonishing statement from someone as senior as Sir Hugh, and a statement that I hope the Government will listen to. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell the House when and where this meeting between Sir Hugh and the Home Secretary will take place. I hope he will not refer me to a website.
London’s own police and crime commissioner, Mayor Boris Johnson, and his relationship with Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan commissioner, is proof that with proper scrutiny, the system can work. We can also look to Leicestershire, where Commissioner Sir Clive Loader and Chief Constable Simon Cole get on very well indeed. We want to see relationships like this replicated across the country.
Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Tom Winsor, recently told the Committee that he thought there was scope for the inspectorate to have a greater role in the new landscape. HMIC should take over publication of the central register of interests started by the Committee, as well as the register of chief constables’ interests, which still does not have a home. The chief executive of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, should ensure that police and crime panels have a representative on the college’s board, and indeed the college should provide them with training, guidance and legal advice.
As the level 2 transfer deadline approaches, some commissioners will choose to take over important matters such as procurement. The Home Secretary has said that she is looking at commissioners taking over 999 contracts, including for ambulance and fire services, which is a most interesting idea.
A number of these issues would never have arisen in the first place if the Government had done as the Select Committee recommended in our report on the new landscape of policing published earlier this year, in which we suggested the introduction of a “Magna Carta”. This would be an agreed document, signed by police and crime commissioners and chief constables, setting out the rights and responsibilities of the various parties.
There is unquestionably a very important role for commissioners in the new landscape. I want to pay tribute to the work that many of them do; it is no easy task to take the first steps in a completely new and important area of policy. The police need to be accountable to the taxpayer for the money they spend, the priorities they choose and, indeed, the mistakes they make. However, we must ensure that there is a sound process in place for making commissioners accountable. After all, we will have to wait another three and a half years until the next election, and nothing can be done until then. That is why my colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee have agreed to conduct a major inquiry into commissioners on the anniversary of their elections. We want the public to have their say on this important issue. If the police commissioners are to assume their place as the bedrock of more transparent and accountable policing in the Home Secretary’s new landscape, we must get the process right, and we must get it right now.
I congratulate Keith Vaz on securing the debate and am grateful for his support for the Government’s vision of a more accountable police service. He made the standard disobliging remarks about turnout at the elections, but I should point out that 5 million people voted, which is approximately 5 million more than the number who elected anyone who sat on a police authority.
The police and crime commissioners have been in office for six and a half months, and in that relatively short time they have made a significant impact. Crime has fallen by more than 10% under this Government and has continued to fall since the PCCs were elected, against the challenging economic climate. PCCs not only represent the most significant democratic reform of policing we have seen; they are also proving to be central figures in helping to cut crime. In the past six months all the PCCs have published their police and crime plans and engaged with the public in a way that police authorities did not, and indeed could not. PCCs have made pledges and put in place measures to improve services offered to victims and to protect the vulnerable from those who would prey on them.
The right hon. Gentleman listed a series of newspaper articles criticising PCCs and said that they were appearing almost weekly. I merely observe that articles that are critical of Members of this House appear almost daily, but that does not mean that parliamentary democracy is a bad thing. Newspapers are there to criticise, and elected representatives are there to defend their position.
I am genuinely puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman’s objection to looking up information on websites. The internet is common these days and many can access it; it is the easiest way for the public to access information. He is as capable as anyone in the country of accessing information on a website.
When a Member of Parliament asks a question of a Minister about when they have a meeting with a police and crime commissioner, the Minister should answer the question rather than saying, “Wait until it is published in three months’ time”. That is my point. I have no problem in accessing the internet.
I am delighted to hear it. As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman at the Select Committee last week, this Government are the most transparent ever. Previous Governments, including the Government of whom he was a leading and distinguished member, did not routinely publish the meetings their Ministers had in the way that my ministerial colleagues and I do.
I do not accept at all the right hon. Gentleman’s implication or accusation that the Government are in any way trying to hide information about meetings. Indeed, as he pointed out, I replied in some detail to the shadow Policing Minister about a meeting I had with police commissioners. Any imputation that such meetings are covered up is factually inaccurate.
As a result of the arrival of police and crime commissioners, we are seeing the development of innovative and challenging thinking that cuts to the heart of crime reduction and prevention in our communities. That thinking is the work of a disparate group of individuals who are nevertheless united in their commitment to a single goal that cuts across party politics or ideological leanings—that of cutting crime, reducing the harm that comes to our citizens from those who would wish to do them harm, and making our streets and communities safer places to live.
Those innovations, brought about by the police and crime commissioners, can be split into three broad groups: challenging the criminal justice system to deliver for victims and the vulnerable; challenging local partners to play their part in cutting crime; and challenging forces to drive the changes needed to ensure that front-line services are maintained and improved.
Let me illustrate some of the ideas being brought to life. In the first group, we see examples such as Martyn Underhill, the independent PCC for Dorset, who is developing a victims bureau where victims are supported throughout their journey through the criminal justice system by a single point of contact. Another example is
Shaun Wright, Labour PCC for South Yorkshire, who is allocating extra funding to assist the work to prevent child sexual exploitation.
In the second group, Matthew Ellis, the Conservative PCC from Staffordshire, has focused on the interaction between the police and those with mental health issues. He is looking at how officers can reduce the time spent with such individuals, without compromising the service to those who need it. Sue Mountstevens, the independent PCC from Avon and Somerset, is establishing a business crime forum for business leaders to provide input into policing best practice on such areas as CCTV security, security staff and joint initiatives. That will be coupled with prevention work with communities and schools.
In the third group, we are seeing PCCs challenge forces to drive essential changes. PCCs of all kinds are looking at how the police can work more closely with the fire service. Sir Graham Bright, the Conservative PCC from Cambridgeshire, has begun work to exploit better the existing IT systems to provide the opportunity to automate and improve the flow of information across the force. That work is designed to get key information to the officer on the beat when they need it and provides the opportunity for the public to access the police quickly through digital means.
Such innovations have not come about by accident, but by design on the part of the individual PCCs. That is a direct result of the Government achieving what they set out to do all along with the introduction of PCCs—to shift accountability away from Whitehall into the hands of locally elected representatives, who understand the needs and the priorities of the people in their areas far better than policy makers in Whitehall ever could.
The right hon. Gentleman implied that some kind of accountability gap is developing between Whitehall and PCCs. That is not the case. This Government have given serious thought to how we can improve the accountability of the entirety of policing, not just the leadership, and that is why we are seeing improvements in the information that is available to the public. In the case of PCCs, the Home Secretary rightly retains backstop powers that we do not envisage using, but the day-to-day management, governance and oversight of the forces has transferred into the hands of PCCs. The legislation that underpins PCCs is enabling legislation, not preventive legislation. The supposed accountability gap is a fiction created by people who cannot bear to see the transference of accountability away from Whitehall, where it was held for so long—indeed, for too long. The truth of the matter is that what we have seen demonstrates that we were right all along. The challenges and, indeed, controversies that we are seeing are the product of PCCs doing the job they have been elected to do.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly made a point about the availability of information. I share his desire for increasing transparency. We are working towards ensuring that key elements of the information required by legislation are published on the national police.uk website. We are confident that this will enable the public even better to access easily the information they need to hold their PCC to account. Under the specified information order, PCCs have to publish a register of interests, including every pecuniary interest or other paid interest, budgets, contracts and tenders, senior salaries, expenses, and key decisions. We have been clear that it is not the role of central Government to establish and maintain a national register of interests. This is not co-ordinated because the public want to hold their own local PCC, and not all 41 PCCs, to account.
Significant structures and safeguards are in place to ensure that PCCs are able to fulfil the role that the Government intended for them. PCCs already benefit from appropriate checks and balances, as befits their status as democratically elected individuals, through locally elected councillors with strong powers to question the PCC, through the statutory framework that underpins the office of PCC, and ultimately, of course, at the ballot box. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, PCCs work every day in the full gaze and scrutiny of the media.
Specific safeguards include the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which brought PCCs into being. That is enhanced by the Policing Protocol Order 2011, a document that has been commended in the House of Lords for its ease of comprehension. These documents clearly set out the powers that police and crime panels have to provide supportive scrutiny to their relevant PCCs. Those powers include, but are not limited to, the power to ensure that the appointment of a chief constable is subject to the scrutiny and the potential veto of the panel; the power to ensure that the dismissal of a chief constable is open to proper scrutiny and follows clear procedure; and the power to require that information held by the PCC is made available to the panel and therefore to the public.
If there have been failings in the system—the failings that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned—they may be the result of chairs of panels, and panels themselves, having a lack of understanding of the powers they hold and the role they fulfil. We are confident that panels have the powers they need to fulfil their scrutiny roles. He mentioned the incidents in Lincolnshire. As he knows, the chairman of the panel there wrote to the Home Office asking for advice about whether he could hold a scrutiny meeting. I wrote back to him saying that he could, and he chose to ignore that advice. With the best will in the world, there is not a lot more that the Policing Minister can do when asked for advice than to give it, and if the chair of the panel—former chair; he has subsequently left the job—chooses to ignore it, that is a matter for him.
The protocol is explicit:
“At all times the Chief Constable, their constables and staff, remain operationally independent in the service of the communities that they serve.”
That could not be clearer. Regardless of which PCC is in office, the police have the discretion to use their judgment when deciding who to investigate or arrest, and must by law be wholly without influence of the PCC.
There have been several high-profile cases where the performance of the chief constable has been challenged by the PCC. That is a positive symptom of the shift in accountability from Whitehall to PCCs. It is right that the role of chief constable and the post-holder are open to challenge, and that PCCs have the mandate to challenge them on behalf of the people they represent. It would be a disservice to PCCs and chief constables, who are professionals, to suggest that they would be unable to maintain a professional and productive working relationship having come through any such challenge.
There has been criticism of the size and structure of the offices of PCCs. Indeed, we have heard some tonight from the right hon. Gentleman. There are significant variations. In the examples that he gave, that is partly because of the difference in size between Greater Manchester and Northumbria. However, PCCs have the mandate and the knowledge to determine what is needed to carry out their remit. Who else is better placed to judge that? Equally importantly, all information regarding the offices of PCCs is available to the public, so people will be able to take into account the value for money that their PCC has delivered when they next cast their vote. That is also true of the appointment of deputies and other figures who support the PCC in their duties. Whether those appointments are appropriate or necessary is not for me to say; it is for the public to judge at the ballot box.
PCCs have been complying with the requirements that we made on them to be transparent. The Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information) Order 2011 requires PCCs to publish key information. That includes a register of interests that must include all other pecuniary or paid interests, expenses, budgets, contracts and tenders, senior salaries, and key decisions. The intention is for the public to use that information to hold PCCs to account. I would contrast that with the situation that used to obtain with police authorities.
Police and crime commissioners are doing much that all Members of every party can be proud of. Those actions are a function of the shift in accountability from Whitehall to PCCs. The innovation and ambition in PCCs’ plans for their areas are testimony to their dedication to the role, their commitment to the people of their areas and their desire to make a real change, which is precisely what is happening. It is evident to me that PCCs are doing exactly what Parliament had intended and many of them are doing it extremely well.
Question put and agreed to.