The end of an undemocratic experiment?

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 27 November 2013

From the start, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were a flawed solution to an acknowledged problem: the lack of democratic oversight and accountability of the police.

When the Prime Minister David Cameron launched the elections for PCCs last year, he described the role as 'a big job for a big local figure. It’s a voice for the people, someone to lead the fight against crime, and someone to hold to account if they don’t deliver'.

The public did not appear to agree with the Prime Minister then and seem only to have grown more sceptical over time. Only 5 percent of those questioned for a YouGov poll earlier this month said that PCCs had made the police more accountable.

Even before they took office, the disastrous PCC elections last November undermined what little claim successful candidates might have had to a democratic mandate. The turnout, at only 15 per cent across England and Wales was, in the words of a highly critical Electoral Commission report, the 'lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime non-local government election in the UK'.

In a report earlier this year the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee highlighted what it described as the ‘monoculture’ of the elected PCCs:

'Only 1 in 7 are women and there is a complete lack of representation of ethnic minorities amongst the commissioners.'

The Committee also expressed concern over the apparent lack of transparency over the PCCs business and other outside interests. An election once every four years offered little by the way of ongoing accountability, the Committee argued.

Meanwhile, the Police and Crime Panels, which were supposed to scrutinise the work of the PCCs, appeared unclear about their powers. There were ‘risks of maverick behaviour’, noted the Comittee, if the appropriate checks and balances were not in place.

But the problems are deeper than a flawed election process, an unrepresentative group of elected officials and individual idiosyncracies.

The assumption that a single individual might embody the public interest in relation to the policing of geographically large, culturally diverse police force areas was always a dubious one. Add to this some significant, largely untrammelled powers and a lack of any democratic accountability - bar periodic elections that few appear to want - and the current mess of police governance is wholly unsurprising.

Now the final report of the Independent Police Commission, set up by the Labour Party and chaired by former Met Commissioner John Stevens, has described PCCs as a 'failed experiment' that should be discontinued when the current terms expire in May 2016. They should be listened to.

John Stevens and his colleagues identify six problems with the PCC model:

  • The 'maladministration' of the election process by the Home Office contributed to the poor turnout and lack of a democratic mandate for the elected PCCs.
  • Echoing the Home Affairs Committee, Stevens and his colleagues are concerned about the predominantly 'male, white and middle-­aged' composition of elected PCCs.
  • Despite the Prime Minister's call for 'big local figures' the elected PCCs are largely invisible in their areas, with only 11 percent able to name their one.
  • Appointment of staff by PCCs has been mired in controversy and accusations of cronyism.
  • The relationship between Chief Constables and PCCs has been problematic and opaque. For instance, 'formerly public scrutiny processes of accountability are being replaced by opaque arrangements focused around private meetings between PCCs and chief officers'.
  • In terms of accountability, the large geographic scale and diversity of most police force areas mitigates against PCCs being able to represent the public. Furthermore, the 'single individual model of accountability also increases the likelihood that PCCs will frame their policing approach around the demands of their natural support, even perhaps at the expense of minorities.

These problems, they note,

'are not implementation issues that will be ironed out over time. Rather, they are design flaws, structural limitations of a single individual model of police governance organised on a force wide basis. The Commission concludes that they cumulatively amount to a compelling case for discontinuing this particular experiment in democratic policing, and for seeking better alternatives'.

For the same reason the Commission 'cannot find any compelling grounds' for giving PCCs additional powers, as advocated, among others, by right-leaning think tanks Reform and Policy Exchange.

In place of PCCs, Stevens and his colleagues propose a stronger role for local authorities in police governance, with a requirement that the police organise internal force boundaries to make them coterminous with local government ones.

This is a welcome proposal. Over recent years local Council Tax payers have taken on a greater burden in relation to police expenditure, as the figure below from the Centre's analysis of police expenditure between 1999 and 2009 makes clear. This trend is only likely to continue over time. This supports the case for greater democratic oversight on behalf of Council Tax payers by the bodies that collect the revenue.

Local authorities, for all their faults, are also in a better position to balance and represent the range and diversity of  the public interest in a given area than any one individual could ever hope to do, however well-meaning.

Whatever the intention, the PCC experiment has undermined, rather than enhanced, local democratic oversight and accountability of the police. The Independent Police Commission's proposals for a greater role for local authorities are a step in the right direction and deserve support.