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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners The introduction of a new species of local politician to Britain

The Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who will be elected on 15 November represent the imposition of a significant new, American model of local politics into the British system.  I've asked
Marian FitzGerald Visiting Professor of Criminology University of Kent to do a guest blog about this.


PCCs will replace the Police Authorities which were originally established in 1964 and which, at that time, comprised one third local magistrates and two thirds local councillors.  Police Authorities were responsible for maintaining an ‘efficient and effective’ police force, and could hold their Chief Constables to account on these grounds, though they were not allowed to interfere in operational matters. 
Under what was known as the Tripartite Agreement, policing policy was jointly developed by the Home Office, the Association of Chief Constables and the Association of Police Authorities. Over time, however, the role and influence of these two last bodies has diminished considerably, with that of the APA marginalised very much further, faster and sooner than that of ACPO. From the 1970s and in particular during the 1980s many left wing local authorities, frustrated at the lack of truly democratic control of the police had set up their own police committees which, while they lacked any statutory power, arguably wielded much greater political influence locally than did the police authority. Successive governments themselves also diluted the membership of the police authorities from 1994 onwards by introducing additional members appointed somewhat ad hoc by the Home Secretary, albeit notionally on the basis of representing the interests for example of the local business community. From 1997 the advent of New Labour brought increasingly centralised control of all public services which further attenuated the role of both ACPO and the already weakened APA in several ways. 

The creation under New Labour of a number of powerful new, national bodies concerned with policing (including SOCA and the NPIA) along with the proliferation of nationally driven targets and performance indicators diminished the power of Chief Constables and, with this, the status of the body representing the senior ranks. In addition, David Blunkett  as Home Secretary in particular appeared to be pursuing a strategy of  marginalising force-level hierarchies further by focusing attention at the sub-force level of the Basic Command Unit. In this context he began to cultivate the Police Superintendents’ Association (that is, the body representing BCU commanders) rather than ACPO. Inevitably these developments further constrained the notional powers of the Police Authorities and, with hindsight, the current accusations that Police Authorities had become too close to their Chief Constables, might be traced back to the two sides being brought closer together in resistance to what appeared to be a consistent attack by central government on the independence of local forces. 

At the same time, Blunkett’s ‘radical’ proposals for police reform which appeared high profile in a (singularly incoherent) white paper soon after he took office in 2001 had fallen short of meeting his personal preference for giving Home Secretaries the unambiguous right to sack Chief Constables. He had already signalled his intentions in this regard by ensuring the departure of Paul Whitehouse, Chief Constable of Sussex; but the formula in the White Paper was that the Home Secretary must nonetheless act only via the local police authority in this regard. The issue was forced to a head when, following the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders, Blunkett had wanted to sack the Chief Constable of Humberside (where Ian Huntley had lived and was known to the police before taking up the post as a caretaker in the Cambridgeshire school where he committed the murders) but the Police Authority opposed him. The Chief Constable was still forced ultimately to resign and the chair of the Police Authority – presumably by coincidence – was subsequently, publicly and very personally discredited.


Role and powers
According to the Home Office website, PCCs ‘will cut crime and deliver and (sic) efficient police service’ [I suspect this is a typo, resulting from the original formulation based also on that of police authorities which, as cited above, referred to an ‘effective and efficient police service’]. While they (like police authorities) will not have the power to intervene directly in operational matters or individual cases, their capacity for cutting crime and improving police effectiveness depends on the use they make of their powers, as described in detail in the appendix. Critical among these is their power to appoint and to dismiss the chief constable.
The secretariat which previously served the Police Authority transfers to support the PCC. The secretariat is paid for out of the police budget (which comprises the grant from central government and from local tax in the form of the police precept). The PCC’s salary will be funded separately by the Home Office and varies according to the size of the police force – ranging from £100,000 in the largest forces (West Midlands, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire) down to £65,000 in the four smallest forces (which include Warwickshire and Gloucestershire); but in the bulk of forces the pay is £85,000.
The term of office for a PCC will be four years and the initial proposal to limit the number of times PCCs can stand for re-election has been dropped. Even had it been retained, all PCCs would have been eligible to stand for re-election at least once; but now they can fight to stay in office as often as they choose.

The Mayor of London has already been given the powers of a PCC by the government and the Mayor’s Office for Policing has replaced the Metropolitan Police Authority. I assume that his powers cover not only the Met but also the tiny City of London police force. So the following apply to the other 41 forces in England Wales.
Candidates must be ‘British, Commonwealth or EU citizens’ aged over 18 who are registered to vote in their force area. Exceptions are individuals who have ever been convicted of an imprisonable offence and individuals who are currently engaged in any of the following occupations:
civil servant, judge, police officer, member of the regular armed forces, employee of a council within the force area, employee of a police related agency, employee of another government agency, politically restricted post-holder, member of police staff (including PCSOs) or member of a police authority.
Any MP or MEP wishing to stand must first resign their seat. To be accepted as a candidate requires the endorsement of at least 100 local electors and all candidates have to put up a deposit of £5,000 which they will lose if they fail to get 5 per cent of the votes cast.
The Home Office website stresses that the PCCs are accountable only to their local electorate, although many of the briefings for candidates remind them of a number of national priorities they must bear in mind when taking local decisions, as well as a range of inspectorates and other national bodies with oversight of policing to which their decision-making will (by inference) be subject.
Locally, however, they are directly accountable to no-one, including the Police and Crime Panels (PCPs) which have also been set up by the legislation. 
The PCPs have no direct power over the PCC and (with the two exceptions referred to below) any decision made by the PCC does not require reference to the PCP, still less depend on their support. The PCPs will comprise
at least one representative from each local authority in the force area, with a minimum of 10 councillors and 2 co-opted independent members, and a maximum total membership of 20.

A full description of their intended role is also included in the appendix. Note that the only powers of veto the panels can exercise are with regard to the setting of the police precept and the appointment (but, apparently, not the dismissal) of a Chief Constable, though in both cases a two thirds panel majority is required.
While the secretariat which supported the Police Authority transfers to the PCC who replaces the Authority, there would be an obvious conflict of interest were the same secretariat also to serve the panels. So a parallel arrangement is needed for this purpose and, according to the Home Office website, it will provide
£53,300 funding for each panel each year to cover support and running costs. Expenses of up to £920 will also be available to each member.

 Who is standing?
The initial Green Paper placed considerable emphasis on the notion that the post of PCC was open to any individual citizen who met the criteria above. Yet it seemed obvious from the outset that
a    only the more affluent independent individuals could afford to fund their own campaigns and, additionally, take the risk of losing a £5,000 deposit (which, as has been noted by various commentators, is ten times that required to stand for parliament) but     even so, anyone lacking access to the organisational resources of an established political party would be at a considerable disadvantage, given that the electorate they would need to reach extends over several parliamentary constituencies in many cases. (Greater Manchester, for example, returns 27 MPs).

While responses to the consultation have never been published, many are known to have expressed the concerns covered in the following section and some of these have been reflected in the finalised arrangements for PCCs and PCPs. With regard to the specific concern that the successful candidates would predominantly represent political parties, a proviso has now been made that each should, on appointment, take an ‘oath of independence’.

The list of confirmed candidates on 26 October was published by the Home Office and shows whether they had any party affiliation. The breakdown was as follows:
Lib Dem
EDL/English Democrat


As noted above, widespread concerns are known to have been expressed in response to the Green Paper, although these have never been published; and there was strong parliamentary resistance to the legislation – especially in the \House Lords. The concerns fall broadly under two headings but there are important links between the first and the second.

Democratic legitimacy
The anticipated turnout in these elections is under 20 per cent. But this is unlikely to be evenly spread across the population which is eligible to vote: it is likely to be skewed by area, age and SES. That is, it will be higher in more middle class areas; and younger people – that is, those aged 18-24 - will be under-represented among voters (while anyone aged under 18, of course, isn’t eligible to vote anyway).
All of the posts will be contested, although there is a wide variation in the numbers of candidates and this appears unrelated to the size of the force area. Most have at least four candidates and Devon and Cornwall holds the record with 10. Regardless of the turnout, therefore, the vote will be split. The system to be used will give voters a first and second preference, with the preferences taken into account if no candidate initially secures more than 50 per cent of the ballot. So, if the predictions of turnout are correct, candidates may be successful on the basis of securing the support of no more than 11 per cent of the electorate.
 Importantly, these posts will endow a single individual with democratic legitimacy without them thereby taking their place among peers who have been elected on the same basis and on whose votes they are therefore dependent if they are to secure support for their policies. These checks and balances on the power of individual elected representatives have long been the basis of British democracy (albeit the introduction of elected mayors has already broken with this tradition) and is a key characteristics of parliamentary democracy. Hence, for example, when Tony Blair as Prime Minister got Cabinet backing for the invasion of Iraq, he nonetheless faced the challenge of securing a parliamentary majority.

Politicisation and skewing of police resources
Any fan of The Wire will be only too well aware of the problems which can arise when an elected office holder who has the power to hire and fire their local police chief wishes to use that position to boost their electoral position, especially when they are running for re-election. Where – as will increasingly be the case – the current police chief is the office holder’s appointee and/or is closely identified with them, further problems may arise if the election is won by a rival in whose eyes the police chief may de facto be suspect from the outset.

Against this background, specific areas of concern with regard to the way in which PCCs in England and Wales are likely to use their powers are as follows.
To maintain and build on their electoral base, the PCCs will need above all to be responsive to the concerns of a small minority of the local electorate which, in turn, represents a very much smaller proportion of the population overall. Yet those sections of the population overall which will be of little interest to the PCC (since they are either disenfranchised or much less certain to vote) will include those who are most directly affected by crime and policing – in particular young people and those living in the most deprived areas where crime tends to be highest and problems of violence are particularly serious.

In some parts of a force area the PCC may have few or even no supporters; but in many there will be a mix of the enfranchised (a minority of whom will have voted for the PCC) and the disenfranchised – whether simply in terms of the age divide or because (for example in ‘gentrified’ areas) there is a close juxtaposition of the affluent and the relatively poor. In these situations, the pressure on the PCC from their electoral base is likely to result in pressures to co-opt the police against the young or the less affluent simply because they are perceived as a threat by the PCCs’ supporters.

Only about a fifth of the population is likely to be a victim of crime in any given year and (see above) victims are over-represented among the disenfranchised and in the areas where electoral turnout is likely to be lowest. So the main demands on the PCCs from their core constituency seem likely to relate to low level crime and disorder, especially antisocial behaviour and to maintaining the visible police presence which they have become accustomed to since the national roll-out of Safer Neighbourhood Teams in around 2004. It should be pointed out here that the term ‘antisocial behaviour’ is a subjective concept and that behaviour which might be deemed antisocial in lower crime, more affluent areas may, in more deprived, high crime areas be unremarkable. In  the more deprived, high crime areas  also, what does nonetheless count as anti-social behaviour (such as street prostitution and drug dealing) may still be more likely to go unreported since, as with crime more generally, local people may be more reluctant to go to the police for a variety of reasons, including the fear of reprisals.

Yet police numbers have already been falling for several years and ongoing cuts to police budgets make it almost certain that this will continue, while civilian staff are shed at an even faster rate.  This suggests that pressures to maintain police visibility and to increase the resources committed to low level crime and antisocial behaviour will inevitably detract from    the policing of areas where crime is more serious and also  police activities which are essential but of which the public in general will be far less aware.
With regard to a) not only is the crime experienced by local residents more prevalent and more serious in the more deprived areas of the force, the main crime hotspots are always town and city centres where de facto the resident population tends to be small and where, in any case, many victims of crime may not be local residents.
With regard to b) the loss of civilian staff may be seen politically as more acceptable than a drastic fall in police numbers but this element of the police workforce had also increased rapidly in recent years as officer posts were civilianised precisely to free up officers to perform their warranted tasks. Increasingly civilians have not only provided the necessary administrative back-up for the visible side of the business, they, along with officer colleagues have performed specialist tasks to improve both the prevention and detection of crime – for example through improved crime pattern analysis and provision of forensic support. Yet if officers cannot be spared to maintain and improve these functions because of the need to maintain visibility, this must surely have an impact on the ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ of the service sooner or later.
Finally, at a much more general level, even without these very real concerns about the day-to-day impact of the PCCs on the delivery of policing in their particular force area as they try to meet the demands of their narrow electoral base, it seems inevitable that successful candidates belonging to the Labour party (and other non-Coalition backed PCCs, including any representing UKIP) will use this very significant power base to score political points off the government. In this sense also, local policing may be caught in political crossfire in a way which is unprecedented and with consequences which, while unpredictable, may nonetheless be undesirable to anyone who would maintain the principle that the police should remain above party politics.

Final comments

Three very disparate and personal reflections are as follows.
The present government appears determined to continue the trend of taking public services out of the frame of democratic accountability through privatisation and arms’ length commissioning or contracting out. The rush to increase the academies programme and establish free schools in particular seems designed to marginalise the role of local authorities in a way which (along with cuts to the funding of other services) hollows out the role of local democratically elected representatives to an unprecedented degree. It therefore seems ironic – to put it no higher – that the government should set such store on the importance of ensuring that the police service becomes democratically accountable at local level. The irony is compounded by the additional cost involved at a time when government funding is increasingly being cut back in the name of reducing the deficit.

In future any minister may need to think twice before questioning a trade union’s mandate for industrial action on the grounds that only a minority of its members voted.  

It will be interesting to see how the PCCs (and the government as evidence of the importance of its having imposed them) try to claim success in terms of having reduced crime when, officially, crime recorded by the police has been going down anyway since 2002-3. Despite the recession – and to the perplexity of many commentators - the results published on 18 October 2012 suggest that it is steadily continuing to fall.

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