Elect your local sheriff

Richard Hibbs says that elected Police Commissioners can make a difference in Wales, despite opposition from the National Assembly

The controversial Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill has finally received Royal Assent after months of parliamentary ‘Hokey Cokey’ over its key legislative provision. First they were in; then they were out. Those opposed to the Bill, including the National Assembly which in February voted down a legislative consent motion which would have agreed to elected Police and Crime Commissioners coming to Wales, saw them as having as much potential to divide communities as unite them. Others regarded them as an expensive and unnecessary blot on the constitutional landscape.

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Ultimately, however, elected Police and Crime Commissioners have shaken off all their parliamentary detractors to emerge as a strange new force in British politics. Summer riots, looting, alleged police corruption at the highest level – all these have in turn threatened, but ultimately failed to kill them off. They now advance inexorably towards us, armed only with statutory Police and Crime Plans – a kind of bureaucratic Taser with which to stun under-performing Chief Constables- and are finally scheduled to arrive on 15 November 2012.

In Wales, the clauses in the Bill relating to the replacement of the four Police Authorities by Police and Crime Commissioners have met with serious and organised resistance, resulting in an unlikely constitutional standoff between the Welsh Government and the Home Office.

It remains to be seen whether the Home Secretary chooses to exercise her powers to appoint members of new Police and Crime Panels in Wales. Equally, we await to see whether Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Government’s Local Government Minister, procures a further stay of execution for Police Authorities. These two conflicting scenarios are not as mutually exclusive as they perhaps ought to be.

So were members of the third Assembly “unwise” to vote down their own legislative consent motion on agreeing to Police Commissioners coming to Wales? And if not, what is actually at stake?

It cannot be that politicians in Cardiff Bay are against Commissioners per se – otherwise they would surely not have sent five of them to run Anglesey Council. Is it perchance worries about politicising the police? Again, this is unlikely. The police already have their own risk-based agenda for social control, influential friends in the tabloid and local press, plus a dedicated network of undercover activists to keep tabs on everything the CCTV fails to pick up. So the police could hardly be more politicised than they already are.

In fact, the real political significance of elected Police Commissioners for Wales lies in the break-up of the monopoly on devolution that the Assembly has enjoyed up to now. This is surely the reason the Welsh Government feels it has no option but to continue its opposition to the policy. Any powers, once devolved to elected Police Commissioners will surely never be returned to Cardiff Bay.

More terrifying still for the political parties, if the devolution of police accountability – this time not to a remote Assembly, but to a directly elected commissioner – proves to be an effective vehicle for service reconfiguration, more could follow, starting with the functions of the Youth Justice Board.

Around 70 per cent of police workload is probably accounted for by repeat and prolific offenders – compared with 30 per cent on preventing citizens from committing their first criminal offence. The next obvious target for commissioning is therefore not the court system, but the larger 70 per cent slice of the problem for the police accounted for by everything that is supposed to happen to convicted persons afterthey have been sentenced (what we tend to refer to as ‘disposals’ and the Americans call ‘corrections’).

No elected Police and Crime Commissioner worth his or her £122,000 price tag when purchasing correctional services on behalf of their community would, for example, be willing to tolerate a situation in which the overwhelming majority of prisoners were returned back to their communities only to quickly re-offend. Disposals that fail to meet basic standards of quality and cost-effectiveness could simply be decommissioned in favour of cheaper alternatives closer to home.

The spin-off benefits of introducing pluralism to the devolution process in the form of a clear choice about where to devolve new powers should not be underestimated in at least two respects:

  1. Wales suffers from a paucity of policy implementation and a surfeit of policy rhetoric – a culture of continuous planning, the ‘all flagships and no fleet’ approach, call it what you will. Elected Police Commissioners represent a decisive departure from central targets and bureaucratic reporting structures. In effect, they are an experiment in provincial government which might actually get something done. Success will inevitably drive up standards of implementation generally, and thereby transform devolution into a quality process.
  2. Anyone who wants tougher scrutiny of government performance in the wake of the Yes vote on more powers for the Assembly last March need look no further than the four new Police and Crime Commissioners to provide it. All the feeder systems for our prisons – housing, economic development, education, and drug and alcohol schemes – are key devolved matters. Policy failure in any of these areas would attract loud, sustained and very public criticism from Police Commissioners.

Unfortunately, these benefits cannot be fully realised if Police Commissioners are drawn from the same political parties that dominate the Senedd. If the third Assembly was ‘unwise’, then the Conservative-led coalition has also miscalculated in this one key respect. The size of Police Authority constituencies is such that

  • Even after taking account of second preference votes, it is statistically very difficult for a party other than the party holding the majority of constituency seats in the Assembly to win, except in Dyfed Powys.
  • The constituencies are too big to be ‘marginals’ so that the same party will tend to win every time.

Final word of advice for your under-performing Chief Constable from the stand-up comic Jeff Marder: “We live in an age when pizza gets to your home before the police”. So get busy – Elected Police Commissioners are on their way!

Richard Hibbs is promoting the campaign for an independent non-party political Police and Crime Commissioner for north Wales.

3 thoughts on “Elect your local sheriff

  1. I don’t think that anybody sentient would dispute that Police Commissioners, imposed on Wales, will make a difference. Only a devolution denier like the writer can possibly think it will be a difference for the better!

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