Sophie Chambers examines the record of the four Welsh Police and Crime Commissioners a year on from their election
On today’s first anniversary of the election of the Police and Crime Commissioners uncertainty hangs over policing in Wales. Should it be devolved to the National Assembly and, if so, should it be organised as an all-Wales force, akin to Police Scotland? Such uncertainty creates problems for the four Police and Crime Commissioners working together on Wales-wide issues. Meanwhile, the Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster is paying increasing attention to how the Commissioners are operating.
The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners had many critics, not least because the policy was judged to have been put together too quickly. Supporters of the policy argued that Commissioners would encourage a localised agenda, empowered to create a structure that varyies between forces.
Shortly after the elections Owain ap Gareth pointed out on Click on Wales (here) that “given the numbers who voted, the spoilt ballots, and the fact that the National Assembly was against the creation of their posts, they will have a tough job in establishing themselves in their new role”. The politicisation of the police was a concern for many, along with the potential for Police and Crime Commissioners ‘playing to the gallery’ by focussing populist issues. While protests over such specific targeting in the old structure of policing would have been directed to the national level, they are now diverted back to the local level, and therefore to those that ordered it in the first place.
The loss of the independence of the constabulary was also a key issue. Supposedly protected by the ability of the Chief Constable to veto the Police and Crime Plan, some deemed it inevitable that a Chief could be pressured by the Commissioner, particularly given that the latter holds the power to hire and fire the former. This is exacerbated by the legislation setting out that Chief Constables are no longer able to appeal to the Home Secretary against a local policy decision, or when they believe that their operational independence is under threat.
In Wales some of these concerns Commissioners have been realised. The most notable was in Gwent where there is still disagreement about the events that led to the Chief Constable’s retirement. This was made clear in the evidence session of the Home Affairs Committee which examined what happened. Police and Crime Commissioner Ian Johnston, a retired police officer who had served in Gwent for more than 30 years, said that Chief Constable Carmel Napier had warned her staff to have no interaction with him or they would face disciplinary action. He claimed she had lost the confidence of staff, and that and her managerial style was dismissive, abrupt and unhelpful (Gwent Police and Crime Panel scrutiny, 2013).
On the other hand Napier, an Assistant Chief Constable in two forces before joining Gwent as Deputy Chief in 2008, claimed that Johnston gave her the ultimatum of “retire or resign” She criticised the entire policy that provides Police and Crime Commissioners with “enormous, unfettered power” (Home Affairs Committee Oral Evidence, 2 July 2013). She said this power was why she decided not to go through the formal procedure of the matter being referred to the Police and Crime Panel. As she put it, “No matter what process I went through with the Police and Crime Panel, the outcome would be the same because the PCC is the ultimate decision-maker”. Indeed, the Panel should be informed and consult HM Inspectorate of Constabulary before making a recommendation to the Commissioner, which can then be accepted or rejected. While some, as Napier has suggested, claim this provides the Commissioner with too much power, it can be counter-argued that it is a way of preventing the Police and Crime Panels taking on the role of the ex-Police Authorities. The argument is that since they are elected, the Police and Crime Commissioners have a political mandate.
In North Wales, Commissioner Winston Roddick has been involved in a controversy over where he lives. It was reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission was investigating allegations that Roddick had listed an address in north Wales for election purposes, but was in fact living in south Wales. The issue was brought up at the Welsh Affairs Committee evidence session in July, and Roddick maintained that his permanent address was in north Wales: “I have homes in various parts of the country because I have practised in various parts of the country, but my home is, was, always will be Caernarfon” (Welsh Affairs Committee Oral Evidence, 11 July 2013). The Commissioner provided a detailed statement on his living arrangements and the IPCC found no evidence to support the claim against him.
The Welsh Affairs Committee posed various other questions to the three Commissioners and Deputy Commissioner for South Wales, including the comparison of budgets to the ex-Police Authorities, outside interests and second jobs, and the frequency with which they meet their Police and Crime Panel.
Given their position it seems only logical that the Committee would ask the Welsh Commissioners on their thoughts on devolving policing and the criminal justice – the South Wales Commissioner Alun Michael has written for the IWA’s the welsh agenda on that very subject – which resulted in disagreement. North Wales Commissioner, Winston Roddick supports devolution on the basis of efficiency (Welsh Affairs Committee Oral Evidence, 11 July 2013), while Dyfed Powys Commissioner Christopher Salmon was opposed, as “there is no real decision that could be made by a devolved settlement in respect of policing that cannot currently be made by the police and crime commissioners, who are all elected by the people of Wales to represent their various areas. Indeed, these decisions are more devolved than they would be if they were just devolved to the Cardiff level”.
The Deputy Commissioner for South Wales, Sophie Howe, putting forward Mr Michael’s view, said the case was “not without its difficulties, but given that the other key agencies that help to reduce crime are, in the main, devolved services, we see that it would make sense to devolve policing”.
When asked for their views on the prospect of a national police force varying views were again put forward. Christopher Salmon suggested that although “anything is possible, I think it would be very difficult… It was tried or looked at a few years ago at great expense and with very little output”. On the other hand, Winston Roddick stated that if it would not hinder the ability to provide “an effective and efficient police force… there is no reason why you should not have one”.
In his submission to the Silk Commission, South Wales Commissioner Alun Michael argued in favour of devolving police powers, but was “totally opposed to creating a single Welsh police force” on the basis that a Chief Constable needs to understand the police needs for every area of the force.
The structure in Scotland takes this need for local knowledge into account: there is a single Chief Constable, but also four deputy chiefs, assistant chiefs and 3 directors, as well as 14 local police commanders in each police division. However, it should be acknowledged that the structure of policing would change significantly if Wales adopted a single force approach. In the first instance, it would put at least three of the Commissioners out of a job.
Despite their political ideological difference the four Welsh Police and Crime Commissioners have formed an ‘All-Wales Commissioners’ group. Meeting quarterly, moving around the force areas, the Commissioners discuss Wales-wide strategic issues and identify common issues where they can work together. For example they have met jointly with those involved in the Drug Intervention Programme, and the Welsh Government Director of Corporate Services and Partnerships, indicating that priority is being given to these topics. While it is currently difficult to know what impact, if any, this has had on delivery, such an approach to Commissioning services can arguably only be seen as beneficial to Wales, particularly in these tough economic times, with further cuts to policing expected in the next financial year.
The four Welsh Commissioners now need to put the controversies and difficulties of the first year behind them, and end the defensive talk of lacking time for preparation due to moved election dates. Involving themselves in a joint discussion about policing in Wales can only strengthen the argument for the devolution of policing to Wales. It demonstrates a strong commitment to Wales working as a country with a common aim: to police effectively and efficiently.