Christopher Salmon says public service reform needs accountability.
So much for an “uninspiring” campaign. The General Election gave us an electrifying result.
Against expectations, voters gave a definitive answer in favour of sound public finance, enterprise and public sector reform. They did so whilst burying the hopes of pundits and politicos who anticipated months of soothsaying about coalition deals. What’s not to like?
Beneath the stark fact of a Conservative majority, this election defined policy in many areas. That is true of Wales and policing in particular. The Conservatives were the only party in Wales to defend the independence of local police forces. All the others offered some combination of Cardiff control, amalgamation or centralisation.
Grappling with an inheritance of chronic overspending, the Conservative-led coalition set about not just saving money from police budgets but reform. The electorate gave its support. Plaid Cymru made no gains. Labour and the Liberal Democrats lost. Wales expects public service reform, not denial.
Police and Crime Commissioners were a major component of that reform: they give local people a direct say over their police. Reforms also challenged vested interests: the Home Secretary took one of the greatest, the Police Federation. PCCs scrapped another, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and brought police chiefs under proper scrutiny. Voters determined that these things will stay.
What next, then, for policing? And what next for policing in Wales?
Wales’ four PCCs face reelection in May 2016. This will provide the first opportunity for the public to deliver their verdict on what has (or has not) been achieved. Wales has two independent PCCs, in Gwent and North Wales. In South Wales, Alun Michael represents Labour. I represent Dyfed Powys as a Conservative.
We, and the government, need to promote the role and the choice before the electorate much more effectively than happened in 2012. Turnout was the great disappointment of that election and has overshadowed, unfairly or not, subsequent achievements.
That should improve in 2016, though we should not be complacent. I have two reasons for optimism. First, the public will have a record to judge PCCs on. Secondly, the elections will be in May alongside the Assembly vote, not November on their own.
One of the pleasant surprises of this role is how little party politics feature in our discussions. But there are clear philosophical differences in our approaches. I, for example, am convinced we can do more with less. Dyfed Powys has 30 more officers and will spend 100,000 hours more on the street by 2016. I cut the precept this year and we are on course to save £8.8m by the end of my term. Others have chosen different paths.
I have achieved this by using the stronger accountability that PCCs provide to demand better management. We have a better grip on our finances and as a result are able to invest in IT. There is further to go.
We have more investment planned to improve our hopelessly outdated estate. I have made clear my expectation that future savings will come from fewer ranks and slimmer management, not a thinner front line.
Beyond the police, there are huge opportunities to improve services by pooling budgets and accountability for emergency services and the criminal justice system. Reform should take power away from vertiginous bureaucracies and ensure local delivery for local need.
PCCs and the government need to strengthen and explain the role better in the run up to 2016. But, much more than the turnout, I hope there is a far greater recognition – amongst the media as much as the public – that good governance makes for better public services. And, at the heart of good governance is accountability. In a democracy, that must lead to the public not cosseted institutions or appointed boards.
For all the stalwart efforts of the IWA, Wales is a depressingly reform-free zone. That brings us back to the choice at the election: reform or denial.
Those of us who represent reform in Wales must use every opportunity now to sell the benefits of robust accountability. Wales deserves no less, not just for the police but for the whole public sector.
We may wish to discuss government in Wales without reference to party politics but we cannot. Labours’ dominance for so long makes that impossible. They are the high priests of public sector orthodoxy in Wales and they lost on May 7th.
The cracks in the temple are now unmistakable.