Expanding the role of PCCs
The government is not waiting to see what the turnout will be at the second Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 5 May (last time it was less than 5%) but is pressing on now in its desire to expand the role of PCCs.
Last Thursday (11 February 2016) it published a press release which outlines the contents of a new Policing and Crime Bill.
As all government departments do, the Home Office makes rather grand claims for the new legislation:
The purpose of the Policing and Crime Bill is to enhance the democratic accountability of police forces, and fire and rescue services, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency services through closer collaboration and build public confidence in policing.
It will strengthen the protections for persons under investigation by, or who come into contact with, the police; ensure that the police and other law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to prevent, detect and investigate crime; and further safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation.
A varied bill
As has been the custom over the last twenty years, a number of different issues are covered by the new Bill. The Home Office claims that the main provisions will:
- Place a duty on police, fire and ambulance services to collaborate and enable Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services, where a local case is made.
- Reform the police disciplinary and complaints systems to ensure that the public have confidence in their ability to hold the police to account, and that police officers will uphold the highest standards of integrity.
- Better enable chief officers to make the most efficient and effective use of their workforce by giving them the flexibility to confer a wider range of powers on police staff and volunteers – whilst for the first time specifying a core list of powers that may only be exercised by warranted police officers – and conferring a power on the Home Secretary to specify police ranks in regulations, thereby affording the flexibility to introduce a flatter rank structure.
- Reform pre-charge bail to put a stop to people remaining on bail for lengthy periods with no independent judicial scrutiny of its continued necessity.
- Stop children and young people under 18 experiencing a mental health crisis being detained in police custody – and restricting the circumstances when adults can be taken to police stations – by reforming police powers under sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
There are also a number of other measures:
- Further strengthen the independence of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and ensure that it is able to deliver end-to-end inspections of the police.
- Strengthen the accountability and transparency of the Police Federation for England and Wales by extending its core purpose to cover the public interest and making it subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
- Amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), including to ensure that 17-year-olds who are detained in police custody are treated as children for all purposes, and to facilitate the increased use of video link technology.
- Amend the Firearms Acts to better protect the public by closing loopholes that can be exploited by criminals and terrorists, and by ensuring through statutory guidance that there is a robust process for assessing suitability to hold a firearms licence or shotgun certificate.
- Confer on the police and immigration officers a power to require an arrested person to state their nationality and to require suspected foreign nationals to produce a nationality document within a specified period following arrest and create a new offence for a failure to comply without reasonable excuse.
- Better protect children and young people from sexual exploitation by ensuring that relevant offences in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 cover the live streaming of images of child sex abuse.
This is a mixed bag with many commentators skeptical about the rapid expansion of PCC powers – although interestingly no mention yet of PCCs taking over responsibility for youth justice or the probation service, issues trailed in recent Theresa May speeches.
However, there will be widespread support for limitations on pre-charge bail which will initially be limited to 28 days.
There will also be cross-party support for the ending of the detention of young people having a mental health crisis in police custody. We will, of course, have to wait and see what if there are sufficient emergency local resources when police stations, quite rightly, can no longer plug the gap.