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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Where next for Police Commissioners?

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Accountability is key. For PCCs to have a proper mandate, turnout at this year's PCC elections (5 May 2016) will need to be much higher than the (less than) 15% who voted at the original elections in 2012.

The Oxford Policing Policy Forum

The report of the 18th Oxford Policing Policy Forum (held on 10 December 2015) has just (19 January 2016) been published.

Always an influential event (it’s jointly run by the Police Foundation and the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University), since it is attended by Chief Constables, PCCs, MPs, Senior Civil Servants, respected academics etc., this year’s event sought to answer the question:

Where next for Police and Crime commissioners?

I had already written this blog post before Theresa May’s speech last week (4 February 2016) setting out the government’s plans for PCCs which has resulted in a rather different concluding paragraph.

Achievements so far

Following an introduction by Nick Herbert, MP, one of the architects of the PCC system, delegates turned their attention to whether PCCs had yet proved their worth.

Despite many  having initial reservations about the introduction of PCCs, there was now a consensus that this had been a positive move. Participants who were Chief Constables or PCCs themselves described a new clarity and rigour around decision-making that the model of accountability had brought about.

Critics had initially suggested that the political nature of the role risked interfering with the operational independence of the Chief Constable, but participants felt that these concerns were not borne out. Further, several felt that it had in fact had the reverse effect, appropriately placing the political concerns in the PCC’s domain, freeing up the Chief Constable to concentrate on their operational role. However, a number of participants agreed that they would have preferred to have seen independent candidates in the role rather than those who were party-aligned. Due to the civilian nature of the role, some participants agreed that ex-police officers might also not be ideally placed to represent the public.

In essence it was agreed that the role of the PCC could be characterised as both a challenger and supporter of the Chief Constable, similar to the relationship between a Chair of the Board and a CEO.

While many agreed that a single elected individual offered a clear an unambiguous line of communication and increased the speed of decision making, others recognised that there were certain disadvantages to the model – most notably, when an individual leaves their post they take their knowledge with them. There was a viewpoint that the success of the post rested entirely on the informal dynamics between the personalities of the PCC and the Chief Constable.

There was agreement that PCCs had been responsible for what one person described as a ‘sea change’ in victims’ services, for example the establishment of victim and multi-agency safeguarding hubs, and other services such as restorative justice; as representatives of the public, victims’ services sat more appropriately with PCCs than the police who were (rightly) rather more concerned with the offender.

Where next for police and crime commissioners

Localism and national vision

Delegates explored the tension between a national vision and localism. Most participants apparently favoured increased localisation of policing to facilitate the development of locally tailored services and clearer lines of accountability; they questioned the perceived benefits of police forces merging to provide economies of scale.

At the same time, there was felt to be a lack of a clear national vision particularly on the core issue of:

What are the police for?

Two emerging PCCs models were identified – ‘Market Town’ and ‘Metro’ which could be distinguished from each other by scale and function. The larger Metro model (for example that found in London, and more recently Manchester) is based on city regional boundaries and brings together a number of public service budgets, including those outside the criminal justice system, such as health under the control of a mayor.

A smaller Market Town model would integrate various parts of the criminal justice system and other public safety services (including fire and rescue). The integration of budgets and services could allow a more co-ordinated approach that would facilitate upstream and prevention work around crime and public safety.

Role expansion?

Delegates agreed that the PCC role has the potential to expand by taking responsibility for wider parts of the criminal justice system; this could include responsibility of the entire local youth justice service (including custody and youth offending teams), witness services and the oversight of out of court disposals.

PCCs could also take on responsibility for appointing other senior figures in addition to Chief Constables. Key questions to consider here would be whether PCCs had sufficient capability, competency and leadership skills to become ‘Crime and Justice Commissioners’.

However, the recent privatisation of the probation service with new Community Rehabilitation Companies being awarded 7-year contracts was seen as a potential stumbling block.

Summary

Participants agreed that PCCs are here to stay for the foreseeable future and that the most constructive way forward would be to build on and develop the role, which despite its imperfections had made a valuable contribution to policing. It was agreed that devolution offered exciting opportunities to create efficient and integrated public services, however if PCCs were to take on wider responsibilities, a new blueprint for the role would need to be developed.

Participants acknowledged that a national vision for policing which took account of the changing nature of crime and ‘what the police are for’ was lacking, however further discussion was needed around how the widening gulf between the national and the local could be bridged.

The government view

This cautiously optimistic conclusion is somewhat at odds with Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech who gave a much more bullish version of PCCs’ achievements.

She also announced that PCCs’ roles will be substantially expanded after the new Police Commissioners are elected in a little under three months’ time (5 May 2016).

She did not give full details of these expansion plans but, in addition to taking on responsibility for fire services, she talked about:

  • A greater role in handling complaints against the police
  • Adding responsibility for youth justice to PCCs
  • Similarly probation and court services
  • Alternative free schools to “support troubled children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime.”

My personal viewpoint is that accountability is a key and, as yet, largely unresolved issue.

For PCCs to have a proper mandate, turnout at this year’s PCC elections will need to be much higher than the (less than) 15% who voted at the original elections in 2012 and at least as high as the local authority and mayoral elections held on the same day.

UPDATE:

More details in the government’s press release on the new Policing and Crime Bill announced on 11 February 2016:

 

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