The Police Commissioner Experiment
On Thursday the people of Wales (and England) are being invited to participate in an extraordinary and radical departure from our generally accepted form of representative democracy. Very few people seem to know what or who is involved, even fewer recognise what a seismic shift it is making in our democratic system of allocating power and accountability. It is in effect an experiment.
When people vote, if they do (and there are serious concerns about the likely turn-out) for a Police and Crime Commissioner they are being asked to make a choice (actually a first and second choice) of which single individual should have power over the police in each Force area and, most importantly, to have the power to “hire and fire” the Chief Constable and to set the Police budget.
Whilst the Chief Constable has to be an experienced and well trained professional subject to stringent suitability criteria, the new Commissioner need have no specific qualifications or relevant experience.
Never before in Wales (and only in a limited number of places in England) has the electorate been asked to give direct executive power to a single person whether they be a party politician or an independent. To give this untested power first in the crucial field of Policing and Crime is extraordinary. When we vote for a Member of Parliament, a Member of the National Assembly or a local councillor, we are not giving them individual power over any service. We are choosing them either to work with others in the exercise of power, or to hold those in power to account.
The intent of this election quite different.
No one argues that the Police should not be held to account. During my lengthy career I had dealings with more than 10 Chief Constables in various parts of the country. All were powerful individuals and for many, accountability was an important constraint. Over the years there have been increasingly efficient systems of accountability. Chief Constables must report to both central government and to local Police Authorities. Membership combines elected representatives from each Local authority and Independent individuals with experience in Business and the Voluntary Sector.
The new Law superimposes a single unqualified individual over the Chief Constable and replaces the Police Authority with another committee with less power to hold the new Commissioner to account. It is difficult to see how these arrangements will improve policing, police accountability or crime prevention.
The fact that so little is known about either the full role of the commissioner or about the relevant qualities of the well-meaning individuals between whom we are asked to make our choice is deeply disturbing. It doesn’t help that many are party politicians, either superannuated or unsuccessful elsewhere: nor does it help that quite a few are former police officers who never achieved the rank of Chief Constable while serving.
The only possible British precedent for giving an elected individual what was effectively if not literally, sole power over a police chief does not offer any re-assurance that it will be used without bias. On the first day he had the statutory power, Mayor of London forced the resignation of the most senior policeman in Britain.
Policing is far too important to be conducted on the whim of politicians or the unfettered enthusiasm of amateurs. This is a bad law but it is the law of the land and it is dressed up as an advance in democracy. What should a democrat do? I shall use my vote to tell the Returning officer that I cannot support any of the candidates as I do not believe policing should be the subject of an untested constitutional experiment in the distribution of power.
Sandy Blair CBE is a Trustee of the Bevan Foundation.
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