Give PCCs power to hire and fire prison governors

August 22, 2013

Elmo from Sesame Street was once called to give evidence before a US Congressional Committee. The subject was musical education policy, but for some reason the furry red muppet seemed more interested in eating the microphone, dancing in his chair and telling Members of Congress how much he loved them than discussing the important policy issue of the day. Elmo’s appearance followed other brilliantly attention-seeking stunts by committees, including inviting Jane Fonda to give evidence on agricultural policy on the basis that she once played a farmer’s wife in a 1980s film.

Some of our Select Committees appear to have worked out this trick. For a committee chair, inviting celebrities (no matter how limited their expertise) to give evidence in front of the cameras is guaranteed to get your face on the news. In the last year alone, Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has invited Russell Brand to give evidence on drug laws (qualification: he used to take them) along with Mitch Winehouse – who agreed to appear but warned the Committee that he didn’t know anything about drugs policy and didn’t want to talk about his daughter, Amy.

Hopefully, this kind of attention-seeking behaviour isn’t symptomatic of how Select Committees approach their reports. The production of forensic, apolitical and evidence-based research – at the expense of grandstanding or playing to the gallery – should always be the focus of these important organisations.

The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently working on a report on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) due to be published in November. As the first think tank to recommend the introduction of PCCs, at Policy Exchange we naturally want to see these new figures given a fair crack of the whip, but the Committee’s last report on PCCs left something to be desired. It amounted to a comparison of the costs of running PCCs’ offices with the costs of the Police Authorities that they replaced. This choice of subject matter alone suggested that Vaz and the Committee don’t really understand the nature of the PCC role, which is much broader, more significant and far more transformative than Police Authorities could ever have hoped to be.

It also suggested that the Committee believed that a few thousand pounds of crucial support was more important than whether these extra staff were helping to drive down a £12 billion police budget while maintaining record reductions in crime. So it is to be hoped that their next report is a rather more impressive effort and will be focused on the substance (how the new localism model for policing is actually working), rather than on more peripheral and misleading issues.

The autumn will also see a major intervention in the policing debate from the Labour Party, with the publication of a long-awaited review led by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens. It’s not clear if the review has been taking evidence from children’s TV characters, but it is rumoured to contain a controversial proposal to move towards regional police forces, which met widespread opposition last time it was floated.

It will also need to address the Party’s position on PCCs. If Labour decided to scrap PCCs and change the model of police governance again, emergency legislation would need to be passed by a new Government in order to cancel the next set of PCC elections in May 2016. Scrapping PCCs would not only need to be the first priority for Ed Miliband if he makes it into 10 Downing Street, but it would also extinguish the progress made by a number of influential former Labour Ministers who are thriving as PCCs of large police forces in the North and the Midlands. For both of these reasons, the smart money is on PCCs remaining in place and being given the time to demonstrate their significant potential.

So the time is fast approaching when politicians and policymakers will begin to turn their attention to the future rather than quibble about the past. Today, we are publishing a report which is an attempt to do just that. As PCCs develop over the next few years, we believe that they should increasingly expand into other areas of policy such as criminal justice to maximise their ability to fight crime.

We set out a series of steps which would see PCCs increasingly assume a role similar to that of a ‘Minister for the local criminal justice system’ – with the political power to set the agenda, hold agencies such as the prison, probation and courts service to account, and increasingly hold budgets in key areas such as youth justice and crime prevention. In the future, we envisage much more powerful PCCs able to appoint local prison governors and probation chiefs, opt out of national contracts and play a key role in integrating services at a local level. We suggest that the Government create a number of ‘Super’ PCCs who can blaze a trail for this new model and take on new powers much more quickly.

Our ambition is for a system where, instead of local criminal justice leaders looking upwards and inwards to Whitehall for direction and validation, they increasingly look outwards to each other and downwards to the citizens they serve. It will mean cheaper, more effective justice for a system that desperately needs an injection of dynamism and innovation.  It’s the right way of making sure that PCCs fulfil their potential and meet the promises they made to their electorate. And ultimately, it’s the best way for PCCs to answer those critics who want them to fail, and are happy to try to make them look like muppets in the process.

This article originally appeared on ConservativeHome

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