Is the Labour Party about to follow the lead of the Liberal Democrats and shelve Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs)?
Ironically the idea of a directly elected police commissioner was mooted in Labour circles by Hazel Blears long before the Coalition introduced the role. She believed “we should have somebody elected with a particular police mandate” and suggested the idea in cabinet. She thought that the existing police authorities were “unknown and didn’t have the real right to question the chief constable.”
Unfortunately the good work of many PCCs, including Labour big wigs such as Jane Kennedy and Vera Baird, has been overshadowed by the recent events in Rotherham.
South Yorkshire PCC, Shaun Wright, finally resigned following revelations about the scale of abuse of young girls in Rotherham and his failure to stop that abuse as Head of Children’s Services in the town between 2005 and 2010. Now the scale of the abuse (which he failed to stop but did not commit) has become apparent he has resigned again. What does this say about the role of the PCC?
The answer is very little. Individual scandals do not invalidate the need for democratic oversight of the police which is what the PCC provides. Consider that Members of Parliament (Chris Huhne and Denis MacShane) and Peers (Lord Taylor of Warwick and Lord Hanningfield) have been sent to prison during this Parliament. No serious commentator would suggest this would be cause to abolish the position of MP. Clearly the local Labour Party in Rotherham needs to review its candidate selection practices and it would be good for the political parties to adopt the Policy Exchange suggestion of giving the electorate a right of recall for PCCs but the Rotherham scandal does not tell us much about how the role of the PCC should change.
PCC elections cost money. The cost of the nationwide PCC elections in 2012 was £75 million. The total amount of Government funding for policing in England and Wales is around £11 billion.Are we saying that it is not worth less than one per cent of the police budget to provide a single elected figure in each police force to hold the police to account? The cost of the upcoming South Yorkshire PCC by-election will be the price we pay for living in a democratic society. Are the people of South Yorkshire not entitled to deliver their verdict on who should lead them out of their troubles? I think they need to be heard.
To abolish PCCs and prevent the new PCC elections scheduled in May 2016 the Labour Party would need to make the Bill their first Act in Government. In 1985 the Labour Party opposed the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC). The campaign slogan was “say no to no say.” The abolition of the GLC was only rectified in 2000 with the establishment of the Greater London Authority. We would need clarity on what would replace PCCs and how the new proposed arrangements would be better. This is currently lacking. If the PCCs are abolished what will they be replaced with? Unelected police boards? How soon will it be before a party brings back the PCCs with a different name?
Few UK cities have a Mayoral system. This presents a problem for opposition parties. There will always be periods when Labour will be in opposition. How can you achieve a higher profile for your talented future leaders? The answer is that public awareness of the PCC role has increased from 7 per cent to 70 per cent and the majority of the major police forces have Labour Party PCCs including Greater Manchester, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. The PCC offers a unique opportunity for Labour figures to build their profile whether the party is in power nationally or not.
The Labour Party also faces the challenge of how to demonstrate what the party’s ideas would achieve in practice. How would a Labour Government make a difference? The excellent Fabian Society pamphlet ‘Letting in the Light: Lessons from Labour Police and Crime Commissioners’ shows that Labour PCCs are focusing police resources on the issues Labour voters care about.
Care about dealing with mental health issues?
Tony Lloyd, Labour PCC for Greater Manchester runs a pilot scheme with the NHS. It has a dedicated helpline for police officers to receive advice from a mental healthcare professional upon arrival at an incident where mental health is a factor. Hundreds of police hours have been saved. The number of people being sectioned by police has declined by two thirds.
Care about tackling domestic violence?
Vera Baird QC, Labour PCC for Northumbria in cooperation with Cleveland and Durham PCCs launched the first ever regional strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. One scheme to tackle such violence has involved the police, the council, the security industry and the voluntary sector encouraging and training door staff to take on a duty of care for people in the night time economy. The scheme is now part of a national compulsory curriculum completed by 100,000 door staff nationwide.
Care about how victims and witnesses are treated by the criminal justice system?
Clive Grunshaw, Labour PCC for Lancashire has a victims and witnesses strategy to improve their experience with the criminal justice system. They are commissioning domestic abuse services, rape and sexual assault services and restorative justice and early intervention schemes.
Care about stamping out hate crime?
Jane Kennedy, Labour PCC for Merseyside is providing shopkeepers with a small video camera to capture those guilty of anti social behaviour.
Care about empowering local communities?
Barry Coppinger, Labour PCC for Cleveland has established the PCC Property Act Fund, which uses resources from the sale of recovered stolen goods or property where the owners are not known and cannot be traced, to fund charities in the local area including victim’s organisations, young people activities and resettlement support.
These programmes did not happen by accident. Abolishing the role of PCC would put them at risk. The Labour Party should focus on highlighting the flaws in the Government vision for PCCs and developing a radical Labour vision for how they will work in future. This could include extending the powers of the PCC, giving the electorate a right of recall and conducting open primaries to select Labour party candidates. Promising the abolition of the PCC creates the issue of what will replace them and how this will be better. This is a minefield Labour would be wise to avoid.