Britain’s young sheriffs are growing up fast
Embarrassing expenses revelations, allegations of political cronyism, a high-profile scandal leading to a resignation. It didn’t take long, did it? In our Police and Crime Commissioners we have conceived a new and powerful set of politicians, and whichever way you look at it, they have had a difficult birth. The PCCs are six months old today, and in the absence of any major impact on crime, their collective reputation has mainly been characterised by personnel issues, financial irregularities and stupid mistakes.
As pioneers, they were always going to need to justify their existence. But now the urgency for them to demonstrate change is growing. So, beyond the headlines, how are they really doing? Well, despite the behaviour of the few, there is good news.
For one thing, the sky has not fallen in. We all remember the sages who confidently predicted that these reforms would pervert the policing model and give rise to a set of gun-slinging sheriffs, trampling all over operational independence and destroying British policing forever. Well, that hasn’t happened; those warnings now seem shrill and melodramatic because there is emerging evidence of real and demonstrable progress.
The first big change has been the dramatic swing in the power relationship from central government to the local level. Put simply, the Home Office is no longer trying to command or control the police service from Whitehall. That might sound trivial, but to police officers, it isn’t. They will never forget the counterproductive micro-management of successive home secretaries and mandarins; so damaging, it destroyed police discretion, distorted priorities and eroded public trust.
Our PCCs are also beginning to exert national influence as they flex their muscles and challenge those Government policies that cut across their brief, or prevent them from delivering on their manifesto promises. In March, the PCC for Bedfordshire, Olly Martins, along with 26 commissioners, united to urge the Justice Secretary to modify his plans to procure £3 billion worth of electronic monitoring contracts. Acting together, other PCCs have managed to secure meaningful concessions to the Government’s proposed reforms to probation, allowing them to become the “glue” holding together a range of important local partnerships.
Another significant change has been the dynamism and innovation that many of the new appointees are bringing to the role. Offering stronger and clearer leadership than that provided by any police authority, the PCCs are concentrating on issues that have been ignored for too long. Martin Surl, in Gloucestershire, is leading an initiative to divert mentally ill offenders away from the criminal justice system at police stations. Matthew Ellis and Adam Simmonds, commissioners for Staffordshire and Northamptonshire, have focused on volunteering, introducing new Police Cadets forces for young people, as well as looking to expand the Special Constabulary to bolster their forces’ manpower.
Some buccaneering PCCs are exploring how technology can revolutionise the police. In Dyfed-Powys, Chris Salmon is looking at the role technology could play in replacing police stations, particularly in rural towns. Elsewhere, proposals to make offenders pay for the costs they load on to the criminal justice system are mooted, and attempts to co-ordinate fire and police services are being considered.
So on the ground, where it matters, things are changing. But like any young reform it needs to be watched closely. The future will bring fresh challenges, including territorial battles with chief constables as the precise splitting of responsibilities with the PCCs is worked out. The Home Office must soon decide whether commissioners should act as de facto chief executives, actively managing functions such as IT and HR, or whether they should stick to a strategic and political role, holding senior officers to account.
Crucially, these new PCCs need support to develop and flourish. Theirs is already a big job – more considerable than they imagined when they stood for office – and they cannot do it on their own. They should ignore the hullabaloo every time they appoint a deputy or a commissioner. They should demand more political support from their parties, look to communicate more effectively nationally, and reach out to the private and voluntary sector providers that can help them meet their financial, technological and logistical challenges.
Our young PCCs are going to have to grow up fast. And they can’t afford to make many more mistakes. But the local reality is already beginning to look more encouraging than we could have imagined only six months ago.