Boris Johnson proves the power of this police reform
PUBLISHED October 23, 2012
With three weeks to go until the first elections for police and crime commissioners (PCCs), the public is at last beginning to hear about this major reform. TV adverts, cunningly placed during Downton Abbey, have alerted Middle England. Information is being despatched to every household. The media has stopped complaining about the lack of coverage and started to cover the story. The Prime Minister has urged people to get out and vote.
In a less-than-principled stand, the Labour Party, who opposed PCCs at every stage, are fielding candidates. Even the Liberal Democrats, despite their attempt to sabotage the reform by delaying the poll, are bravely contesting half the seats. More than 50 independents have thrown their hats into the ring.
In this fervour of democracy, one voice dissents: Lord Blair, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has told people to stay at home. He claims that a single individual cannot represent one police force area. Yet this is apparently not too big a task for one chief constable. Lord Blair himself headed a force of 55,000 people, serving a population of 7.4 million, with a budget of £4 billion. But perish the thought that the people should be given a say.
There's something particularly distasteful about an unelected peer unsuccessfully seeking to halt a democratic reform, then urging the public to boycott the ballot box despite the parliamentary vote. Lord Blair is a member of the once-governing class who felt no need for public consent and who regard popular views as dangerous. His like ran the quangos of the land, presiding over a public that could not possibly be trusted to take decisions for themselves.
Well, good riddance to them. There's an obvious reason why we need the police to be accountable: you can't choose your force. Increasingly there's choice over your local school or GP. But the police are a natural monopoly. If you live in London you get the Met. If you lived there between 2005 and 2008, you got Ian Blair. And there wasn't a thing you could do about it.
But then along came Boris. With the democratic mandate of a newly elected mayor, he swiftly despatched his police chief. No wonder the victim opposes this policy. And that's the power of the reform: it puts the people in charge. It makes the police accountable for their actions and, in turn, the elected representatives who supervise the force have their feet held to the fire.
Interminable objections were mounted to this change. It would politicise the police, critics said, though my experience was that chief constables were as skilful political practitioners as my colleagues in the Commons. They usually ran rings round the chairmen of local police authorities, who the public had rarely heard of. The chiefs will find it harder after next month.
There are plenty of checks and balances. Chief constables will remain operationally independent. No politician should have the power to demand an arrest or investigation. PCCs will swear an oath of impartiality, undertaking to serve all without fear or favour. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary will continue to watch over forces.
But the most powerful safeguard of all is that the public will be connected with their force. Decisions about whether to increase the amount we all pay through council tax for policing will no longer be taken behind closed doors. Big questions about whether to engage the private sector to deliver behind-the-scenes policing services will have to be settled in public. I think that letting companies do back-room tasks more efficiently is the way to protect the front line. But it will be Commissioners who decide.
The subtext of opposition to these changes is that the police don't need reform. But it's very hard to look at the tragic story of Hillsborough, or failings to investigate child abuse, or the murky business of phone hacking, without concluding that a powerful searchlight needs shining in some dark corners of policing. Any public service that routinely leaked confidential information to the press would give cause for concern. When that organisation is entrusted to uphold the law, yet some of its officers see nothing wrong, we have a problem.
This is why the new College of Policing, which will set standards and guard integrity, will be so important. Police officers should be trusted as professionals, able to exercise discretion without the bureaucratic interference that has kept them off the streets, but then held properly to account.
It's true that crime is down - inconveniently undermining Labour's sole policy on policing, which is to oppose cuts. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, would rather you didn't know that her party is quietly committed to cutting police budgets, too. That would mean fewer police officers. But it's not something she whispers while she's locked in the embrace of the Police Federation.
In fact, across the 41 police force areas, good people are standing and they deserve attention. These are candidates with local roots who care about their communities. Their decisions over the next four years will matter. That's why people should ignore the ill-intentioned advice of Lord Blair and exercise the precious right of democracy on Thursday, November 15. Those who hold power over the people should be accountable to the people.
Nick Herbert is a former minister for policing and criminal justice