In the Media

Police and Crime Commissioners: they sound good on paper, but we may be sleepwalking into a fiasco

PUBLISHED November 15, 2012

Say what you like about John Prescott, and plenty of people have done, but he has probably done more than anyone else to raise the profile of the forthcoming elections for Police and Crime Commissioners. I am not sure he would like to be credited with single-handedly saving a Tory flagship policy from ignominy, but that is what he may have done. Without his typically forthright campaigning zeal, his efforts to persuade the people of Hull that he is the man to oversee and improve their local policing, today's elections would have been even more of a disaster than they already promise to be. With Prescott, what you see is what you get, and it's up to people to vote for him or an alternative candidate. At least they know what's on offer.

Not the case for the rest of the country, who appear to have been reduced to apathy about the whole exercise. We have a very low turnout predicted, few of the great and good putting themselves up as candidates, confusion over funding for prospective candidates and an obscene budget - estimated to be £75 million - to make the whole thing happen. This makes for an interesting democratic exercise and one likely to be hailed as a lesson in how not to do it. And all this about a subject, law and order, that we are told is the number-one priority and concern of every citizen.

The PCCs are a good idea, but poorly executed and at the wrong time. In terms of policy, the Government are right to allow people a say in how their local area is policed, and to provide someone they can hold to account. Taking the glass-half-full approach there is much to be celebrated. At the stroke of a statutory pen elected PCCs have rid us of the swathes of unnecessary bureaucracy and expense that were associated with the old Police Authorities. Gone will be the complex committee structures which all too often impeded decision-making. Chief Constables and Commissioners can now hire his or her own team, rather than have a senior team foisted upon him/her by whatever peculiar selection process had been put together. Chiefs up and down the land can now form a proper CEO - Chairman relationship with their newly elected and mandated PCC and look to him or her for counsel and direction in areas such as local priorities and management of the budgets. The jury is still out as whether the new one-to-one relationship will improve transparency and accountability for decision-making, but in theory, freed from all the old encumbrances, Chiefs can just get on with the job they have been paid to do, to reduce and prevent crime. Sounds like a brilliant idea, doesn't it?

Sadly, I fear not. The concept of elected PCCs may look good on paper but, as with all strategies, the absence of a well-thought-through implementation plan and an acknowledgement of the reality of the operating context means that we may be sleepwalking into a fiasco. Enough has been written about the (now) lukewarm political support from No 10, the poor quality of some of the candidates, the absence of a genuine campaign to enlighten the public, and how this whole exercise is going to politicise the police. All this, said Ian Blair, with his customary tact and media savviness, was enough for him to encourage people not to vote at all. As ever, two wrongs don't make a right, and the ministerial slapping that came his way afterwards was probably deserved.

No, the real problem is that PCCs are going perpetuate the fallacy that policing takes place in vacuums; that criminals recognise the artificial boundaries drawn on maps many years ago to differentiate regions, authorities and wards. At the very time that police forces across the country need to collaborate more, to share scarce resources and prioritise efforts against the targets causing most harm, we have the prospect of artificial drawbridges being pulled up and PCCs demanding that assets are ring-fenced for their priorities. We also have the parallel issue of a government trumpeting the cause of a new National Crime Agency with powers, for the first time, to direct resources from local forces to an identified priority elsewhere. You simply cannot see PCCs supporting such requests when their own force is not the beneficiary.

Stuck in the middle of all this, between a rock and a hard place, is the poor old Chief Constable. Hired by the PCC and locked for the term in a death embrace with the elected incumbent, at any one time trying to satisfy local needs whilst having to maintain a corporate eye on regional and national requirements. Mark my word, in a couple of years' time most will be yearning for a return to the good old days of Police Authorities and their endless committees.

John Yates is the former UK Head of Counter-Terrorism