by Kevin Meagher
Okay, it’s not been a good week for police and crime commissioners. The derisory 10.4 per cent turnout in the by-election to elect a new commissioner for the West Midlands was bad enough; but the shambles over South Yorkshire’s commissioner, Shaun Wright, quitting the Labour party in order to hold onto power, after previously being responsible for children’s services in Rotherham, plumbed a new depth.
A gift, then, to those who would happily see the entire model of direct public accountability over the police fail. Unfortunately, this appears to extend to the Labour frontbench. At the weekend, the Sunday Mirror quoted a party source, apparently reading the last rites over PCCs: “They’re finished. The only question now is what we will replace them with.” What indeed?
When the legislation was introduced in 2010, Labour described PCCs as an “unnecessary, unwanted and expensive diversion”. This reflected the view of the police establishment. The then president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, predicted chief constables would quit rather than endure a new layer of democratic accountability. It was an empty threat.
Even so, the police hate police and crime commissioners, hankering for a return to the old system of servile police authorities made up of “invisible” political placemen who were, in reality, little more than ciphers for the chief constable.
Theresa May – the most reforming home secretary in decades – remains unmoved. She has pressed on, smashing the cosy, ineffectual consensus around police accountability. The introduction of PCCs has been accompanied by long overdue reforms to police pay and conditions and she has brought in a tough outsider, Tom Winsor, as chief inspector of constabulary to drive improvements in service standards.
Unfortunately, Labour now finds itself cast as the conservative party when it comes to police reform; willing to do the chief constables’ bidding by focusing on cuts rather than reform, even though this leaves the party on the wrong side of the facts. Police staffing may have reduced since 2010 but there has been no increase in recorded crime.