On Thursday 15 November the 41 police force areas in Wales and England will elect a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for the first time. Existing police authorities (comprised of local councilors, magistrates and independent members) will be abolished and replaced with PCCs. This is arguably the biggest change to policing since Robert Peel established the first modern police force in London, and has been strongly opposed in many quarters. What can be said about these changes – is it an exercise in improved local accountability for policing, a means for making better use of scarce policing resources or just an exercise designed to give highly paid jobs to retired politicians?
Let us start by considering the issue of local accountability for policing? Perhaps the first thing to say is that even though we have 41 local police forces the reality is that much of policing activity is a national service with strong inter-dependencies and collaboration between the forces for obvious reasons. Thus it would be naïve to think that the Home Office will have anything other than continued strong control over local policing policies. Secondly electoral turn out will probably be poor and turnout figures of below 20% are talked about. The elections were originally scheduled for May 2012, but were delayed by six months in an attempt to improve public awareness of the changes – this obviously hasn’t worked. Despite attempts by the coalition government to engaging the public in the policy interest has remained poor. On turnout figures so low, it is difficult to imagine how PCCs can think they have any sort of local mandate for their policing policies.
So what will the PCCs actually do? Well, firstly, it must be emphasised that the fundamentals of police finance remain broadly unchanged – Home Office Grant plus precepts on local authorities. Also, police forces will continue to face ongoing budget cuts as a consequence of financial austerity. However, one key duty of the PCC is to set the police budget. Although PCCs will have no operational power, they can make strategic decisions in their police and crime plan. However, many operational decisions have strategic implications, such as road checks and patrolling and the line between operational decision-making and strategic oversight can become so blurred that demarcation becomes impossible. These two themes can get blurred when setting budgets so look out for media stories about rows and power battles between PCCs and chief constables. This could be especially problematic given that police forces have to deal with large scale budgets cuts. The views of party political activist PCCs could also result in conflict with chief constables over budget matters. For example, Labour PCCs may try to stop plans for outsourcing or privatisation with the impact that savings may have to be made elsewhere (i.e. police budgets).
One important financial change to police finance is that the current funding budget for community safety and victim support will transfer from Ministry of Justice to the PCCs. It is unlikely this funding will be earmarked or ring-fenced for these purposes and there will always be the temptation for PCCs to use some of this funding to shore up operational policing budgets. PCCs could decide to add to the MOJ funding from their own resources but this would mean cutbacks in operational police budgets which won’t be popular.
It was anticipated that PCC positions would attract a number of independent (non-party political) candidates but the reality is that political party-affiliated candidates total 73% of the total candidates who are running for PCC posts. This may be due to the fact that independent candidates will have to pay for campaign materials as well as having to find the £5,000 deposit needed to stand, which will be returned providing they receive 5 per cent of the vote. Party political candidates will have this paid for them. Not surprisingly there are a number of former national politicians and current MPs who are candidates for PCC posts in their local area.
So what about the costs of these changes? This is difficult to quantify at this stage but we do know that PCCs will be paid around £80k per annum ((probably £100k after adding on NI, pensions etc) but it seems unlikely the PCC is unlikely to be a one man band and he/she will require some support staff in order to cope with future battles with a well-resourced chief constable. I would imagine the PCC office will cost around £250k and may be more in some areas. In addition there will be the cost of crime panels. Thus in spite of what Ministers say, it seems likely the new PCC arrangements will cost substantially more than the current model.
So what can we conclude on this matter. It looks to me like another half-baked idea from Whitehall, undertaken with good intentions but doomed to fail. There will probably be cost implications involved but it is not clear what the benefits will be. I think it will be an area of public life dominated by strong characters and we can expect some major bust-ups between activist PCCs and chief constables who don’t want them poking their noses into police business especially when they are trying to bring greater political ideology into policing practice.