James O’Shaughnessy on the future for Police and Crime Commissioners
Once a policy is up and running – and experiencing the inevitable teething problems – it is easy to forget why anyone thought it was a good idea to begin with. So as we celebrate the first anniversary of Police and Crime Commissioners we should remember why the idea caught on in the first place.
Originally proposed by the think tank Policy Exchange in 2003, the idea was eagerly adopted by then Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin. His reasons for doing so were threefold. First, no one believed that the police authorities offered any kind of democratic oversight worth the name. Second, there was a strong desire to weaken the authoritarian influence of the Home Office, with its desire for larger, merged forces and the further centralisation of local policing. And, third, the police were considered to be the last unreformed public service, so the creation of Police Commissioners (as they were then known) might offer the chance of some genuine innovation.
How have PCCs measured up against those intentions? It seems unarguable that they have greater democratic legitimacy than the police authorities that preceded them. While turnouts were low for their elections, this can at least in part be attributed to the odd time of year (November? Thank you Liberal Democrats). Besides, turnout figures compare favourably to the appallingly low name recognition the previous police authority chairs received.
Similarly, on the second dimension, PCCs have undoubtedly created an alternative – and local – political voice to stem Whitehall’s ever-tightening grip on the criminal justice system. Of course, PCCS may simply be the equivalent of Canute trying to hold back the tide, but a more optimistic view is that – because of their ability to call on their direct democratic mandates – they will be able to convince national politicians that local policing should stay under local control. Let’s call this a work in progress.
But in the end, PCCs will only last beyond this Parliament if they are able to show that they are using their powers to innovate and bring down crime. This doesn’t simply mean delivering better value for money, although I suspect that on aggregate they will be able to do more for less, but it means trying a variety of approaches to keep citizens safer. On this we have more grounds for concern.
England is not Germany or the US, and our local politicians do not have the constitutional authority enjoyed in federal countries. This was brought home recently when the PCC for Durham, Ron Hogg, proposed creating safe ‘drug consumption rooms’ for addicts. Whether or not this is the right policy, he was brave to suggest an alternative solution to the failing ‘war on drugs’ approach that has been tested to destruction in the last 40 years. But listening to him speak to the media, it was painfully obvious that he lacked the power to do anything about his suggestion – any such policy innovation would need to be cleared by the Home Office and Home Secretary herself. And this highlights the ultimate problem: if PCCs are to be genuinely transformative, they need to be given the power and freedom to do so. That means gaining more control over the local criminal justice system and being given more autonomy to experiment.
There is the will among some policy-makers in Westminster to take those further steps – that is why the word “Crime” was slipped into their title in the first place, to lay the ground – but until Ministers are brave enough to trust locally-elected people to deal with local crime then the potential of PCCs will be unrealised.