Visible answerability of the Police to be achieved by holding the one-to-one meetings with Policing and Crime Commissioners in public says Minister

Yesterday’s debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill didn’t finish until 11.30pm.  As the 38th speaker I got to make my contribution at about 9.30pm.

This is what I said:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, as vice-president of the Association of Police Authorities and as chair of the All-Party Group on Policing.

Fundamental to the model of British policing is the notion of policing by consent, particularly in our society, where the police are largely unarmed and must rely on the good will and confidence of the citizens to carry out their duties effectively and sensitively. The lifeblood of policing is information, and the reason this information flows from the public to the police can be summed up in one word, trust-trust in the police to act fairly and with integrity, and trust in the police that the information will be used judiciously and without attracting retribution from anyone.

Without that trust, information stops and policing becomes ineffective. To achieve this trust, you must have accountability. Without accountability the police become a controlling force, an oppressive instrument of powerful and self-interested groups. In parts of the world this will be the military, in others local warlords, and in some, perhaps, the senior officers in the police force itself. If policing is thus distorted or dictated to by unrepresentative groups, the trust of the public is gone. The only possible result is a downward spiral that manifests itself in corruption, organised crime and abuses of human rights. So, getting it right matters. But how confident can we be that the Bill does get it right? The drafting is certainly deficient. Take the centrepiece of the Bill-the creation of directly elected police and crime commissioners. The dictionary tells you that a “commissioner” is “one who commissions”, and that “to commission” is,

    “the act of procuring, committing or performing”.

So in England and Wales we are to have 41 directly elected police and crime commissioners procuring, committing or performing crime. That is brilliant drafting.

Of course, in London we are not going to get directly elected commissioners, partly because we already have two commissioners: the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and the Commissioner of the City of London Police, who is responsible for a resident population of around 10,000, the size of a local government ward elsewhere in the capital. Instead, the corporation will continue in its own unique and, I have to say, rather opaque way, and the rest of the city will have the “Mopsy”-the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. Because we already have a directly elected mayor, we will not have a directly elected individual in charge of the police service; so instead the mayor will appoint a deputy-to be called the deputy “Mopsy”-to run the “Mopsy”. That is what the Bill says.

I have no problem with the principle of direct election. Indeed, when I was the first chair of the police authority in London I would have welcomed the additional authority that direct election would have given me-not, I hasten to add, in dealing with the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, who, as all his colleagues knew, was an absolute pussycat in all such matters. It was much more about authority in relation to other elected individuals, all of whom would otherwise claim primacy in trying to set a general direction for the police force. Therefore, I would have had no problems with that principle, but had I been elected directly to the office of chair of the police authority, I would have been surrounded by an effective governance structure. That would have made arbitrary decisions by myself, or inappropriate directions to the chief officer of police, impossible.

Most of the governance mechanisms that police authorities currently provide are swept away by the Bill. What is also lost is the visible answerability of the chief officer of police. At the last meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Met not only gave and answered questions on its regular operational report and on the policing budget for the year but apologised to the family, present in the audience, of Daniel Morgan, who was murdered in 1987 and whose killers have not been brought to justice because, it is alleged, of police corruption; made a statement about the delays in bringing Delroy Grant to justice for the attacks on elderly people in south London over many years; responded to questions about phone-hacking and the News of the World; and heard from people in the audience about the death of Smiley Culture who allegedly stabbed himself during a police raid.

Where would that happen under this Bill? How would the visible answerability of the police service work under these proposals? The answer is that there is no such mechanism. It may be that the Minister, in response, will talk fondly about the proposed police and crime panels, and say that somehow they will be a substitute. That would be nonsense. If that is the argument she was planning to deploy, I suggest that she does not do so. Those panels will not have authority over the chief officer of police, and they will not even have the power to require his or her attendance at their meetings. Their remit is to scrutinise the elected commissioner, or the MOPC in London. Those forums, by necessity, will be overtly party political, as one group of elected politicians seeks to score points over another elected politician. This is what will happen. It is not clear how the new arrangements will ensure that there is a balanced model of policing everywhere in the country. How will the national policing requirement be enforced to ensure that every force plays its part in delivering effective policing to combat serious organised crime and to counter terrorism? Yes, there will be a national policing requirement, but how is that to be enforced?

There are many other problems. For example, as presently drafted, the Bill makes each chief officer of police a “corporation sole”. This is intended to permit them to employ police staff. Leaving aside whether or not this is a desirable objective-it is a function that could perfectly satisfactorily be carried out by police and crime commissioners, and is currently carried out by police authorities-the function of this corporation sole is not effectively limited to this specific function, potentially allowing chief officers to enter into procurement contracts and detracting from the authority of police and crime commissioners.

The Bill also creates two statutory chief finance officers for each force-one for the police and crime commissioner’s office and one for the force itself. Having two corporations sole for each force will in practice create two auditable bodies, two sets of accounts and consequential cost and bureaucracy, along with a blurring of lines of accountability-the exact antithesis of what the Bill is supposed to achieve. There will be more additional expense and duplication, with a worsening of accountability.

However sound or otherwise the intentions of this Bill, it fails to do what it says on the tin. The risk is that it will weaken police accountability; that the police will be less answerable, not more; and that we will create a system that is more expensive, less efficient, and will in the end undermine that trust on which policing by consent depends.”

One of my key points was the danger that the Bill will remove what I called “the visible answerability” of the head of a police force.

In reply, the Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, slightly missed the point, until I interrupted, but when she did answer the substantive point her proposed solution clearly struck many colleagues as bizarre.  This was the exchange:

Baroness Neville-Jones: … I have no doubt that in debate we will spend some time on the arrangements in London. I am not going to deal with those this evening, but I should like to make a comment on one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. He seemed to be suggesting-perhaps I have him wrong-that because the precise method of accountability of the chief constable had not been prescribed in the legislation, therefore it could be assumed that there was no such answerability. That is not the case. The PCC has the same statutory responsibility to hold the chief constable to account as he has at present to the police authority. Not everything has to be spelt out in detail in the legislation as if no one is capable-

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, my point was not that there is not a clear accountability mechanism, because that is set out in the Bill; my point is-it applies not just in London but to all the PCCs-that the one-to-one relationship between the elected individual and the chief officer of police does not allow for the visible answerability of the chief officer of police, answering questions in public on matters that affect the locality. That is what will disappear in this Bill.

Baroness Neville-Jones: I do not think that that is the case, my Lords, because there is nothing to stop meetings taking place in public. Indeed, the records have to be put into the public domain, so I do not think that somehow this relationship will be conducted behind closed doors. On the contrary, I think that it will be extremely transparent.”

This creates a very strange picture of the relationship between the elected Policing and Crime Commissioner and the Chief Officer of Police, in which all their one-to-one dealings will be in the form of public meetings. 

Still in closing the debate the Minister did agree with me about something:

“… while I did not accept many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, he said something with which I profoundly agree; namely, that trust is crucial to the preservation of our tradition of unarmed, impartial policing. In making the changes, the Government are determined to preserve this long-standing principle and great tradition. I commend the Bill to the House.”

2 thoughts on “Visible answerability of the Police to be achieved by holding the one-to-one meetings with Policing and Crime Commissioners in public says Minister”

  1. All very fine Toby: but accountability of the police would be better assisted were they to have some form of identification which cannot be too readily discarded when they’ve just been kicking someone in the crotch

    If the law is to insist that dogs are to be electronically tagged which I shall probably support there is a still stronger case for tagging the police

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