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Police and Crime Commissioners – Two years on: Are there lessons for designing devolution?

By Francesca Gains and Vivien Lowndes

Two years ago the forty one directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners for England and Wales took office, swearing the oath of allegiance and beginning a new era of policing governance.  The way the Commissioners have developed their responsibilities and set local policing priorities has attracted considerable controversy and debate.  In a little over eighteen months their current term of office is due to end, with fresh elections timetabled for the spring of 2016.  But the future of the Commissioner role after this date is very uncertain.  Following a review of the new arrangements for the Labour Party by Lord Stevens, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, announced in her speech to the Labour Party Conference that Labour would seek to abolish the directly elected Commissioner role.  Meanwhile under George Osborne’s devolution deal with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (announced at the beginning of November), the responsibilities of the current Greater Manchester Commissioner would be taken over by a new directly elected mayor by 2017.  This is a model that could well be replicated for other city regions or areas seeking combined authority status.

Arrangements for policing governance seem highly likely to change, and to become linked to wider debates about decentralisation and devolution in England.  At this mid-term point in the current Commissioners’ mandate, we reflect on the weaknesses of this beleaguered model with an uncertain future.  But we also draw on our research to highlight potential strengths of the model and key lessons for the design of devolution.

The weaknesses of the current arrangements are clear.  The legitimacy of the Commissioner role was undermined from the start by the woeful turnout in 2012 averaging 15%.  Holding the elections in November and without paper manifestos was heavily criticised by the Electoral Commission and was a costly mistake in terms of securing public engagement with a new form of governance.

The National Audit Office ‘Police Accountability: Landscape Review’ has also found weaknesses in the checks and balances of the current model.  The Commissioners are scrutinised by Police and Crime Panels made up of local councillors but these panels have no powers to act on information they hold. Commissioners are accountable to the public but this accountability can only be exercised via elections every four years.  These weaknesses have been exposed through well publicised issues around the former South Yorkshire Commissioner who refused (initially) to stand down following loss of confidence over the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and through the criticism of some of the appointment and resourcing decisions made by Commissioners elsewhere.

Putting so much power in one person’s hands is risky.  Commissioners themselves are unhappy with the ‘minimal’ powers of their scrutiny panels.  And the success of directly? elected roles is dependent upon the availability of suitable candidates of the right calibre.  There has been criticism of both Independent and party political Commissioners, and even successful Commissioners are faced with the dilemma of succession – how can they avoid short termism when they have no guarantee that long term strategies will be taken forward?

Despite these pressing issues, there are also key strengths that we argue improve on police governance by committee.  The Greater Manchester Commissioner has the second largest personal mandate (after Boris Johnston) of any politician in the Country.  This has the potential to enhance the legitimacy of the Commissioner’s reach.  An example from Greater Manchester illustrates the responsiveness and authority that elected office can bring.  In responding to the recent HMIC report on domestic violence, the Commissioner Tony Lloyd identifies a gap between excellent provision for victims by the specialist domestic abuse unit and patchy responsiveness when domestic violence is initially reported in local police stations.  So as part of the action plan to improve the overall service, the Commissioner’s office will undertake random checks on domestic abuse victims’ experiences so as to build a picture of how the service is improving, and if it is not, to take action.  As Commissioner he is able to use his personal mandate to raise the status of what has been a Cinderella crime, with the aim of focusing police officers’ minds (in very difficult situations on the ground) and advocating for victims.  In Nottinghamshire, Commissioner Paddy Tipping wants to have advisers from the women’s refuge movement present in police stations, working with officers, so that they can bring their specific skills and experience into frontline policing.

In the context of austerity, Commissioners have delivered significant savings in the cost of local policing, in part through new roles for non-warranted officers (such as Police Community Support Officers) and co-location and shared working between police and other local services.  More accessible ‘single portals’ are being developed, in which local authority staff may manage police, or vice versa.  For citizens, services are to be found under the same roof; for public service professionals, there is the opportunity to ‘join the dots’ in improving both enforcement and service delivery functions.

Challenging the ‘shibboleth’ of police numbers, Paddy Tipping recently argued that: ‘We have to stop doing some things if we want to do new things’.  Indeed, the future might see mergers leading to large regional police forces, but accompanied by a renewed focus on neighbourhood policing as part of local multi-service teams.  Under austerity, the police have become the service of last resort, a role that requires quite different skill-sets.  The authoritative leadership that directly elected Commissioners can offer has the potential to challenge traditional thinking and support innovation.

In Nottinghamshire, ‘triage cars’ are attending incidents with mental health nurses as well as police officers on board.  In Greater Manchester, funding for mental health liaison in hospitals has been agreed in order to provide support for officers on the ground.  Commissioners are proving to be effective partnership brokers on many issues.  Paddy Tipping is bringing health, licencing, retail and criminal justice services together in a joined-up alcohol strategy for Nottinghamshire, which focuses on crime prevention.  Tony Lloyd argues partnership working has to be a ‘mantra’ for policy and having a single point of contact helps deliver these changes.

The National Audit Office Police Accountability Landscape Review has shown that Commissioners have undertaken extensive public engagement and consultation to assist with identifying and prioritising policing priorities, via general meetings in localities as well as special topic consultation with the public and partners.  The directly elected model appears to encourage greater engagement and responsiveness in comparison with the previous Police Committees.  The report also documents a 42 per cent increase in public awareness of Commissioners noted in the British Crime survey, so transparency has also increased.

The outcome and experience of the Scottish referendum has opened up new space to think creatively about the devolution of decision making from Westminster and Whitehall.  In the run-up to the general election, and in its aftermath, debates will focus on what sorts of governance arrangements, and local leadership, can best deliver devolution.  We argue that there are actually lessons to be learnt from the beleaguered model of the Police and Crime Commissioner, specifically the potential benefits of authoritative leadership, responsiveness and transparency.

Francesca Gains (University of Manchester) and Vivien Lowndes (University of Nottingham) are involved in a four year research agenda to examine changing institutional arrangements for policing, with a special focus on violence against women and girls.  The research is supported by the ‘Understanding Institutional Change – A Gender Perspective’ programme (funded by the European Research Council).

Image credit: Nottinghamshire Police

Published inBritish PoliticsConservativesLabourLiberal DemocratsPolitics

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