Recent history shows us that party political loyalties and operational policing do not mix
The police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November 2012 are part of the most significant change to policing since the old ‘police watch committees’ were abolished almost half a century ago. In those ‘bad old days’ before the passing of the Police Act in 1964, local policing in England and Wales was effectively in the pocket of local party politicians and there were countless examples of nepotism, improper influence and downright corruption. Favours were done, minor infringements of the law overlooked, and contracts awarded on the basis of who knew ‘Councillor Smith’ or ‘Alderman Jones’. Too often, the local chief constable, who was appointed by such people and owed his livelihood and promotion prospects to them, was completely under their thumb. It was rare to find a principled man who was willing to stand up to such pressure.
In 1960, a Royal Commission on the Police was appointed under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Willink to “review the constitutional position of the police throughout Great Britain”. It had been set up following two high-profile scandals involving borough police forces (Brighton and Nottingham) which exposed problems of nepotism and mismanagement in the relationship between the chief constable of each borough, and disputes between central and local government over the control of local forces. There were widespread allegations of corruption of councillors and senior police officersand the investigations were leaked to the press on the eve of municipal elections. There was uproar and the Tory Home Secretary, Rab Butler, decided that enough was enough. He directed his officials to start drafting what would become the Police Act 1964, which quite rightly consigned police watch committees to the dustbin of history. A new system of governance involving checks and balances with integrity and transparency at its core, known as the ‘tripartite arrangement’, was introduced and continues until 15 Novemberwhen it will be replaced, as each force comes under the control of an elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).
When the Coalition tabled the Bill establishing the new police commissioners, in the face of vehement opposition from Labour, the Police Minister Nick Herbert – who had developed the concept whilst in opposition – trumpeted the new arrangements as a victory for local democracy. Local people would be able to elect someone who would be their champion. He or she would be able to direct police strategy to ensure that local policing addressed local problems, with the implied suggestion (not borne out in the legislation) that if a local chief constable failed to deliver, the commissioner could show him the door and engage someone else. It was to be a new dawn for policing.
Sadly, the reality of the electoral process for the first generation of commissioners shows every sign of turning into a slow motion car crash, creating acute embarrassment for the government and, more importantly, failing to offer anything of value to the long-suffering public who rely upon effective policing to maintain good order in cities, towns and villages across the land. It is also becoming clear that we could be on the verge of allowing, by default, the petty corruption of earlier days to return after an absence of half a century.
With one or two exceptions, the quality of the party political candidates nominated by both major parties is uniformly poor. Most are pensioned-off MPs, loyal party apparatchiks, or local councillors conspicuous by their mediocrity. What all have in common is an almost total lack of knowledge of or expertise in policing at a strategic level. Above all, the most disturbing feature about them is their unquestioning loyalty to their respective political parties – exactly the circumstances which generated such an unhealthy environment prior to 1964.
The Electoral Commission has warned that holding such an important election on a day in November, possibly in the teeth of inclement weather, is a recipe for disaster. They are predicting a record low turnout of 18.5 per cent – a failure to engage the electorate which is unprecedented in local, national and mayoral elections in the UK. Add to this the fact that the government, for the first time in any election, is refusing to offer candidates a free mail shot to all electors, something that automatically disadvantages independent candidates who do not have the support of a party infrastructure.
All of this is too important to get wrong. In truth, the only candidates that the electors should trust are those that owe no allegiance to a political party, or indeed anyone else. Independent candidates need to be encouraged and supported by all who are concerned to ensure that integrity is at the heart of British policing.
David Gilbertson is the voluntary strategic advisor to Suleman Nagdi, the Independent Candidate for PCC for Leicestershire.
Image from: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/police/pcc/campaign-resources/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.