London Assembly Member Jenny Jones argues new Police scrutiny arrangements amount to single party influence and could cost the Metropolitan Police the public’s support.
For policing by consent to succeed there needs to be a consensus, or at least broad agreement, about how it is done.
My big concern is that any consensus is going to fall apart with the new Police and Crime Commissioner in London and that the police could potentially lose large sections of public support as a result.
The Mayor became the Police and Crime Commissioner for London a little over a year ago but handed over responsibility to Stephen Greenhalgh, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime (DMPC).
In London, we have swapped an imperfect system for a disastrously flawed one. Decisions previously taken by the Metropolitan Police Authority in full view of the public with minutes, reports and clear agendas have transformed into cosy office chats between the DMPC and the Met. Issues that were once considered controversial and debated at length in a cross party forum, are now nodded through over a cup of coffee.
The ideas of one political party are treated as gospel by the police, whilst contrary views are no longer heard because they are excluded from the room. I expressed these fears ahead of the new system being introduced and my experiences over recent months have reinforced my concerns.
During the Policing and Crime Plan consultation it was nearly impossible to get a straight answer about how many police officers there are in London. I have never been fixated on the numbers debate but, if Londoners are to be consulted and to make informed contributions then they must be given the facts.
Instead, during the course of the consultation Londoners were given no real indication of what the Plan would do to frontline policing. Nor were they any clearer about the contact points which will replace front counters and police stations. On police numbers the public were provided with a baseline figure that had been adjusted rather than actual figure.
This inflated the Mayor’s figure for extra posts in the boroughs by 910 officers, but it took well over a month for the DMPC to provide me (post consultation) with the non-adjusted figure. Londoners were deliberately misled and deserve better than this.
When the police want to introduce a potentially controversial policy – such as their attempts to get water cannon for London – you might hope they would consider it worthy of a public debate, particularly as water cannon are of dubious value and previous Governments have resisted using them on the British mainland. When I discovered the Met was already in discussions with the Home Office I hoped to see the DMPC ask questions about the operational need or raise concerns he had. Instead, he asked to be copied into the letters in order to speed the process along.
Maybe the DMPC had already raised his, or other people’s, concerns with the Commissioner in private and had them answered. But if this is the case, wouldn’t the public have also benefited from hearing this discussion? Or knowing it had taken place? A quick look over the agendas of the DMPC’s (private) bilateral meetings with the Commissioner would indicate water cannon has never been discussed.
The new Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) Challenge system – where the DMPC questions the Commissioner in public – is very feeble. As one blogger said, “It’s as challenging as asking someone if they want milk in their tea.”
On another controversial policy, to expand the use of Taser, the MPA previously rejected the Met’s request. The Met did not argue that there was an urgent operational need and we were concerned the roll out of Taser – which we believed to be widely seen as oppressive – could weaken public confidence in the police.
Last November the Commissioner announced a review of Taser would be brought back to the MPA for discussion. That discussion never took place; in January the MPA was abolished and by February the Met announced its decision to expand the use of Taser. Whatever happened to the review? Is there now an operational need for more Taser? Have community concerns been taken into consideration? These are the questions that need to be asked and that the public need to see being asked, but instead decisions are being taken behind closed doors.
The financial implications of Taser are another aspect which has been kept behind closed doors. The annual training budget once Tasers have been rolled out to five boroughs will be over £800,000 a year.
By June Tasers will be available in all 32 boroughs and the training costs will be even greater, all this at a time when the Met is making large cuts. I was surprised that such a big increase in expenditure went through without any public debate or even the explicit sign off from the Mayor’s Office.
I am now so exasperated I have taken my concerns to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The majority of my letters and questions to MOPAC have not received a response within his own twenty working day target. In fact, eleven of my requests have taken over 70 working days to get a response, the longest was 160 working days. As an Assembly Member it’s my role to scrutinise MOPAC. If I can’t get answers to my questions then what hope is there for a member of the public?
The police have a difficult job and I genuinely believe that we should do our best to help them do it well. Hard experience has taught us that it is easier to give them that support when we can air criticisms in open forums, get feedback from the police about the problems they are facing, and have the confidence that any failings will be addressed. Part of that support is being a critical friend to the police. I fear under the new system the Mayor is insulating himself, and by extension the police, from challenging views and thorough debate.
We have plenty of experience of what happens when policing by consent collapses and the seeds are currently being sown.