The Labour party has never liked the coalition’s invention of Police and Crime Commissioners and today has set out proposals to replace them with local “force level Policing Boards”.
Instead of directly elected figures with policing priorities clearly put before the electorate, these boards would be “composed of leaders of each local authority within the force area.”
PCCs have had a troubled birth and the decision to hold the first elections in mid November 2012 rather than in the traditional electoral month of May seriously dented turnout and gave critics a pretty effective stick to bash them with.
But Labour’s proposals do nothing to improve the democratic accountability of those taking decisions about policing because most voters don’t get to decide who leads their council and only voters in a single – often safe – ward get to remove them at the next election.
In London the role of Police and Crime Commissioner is discharged by the Mayor of London via the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) which sets the budget and priorities for the Metropolitan Police.
In turn, MOPAC and the Met are subject to regular and robust public scrutiny by the London Assembly’s Police & Crime Committee.
The authors of Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce report would like to change this.
They start by noting the role of the Mayor in overseeing the Met, but say their proposals should “apply to all areas” and call on a future Labour government “to consult fully with London boroughs on the applicability of any proposed reforms to this area.”
If the reforms set out today were implemented in London, the Mayor and MOPAC would be replaced with a committee of 32 borough leaders.
This may have a superficial attraction, promising an era of cross party collaboration and consensus but recent history suggests it would risk delivering paralysis and weak governance.
Just 14 years ago there was no local democratic oversight of the Met which answered to national Government via the Home Office rather than to Londoners.
The creation of the Metropolitan Police Authority in 2000 helped bring the force closer to the people it served by making senior officers answer in public to locally elected politicians who enjoyed control over budgets and appointments.
But the need to achieve majority, cross-party support sometimes resulted in inaction rather than necessary tough decisions.
The Met has been wrestling for years with a property portfolio which no longer serves operational needs but was hampered in its desire to get rid of bad buildings by a lack of political support.
An estate renewal strategy which would have allowed the closures and sell offs stopped and started a number of times from the middle of the 2004-2008 City Hall term all the way up to the MPA’s demise in 2012.
It took the arrival of Stephen Greenhalgh, who heads the MOPAC as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, to set out firm guidelines to ensure vaue for taxpayers and push the sales through.
So far his efforts have released more than £125m with millions more to be saved each year in running and maintenance costs.
Every pound of that sum will be returned to front line policing, yet for years it was tied up in unwanted and underused buildings, limiting the Met’s ability to modernise the service it offered Londoners.
As Greenhalgh recently and rightly said: “This did not happen under the old MPA and the police could not have done it on their own.”
Would 32 council leaders be any more likely than the MPA to push through such a controversial but necessary decision?
Would they be more likely to take tough decisions than some fire authority members who, presented with officer recommendations to axe stations, forgot they were part of a decision making executive and started acting like a town hall opposition, complete with dissenting motions and highly partisan speeches?
It’s no surprise that local councillors recommend giving themselves a bigger role, but the UK’s acute lack of voter engagement isn’t going to be fixed by replacing direct, accountable oversight with 1950’s style committees and panels.
And, more importantly, the Met’s leadership will be unable to make the changes Londoners need them to unless they have the political cover which only Mayoral mandate can provide.