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Police Commissioners (Wales)

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

Thank you for the chance to have this debate, Mr Walker. I am grateful to other hon. Members from Wales for coming along.

Few issues exercise my constituents more than crime, and I am sure we all agree that policing is far too important for us to get it wrong. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to question the Minister. I say that not least because the Home Office consultation “Policing in the 21st century: reconnecting police and the people” lasted only eight weeks, which is less than the 12 weeks set out in the Cabinet Office guidelines. The consultation was also done over the summer holiday period, thereby restricting consultation on this hugely important issue before the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill begins its progress.

With any new proposal on law and order, we all ask ourselves the fundamental question whether it will allow us to work better together to cut crime. The proposal for directly elected police commissioners will not do that, and it is a costly diversion. The proposal to remove police authorities and to replace them with directly elected police commissioners is opposed by the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and, according to some reports, many Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors—not least councillors, and indeed magistrates, who have given police authorities valuable service. We then realise that there are serious concerns about the Government’s proposal, and they need addressing.

Those councillors, myself and other Opposition Members feel that the proposal has the potential to politicise policing, to impinge on the availability of funding for front-line police services, to be unrepresentative of the community and to go against the coalition’s desire for localism. If we set those concerns against the backdrop of the belief that the proposal would be hard to reverse once it had been implemented, we start to fear that it could damage the future of policing.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am not aware of any public appetite. I was about to say that, like all hon. Members, I have frequent conversations with constituents about crime, antisocial behaviour and policing, and I have yet to encounter a clamour in my constituency for an elected police commissioner. My constituents want more police out on the beat preventing crime; the last thing they want is another politician. That is what the previous Government understood when they consulted. Although the present system is not perfect, substantial progress was made, and crime is down. It is no coincidence that there are now more police and police community support officers. Following on from my hon. Friend’s intervention, I would be grateful if the Minister could provide evidence of the appetite for change.

I am at a loss to know why the Government’s policy is being prioritised when forces are facing one of the most challenging times financially because of the coalition’s cuts. Surely, the priority is to keep as many police on the beat as possible. Will the Minister give me a breakdown of the cost of his proposals, because Ministers have not addressed the issue in any forum that I have attended? In a recent answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales told me that electing police commissioners and the new crime and police panels would cost not a penny more than the existing police authorities, which is clearly not the case. The LGA estimates that the elections could cost as much as £54 million. Today, the president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales has said that crime and antisocial behaviour might increase with the cuts, particularly if the police have to reduce the number of officers because of the spending cuts. Can we really afford the proposed change?

If we take into account the cost of running the elections, the salary of the commissioner—it is a powerful role, which will presumably require substantial remuneration —the cost of his or her advisers, the administrative support, and the cost of the police and crime panel and its administrators, we have to ask whether the Government have made any estimate of the costs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that only a political party would be able to fund a campaign to elect a police commissioner? We would therefore have the madness of people voting for their Labour or Conservative candidate for police commissioner.

I very much agree, and I will come to that later. My hon. Friend makes the point very well.

In Gwent, the police authority costs just 0.6% of the total policing budget for each year. Can the Minister confirm that the running costs and the elections for the new system will not cost a penny more than that? The chair of the Devon and Cornwall police authority, who is a former returning officer, claims that elections alone will cost £1.9 million in his part of the world, which is £350,000 more than the existing police authority’s annual budget, or the equivalent of 50 police officers. No details of the costs have been forthcoming, so could the Minister address the issue and enlighten us?

My experience as an MP working with my local force and police authority, which are very proactive and accessible to the public, is that they are open to change and would certainly welcome debate with the Government on improving the current structure. They know better than anyone the current system’s strengths and weaknesses, and it is unbelievable that the Government are determined to throw away all the knowledge, expertise and experience that police authorities have acquired over the years. Given the financial constraints, why not just work with them to improve the system that we have?

The coalition seems to base its argument for elected commissioners on a survey that shows that only a small percentage of the public know about police authorities, but some Welsh police authority surveys undertaken over recent months seem to show otherwise. Will the Minister look at those surveys and the evidence that they have collected before becoming welded to this policy?

The Home Office consultation document indicates that the Government want candidates to come from a wide range of backgrounds, because they believe that the current system does not allow for that. That is bizarre, considering that one strength of the current system is the diversity of representation. For example, Gwent police authority is an independent organisation made up of 17 local representatives—councillors and independents—who hold the chief to account. The nine councillors come from the five unitary authorities, so each council is represented. The allocation of the nine council representatives reflects the actual votes cast by the electorate, so there is true political proportionality. As we all know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) said, candidates from political parties, wealthy individuals and single-issue campaigners are most likely to mount the most serious election campaigns. That raises the question of why the Government want to replace a system characterised by greater accountability and diversity with the new proposed model, particularly when they will semi-duplicate that system anyway by setting up smaller crime and police panels.

The consultation document proposes the introduction of police and crime panels, but is the Minister happy that they have the right balance of powers and responsibilities to provide robust checks and balances in respect of police commissioners? Will they be strong enough to scrutinise and hold a commissioner to account, bearing in mind that the commissioner will set the budget and the precept, appoint the chief and set the force’s strategic direction? I am concerned that the police and crime panel will lack any teeth and will, in reality, have little say over the decisions made by the commissioner.

That leads me to one of the most worrying aspects of the Government’s proposal. There is a danger that the commissioner will focus on short-term populist measures and priorities and not have proper and responsible regard for the bigger picture now and in the longer term. For example, the four police authorities in Wales, together with their chief constables, are acknowledged leaders in working together to tackle extremism and serious organised crime, and that is a hidden service to the electorate. If a commissioner, who will always have an eye on the next election, is publicly elected with the mandate of bringing in an additional 200 police officers but the chief constable wants to use those resources to tackle organised crime, who would win? With each force having a commissioner, where is the incentive for cross-force collaboration? Does the Minister agree that it would be hugely dangerous if the productive and effective work done by Welsh forces, and the hidden services that they provide, were put in jeopardy?

In view of the number of elections in Wales—next year, we will have three all-out elections, two of which will be on the same day—is the Minister worried about low turnouts and the very real threat of leaving the door open to candidates who might have more extreme views? I would be interested to hear what he estimates the turnouts for those elections will be and whether he has had discussions on the issue with the Electoral Commission.

An important principle of policing in this country has been the need to establish a consensus about policing priorities, and the need for democratic accountability and responsibility. Is my hon. Friend aware of any consultations that the Government have carried out with the Welsh Assembly Government? We could say that policing is a non-devolved matter, but increasingly we see policing measures in effect being, in part at least, the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government. We therefore need to ensure that we are all pulling in one direction. Has there been any such consultation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The proposals will have very different effects on Wales and England. As the Minister is aware, the Welsh Assembly Government have direct responsibility for community safety matters, which results in the police in Wales working to different policy agendas from those in forces in England. I, too, would be grateful to hear what discussions the Minster has had with the Welsh Assembly Government about the proposals, and what their opinion on them is. Has he also taken into account the possible advancement of the devolved settlement? Finally, does he also plan to hold the election for directly elected commissioners on the same day as the local government elections in 2012, and has he discussed that with the Welsh Assembly Government?

To conclude, I have struggled to find anyone in Wales with any enthusiasm at all for the policy. The Western Mail has suggested that police authorities could be strengthened rather than abolished—a view that I share—because they represent a diversity of opinion, through several members, rather than one elected person with the power to wield a P45. The Welsh Local Government Association has called the idea half-baked, and has stated that it is a retrograde step, and that police and crime commissioners would be hugely damaging. The idea was rejected by the previous Government and there is no demand for change, I believe, from the public. The public care about front-line policing and our view is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”: why not work with the current police authorities to improve the system we have, saving money and using the authorities’ expertise?

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over us today, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate, and on the clear passion with which she has put her case. I disagree, however, with almost everything that she said. I am sure that this topic will be the subject of considerable debate over the coming weeks and months, not least when the Government bring forward the legislation that will provide for the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners as a replacement for police authorities.

I will try to take both the hon. Lady’s points and those raised by other hon. Members in turn. First, the hon. Lady suggested that the consultation period was only eight weeks rather than 12. In the run-up to the formal consultation period, the Government, and I, did extensive pre-consultation with stakeholders, including police authorities and police chiefs. We have been anxious right from the beginning to discuss the matter with stakeholders, but we are also anxious to ensure that we introduce the Bill in time, and secure its safe passage so that we can hold elections in 2012.

I have also been taking soundings, from Mark Mathias, the chief superintendent for Swansea. As my constituency is in Swansea, I shall be neutral and use Cardiff as an example. In a middle-class area, such as Heath, voter turnout is very high, but in the Ely area, where there is a lot of crime, voter participation is very low, and there is a concern that there will be a tendency for the person running for office to say, “Let’s do antisocial behaviour in a middle-class area and deploy the resources there, because that’s where the votes are, and not do so much activity in the poorer area.” The output, other than the loss of the money to run the democratic process— £50 million, I think, across the UK—is that the money that is left, which is being reduced, will be targeted in the area of least operational need. Does the Minister not think that that is an inherent problem of the whole system?

I do not agree. We live in the age of transparency, and the decisions of people in elected office are rightly subjected to intense public scrutiny. Those of us who are elected to any public office have a responsibility to represent all the people we are elected to represent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree on that in relation to our own constituencies—that we must include the people who did not vote for us, and people from all sorts of backgrounds and different parts of the constituency. That is our obligation.

One thing that I will come on to is the experience of the Mayor of London. He represents a very large number of people. The enhanced visibility and accountability of that elected office has been a good thing, and it has broadly been welcomed by Londoners. I am sure that the Mayor has an acute sense of his responsibility to represent people in all sections of the community in relation to policing, and to hold the police to account. I do not, therefore, accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise.

I shall also use the example of the Mayor of London. Does the Minister agree that that is a political appointment? The concern expressed when I have spoken to the Gwent police authority is that the police force is being politicised. Politics does not have a role in modern-day policing.

I absolutely disagree. There are elected members of police authorities from all parties, and the chairman of a police authority can represent a party or be independent. I do not believe that the experience in London suggests that the Metropolitan police has become in any way politicised. Were that to be suggested to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, or to his staff, he would absolutely reject it. We need to ensure that the operational independence of the police is fully safeguarded, and the Association of Chief Police Officers is rightly concerned that it be protected. Of course, decisions were taken by the newly elected Mayor that resulted in the previous commissioner resigning, but I do not believe that that amounted to any kind of politicisation in the party sense.

There is an issue of geography, of making comparisons with London. We understand that London is one place—it is a metropolis. In south Wales, the perception of people in Swansea—if I may, representing Swansea West—is that the chief of police there is well integrated with local political stakeholders, including councillors, Assembly Members and MPs, and the worry is that with a ballot we would end up with a commissioner in Cardiff. We would become Cardiff-centric and, as I have already said, there would also be a propensity to be middle-class focused. All those things are beginning to take away to some other place the accountability of the police and their sensitivity to local problems. The problems of south Wales are very different from the problems of London, which is one place. Rather than getting closer to the people we would become more isolated, with decisions being made by middle-class people in Cardiff.

Again, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The chief constable has to represent the force and cover the whole area concerned. He succeeds in doing that, so why should not the elected individual who holds him to account? We are, of course, proposing the introduction of police and crime panels that draw on locally elected councillors to ensure that the local authorities in the police force’s area have representation in holding the commissioner to account, and independence as well. That will be one way of ensuring that voices within the whole police area are heard.

I will now continue to address the points made by the hon. Member for Newport East. I have talked about the consultation period and the fact that we conducted extensive pre-consultation ahead of the formal consultation period. Even those who would disagree with us about the proposals, such as the Association of Police Authorities, would, I am sure, agree that we have been very ready to talk to them about the detail of all this and to consult widely.

The Minister is being very generous. On the issue of consultation, has there been any with the Welsh Assembly Government?

Yes, and I will come to that. There certainly has been consultation, and it is important that there should be.

The hon. Member for Newport East suggested that the idea of police and crime commissioners is opposed by a wide range of people, including the Association of Chief Police Officers. Actually, it is noticeable that it does not oppose the introduction of commissioners outright; it rightly expresses its concerns about operational independence. Nor, even, is the Association of Police Authorities—although it does not support the proposal—mounting a great campaign against the change. I think there is recognition that it makes sense to work with the Government to ensure that the design of the proposals will be right. That is a sensible way forward. The Government, after all, have a mandate in this respect. Both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats stood on a platform of reform of police authorities. The Conservative party wanted to introduce a directly elected individual; that was in our manifesto. The Liberal Democrats wanted to introduce direct elections to police authorities. Therefore we have a joint mandate and the proposal is part of the coalition agreement. Our views were very clear and formed part of the manifesto that we put to the country. We are entitled therefore to introduce the Bill and proceed with the policy.

I want to press on, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Concerns have been expressed about politicisation of the police. I reject them, for the reasons I set out. We need to maintain the operational independence of policing, but as I said to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) in debate last week, on the Floor of the House, someone has to hold the police to account. In my view that should be an elected politician. We cannot have the police answering to no one. Therefore what we are discussing is simply the nature of that accountability; but politicians will be involved in one way or another.

Other concerns were raised about extremism, and that is a familiar refrain. Again, I pointed out on the Floor of the House last week that the British National party secured 2% of the vote in the general election that we have all just fought. I do not believe that it is realistic, given the nature of the electoral system that we propose, to believe that such extremists would secure the general public’s support as police and crime commissioners. We are happy to trust the public about that.

I thank the Minister for giving way, as I know that time is of the essence. If an extremist should be elected, would there be a mechanism to remove that person?

We are setting in place a range of checks and balances in the consultation document; they will govern the activities of police and crime commissioners. Specific proposals will relate to recall, and so on, when there is wrongdoing. However, it is up to the general public to decide who they want to elect. As democrats we should trust the people. We go down a dangerous road if we start to prescribe who may or may not stand for public office.

I shall give way on this point, but I repeat that interventions are leaving me little time to respond.

In view of the sensitive information that a police commissioner might be privy to, is the Minister saying that there would be no checks at all before a candidate put themselves forward for election, or was successful?

Perhaps the hon. Lady could tell me what checks are placed on politicians elected to this House when they assume high office. That is not the basis on which we work. We have a system of public scrutiny but we trust the people to elect to office the politicians they prefer. In relation to the hon. Lady’s contention about the appetite for change, I believe that there is a strong appetite for the police to be connected with communities, and to be visible and available. We live in the age of accountability and transparency, when people expect public bodies to answer for their performance. The problem with police authorities is that they are relatively weak and to be invisible bodies. The public do not, in the main, know who they are. Creating a single point of accountability, so that a single individual holds the police to account, will hugely enhance accountability. We saw that in London: through the persona of the Mayor, albeit that he delegates decisions to his deputy, people feel that he has a responsibility for London’s policing. That has broadly been welcomed, and I believe there will be a very beneficial effect on policing.

The proposal is an important part of the exchange we want to effect: we want to reduce the degree of central direction of the police that has accrued in recent years, as police forces have been subjected to increasing interference from the Home Secretary and the Government. In my view, the old, tripartite arrangement of a balance between the chief constable, the police authority—representing the local—and the Government or centre, has been distorted. Our proposal is an important reform, which will enable us to reduce central interference, target and central direction, while ensuring that the police are properly held to account, in this case by their communities. It is important to understand that that is the exchange that is proposed. I do not believe that we could cut back on all the central direction while leaving police authorities in their current form. They would not be strong or visible enough to hold the police to account and we would find that the police were not answering to anyone. That would not be acceptable to any of us.

As to the hon. Lady’s point about costs, it is true, as my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for this matter said, I think last week, that we intend that the reforms—the introduction of both police and crime panels and police and crime commissioner—should not cost more than existing police authorities. That is the last thing that any of us would want in the current age, when resources are tight. There will, however, be a cost in relation to the elections, which will be held every four years. Those of us who propose the change must accept that; there is a price to democracy and that will be budgeted for separately. We shall set out the costs when we launch the proposals. There will be a full assessment of the cost when we introduce the Bill. However, we must secure the design of the proposals before we can set out the costs; that is what the consultation is about.

I do not accept any of the contentions that have been made, either in this place or outside it, that the restraints on spending that will necessarily have to be imposed overall on policing will result in an increase in crime. Indeed, those who contend that they will do so are unwise; I doubt whether there is any academic evidence to suggest such a link.

I have already addressed the matter of diversity—

No, I am not going to give way any further. I have only four minutes in which to complete what I want to say, and I have some important points.

Police and crime panels will play an important role in ensuring that there is diversity. As to collaboration, we are placing duties on the police and crime commissioners to ensure that such collaboration as has happened in Wales can be extended. Crimes cross force boundaries and collaboration is necessary to deal with serious and organised crime, and to drive down cost. We want to ensure that such collaboration can continue.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly made an important point about the specific position of Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. We have made it clear that we shall work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the framework within which commissioners operate reflects and respects the devolved responsibilities. I visited Cardiff as the recess began in the summer, to have discussions with officials and to consult police authorities and police chiefs. Officials have maintained a dialogue with officials from the Welsh Assembly Government about all those matters. We were not able to meet Ministers at the time. I have spoken to them on the telephone, but we—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I—plan to meet them in a short time to make sure that the consultation takes place.

I assure hon. Members that, whatever our differences on this matter, we intend to respect the devolved arrangements in Wales. That is particularly important with respect to those areas that are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, essentially relating to areas in which the police and crime commissioner will have a role. That includes community safety partnerships, which at present answer to the Welsh Assembly Government. We must get the design right for Wales, consult properly in Wales, and, where appropriate, secure the agreement of the Welsh Assembly to the proposals. We intend to proceed on that basis.

We want to introduce the reform and to include Wales. It is a reserved matter but we want the design fully to reflect the position in Wales. I am confident that the reforms will improve policing in Wales and rebuild the bridge between the police and the public, and that we shall continue to ensure that police officers are out in the streets doing the job that people want them to do, preventing crime and tackling it where it occurs. Our whole purpose is to improve policing and ensure that that essential public service is shaped to withstand the challenges of the future.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).