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Police: Elected Commissioners

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have received to their proposals for elected Police Commissioners.

Formal consultation on the proposals to introduce directly elected police and crime commissioners ended on 20 September. We have received around 900 responses from a broad range of policing partners and these are now being considered ahead of the publication of the Government’s response, which will be shortly.

My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Lord did not give details about the responses because neither the police nor the public show much appetite for this foolish reform which will politicise police forces. The Association of Police Authorities estimates that directly elected commissioners will cost an additional £100 million over the next five years. Will the Minister tell the House how many police officers will be made redundant to pay for this very dangerous policy?

My Lords, that is a remarkably partisan response. The system of police authorities set up in the 19th century is no longer entirely satisfactory. We discovered that only 8 per cent of the public are aware that police authorities exist and the amalgamation of police forces has led to increasing remoteness. Under the Labour Government, there was democratic centralism in which police accountability went up to the Secretary of State; our proposals aim to bring accountability and visibility back down from Whitehall to communities around the country.

My Lords, will my noble friend say how the Government will assure us that directly elected police commissioners will not all turn out to be white, male and middle class?

I know that my noble friend is a former chair of a policy authority. One of the problems with democracy is that one cannot entirely control the results; I understand that some on the Benches opposite are not entirely happy about the outcome of the recent general election. Police commissioners will be balanced by police and crime panels, which will be made up of representatives of local authorities who in turn will be responsible for keeping police commissioners accountable in consulting on what they do.

My Lords, if the noble Lord Googles the term “corrupt sheriffs in the USA”, he will find thousands of hits and good examples of corruption. It is not without coincidence that all those people are directly elected. Is it really the right time to drag an impartial police service into the political arena?

My Lords, issues of policing cannot be entirely non-political. I am conscious that local government has had elements of corruption, which is one of the problems of a democratic system. Perhaps the noble Lord would prefer an appointed system as well as an appointed House of Lords.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that we should welcome any attempt to ensure that public concerns are better addressed by chief police officers and that this proposal should be considered carefully, while at the same time recognising the wide-ranging sensitivities that exist. At this admittedly early stage, I ask the Minister to reassure me on two points: first, that the operational independence of chief police officers will be protected absolutely; and secondly that, given that an elected commissioner might not be able to operate without support, consideration will be given to examining the case for having other elected persons in place to support the PCC.

My Lords, the process of consultation is intended to ensure that we hear all the voices on the proposals; the noble Lord may be aware that the Home Secretary met the chief constables yesterday. There is no intention to undermine the operational independence of chief constables. The proposals in the policing White Paper, which I am sure many noble Lords have read, are that there will be consultative police and crime panels made up of magistrates and representatives of the local authorities alongside the directly elected police commissioners.

After the consultation, is it the Government’s intention to extend that franchise to prisoners, as was announced would be the case for other elections earlier this week?

My Lords, that is a little bit outside the Question, but the noble Lord enjoys asking naughty questions. We are attempting to shift power from Whitehall back down to the regions and communities of Britain. We appreciate that new Labour preferred everything to be decided in Whitehall and had a sense that accountability was upwards to the Secretary of State. This is an attempt to reverse that process.

My Lords, has my noble friend worked out the implications for bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers if commissioners are to be elected?

My Lords, there is active consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers on precisely these points. Indeed, ACPO was one of the many bodies that responded to this consultation. The others include the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Local Government Association, the Association of Police Authorities chief executives et cetera—900 submissions is not a bad response. The submissions are currently being absorbed and further proposals will come out of the Home Office shortly.

In his response to my noble friend Lord Hunt, the Minister said that he wants to create greater awareness of police authorities. Is he aware of a report out today that North Wales and Strathclyde police will be compulsorily retiring police offices because of the cuts? Which does he think the public will prefer: an awareness of police authorities or an awareness of extra police on the beat?

My Lords, one would clearly prefer both. Part of the problem of distrust of the police is that people do not know how the police are held accountable. We do not intend that this new system will be an additional cost, but police authorities themselves are not without a degree of cost. The problems of police costing as a whole is a matter separate from this Question.

My Lords, following on from that question to the Minister, will the report carry an objective assessment of the cost of the present arrangements compared with what the new arrangements might amount to?

My Lords, the Government will be setting out a range of proposals in the police performance and social responsibility Bill. Questions such as that will certainly be dealt with in the Explanatory Notes and other accompanying briefings.