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Police and Crime Commissioners and Panels

Volume 825: debated on Monday 31 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of Police and Crime Panels to hold Police and Crime Commissioners to account.

My Lords, the two-part police and crime commissioner review considered the role of police and crime panels and concluded that they have the appropriate powers to scrutinise police and crime commissioners. However, the consistency and quality of this scrutiny can vary. Recommendations arising from the review have therefore focused on improving panels’ understanding of their role, the application of their existing powers and strengthening the professionalism and quality of the support provided to panels.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. Does he agree that, to do their core job of holding police and crime commissioners to account—nobody else does it, least of all the Home Office, I am afraid—it is necessary for a panel to be robust, challenging and fair? Much depends on the approach, attitude and style of the chair of the panel. Given the need for the public to have confidence in the system, would the Government consider amending the rules so that a chair of a police and crime panel cannot be from the same political party as the police and crime commissioner?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the Government believe that panels have the appropriate powers, agreed by Parliament, to effectively scrutinise the actions and decisions of PCCs and enable the public to therefore hold them to account. As I have also just said, we concluded a two-part review. In part 1 we took steps to improve and strengthen the scrutiny of PCCs by issuing new guidance and a training package for panels. Through part 2 we are undertaking a fundamental assessment of the panel support model to further improve the professionalism, quality and consistency of support provided to panels. I am very happy to take the noble Lord’s suggestion on chairmen back as part of that ongoing assessment.

My Lords, should not the police and crime panel in Leicestershire be urged to pass a vote of censure on the irresponsible PCC Mr Rupert Matthews for paying some £100,000 per year for advice from Mr Mike Veale, a discredited policeman who is facing a gross misconduct hearing? Could not that money have been spent better on front-line policing?

My Lords, it is not for me to comment on individual cases. However, police and crime panels must refer serious complaints and conduct matters to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Panels are responsible for resolving non-serious complaints made about a PCC’s conduct when in office. Ultimate responsibility for handling any complaints they have received remains with the panel.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the likelihood of members of police and crime panels asking difficult questions of police and crime commissioners if they belong to the same political party, bearing in mind that they will want a police and crime commissioner from their own political party to be re-elected? Is it not time to take party politics out of policing?

I would argue that it is about public accountability, not party politics. We heard through part 1 of the PCC review that the public cannot always easily access information on how well their force is doing, which is obviously vital if they wish to hold PCCs to account. The review therefore recommended that the specified information order of 2011 was amended to require PCCs to publish additional information. That came into force in May 2021. There is transparency and accountability in the system, and rather more than under the old one.

My Lords, I remember when the original police and crime commissioners Bill went through the other place. Like other parties in the Midlands, where I come from, I wonder whether the role now pursued by police and crime commissioners is what was originally conceived. Given that worry, is it not time perhaps to have an overall look at the role of our police and crime commissioners?

It is fair to say that the role has evolved to some extent. Whether it is appropriate to have an overall review is already under discussion.

My Lords, before the Government introduced police and crime commissioners, we had police and crime panels, just as we now have to oversee the police and crime commissioners. If that system was so bad that we needed to introduce police and crime commissioners, who cost a huge amount of money and whose ability is variable, why do we now have police and crime panels to oversee them?

I made it clear that there is a transparency and accountability issue. I am grateful to my friend Katy Bourne, the Sussex police and crime commissioner. She tells me that PCCs are more visible and approachable than the police authorities that they replaced. Many hold monthly accountability meetings with their chief constable, often online, which the public can attend and contribute to.

My Lords, surely the ultimate test of the PCC system and the panels is whether policing has improved as a result of the legislation that the Government brought in. Surely the general concern about the overall performance of police forces is an indication that the system is not working.

I am obviously aware of the noble Lord’s long engagement with this subject, but I do not agree; there are lots of reasons why things have happened.

My Lords, I will be perhaps a little unhelpful to my noble friend and say that I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. Trust in the police has measurably declined in recent years. My noble friend’s predecessors have stood at that Dispatch Box and talked about the former chief constable of Wiltshire and commissioners of police in the London Met, and we have had endless examples of where the system is going wrong. Whatever system we have set up for this, is it not ultimately the Government’s responsibility to sort this out and restore trust in the police? Without that, we cannot trust in justice.

I thank my noble friend for his helpful question. It is of course up to the Government, and we talked about last week’s Casey review at some length in the Chamber. The Government are doing a lot to restore confidence in the police, and of course the police also have a responsibility to do so, as Sir Mark Rowley has said.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, is there not example after example, across the country, of police and crime panels failing to hold chief constables and commissioners to account? Instead of the Government having review after review, is it not about time that police and crime panels were given the teeth to hold commissioners to account and, in that way, restore confidence to policing? If the Minister is so confident of the work of the police and crime panels, will he place in the Library a list of examples of where they have worked?

The Government are confident that the panels have the appropriate powers—agreed by Parliament, as I said—to effectively scrutinise the actions and decisions of PCCs and enable the public to hold them to account. Through the review process, we agreed that this scrutiny was inconsistent in some cases, and significant measures have been taken to do something about that. These include extensive engagement with members of the panels, which has proved popular; indeed, there are requests for more of that engagement.

My Lords, at the risk of asking another unhelpful question, I say that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, are on to something about the imperfections of the panels. But why not replace them with a really powerful body that could fire the police and crime commissioners just like that? We could call it the electorate. Is that not the strongest accountability of all?

Actually, that is a helpful question, because the electorate do of course have ultimate responsibility for the election of the PCCs. I am pleased to say that the electorate seem to be becoming more enthusiastic about the elections: turnout has increased every year. Obviously that is not determined by a single factor, but it is going up.

My Lords, the Minister’s definition of “enthusiasm” is certainly different from some that I could suggest. One of the main purposes of the whole system of police and crime commissioners was to get closer engagement between the public and policing. With three rounds of police and crime commissioners elections having taken place, the turnout has varied between poor and abysmal. Clearly, they are not fulfilling one of the key reasons for their having been established, so what is the point of them?

I have answered the question about the point. I have the turnout figures: in 2012, it was 15.1%; in 2016, it was 27.4%; and in 2021, it was 33.9%. We cheerfully accept that those are not the greatest numbers—certainly not relative to national elections—but, in a local context, they are not bad.

In most democratic contexts, they are pretty awful numbers. Did my noble friend see the report in the Times this morning quoting the chief constable of the West Midlands, in which he expressed great concern that crime figures were being inflated by including so-called intimidatory gestures, which resulted in no charges but created a fair amount of bureaucracy? Could this be something that the police and crime commissioners are asked to look into as a matter of urgency?

I absolutely think that it is, but police and crime commissioners are of course answerable to their electorate, so it depends on the electorate’s priorities. I imagine that the electorate of the West Midlands would share my noble friend’s concerns.