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Police and Crime Commissioners: Accountability Arrangements

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to change the accountability arrangements for Police and Crime Commissioners.

My Lords, the Government undertook a two-part review of police and crime commissioners, to strengthen their accountability and expand their role. Delivering these recommendations will sharpen their transparency and accountability and ensure they have the necessary tools and levers to be strong local leaders in the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour. PCCs continue to be directly held to account by the public at the ballot box.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and for his written reply I received this morning on the vexed question of whether the accountability of police and crime commissioners includes, by law, the need to inform the police and crime panel of senior appointments so that the panel can interview and form a view, even when the senior appointment is interim. The Government’s view is that an interim senior appointment is in exactly the same position as a full appointment for these purposes. So I ask the Minister: is he aware that, in my county of Leicestershire, there have been six—yes, six—chief executive appointments in 19 months, four of them interim? The interim chief financial officer has been in place for 14 months. Not one of the interim appointees has been before the police and crime panel. Does this not show a complete contempt for accountability?

My Lords, the noble Lord is completely right. Paragraph 7 of Schedule 1 to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act provides that any reference to the chief executive or chief finance officer of a PCC, in any legislation,

“includes a reference to a person acting as chief executive, or chief finance officer”.

In other words, there is no distinction, in our view, between acting or permanent appointments. My officials have spoken with the chair of the Leicestershire police and crime panel; it is the department’s understanding that representations have been made by the Leicestershire panel to the PCC insisting that formal notice of the interim CEO appointment be given to the panel as soon as possible, to enable the proper scrutiny to take place.

My Lords, a disgraced policeman, Mike Veale, has featured quite often in Oral Questions in your Lordships’ House. A few years ago he deliberately smeared the reputation of Sir Edward Heath. Asked recently why this notorious man’s gross misconduct hearing, announced in 2021, has been indefinitely postponed, the PCC for Cleveland said:

“It is complicated, it is interwoven with other things and there is an order of things that I cannot supercede.”

How can this impenetrable goobledegook possibly be reconciled with proper public accountability? When a member of the public asked the same question last August, he was told that a review was taking place. After two attempts to find out about the progress of the review, he was told just yesterday that “Once information about a hearing is published, we will notify you.” How can these curt, dismissive comments possibly be acceptable? Why has the Home Office done nothing to make this PCC properly accountable?

My Lords, I have to say—and it will not please my noble friend—that the misconduct hearing of Mike Veale, who is, as noted, the former chief constable of Cleveland, is a matter for the Cleveland police and crime commissioner, and the management of the hearing itself is the responsibility of the independent, legally qualified chair appointed to it. It would be inappropriate to comment further while those proceedings are ongoing. As to why this has lasted longer than the normal 100 days of an officer being provided with a notice, it can be extended when the legally qualified chair considers it is in the interest of justice to do so, and I believe that is the case here.

My Lords, on 21 December in response to an earlier question by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, described the situation as very concerning. That was in respect of the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has just reminded the House about. Since then in the press it has become evident that the Leicestershire PCC has paid out £56,000 in compensation after an ethics group claimed it had been dismissed unfairly, so does the Minister believe that recall legislation should be considered for PCCs?

My Lords, the potential benefits and disbenefits of a recall mechanism were considered by the two-part review that I referenced in my Answer. It was decided that that would be to create a whole new body of bureaucracy and unnecessarily expensive. Ultimately, the public have the right of the ballot box, if you will, to determine the outcome of the PCC.

My Lords, given the concern there has been about the vetting of candidates for the police forces and the uneven procedure of granting face- to-face interview after assessment for candidates, does the Minister believe that there is now a need for a tighter role and concern for making sure that the best practice in the appointment of police officers is now part of this scheme which rests either with police and crime commissioners or the central Minister concerned?

As the noble Lord will be aware, after referencing a number of conversations that have been had in the House over the past few days, all of those things are happening with regard to vetting, police officer recruitment and so on.

My Lords, will my noble friend not accept that our noble friend Lord Lexden has made an extremely important point and made it very well indeed? The Minister in response really gives the impression of an incompetent and impotent Home Office. We really must have a proper inquiry into this man Veale, and he must be properly dealt with expeditiously.

I think I thank my noble friend for that. I am afraid I rather impotently have to go back to the comment I made earlier: it would be inappropriate to comment further while these proceedings are ongoing. However, of course I understand, and I accept that my noble friend Lord Lexden has made an extremely valid point and continues to do so.

My Lords, as I recall, the original reason for setting up police and crime commissioners was to create more accountability, because the police and crime commissioner would be more visible in the community and very well-known. In fact, the opposite has been proved true because the turnout at votes shows apathy and ignorance. Then there is the question of the cost of setting up the offices of police and crime commissioners and their deputies and the salaries and everything else that goes with it. Can the Minister tell the House what this has added to the policing bill annually?

I am afraid I cannot answer that specific question, but I can and will say that the public profile of PCCs means they are scrutinised in a way that anonymous police authorities were not. I think the fact that we have this conversation on a relatively regular basis is proof of that. Ultimately, PCCs are directly elected by the communities they serve, and the public will have their say in due course. The noble Lord raised a point on turnout. In 2021, the turnout figure was 33.9%, a 6.5% increase from 2016 and a significant increase on 2012.

My Lords, on 21 December, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, my noble friend was willing to describe the current circumstances as “disturbing”—this was previously indicated. We have now seen a further month and four days pass, so could my noble friend please indicate when “disturbing” becomes “unacceptable”?

My Lords, they are disturbing; they are concerning; they are all of those things. I cannot say they are unacceptable at the moment because, unfortunately, the responsibility for this particular misconduct hearing lies with the Cleveland police and crime commissioner.

My Lords, the Minister was quite dismissive about police authorities, but I have some experience of them. They were in fact not anonymous; they were mostly councillors, who were elected directly by their constituents and known extremely well, and they actually did talk to people. PCCs do not; they are quite remote, and the Minister has also pointed out that they are held to account at the ballot box every four years. I can quote an example in Dorset where the PCC and the local MP have generated a lot of public dismay about their relationship, and yet the voters cannot do anything about it until next year, can they?

My Lords, I would have thought that councillors are also elected once every four years as a rule, so I am not sure what the difference is there. The fact is that police authorities were anonymous, notwithstanding the noble Baroness’s evident fame on the police authority where she was. I would also say that, through part 2 of the review, we are undertaking a fundamental assessment of the whole panel system, and there is a considerable degree of transparency that has been introduced into the way the police and crime commissioners communicate with their constituents.

I make it eight questions that the Minister has fielded so far today, all of them pretty hostile to what he has had to say, including a number from his own side. These include those of two Members, the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Lexden, who have persistently raised the issue that I will not repeat, which seems to have general support from the House. Can I give him some friendly advice? Unless he sorts out some of these questions from the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Bach, he is going to go on and on having to suffer this pain on a relentless basis.

I reassure the noble Lord that I actually enjoy it enormously, but I am going to have to go back to my earlier comment that it would be inappropriate to comment further while the proceedings are ongoing. The noble Lord knows that I will continue to say that until the proceedings are no longer ongoing.