The House of Commons put Police and Crime Commissioners back into the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill on Monday and the Bill came back to the House of Lords to consider the Commons Amendments this afternoon.
The main “concession/
u-turn” from the Government was to propose that the first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners outside London should take place in November 2012 instead of May as originally planned. This will cost an extra £25 million as the elections will not coincide with any other elections and is likely to lead to a low turn-out. As the Electoral Commission pointed out:
“We believe Parliament should be aware of the following additional risks and issues arising from a 15 November election before deciding on the date:
? A November election will coincide with the annual canvass of electors. While there will be a number of options available to each Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) in updating their registers during this period, it is possible that different approaches may be adopted across different areas of the country, possibly resulting in inconsistent practice within a single force area. This could present risks to the accuracy and integrity of registers used for the PCC elections and for the elections in May 2013. The Government should therefore make clear how it intends to ensure consistency of approach in managing this process.
? There are almost half as many daylight hours on 15 November compared with early May and there is also the increased likelihood of inclement weather. It is possible (though not proven) that such conditions could discourage some electors from participating in the election and limit campaign activities by candidates. We would therefore be interested to know what the Government’s assessment of this issue has been in selecting this date.
? Standalone elections will incur greater costs than elections combined with other elections. The Government should quantify the additional expense and ensure that Returning Officers are adequately resourced to ensure that the elections are well-run.”
There was a three hour debate on the Bill – occasionally heated by House of Lords standards. My contribution was as follows:
“My Lords, I rise to speak to Motion A4 in my name but, before doing so, I repeat my declaration of interests. I am a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority—indeed, on that authority I am the noble Baroness’s representative, whose every word I clearly follow in every aspect of these matters—and I am a vice-president of the Association of Police Authorities.
I listened very carefully to the arguments that the Minister put forward on the legislation and the proposals. The Government’s proposals are about clear and democratic governance. The noble Baroness made the point that your Lordships’ House is a revising Chamber. However, the question that I have to ask is: where are the revisions that respond to one of the most profound concerns expressed in the debates throughout the lengthy period over which your Lordships considered this Bill—that is, where is the sound framework of governance around this single individual who is going to exercise these substantial powers?
I understand the Government’s desire for clarity in the direct election of this single individual. However, although I understand the argument, that does not mean that I agree with it. Around that individual must be a proper framework of governance. What is more, there must be a proper standards regime around the way in which that single individual operates. This is not a member of a committee or a council who can perhaps be hauled into line by the other members; it is a single individual exercising those powers, and therefore it is paramount that there should be a standards regime around them.
The major change brought forward from the other place by the Government is the date of the elections. I do not intend to go into detail on that, although I will say a word about it. That change does not deal with the fundamental question about governance and standards; it simply alters the date. I say in parenthesis that, as a member of a police authority who has sat through 11 budget-making exercises and is well into the 12th as we speak, electing someone on 15 November and expecting them seriously to influence the process for the budget for the following year—given that an absolute date is set by which precepts must be levied so as to allow the district authority or whatever else it may be to deal with the matter—is nonsense. If you are to change the shape of the budget of an organisation as complex as a police service, you need to start a lot earlier than 16 November. You probably need to start as soon as the previous year’s budget has been finalised in May and June. I know that colleagues in the police authority in London have been meeting throughout August and are continuing to meet to look at the details of the budget for next year. An election on 15 November and someone taking office then is far too late. Essentially, you are electing police and crime commissioners who will be held responsible for a budget which in practice they will have had no opportunity to influence other than in the crudest and most simplistic form. Therefore, that is not going to resolve the matter.
Another consequence of changing the dates is that the Home Office will have to look at whether independent members of police authorities whose terms of office expire in the summer of next year should have their terms of office extended or whether instead there will be a process of advertising in order to fill those posts. I am sure that the Home Office has all this in hand, but I suspect that, again, we will find that this is going to be an additional expense or something cobbled together at the last moment. The key point is that changing the date does not provide a robust governance structure. It does not provide protections against an individual who, while not being an extremist but perhaps exuberant with their power, exercises their responsibilities in what is perhaps a maverick fashion. That governance is necessary.
The Government’s response both today and on previous occasions has been fourfold. The first argument is that the electorate in its wisdom will make sure that such people are not elected. I believe in elections because they are the best available system for managing something—except, perhaps, your Lordships’ House. But the point remains that elections take place at a certain point in time. If the noble Baroness has her way, they will take place on 15 November next year. It will then be three and a half years, or whatever period is chosen, before the electorate can put right something that has gone wrong. You need to have around an individual with such powers a mechanism which can ensure that they continue to operate appropriately and within a system of governance.
The second argument deployed by the Government is that the police and crime panel will be able to exercise these functions, but the reality is that although there has been a change that will require it to collaborate with and support the police and crime commissioner, nothing here enables it to get involved while a decision is being taken. That is the point at which intervention is so important.
The third argument made again by the noble Baroness today is that nothing in the legislation would preclude a police and crime commissioner from perhaps having non-executives and obeying the strictest guidelines on governance. Yes, nothing in the legislation prevents it, and I am sure that most sensible police and crime commissioners will do all that, but it is the ones who do not do it who are precisely the ones about whom we should be concerned. For that reason, there should be a provision that requires them to have proper systems of governance.
The other argument the Government have deployed is that there will be an audit process. That is fine, and so there should be. But, again, an audit process takes place after the event. The Government will say that they are proposing a financial code of practice. That is excellent, but what they are actually doing, of course, is remedying an error in the Bill. A financial code of practice already exists, but they forgot about it so far as police and crime commissioners are concerned, so they have remedied the error. It is quite proper that it should be corrected, but in itself that will not solve all the problems. My amendment, which is modest and does not undermine the principle the Government are trying to adopt or stop in its tracks the election of police and crime commissioners, whenever that may be, says only that the vehicle of the financial code of conduct should require there to be a non-executive presence around police and crime commissioners when they take key financial and other decisions, and that they should be obliged to follow a proper process of good governance and appropriate standards of behaviour—something that is otherwise missing from the Bill.
I believe that this Bill is not necessarily the best solution to the problems of governance of the police service. That is an understatement which is meant to be ironic and not taken too seriously. But the point is that, as the Bill stands at the moment, it will not even do what the Government want it to do. It will store up problems for the future, and the reality is that it is more likely that there will be problems with a police and crime commissioner who behaves inappropriately or does not operate the best systems of governance. This proposal is a safeguard, not only for the public and the police service, but also for the Government. It will make sure that what they are proposing today does not blow up in their faces.”
In the event, the key vote turned out to be on a motion from Lord Condon, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who proposed that the elections should take place in May 2013 and not in 2012 at all. In his speech he said:
“My Lords, I again declare my interest as a life member of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I am also deputy chairman of a major private security company. I thank the Minister for her generous comments and the courtesy she and her colleagues have shown me throughout the consultative process for this Bill.
The Government originally proposed that the first elections for police and crime commissioners should take place in May 2012. However, by amendment in the other place on Monday, it is now proposed that the first elections should take place in November 2012, to allow more time to prepare.
In August we had the most serious riots and looting that we have experienced in this country for 30 years. In London, we had the most serious looting in living memory. Those events and the concerns about their causes and remedies have weighed heavily on my thinking over the past few weeks and have been instrumental in my proposals referred to in Motion A2.
There are very strong operational reasons, sensible policy reasons and significant cost reductions for moving the elections from November 2012 to May 2013. That is why I have put forward this Motion. If my proposed Amendments 6E to 6H are agreed they will simply move the elections from November to May 2013.
The changes to police governance and accountability set out in the Bill are the most profound since the Metropolitan Police Act 1829. They are not the product of widespread public pressure for change or the product of a royal commission or judicial inquiry. They did not benefit from a pre-legislative scrutiny process. The proposals are an experiment and a political act of faith. Many in your Lordships’ House have expressed serious concern during the passage of the Bill, and, to be honest, I do not think that those concerns have been fully assuaged at all. However, I am not seeking to re-challenge today the principle of the election of police and crime commissioners, which is clearly at the heart of the Bill. I have no wish to challenge that principle.
However, it is in the public interest to put back the elections by a further six months to May 2013. Change of the magnitude proposed by the Government, if it must go ahead, should be given the best chance to succeed by proper preparation and planning. The Government have already accepted the principle for more time by moving the elections from May to November, but the whole of 2012 should be free of the politics of campaigns and elections for police and crime commissioners. Senior police officers, their police forces and all those connected to them should not, in the face of the riots, now face this major diversion of their time and focus in 2012, which will be one of the most challenging operational years for policing in recent history.
The riots and looting in August were the most serious for 30 years. We need to understand what happened and why. The police service needs to review its strategy and tactics. It needs to train more riot-efficient officers. The summer and autumn of 2012 could again be testing times for potential street disorder, and the preparation and briefing of candidates for PCCs in late summer and autumn will be a major diversion of senior police time and focus. I also fear that extremist candidates could benefit from November elections if we have a troubled summer and autumn of street disorder.
The year 2012 is also the Olympic year, and all our forces, not just the Metropolitan Police Service, will be drawn into policing the Games and the associated terrorist threats. The Olympic Games and the Paralympics will extend well into September 2012, and the police service and others will benefit from a further six-month breathing space and preparation time before the PCC elections and all the consequential changes. We all hope for a wonderful trouble-free Olympics, but we must be prepared for and focused on the threats and challenges that will face us right the way through until September next year.
Other serious changes to policing in the next year need to be harmonised with the new structure of elected police and crime commissioners. The Government should embrace the opportunity for some more time to prepare a clear and developed plan for national and international policing issues. The proposed national crime agency remains a disturbingly vague concept and the extent and limit of its remit are not yet settled. Will the national crime agency or the Metropolitan Police be the lead agency to counter terrorism? Just how will cross-border serious crime be combated and by whom? The police service and the candidates for elected police and crime commissioner deserve much more clarity about national structures before they make their local plans and proposals. Motion A2, if agreed, will create a further six months of important planning time for these important events.
Another reason to embrace more planning time is the important review being carried out into policing by Tom Winsor, to which the noble Baroness has already referred. The Government have commissioned him, in part 2 of his review, to make recommendations which could fundamentally change how police officers are recruited and developed. He may well choose to make recommendations which challenge the status quo of a single point of entry; he may well recommend an officer class; he might suggest that the need for all chief constables to start on the beat is no longer relevant; he might suggest a different route to becoming a leader in the police service. I have no inside knowledge as to his proposals, but I know that he and his team are working hard on them and will report in the foreseeable future. Again, an additional six months of thinking time would put the Government in a much stronger position to harmonise and sensibly sequence all these hugely significant changes to policing nationally and locally.
Elections in November 2012 have two further significant drawbacks. The Electoral Commission has already expressed concern about a low turnout in November and I fear that this will favour extreme candidates. It will be a huge blow to the credibility of the new system if a very low turnout in even one police force area allows a far right-wing candidate to succeed, or, indeed, a single-issue zealot from whatever background. The second worrying consequence of a November election is the additional cost of £25 million. I know that the Government have said that this will be found from budgets other than policing, but what an unnecessary waste of money—money I would rather see put back into public services, particularly policing. This money could provide up to 1,000 police or support staff for nearly a year.
No doubt the Minister will argue that the Government have delayed enough and that successful candidates in May 2013 elections would have to wait a further year before they were able to impose their own budget plans—that is what she has said. However, the Government were originally happy to have May elections and they have also stated that the second round of elections for police and crime commissioners, four years from the first, will revert to a May date. Also, police budgets for the next four years are pretty well set in concrete and established as a result of the very understandable, but nevertheless dramatic and unprecedented, cuts to police funding.
In conclusion, I am well aware of the primacy of the other place, but today is the first opportunity your Lordships’ House has had to consider the merits of elections for police and crime commissioners in November 2012. For all the reasons I have put before you, I believe that it is in the public interest—indeed, I believe that it is in the national interest—to build in a little more thinking time, a little more planning time, before the first set of police and crime commissioners is elected. The Government have already accepted the need for more time to prepare; what is now in dispute is whether November 2012 or May 2013 is the more appropriate date.
At earlier stages of the Bill’s passage through this House I was against open-ended or long delay, as it would leave policing in an unacceptable limbo of uncertainty, but my Motion today, if agreed, brings certainty and, I argue, no undue delay. The riots and looting have seriously influenced my thinking over the past few weeks. If we must have these historic changes to policing, let us take a little more time to give the implementation the best chance to succeed. That is what Motion A2 will achieve.”
When his motion was put to the vote, there were 222 Peers in favour and 222 Peers against. Under the Rules of Procedure this meant that the motion was not passed and the Government got its Bill through – by the narrowest of margins.
The votes broke down as follows:
In favour of Lord Condon’s amendment:
163 Labour Peers
2 Bishops (Bishops of Exeter and Guildford)
2 Liberal Democrats (Baroness Harris of Richmond and Lord Bradshaw)
1 Conservative (Lord Vinson)
54 Cross-benchers and others
In support of the Government:
70 Liberal Democrats
6 Cross-benchers and others