By popular request (well one person asked for it …), here is my speech from yesterday afternoon’s debate on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill:
“My Lords, I first declare an interest as a member and former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and also as a vice-president of the Association of Police Authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has given good service to the House today by moving her amendment, if for no other reason than that it will enable us to have a free-ranging debate in Committee. I hope that it will be a useful introduction to the Minister in her new role; it will enable us to rehearse the arguments for her benefit as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is worried that we might pass the amendment, which would be discourteous. However, it would provide an opportunity for-in the current jargon of the coalition-a pause. Apparently pauses are a good thing because they allow the coalition partners to consider whether they are departing on precisely the right track. This would be useful in the context of the Bill. The central objective that the Government have put before us of improving the democratic accountability of the police service is right. I hope that no one in the House would disagree with the principle. The question is whether the mechanism that has been put forward will achieve that objective, or whether it will have unintended consequences. The work of this Committee over the next few weeks or months may be to look in some detail at how this will work in practice, and whether there could be unintended consequences.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, I have no problem with the principle of direct election. I work on the basis that elections are a rather good way of determining who should have ultimate responsibility for things. However, what distinguishes this proposal is that we are talking about the direct election of an individual who will be given tremendous responsibilities, but without a suitable governance structure to prevent a situation in which the individual might make capricious judgments or seek to trespass on the operational independence that chief constables hold so dear. The Bill would give an individual tremendous authority, but without the governance structures, checks and balances that would be necessary given the importance of the role.
When I chaired the police authority in London, I would have welcomed the additional authority that would have been given to me had I been directly
elected to fulfil the role. I was a directly elected member of the London Assembly, but that was slightly different from being directly elected to be in charge of the police service for London. I would have welcomed that additional authority. No doubt it would have been helpful to my relationship with the commissioner of police for the metropolis, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who has just left us. It would have been particularly important for my relationship with other elected colleagues such as other members of the London Assembly, local council leaders and so forth. I would have been able to say, “This gives me the authority on behalf of the people of London to say what is necessary”, but I would have been operating in the context of checks and balances on what I could and could not do. I would have had other authority members and the scrutiny processes that were in place with the London Assembly. Therefore, it would not have been untrammelled power. I would have had that responsibility and extra authority, but there would have been these mechanisms around.
What is so striking about this Bill is that those mechanisms are virtually absent. We will be told that the policing and crime panels offer that substitute governance structure, but they are essentially scrutiny bodies after the event. They are not part of the decision-taking structure and are not there, except in extremis, to say that a decision has been taken inappropriately. The spirit of partnership with other colleagues is so crucial in this area.
There is nothing wrong with the principle of direct election, and if that is something that the Government feel is absolutely central to what they are trying to achieve here, that is fine, but around this single individual, if that is what we are to have, there must be a proper governance structure. The danger is that because a number of us, perhaps in all parts of the House, have concerns about the single individual, we will set around that individual not mechanisms of good governance, but limits to their authority and to their ability to make the police service accountable to the local community. The danger is that those extra mechanisms may reduce the quality of accountability and the extent to which the police are accountable to their local communities. If you simply say, “We will give the policing and crime panel more of an opportunity to have a go at the policing and crime commissioner”, that is all well and good, but let us be quite clear that they will then be very political environments. You will have an elected politician, and I share the view that this will almost certainly be someone from a political party. It may exceptionally not be, but it will usually be, and if it is not, it will make the matter worse because they will then be dealing with a policing and crime panel that will be virtually entirely made up of elected politicians from the various political parties. This will then be a party-political forum in which the aim will be to criticise the decisions of the policing and crime commissioner. It will all be good fun, but it will do nothing about the accountability of the police service.
In the Second Reading debate, I referred to the last meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority that I attended. It was an example of the visible answerability
of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in that there was a series of major items with which the public were seriously engaged. It required the acting commissioner to make a public apology to those present and, through the media, to London as a whole for failures in respect of two investigations. In one instance, the family of the person who had been murdered was present to hear that apology. That is something you throw away at your peril. There was also a large group there that was concerned about the death of Smiley Culture. The sight of the police being seen to be answerable to people representing the public is very important in incidents of that sort. The danger, the unintended consequence, of the Government’s attempt to improve the democratic accountability of the police may be that you lose that visible answerability and that opportunity for different sections of the community to come together. We have not heard an answer about how that is to be replicated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, suggested at Second Reading that the occasions when the chief officer of police meets the elected policing and crime commissioner could perhaps be held in public, but I do not see how that can work. It is a discussion à deux. There would be TV crews and newspaper reporters would be taking notes. This is not the way accountability operates. We are talking about how you recreate that visible answerability and provide a mechanism whereby an individual elected to this important role is protected from acting capriciously or unnecessarily. I am not suggesting that, in the way of former Roman emperors, they should have somebody going around whispering in their ear that they were mortal, but if there are to be people elected by perhaps 1 million people in some of the larger police areas who have that direct responsibility and no governance structure around them, there has to be some mechanism which reminds them of their wider responsibility and helps them to avoid making capricious decisions or decisions which favour one part of a community rather than another. That is why that structure is needed around what is proposed.
The Government are not wrong to pursue the principle of direct election, nor are they wrong to pursue the principle of improving democratic accountability, but it is important that they get the mechanism right. I am happy to support the amendment because it provides an opportunity to pause and look in more detail at how these mechanisms might be made to work effectively. The Government are in danger of weakening the principle of accountability and of making visible answerability disappear. Under the circumstances, the principle of British policing based on consent, where people can see that the police service is operating in their interests and those of the whole community, is in danger of being thrown away. That is why the amendment and the discussions that we will be having in Committee are so important.”