In his speech to the Association of Police Authorities Annual Conference in Nottingham, Chris Grayling MP,the Shadow Home Secretary, has given some more details about Conservative plans to abolish police authorities and replace them with elected police commissioners. Predictably, the Evening Standard has got all hot and bothered about the idea that Mayor Boris Johnson will become the Police Commissioner for London, welcoming the principle but getting nervous about whether the London Assembly would really be up to the scrutiny role required.
So what would this mean in practice in the (unlikely) event that there is a Conservative Government after the next General Election? Elsewhere, the Evening Standard concludes “not a lot”, as Mayor Boris Johnson is already Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority and has demonstrated the size of his virility/his willingness to flex his muscles by persuading the former Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to resign and by keeping his hand on the tiller/setting the strategic direction for the Met.
(One big difference – although it is not spelt out – is that presumably the Mayor of London would take over responsibility for the City of London Police – and I wish the Conservative Party well in the negotiations that that will entail with the Corporation of London.)
My own view is that there is nothing wrong with the principle of having Chairs of Police Authorities directly elected – I would have welcomed the additional authority that direct election to the role would have given me during my four years as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority: I would have been a (very) visible symbol of the accountability of the Met and would myself have been held accountable by the public for whether or not the performance of the Met improved (which of course it did during my stewardship).
However, I do not believe that it is sensible to combine the role of Police Authority Chair with that of Mayor. The jobs are simply too big. Mayor Boris Johnson, of course, gets round this by delegating the day-to-day responsiblities of being MPA Chair to his representative on Earth, Uber Vice Chair Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM (the UVCDMKMAM). There are two separate roles here and I believe that there would be a valuable creative tension between a Mayor and an MPA Chair, both directly elected.
Nor do I believe it is sensible to abolish the other 22 members of the MPA. There are two main reasons for this. First, despite being directly-elected, there still need to be some checks and balances on what an elected Commissioner or Chair of a Police Authority can do. The concerns expressed by Sir Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, about the dangers of politicising the police service are valid. Such concerns would be lessened if a directly-elected Police Authority Chair had to exercise their powers through an Authority with a mix of members from different political parties and with a leavening of individuals who are not political representatives.
The second reason is the scale of the police service, especially in London. Effective strategic direction, scrutiny and accountability cannot be managed by a single individual. You need to have other members who can take an interest in and scrutinise what is happening in each of the Borough command units and each of the other operational and support units within the force.
In practice, I do not believe that this is a role that could be carried out by the London Assembly. The job of Assembly Member is much broader than just being about policing and many of them would not have either the time or the inclination to devote to the role of substituting for the MPA (I know that many of those AMs who currently sit on the MPA feel they are not able to devote the time and energy they would otherwise wish to their MPA responsibilities because of the other pressures on their time). It is also not clear what the future of the Assembly would be under any future Conservative Government – Tory policy has been to abolish it and replace it with a Committee of Borough Leaders (who, of course, would have even less time available to fulfil an MPA role and would also be much less likely to take a strategic pan-London view of policing issues).
So how would I advise Chris Grayling (and yes, that is a flotilla of pink pigs you can see flying across the sky) to structure police accountability in London? First, a directly-elected MPA Chair, separate from but elected on the same day as the Mayor of London (this could be Kit Malthouse’s big moment, if he doesn’t become an MP first). Second, retain the MPA with a mixed membership of elected members (drawn from both the London Assembly and the London Boroughs with a Party balance proportional to the votes received by each of the major Parties across London) and independent members (appointed after public advertisement on merit). And third, greater clarity on the role and powers of all concerned.