The decision by Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to drop the plans for direct election of some of the members of Police Authorities will be greeted by unalloyed joy by leading figures in the Association of Police Authorities and the Local Government Association. Some of the statements made by opponents of the proposal make it sound as though there will now be dancing in the street across the country in reaction to the news that this allegedly unsound and hugely unworkable proposal is to be shelved.
The reality is that not many people are really exercised by the idea one way or the other. And that, of course, was always one of the potential weaknesses of the plan: it was simply not clear that additional elections (even if on the same day as other local elections) would have galvanised voters and made them feel that as a result the police were genuinely more accountable.
However the proposals were drafted, there were always going to be problems and dangers. At present, the members of Police Authorities who are appointed by elected councils have to reflect the balance of political power on the councils across the police authority area. If members were elected directly for each Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership district, that political balance would have been lost – indeed, in some areas only representatives of one political party would have been returned. The requirement for each CDRP to be represented could have in some instances led to very large memberships of police authorities and/or the squeezing out of the independent appointed element.
As turnout would not necessarily have been very high, this could have led to right-wing populists being elected in some areas – and the immediate effect would have been that a number of police authorities that are currently Labour-led would no longer be so.
It was reported that some senior police officers were disturbed by the idea. At one level, this reflected the distaste felt by them about the idea that Police Authorities should be part of their personal appraisal process. However, more significantly was the concern about the “politicisation” of policing, particularly following the so-called “sacking” of Sir Ian Blair as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police by Mayor Boris Johnson.
There were some genuine issues here. However, the dangers could have been mitigated by a strengthening of the current distinction between setting policing priorities and the operational decision-making – with the former being the responsibility of Authorities and the latter the clear role of Chief Constables. This probably needs restating anyway – particularly given the comments of Mayor Boris Johnson, in his capacity as MPA Chair, on the arrest of Damian Green MP.
Nevertheless, the proposal for direct elections was trying to solve a real problem. Many Police Authorities are not well-known in their localities and the police service does need to be made more visibly accountable for its direction and answerable for its actions at both local level and force-wide.
Similarly, I know that my position when I was Chair of the MPA would have been strengthened (in respect of the Mayor and for that matter the Home Office) had I had a personal electoral mandate to oversee London’s policing. In fact, I was able to develop a strong relationship with the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, despite the things I had said about him prior to his election as Mayor in 2000. As a result, there was no significant conflict and the issue of my mandate did not arise. The matter has now been resolved in London since 2008 by the Mayor being given a much more direct involvement in policing than previously existed (whether Mayor Boris Johnson has yet used that direct role wisely and usefully is, of course, a separate issue).
What Mayor Johnson will, of course, discover is that by taking personal responsibility for policing by becoming Chair of the MPA he himself will be held much more directly to account for any failures of the police service during his tenure.
And while I am not predicting that there will be a long catalogue of policing failures in London over the next few years, I do predict that Mayor Johnson will find an excuse – sooner rather than later – to relinquish the role of Chair of the MPA and appoint his Representative-on-Earth, Kit Malthouse, as the de jure rather than de facto Chair. Watch this space.