Is it possible to change Coalition policy? Council leaders certainly hope so if the letter to today’s Times is to be believed. Over a hundred have supported – and no doubt many more councillors, deputies, backbenchers and the like might have done so had there been more time to hone the message and gather support.
The issue should be core to the localist agenda – although we need to be rather clearer about what we really want.
Not so long ago the police were governed (at least in non-operational terms) by the police committees of county councils. There was not much wrong with this system except that most people did not know much about it and the Police were hardly forthcoming in their engagement with the politicians. Two thirds of the committees were councillors and one third were magistrates.
Michael Howard intervened and created the current free-standing police authorities (except in London, which was later reformed under Labour). These, after some vigorous parliamentary battling, were to have a bare majority of councillors (normally nine) as against 5 ‘independents’, appointed by the Home Office, and 3 magistrates.
The ‘independents’ are at best a mixed bunch. None has a mandate although they often claim to speak for the people more knowledgeably than those of us who have actually talk to them on the doorstep. One once declared in my hearing that he was there ‘to support the Chief Constable’.
The public, despite these exciting reforms, are no more knowledgeable about who to contact if they did not like the way they are policed than before – despite the huge expansion in scrutiny activity since the police authorities were made free-standing and needed to justify their existence..
So, goes Tory ‘thinking’, if the public don’t get what the police authority does, why not elect the head of the police directly?
Obvious, isn’t it? Well no. The problem with policing is not that no-one knows what a police authority does, it is that the police authority is 50% unaccountable (because of the ‘independents’ and magistrates) and that the police are anyway unaccountable because they have operational freedom – although operational freedom also allows the police to make a mess of phone-tapping investigations.
Directly elected police commissioners will do one of two things: either they will start directing how the police do their policing – which is arguably more scary than the status quo – or they won’t. In which case they will form apparent rather than real accountability: believed responsible, but essentially impotent. Oh: and they are likely to be right-wing nutters to boot.
Meanwhile, our own English Party bureaucrats have completely lost the plot on the issue and insisted that the only people who can stand for this essential bit of local government are parliamentary candidates.
What would work better? It’s very simple: councillors setting police budgets, sticking up for local people and challenging performance.
It’s not Coalition policy. It’s not Party policy. But is it a lot less daft than either.