Why Labour has it wrong on elected police

A manifesto for progressive police and crime commissioners

A manifesto for progressive police and crime commissioners

The issue of Elected Police and Crime Commissioners has returned to the political boil. The Conservatives have made concessions to the Liberal Democrats and deferred elections till November 2012. But David Cameron remains resolutely committed to this policy. In response, the Labour Party has renewed its opposition. Last week Ed Miliband described Commissioners as the 'wrong policy for the wrong time'. In Monday's Guardian Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Copper claimed Commissioners will undermine police impartiality and cost the equivalent of 3,000 police constables. She also raised the spectre of low turnouts and the election of 'extremist' candidates. What Yvette Cooper forgets is that Labour can prevent this from happening - but only if it starts to think more ambitiously about the political opportunity that Commissioners present.

Police and Crime Commissioners will be powerful figures. They will be responsible for multi-million pound police budgets and for setting police priorities. The Labour Party - along with Liberal Democrat peers, Liberty and most police chiefs - think this is a dangerous reform. They have raised justifiable concerns. But opposition has been defensive and unimaginative. Critics have thrown in their lot with an exhausted status quo and failed to grasp that, for all their limitations as a model of accountability, Commissioners might be a means of democratising the police service - something that has long been, and should remain, a progressive cause.

This is a flagship Conservative policy. But it is a piece of constitutional reform, and like other constitutional reforms (devolution, elected mayors) the success or failure of this policy lies beyond the control of its - in this case Conservative - authors. In fact, the impact of Commissioners on the ground is largely going to depend on the Labour Party and other forces of the centre-left.

A real opportunity exists for the centre-left to develop and implement across large swathes of the country a progressive policy on crime, policing and disorder - and to make Police Commissioners a showcase for a better politics of crime and policing. Done well, this reform could do a great deal to build public trust in politics and might even become a much needed instance of the 'new politics' that the Coalition is otherwise failing to deliver. So how can the centre-left shape and begin to 'own' this reform? What will a 'manifesto' for progressive Police and Crime Commissioners look like?

We think it should look something like this:

Pledge to be responsible. Progressive Commissioners will not trample all over chief officers' operational responsibility, sack chiefs willy-nilly, make silly promises they cannot keep, or resort to over-blown anti-crime rhetoric.

Run an office for public engagement that listens to the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. Progressive Commissioners will not simply stand for election and implement false, inflated promises. They will ensure that public concerns are reflected in policing priorities - while remaining vigilant champions of the civil liberties of local minorities. They should devolve some of their budget to local level and allow it to be decided directly by the public, through participatory budgeting.

Protect local neighbourhood policing in the face of budget cuts. They should protect the numbers of constables and PCSOs in neighbourhood police teams and re-deploy back office staff to increase the number of officers out on the beat. They should develop neighbourhood policing further by enhancing its public engagement and problem-solving dimensions which are as yet under-developed.

Improve police responsiveness and citizen-focus. Progressive Commissioners should guarantee some clear minimum response times that the public should expect when they call 999 or non emergency numbers.

Hard-wire social justice into the work of the police. We know that people in the poorest areas are most likely to be victims of crime and are most likely to be afraid of crime. While neighbourhood policing teams should be maintained in all areas, greater resource should be deployed into those areas with the highest needs.

Develop holistic crime reduction. Much of what impacts upon crime in localities lies beyond the control of any Police Commissioner. This means working closely with the courts and probation to foster justice reinvestment and reduce re-offending. It means developing effective triage services in police stations so that those with mental health problems or addictions can be referred to appropriate services. But it also means paying close attention to the impact of early years education, family support and employment on levels of crime.

Be open to evidence about what works. A lot is now known about what policing strategies can be effective in reducing crime - and what is a waste of public money. Progressive Commissioners will be open to this evidence and will take proper heed of it making decisions. They will use their office to ensure that it forms part of local debate about policing. They should not be afraid to pilot innovative approaches to crime reduction and learn from mistakes.

We think these ideas offer the basis for a progressive and popular 'offer' to electors next year. For Labour in particular they provide a platform from which the party can govern - and not merely oppose - in the next four years, and thereby take a record of demonstrable success in a key public service to voters in 2015. This is a moment which should be seized.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford
Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.