Labour is unlikely to scrap PCCs, so here's how it can reform them

Police and Crime Commissioners should become 'ministers for the local criminal justice system' with the political power to set the agenda.

Despite all the talk about a lack of policy detail, there is one area where Labour will certainly be doing some pretty hard thinking over the next few months. The party’s Policing Review, led by former Met Commissioner Lord Stevens, might be long delayed but is still expected to be published in the autumn and may provide some much-needed thinking on crime and justice issues.

Taking advantage of front-line police dissatisfaction at the government’s policing agenda, the review is likely to contain various pro-police measures on issues like perks and pay, and is also likely to include promises to reverse certain elements of Theresa May’s wide-ranging reforms.

It is rumoured that it will once again float the idea of mandatory police force mergers and a move towards regional police forces – an idea that is popular with some senior police leaders, but was comprehensively rejected by just about everybody else back in 2006. But as well as looking at structural changes and crowd-pleasing measures, the review will also need to address the party’s position on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who will mark their one year anniversary in November.

On the face of it, PCCs have made an inauspicious start. Poor turnout at last year’s elections, some early high-profile blunders and a media fixation on expenses and personnel have all helped to create a negative impression. But the reality on the ground will take longer to evaluate and there is emerging evidence that PCCs are bringing real clarity of leadership and proving far more effective than Police Authorities ever were at holding forces to account and improving their crime-fighting performance. Despite this, Labour could decide to make a premature call and scrap PCCs before they’ve really had a chance to get started.

If Labour was to decide to change the model of police governance again, emergency legislation would need to be passed by a new government upon taking office in order to cancel the next set of PCC elections in May 2016. Scrapping PCCs would not only need to be the first priority for Ed Miliband if he makes it into 10 Downing Street, it would also extinguish the progress made by a number of influential former Labour ministers who are thriving as PCCs of large police forces in the north and the midlands. For both of these reasons, the smart money is on PCCs remaining in place and being given the time to demonstrate their significant potential.

The report we have published today is an attempt to look to the future of PCCs, rather than continue to quibble about their introduction. In it, we outline a vision for a deliberate and steady decentralisation of the criminal justice system, with PCCs the recipients of a range of new responsibilities and powers, implemented in a way designed to command the confidence of central government departments.

Our contention is that while PCCs have a valuable suite of powers in the policing realm, they do not yet have the right tools for effecting change in the wider criminal justice system. We set out a series of steps which would see PCCs increasingly assume a role similar to that of a 'minister for the local criminal justice system' – with the political power to set the agenda, hold agencies within his/her purview to account for delivery of that agenda and drive forward reforms to ensure a more efficient and effective system at the local level.

The aim should be to create a system where, instead of local criminal justice leaders looking upwards and inwards to Whitehall for direction and validation, they increasingly look outwards to each other and downwards to the citizens they serve.

The process of decentralisation we envisage starts with giving PCCs the power to influence the people, agendas, performance and coordination of the criminal justice system at both a national and local level. Once they are given the tools to allow them to work effectively within the wider ecosystem and have successfully got to grips with their new powers, the strategy would see them becoming more financially responsible for the wider system – both for holding and commissioning with specific criminal justice budgets, and for the levels of demand created within their local areas.

As PCCs develop, whichever party is in government might also begin to ask questions about their longer-term future. These reforms have created a new set of local politicians with considerable powers (over the police, at least) – representing an entirely new infrastructure for local democracy. In this new report, we argue that policymakers should build on this by deliberately facilitating the expansion of PCCs’ powers and remit in the justice space. But it is not impossible that future governments might decide to go even further. For example, in the wake of the rejection of City Mayors in last year’s referenda, where attempts were made to introduce powerful Mayors in a 'big bang' fashion, it may make sense for PCCs to be reformed more fundamentally over time – gradually accruing powers over other areas of public policy.

The election of Police and Crime Commissioners was a once in a generation opportunity to reform policing and criminal justice, and reverse decades of ineffective policies. And there are now three choices facing policymakers: reverse, stand still or go forward. Going forward, by accelerating the expansion of PCCs’ powers and responsibilities, will give these new figures every chance of being successful in their jobs, maximising reductions in crime and meeting the significant expectations around their role. And that’s the best way of ensuring that the narrative.

Max Chambers is head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange

Labour will need to address the party’s position on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who will mark their one year anniversary in November. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.