Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper’s pledge to scrap police and crime commissioners in her interview with The Sunday Times today means two things. First, Labour is now stone cold on the idea of direct accountability and, second, that the party is content to surrender its thinking to vested interests.
It is an open secret that chief constables hate the concept of elected commissioners. Labour policy now appears ready to give them their wish. In her interview, Cooper criticised the £80 million cost of holding elections for PCCs. (Yet, this amounted to less than 2 per cent of the total policing budget in 2012).
She also raised the low turnout of just 15 per cent and the subsequent lack of voter interest in by-elections to the roles. But this opens up a pandora’s box: is it also Labour’s policy to scrap local elections where there is a low turnout?
While Theresa May has been the most reforming home secretary in decades (certainly when it comes to policing), Labour is travelling in the opposite direction; utterly risk-averse when it comes to dealing with the police and content to be the new small ‘c’ conservative party when it comes to reform.
To be fair, this has been the party’s direction of travel for several years. In government, Labour removed all but one performance target from the police. This was extraordinary given the party’s reputation for favouring top-down targets as a way of driving public service improvements. After 2010, Labour was content to focus on police cuts rather than reform, even though this left the party on the wrong side of the facts. (Police budgets and staffing may have reduced since 2010, but there has been no increase in recorded crime).
The party’s review of policing, which reported last year, was chaired by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens – the insider’s insider. Little surprise, then, that he described PCCs as “systemically flawed” and recommended scrapping them. Instead, he wants committees of council leaders to run policing, a sure-fire recipe for inertia.
Cooper also raised the problem of removing failing PCCs, citing Shan Wright, the disgraced South Yorkshire police commissioner, who was finally forced out last in the wake of Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. But there is no ideal system for intervening in failing police forces. Ten years ago, Home Secretary David Blunkett faced similar difficulties in removing the chief constable of Humberside in the face of strong opposition from the local police authority.
Indeed, Shaun Wright is a red herring. Calls for him to quit are chiefly because he served as Rotherham Council’s executive member for children’s services during years when the abuse was known about, but nothing was been done to stop it. Yes, Professor Jay’s independent report criticised South Yorkshire Police for their appalling attitude towards the young girls (and boys) being groomed and abused, but most of the cases referred to in her report took place before the police and crime commissioner role had even been created in November 2012.
It was as much the failure of the preceding local police authority to hold the force to account (of which Wright was deputy chair). Yet, bizarrely, this now seems to be the very system that Labour wants to reintroduce.