After two years of Police and Crime Commissioners, we must assess their democratic value

As we hit the two-year mark of the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, it’s time to look forward and assess what needs to be done to improve democratic governance in policing.

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“One year on: warts and all”: this was how the Home Secretary, Theresa May, chose to entitle her speech on the first anniversary of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Clearly, even she had to admit that things weren’t going as well as she hoped. As we hit the two-year mark, problems remain about her flagship reform and so it’s time to look forward to the future, to assess what needs to be done to improve democratic governance in policing.  

Over the past two years we have seen PCCs, from across the political spectrum, try to make the most of their position. Indeed, we have borne witness to many innovative projects led by them. Northumbria’s Vera Baird has led impressive action in order to combat domestic violence, while in Surrey, Kevin Hurley is ensuring collaboration between blue light emergency services. There is a real focus on mental health in Greater Manchester, where Tony Lloyd is pushing the agenda. However, despite these and many more examples of good work, the system is flawed.

The independent Stevens Commission on policing, released a year ago, called the creation of PCCs a "failed experiment". Reflecting on the first year of PCCs Stevens made it clear that the problems with the system were not merely "teething troubles" but that the model is systematically flawed and "should be discontinued". We agree with his conclusions for three reasons. First, the rule of law. The police must be accountable to the public through elected representatives but day-to-day operational independence of the police should never be compromised.

Second, democratic legitimacy. The initial election in November 2012 was run without any major publicity push, resulting in a desultory turnout of just under 15 per cent, which even May admitted was "disappointing". But worse still, when the Home Office provided information leaflets to each home in the West Midlands for this August’s by-election, turnout fell, only managing to crack the 10 per cent mark. The election cost almost £4m. Despite claims of democratic empowerment, the PCC system has not fulfilled its main objective, which May claimed would be bringing a "strong democratic mandate" to policing. There is nothing "strong" about 15 per cent.

Third, there have been too many scandals ranging from cronyism, in appointments to a system that did not allow for Shaun Wright to be recalled in Rotherham in spite of calls from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Wright eventually stood down when it was made clear that his position was untenable.

Looking to the future, with police reeling from some of the most severe cuts to public spending threatening the loss of a staggering 68,000 officers and staff, it makes it all the more difficult to justify spending millions on the maintenance of the office and the cost of the elections. The next set of elections alone will cost at least £50m. 

Even the Chancellor recently sought to overrule the Home Secretary by announcing that he intends to abolish the position of PCC in Greater Manchester, instead rolling the responsibilities into a Mayoral position. Even behind the closed doors of Cabinet, we now know that there is little support for May’s misguided policy.

Let me be clear, however, our intention is not driven by criticism that I level at any individual PCC. The biggest problem with PCCs is the premise on which they are based. Of course, the police must be held to account.  However, creating a position at considerable expense which has proved to be problematic and which the public never called for has led to a lacklustre response.

Instead, Labour will devolve police accountability right down to the neighbourhood level. Through this, elected councillors and neighbourhood commanders will be accountable to the public, with new statutory underpinning for public meetings, consulting on local plans and even deciding who the local police unit commander should be.

At force level, budget setting and holding the Chief Constable to account will be carried out by the Police Governing Body. The Body will comprise of leaders in local government across that police force area, as well as lay members and third sector representatives. Victims, the probation service, the criminal justice system, the health service should all have their voice heard on the board.  Labour is currently consulting on other aspects of our proposals including the potential of the appointment by the Body of a strong Chair, similar to chairs of NHS trusts.

The principle of democracy and democratic accountability is paramount. As Lord Stevens said, “there must be no retreat from the idea of giving people a voice in how they are policed.” And there must be no return to old style Police Authorities. However, it is clear that May’s flagship reform is floundering. These last two years have been two years too many; the Government has wasted time and money pursuing a flawed policy. What we now need is fundamental reform, which is exactly what Labour is proposing. Accountability rooted in the new democratic settlement of devolution, with locally elected representatives holding the police to account.

Jack Dromey MP is the shadow minister for policing 

Jack Dromey is shadow labour minister.