Putting people in charge: future of Police & Crime Commissioners
Home Secretary Theresa May spells out PCCs' achievements and discusses how the role could develop in the future
It is a pleasure to be here today and to stand on a Policy Exchange platform - a think tank that has long argued for localism and democratic accountability in public services. It is fitting that I should be able to give this speech here.
It is now more than 12 years since Policy Exchange first proposed popular elections to improve police governance, and three and a half years since more than five million members of the public went to the polls to elect their local police and crime commissioners.
In fewer than 100 days time voters up and down the country will go to the polls again and pass judgement on the pioneering generation of police and crime commissioners for the first time.
With that vote they will be exercising the right to have their say on how policing is run in their area. The right to influence their local policing priorities. To ensure that crime in their neighbourhood is taken seriously and does not go unpunished. To scrutinise spending decisions with their taxes and the management of their force’s multimillion pound budget. To make their voice heard about police misconduct. And to ensure that a chief constable who is not delivering for local communities can be removed and someone who can do better appointed in their stead.
Now it’s easy to take these rights for granted now. The ability to influence local policing priorities and hold someone to account for delivering them feels indisputable. But we shouldn’t forget that up until recently the idea of proper local accountability in policing was not just neglected in England and Wales – but outright rejected by the other mainstream political parties.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have only come around to PCCs since the general election last May. But the fact they no longer want to go back to the dark days of indirectly elected policing boards is welcome. It is good for democracy and I think shows the power of the police and crime commissioner model.
Because whatever you might think of individual police and crime commissioners, whatever you might think of the decisions they have taken, or the priorities they have set – there is no denying that direct democratic accountability through the ballot box has brought real scrutiny, leadership and engagement to local policing in a way that never existed before.
The dark days of police authorities
When I first became Home Secretary, the system of police governance was broken. Back then, police forces were supposedly held to account by police authorities – invisible committees of appointed councillors. Theoretically they acted on behalf of the public and had a duty to engage local people and businesses in setting priorities and local taxes – but in practice they did nothing of the sort.
Just one in 15 people knew that police authorities even existed. Public meetings were barely attended, if at all, and decisions taken were communicated only in obscure minutes in forgotten corners of their websites. In 2010, an inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found that only four of the 22 police authorities inspected were judged to have performed well in two of their primary functions – setting strategic direction and ensuring value for money for taxpayers.
So – as I have said before – how police authorities were supposed to convey the concerns of the local public, how they were supposed to provide a link between police leaders and the people, how they were supposed to have legitimacy in making important decisions and holding their forces to account – when they had no contact with the public, when they did their business effectively in secret, and when they were installed rather than elected – is beyond me.
That is what went before. Opaque, bureaucratic and undemocratic. And it needed to change. That’s why we brought in PCCs – and their purpose was clear.
They’d be elected, visible, well-known in their communities and accountable to the electorate. They’d provide an impetus to reform, innovate and deliver policing more efficiently. They’d be powerful figures, with responsibility for writing the police plan, setting the police budget and precept, and hiring and firing chief constables. And they would focus relentlessly on the job of cutting crime and keeping communities safe. In short, they would bring – for the first time ever – real local scrutiny of how chief constables and their forces perform and real energy to the important task of policing - keeping families, neighbourhoods and businesses safe and secure.
Proving the critics wrong
But when I first set about introducing police and crime commissioners, I was met with a barrage of criticism. I was told that PCCs would politicise the police and operational independence would be undermined. The Police Federation, the Association of Chief Police Officers and former chiefs of the Metropolitan Police all said that politically motivated commissioners would interfere with investigations.
I was warned by some critics that the job was too much for one person to handle and, by others, of the risks of putting too much power and influence into the hands of a single individual.
I was cautioned that giving PCCs the power to hire and fire chief constables would lead to professional relationships between the two that were either too fractious on the one hand, or too close and corrupt on the other.
And, the other mainstream parties reacted with cynicism. The Labour Party opposed police and crime commissioners in principle, but nominated candidates to stand in practice. And despite being part of the Coalition Government that introduced PCCs, the Liberal Democrats delayed the vote until November, when less people would cast their ballots.
So in 2012, you could be forgiven for thinking that we were creating a monster. And I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times over the last three and a half years when I thought we might have done just that…
As I told Policy Exchange two years ago, there has been good and bad over the last three and a half years. We all remember the incidents that have given PCCs a bad name.
In South Yorkshire, Shaun Wright’s initial refusal to resign following damning revelations of child sexual abuse in Rotherham and the failure of the police, local authorities and other agencies to confront that abuse.
The appointment of a youth commissioner in Kent with no background checks, only for her to have to stand down after it was revealed she had posted offensive tweets as a teenager.
And in Surrey, the decision of Kevin Hurley to attack the leadership of his former chief constable and now Director-General of the National Crime Agency, Lynne Owens, despite proposing pay rises for her over successive years.
These episodes have been disappointing and there’s no doubt that some of them have brought the office of the PCC into disrepute.
But unlike police authorities, police and crime commissioners are accountable to the people and in May each and every PCC will be judged individually at the ballot box.
And every single one of the doomsayers’ predictions in 2012 have been proven wrong.
There has not been a single established case of a PCC influencing a police investigation or undermining the operational integrity of their police force. Having sworn the Oath of Office to protect operational independence when they took up office, PCCs have respected the historic division between policing and politics in this country.
Far from being too great a workload for a single individual, PCCs have used their personal mandate to drive positive change not just in policing and crime, but criminal justice, mental health, and the wider emergency services. In doing so, they have faced up to the limits of their own direct influence and used partnership not overbearing to drive collaboration and joint working.
And while there is no doubt that PCCs and Chiefs have clashed on occasion, both privately and publicly, the relationship between chief constable and elected official has by and large been one of healthy tension and respect for one another’s positions.
As Sir Peter Fahy told the Home Affairs Select Committee in November 2013, and I quote: “I would have to say that on the whole having one person who holds you to account and you can work with very closely and is able to provide a lot more local flexibility has worked very well.”
And – as I have said – there is now political consensus that police and crime commissioners are valuable and that they are here to stay.
The benefits of police and crime commissioners
So the case for PCCs was a hard fought reform and it has been hard won by the pioneering first generation of PCCs.
In the last three and half years, PCCs have engaged with the public in ways that police authorities never did or could. Collectively police and crime commissioners are getting upwards of 7,000 pieces of correspondence every month, and their websites are being visited by over 85,000 people, every month. And through web-casts and public accountability meetings, like those pioneered by Katy Bourne in Sussex, you are involving the public in the practice of holding the chief constable to account.
PCCs have commissioned reviews when there are specific areas of concern to local people. For example in Devon and Cornwall, PCC Tony Hogg commissioned a review of call handling following complaints about the service from the public. And in Greater Manchester, PCC Tony Lloyd’s decision to commission the Coffey Report into child abuse demonstrated firm action on this difficult and sensitive issue.
PCCs have worked together to protect vulnerable people and make sure they get the help and support they need and deserve. In Northumbria, Vera Baird is tackling violence against women and girls through a range of initiatives, including encouraging door staff to adopt a duty of care towards all those in the night time economy and partnering outreach workers with police officers on domestic violence callouts.
They have delivered value for money for taxpayers by finding efficiencies and ensuring sense in how police budgets are spent. Some, like Chris Salmon in Dyfed Powys, have managed to keep taxes down by freezing the police precept element of council tax year on year.
And locally and nationally, PCCs are providing leadership that was simply non-existent four years ago. As the Home Affairs Select Committee recognised in their 2014 report, and I quote: “PCCs have provided greater clarity of leadership for policing within their areas, and are increasingly recognised by the public as accountable for the strategic direction of their police force.”
The range of initiatives is broad. The ideas are fresh and innovative. And the benefits to the police and the public tremendous. In sum, PCCs are doing things that police authorities could never have imagined, and could never have hoped to achieve.
Overall, PCCs have presided over a reduction in crime of more than a quarter since their introduction – according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales – at the same time as police funding has reduced by a fifth. And they have done so while maintaining public confidence in the police.
And these accomplishments matter. They matter to local people and they matter for the integrity of the policing system as a whole.
But, most importantly, if members of the public haven’t been impressed, or they think their PCC hasn’t achieved what they said they would, in just a few weeks’ time they can say in the strongest terms possible - by voting for someone else at the ballot box.
The next stage of reform
So PCCs have brought leadership, scrutiny and engagement. They have helped cut crime. And they are working closely with local partners to protect the vulnerable and keep communities safe and secure.
But two weeks ago the latest set of crime statistics revealed that there are still 6.6 million crimes in this country. That is down from 9.3 million in 2010 but still far too high and the growth of fraud and cyber related crime will require a new response.
And there are still huge opportunities to improve capability between police forces, collaborate with other emergency services, and drive better joint working with the criminal justice system.
These are the challenges that the next generation of PCCs, elected in May, will need to tackle. And this Government is committed to helping them do so.
As I announced in Hampshire three weeks ago, we will introduce legislation to allow chief constables to use specialist volunteers - financial analysts and ICT experts - in the fight against complex fraud and cyber crime. In Hampshire, £1.5 million of funding from the PCC is already helping to make such a model a reality, bringing together academics, cyber specialists and police forces to improve its skills in preventing and solving cyber crimes.
As the Government will be announcing in the Police Grant Settlement today, on top of the overall protection for police force budgets over the Parliament, we are also investing hundreds of millions to transform police capabilities to face modern crime demand. That includes £34 million next year to support firearms training and resources to ensure we can respond to a Paris-style attack, and further funding dedicated to digital investigation and digital justice.
Because as many forces have shown, we should be thinking strategically about where capabilities are delivered. Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, for example, have joined together to share specialist policing units such as armed policing, roads and dogs units, and the support services that underpin them, with estimated savings in the region of £15 million, and have announced plans to save at least £4 million a year through merging control rooms across the three forces, as well as a further £11 million planned by 2019 through collaboration of criminal justice, custody, ICT functions and continuing to improve their existing collaborations.
And in the Policing and Crime Bill, we will introduce measures to enable PCCs, where a local case is made, to take on responsibilities for fire and rescue services locally. Further, we will enable them to take an additional step to create a single employer for the two services and bring together back office functions.
And I am pleased that the Home Office has taken on responsibility for fire and rescue, and I am delighted that my colleague Mike Penning MP the Policing Minister has agreed to add fire to his portfolio.
Collaboration between the police and fire service is tried and tested, pioneered by PCCs and offering huge opportunities for savings and more effective emergency services. In Northamptonshire, for example, Adam Simmonds has developed a joint operations team between the police and fire service, responsible for the Multi-Agency Incident Assessment Team, and bringing together three experienced members of staff and their own specific operational knowledge from the relevant emergency service. In Staffordshire, Matthew Ellis has created a tri-service neighbourhood centre at the site of the existing fire station, with specific space for each service plus a shared service area.
And we will give PCCs a greater role in the handling of complaints against the police – to bring accountability and independence to that process too.
But in the future, I would like to see the PCC role expanded even further still. Together with the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, I have been exploring what role PCCs could play in the wider criminal justice system. This is something that I have long believed in and which a number of PCCs have shown interest in. As they say, there is a reason that we included the words “and crime” in PCC’s titles.
So after the May elections, the Government will set out further proposals for police and crime commissioners. Because as a number of PCCs have argued, youth justice, probation and court services can have a significant impact on crime in their areas and there are real efficiencies to be had from better integration and information sharing. We have yet to decide the full extent of these proposals and the form they will take, but I am clear that there is significant opportunity here for PCCs to lead the same type of reform they have delivered in emergency services in the wider criminal justice system.
And there are other opportunities too. As Adam Simmonds has argued, I believe the next set of PCCs should bring together the two great reforms of the last Parliament – police reform and school reform – to work with and possibly set up alternative provision free schools to support troubled children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime.
And alongside the expansion of PCC responsibilities, the development of powerful directly elected mayors provides a fantastic opportunity, where there is local agreement and boundaries make sense, to bring together policing with local transport, infrastructure, housing and social care services under a single directly elected mayor. I know many PCCs have engaged with local proposals, and I would encourage them to continue to do so - because I am clear that PCCs’ consent is a prerequisite for the inclusion of policing in any mayoral deal.
But today, as we look forward to the elections in May, and back upon the progress that has been made, I believe we can be pleased with what has been achieved, and the role police and crime commissioners are playing in making policing more accountable and more effective.
They do so as one important element of the reformed policing landscape I have put in place since becoming Home Secretary more than five and a half years ago.
Alongside democratic accountability through PCCs, I gave operational responsibility for policing back to the professionals - to chief constables. I restored professional discretion for police officers by scrapping all national targets, freeing them up from unnecessary bureaucracy and by giving the police a single mission – to cut crime. And I made sure information on police performance and efficiency is now more independent and robust, enabling PCCs to better hold forces to account, and in turn for the public to hold PCCs to account.
This Government is working to improve police standards, training and skills, so I have established the College of Policing as a proper professional body. We are opening up policing and bringing fresh perspectives and expertise through schemes such as Police Now and Direct Entry. And we have established the Police Innovation Fund so that PCCs and forces can bid for funding to improve policing and deliver greater efficiency.
We established the National Crime Agency so that can get to grips with serious and organised crime. And we have published the Strategic Policing Requirement which PCCs must have regard for, establishing a clear principle of local to national coordination, and through a reformed National Police Chiefs’ Council enabled forces to work together effectively on national priorities.
So police and crime commissioners are an invaluable part of the programme of police reform we have introduced since 2010. They have shifted power away from Government to the public, and replaced the bureaucratic accountability of police authorities with democratic accountability.
And in doing so they strengthen the principle that sits at the heart of the British model of policing – policing by consent.
A principle summed up by Sir Robert Peel when he founded the Metropolitan Police, and declared that the police must maintain a relationship with the public “that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police.”
We must not kid ourselves that PCCs are yet universally understood. Nor that their potential has been completely fulfilled. More than 5 million people voted last time, but that turnout was disappointing and needs to improve in May. And as I have said today, there are improvements that can and will be made to policing in England and Wales.
But over the last three and half years, Police and Crime Commissioners have proved that they matter. They have hired and fired chief constables. They have set local priorities and they have overseen budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds. They have helped to ensure that crime continues to be cut and that people in this country continue to be kept safe.
And they are here to stay.
So I want to end by paying tribute to the first generation of police and crime commissioners – and to thank them for their hard work over the past three and a half years. They have been the pioneers in this new policing landscape. They can be proud of what they have achieved, and I look forward to seeing what the next generation of PCCs will do.
Police reform is working. Today policing is more accountable, more transparent and more efficient than it was before 2010. And today, the historic principle of policing by consent is stronger than ever before.