Restoring the thin blue line

Toby HarrisToby Harris on whether the upcoming PCC elections will help police service morale

On 15th November, most of England and Wales (London being the exception) will go to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners. Actually it is not clear how many people will vote, as the turnouts could be the lowest in any national election in British history, on what promises to be a cold and dank November day.

The elections themselves will cost £100m. At a time when policing is in crisis, many would argue that this money could have been better spent on 3,000 new police constables. So what better time for a Lords debate on a Labour motion on the challenges facing the police service.

And there are certainly serious issues to discuss. Police numbers in England and Wales are at their lowest level since 2003, with a fall of 7,000 in the past year alone and HM Inspectorate predicting a further fall of 5-6,000 in the next two years. Overall police budgets are set to fall by around 20% during the current spending round – with the Chancellor threatening further reductions. At the same time police morale is at a low ebb with widespread discontent about the Winsor Review’s changes to pay and pensions.

To add to that, there is the sense that for the first time in decades there is in power a government that has contempt for the police service and its officers. This was the real story behind the row about what the former Government Chief Whip in the Commons did or didn’t say at the gates of Downing Street. (It was bad enough that he admitted swearing at officers but the real damage was the word “pleb” – implying complete disdain for them).

In addition, the police service faces big challenges. Last year’s riots demonstrated how thin the thin blue line really is. Public respect has been severely dented by the revelations of the Levenson and Hillsborough inquiries. There is already some evidence that the reduction in crime (40% down under the last Labour government) has stalled since 2010, and the real prospect of a potential vicious circle involving fewer police, less support from the public and other partners (suffering their own spending cuts) facing rising crime challenges.

Amidst all of this, the arrival of 41 newly-minted directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners may seem like a bit of a distraction. Police accountability is important and strong figures to lead this are needed. However, the flaws in the new system are significant. There are no proper checks and balances in the governance arrangements and a real risk of politicising aspects of operational policing that shouldn’t be.

London, where a variant of the new system has been operating for a while, has already shown up some of the problems. Alongside apparent interference by elected politicians in policing operations (I will refer to this in more detail during the Lords debate), there is also the real difficulty of all strategic policing decisions being channeled through one individual, and the loss of accountability and transparency following from the changes.

Lord Toby Harris is Chair of the Labour Peers’ Group and co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Policing

Published 31st October 2012


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