As Chancellor George Osborne finalises arrangements for devolved funding in the run-up to the Autumn Statement, Francesca Gains and Vivien Lowndes ask what can be learnt from the experience of Police and Crime Commissioners in their first two years.
Two years ago, 41 directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners for England and Wales took office, launching a new era of policing governance. The way commissioners have developed their responsibilities and set local policing priorities has generated controversy and debate.
In 18 months their current term of office is due to end, with fresh elections timetabled for May 2016. But the future of the commissioner role is uncertain. Following a review for the Labour Party by Lord Stevens, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, told the Labour Party Conference that Labour will seek to abolish the directly elected commissioner role.
Meanwhile under George Osborne’s new devolution deal with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the responsibilities of the current Greater Manchester Commissioner will be taken over by 2017 by a new directly elected mayor. This model could be replicated in other city regions and areas seeking combined authority status.
Arrangements for policing governance seem likely to change, linked to wider decentralisation and devolution reforms in England. Our research on policing governance offers key lessons for the design of devolution.
Weaknesses in the current arrangements are clear. The legitimacy of the commissioner role was undermined by the woeful 15% turnout in 2012. Holding the elections in November and without paper manifestos was heavily criticised by the Electoral Commission. It meant there was little public engagement with the new form of governance.
The National Audit Office ‘Police Accountability: Landscape Review’ found weaknesses also in the checks and balances of the model. Commissioners are scrutinised by Police and Crime Panels consisting of local councillors – but these panels have no powers to act on their findings. Commissioners are accountable to the public, but this accountability is only exercised via elections every four years. Accountability gaps were exposed by the former South Yorkshire Commissioner’s initial refusal to resign despite the loss of confidence in him as a result of the Rotherham child abuse scandal. There has also been strong criticism of decisions made by commissioners elsewhere.
Putting so much power in one person’s hands is risky. Commissioners themselves are unhappy with the ‘minimal’ powers of their scrutiny panels. And directly elected positions can only succeed if candidates are of a high calibre. Even successful commissioners are faced with the dilemma of succession – how can short-termism be avoided when long-term strategies may be ditched?
But there are also strengths that improve on policing governance. The Greater Manchester Commissioner has the second largest personal mandate (after Boris Johnston) of any UK politician giving greater authority to interventions.
In responding to an HMIC report on domestic violence, the Commissioner Tony Lloyd identified a gap between excellent provision for victims by the specialist domestic abuse unit and patchy responsiveness when domestic violence is initially reported in local police stations. As part of an action plan to improve the overall service, the Commissioner’s office will undertake random checks on domestic abuse victims’ experiences to determine if the service is improving – and take action if it is not.
As Commissioner, Lloyd is able to use his personal mandate to raise the status of what has been a ‘Cinderella crime’, with the aim of focusing police officers’ minds (in difficult situations) to advocate on behalf of victims. In Nottinghamshire, Commissioner Paddy Tipping wants advisers from the women’s refuge movement to be present in police stations, working with officers, to bring their specific skills and experience into frontline policing.
Commissioners have delivered significant cost savings, in part through new roles for non-warranted officers (such as police community support officers) and co-location and shared working between police and other local services. Accessible ‘single portals’ are being developed. For citizens, different services are to be found under one roof; for public service professionals, there is the opportunity to ‘join the dots’ to improve enforcement and service delivery.
Paddy Tipping recently argued: “We have to stop doing some things if we want to do new things.” So we might see mergers leading to large regional police forces, but accompanied by a renewed focus on neighbourhood policing as part of local multi-service teams. Under austerity, the police have become the service of last resort, a role that requires new skill-sets. The authoritative leadership that directly elected commissioners can offer has the potential to challenge traditional thinking and support innovation.
In Nottinghamshire, incidents are attended by ‘triage cars’ containing mental health nurses and police officers. In Greater Manchester, funding has been agreed for mental health liaison in hospitals to provide support for officers on the ground. Commissioners are effective partnership brokers on many issues. Tipping is bringing health, licencing, retail and criminal justice services together in a joined-up alcohol strategy for Nottinghamshire, focusing on crime prevention. Lloyd argues that partnership working has to be a ‘mantra’ for policy. A single point of contact helps deliver these changes.
The National Audit Office found commissioners have extensively engaged the public to identify and prioritise policing priorities online and directly. The directly elected model appears to encourage greater engagement and responsiveness compared with the former police committees. The NAO report a 42% increase in public awareness of commissioners in the British Crime Survey, so transparency has also increased.
The Scottish referendum and ‘Devo-Manchester’ announcement has led to a new debate about the devolution of decision-making and a focus on the governance arrangements and local leadership that can deliver devolution most effectively. We argue there are lessons to be learnt from the beleaguered model of the Police and Crime Commissioner: specifically the potential benefits of authoritative leadership, responsiveness and transparency.
A four year research project on changing institutional arrangements for policing is being undertaken by the authors, supported by the ‘Understanding Institutional Change – A Gender Perspective’ programme, funded by the European Research Council.