By Jon Harvey, an independent facilitator and adviser with the police services and justice agencies and a Town Councillor (Labour) in Buckingham
There has been much talk of late about the need for ‘independent’ candidates to stand in the forthcoming Police & Crime Commissioner contests and to avoid the ‘politicisation’ of policing.
For example, on Question Time on February 16th we watched Baroness Kramer giving this Liberal Democrat Party line, despite growing rumblings from the grassroots.
We also seen the rousing debate between ex-Chief Constable Tim Brain and Lord Prescott where there was a small skirmish over Sir Robert Peel’s street cred. Is policing political or not? To gather some direct evidence, I sat in on a meeting of the Thames Valley Police Authority a few weeks ago.
This was the second meeting I had been to in the last couple of months and rather charmingly I was shown my ‘usual spot’ in the corner. I was again the only member of the public present. The two other observers were the press and the local Police Federation.
I was keen to see how politics featured in the proceedings, if at all.
There were no mentions of party politics. But political discussion there was:
• Near the beginning a small spat was aired as to which local council will be hosting the new Police and Crime Panel – the local authority controlled body that will scrutinise the Police and Crime Commissioner.
• Later on the Authority discussed and resolved to set a 0% increase in precept. The members had been persuaded to take a one off grant from the Government in exchange for freezing their part of the council tax precept.
This has been the source of much debate around the country with recent headlines emerging from North Wales and Gloucestershire where Chiefs and PAs have had some ‘robust’ discussions. It is a political decision for the resources to be drawn from central government rather than be raised by council tax precept.
• A request was made to use the word ‘aims’ rather than ‘targets’ in their delivery plan, even though everyone acknowledged that they meant the same thing. But of course we have a Government committed to removing targets.
• Some of the most political discussion was concerning the use of reserves. Questions were raised about whether the (roughly) 5% reserve that the Thames Valley Treasury holds was really necessary given the policy of 3%.
Others suggested that an incoming Police and Crime Commissioner might use such ‘excess’ to boost their last year of office in support of their re-election. There was much wry laughter when one person said this presupposed that the incoming PCC would want to be re-elected in any case;
• And there was politics in the further discussion about the delivery plan. Several people spoke up for the need to include a specific mention of rural communities rather than isolated ones, for example. The complex issues around race disproportionality and stop & search were explored.
Policing is already politicised when we have police authorities and police chief officers establishing outsourcing arrangements with private sector firms such as with Lincolnshire Police, whose deal (pdf) with controversial security service G4S on information exchange and specific contracting is now beginning – with added approving commentary from the local Conservative Association.
West Midlands and Surrey police services have similar deals in the pipeline.
Policing is not politically neutral. When we have the relationship between the Met Police, News International and politicians, being scrutinised by the Leveson Inquiry, policing is not neutral. The very nature of policing is a political one. Of course, nobody wants to see politicians, be they elected or appointed, independent or with a party tag meddling in everyday policing.
Neither will the PCCs have any scope to challenge the operational and professional independence of the Chief Constables and their teams, as Lord Prescott has affirmed in the Guardian - but decisions around the level and deployment of scare resources are inevitably political ones. The PCCs will have the power to set budgets and plans for their police force.
And so if any independent PCCs are elected to make such political decisions, I hope that the voters supporting them will understand, in detail, their values, past political affiliations, interests, loyalties and preferences.
Should they have to declare which football team they support – political or otherwise?
• Boris is putting the police back behind desks – Jenny Jones, February 24th 2012
• Resources, powers and accountability – the three big issues facing the police in 2012 – Kevin Meagher, January 5th 2012
• The creeping militarisation of our police must be resisted – Kevin Meagher, December 9th 2011
• Anger with police sparked the riots – Ben Mitchell, December 4th 2011
• Cameron “ignorant or disingenuous” on frontline police cuts – Will Straw, August 11th 2011