Colin Skelton is an Independent Candidate in the election for Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner which takes place on Thursday 15 November. We publish his comments on the election because he was the first (and until 8 November) the only candidate who has bothered to contact SwindonLink.com
Throughout this election the message from the electorate and independent candidates has been that people feel uneasy about placing control of the Police service into the hands of elected Party Politicians. Even those Party Politicians have gone to great lengths to distance themselves and even to disavow their party as they see their allegiance as a liability.
The electorate is right: it’s just “not cricket” to allow Political parties such direct control over the Police. But as yet I have not heard an articulated argument as to why this should be the case; I’m hoping this will fill that gap.
However, before I launch into a critique of politics and Policing, how does the current system work?
The Tripartite System of Police governance: In the late 60’s a tripartite system was introduced consisting of a threesome of equals; the Home Secretary; the Chief Constable and the Police authority. The Home Secretary is obviously political, and would set the national framework for Policing but would not get into the weeds of any particular constabulary.
The Chief Constable had complete operational independence for most of the time. Only a major or extremely high profile issue would force the Home Secretary to intervene with a Chief Constable.
And finally a group of about 18 people, the “great and the good” of the local area sitting on the Police Authority. They set the overall budget and wrote a vague plan about what the Police would do that year. The Police Authority was politically balanced, made up of people from all Political parties with a few independents thrown in and a magistrate or two. As this was such a large group it was difficult for one single person or a small group to exert overall control.
This large size was costly, bureaucratic, slow and inflexible but was considered safe and difficult to influence. The public could not influence the Police Authority effectively and nor could the Home Secretary. It was too much trouble to try and over the years, Home Secretaries have tended to give up trying to influence Police Authorities.
This set up had the advantage that Westminster Politics did not impinge too much, if at all, on the running of the constabulary. Police Authorities and Chief Constables just got on with the slow and mundane business of running a medium or large sized organisation. A second advantage was that Police Authorities could look long term and policing needs a long term plan to be effective.
On the 22nd November this year this all changes and we vote in a single elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), who will have really quite large and extensive powers as well as a strong electoral mandate. Even with a 18% turnout, PCCs will have many more votes cast for them than were cast for any MP.
So how will electing a Political Party candidate make things worse?
Westminster rules: The role of the PCC is supposed to be about accountability and localism, listening to the needs of local people and responding to them. The problem here lies with the fact that all Political party candidates have a boss in Westminster. This role will be the most powerful elected official in the county, bar none. Westminster will want (will need) to have a degree of control, it will be irresistible. Within a few years all PCCs will be under the influence of their party whip. If a choice has to be made between Westminster and local people, it’s Westminster that will win. So we will have PCC’s cloaked in localism but doing the bidding of Westminster.
Who has control? Linked to this is the issue of control. For many years the Chief Constable has been the Chief of Police in their area, they ran the show and took orders from no one. And in many ways this acted as a significant bulwark against tyranny. A strong arm dictator may take control of London and Westminster but then they would have to get 43 Chief Constables to do their bidding and it just gets all a bit too much hassle.
Politicians have an inclination to want to control things and over the past twenty years several Chief Constables have been a thorn in the side of Government. Electing Political PCCs hands control of the Police directly to Political Parties and the government of the day. That significant bulwark has gone overnight.
Short term political imperatives: As I said earlier on, Policing needs a long term view and Politics is the ultimate short term high. The opportunity to interfere and to do so often will be too hard to resist, which means that Policing will be pushed from “pillar to post”; trying to meet the political impetrative of the day. Perhaps a really gruesome murder or a child abuse story will dominate the news; levers in Westminster will be pulled, PCCs instructed to address this as a priority and resources moved around to do so. Next week, another issue and then another, then another. The Police Service will waste huge amounts of time, effort and resources trying to meet these short term political imperatives. This is exactly what occurs in our NHS. We are all losers from this particular dance.
Operational independence gone: This also means that the operational independence of the Chief Constable will slowly be eroded and disappear and this has several profound implications. All Political parties are pointing to the “impartiality oath” that PCCs will have to swear. The oath is not on the statute books or enforceable in law, so is meaningless. If the public or PCCs political masters bring an issue to the table, the political PCC will have to act. An example might help; let’s assume that there has been a series of major terrorist bombings with suspicion falling on an ethnic minority terrorist group.
The Home Secretary will be calling their PCCs and instructing them to respond in a particular way, remember Politicians are “knee jerk”. What if the Home Secretary says: “Flood the streets of areas with high ethnic minority populations to send a strong message to them that we mean business.”
This might not be right for that area, it might make matters worse, spark a riot, but the PCC will walk down the corridor to the Chief Constable and ask them to do it. Will the Chief Constable say “no”? And if they say “no” will the PCC sack them? Who really has control in this situation?
I can envisage many Chief Constables being sacked or quietly slipping away, over the next four years because of issues such as this. What that means for the type of person who wants to be a Chief Constable is that the number one prerequisite for the job is the ability to say “yes” to the PCC and hold similar Political views. In a decade or so the Chief Constable will be a figurehead; real power will lie with the PCC.
Mad, sad and bad: Another issue surrounds the type of person that the Political parties have put forward for this role. They are by and large a mixture of the “sad, mad and bad”. The usual suspects, comprising failed politicians; magistrates, ex-police authority members; local councillors and just the plain odd are standing under a Party banner.
Most are white men, over fifty and many are retired or just about to. Most of them have one endearing quality, they know nothing about Policing. And this is a big worry, one reason why British management practices are so poor internationally is that managers, manage by opinion rather than from a position of knowledge. We are just about to put a load of unqualified, opinionated buffoons in charge of our police service. What do we expect will happen?
I have not mentioned the “bad”. There are some rather unsavoury characters standing in this election. Far right nuts; single issue extremists and one person who will sack himself immediately upon winning. The far right threat worries me greatly, they could mobilise enough support to win. How will a Police Service react with a far right PCC? How will the country react? It beggars belief.
Are independent candidates better? I believe they are, issues around control and short termism could still apply but not to the extent of a political figure. Most independents have all stood on an agenda of governing for local people, not Westminster. The quality of person standing as independent candidates is also higher, some are ex-police officers who understand Policing; some have held significant positions within the criminal justice sector, some are just ordinary people with an interest in the Police and we even have one scientist (me).
I’m hoping that the electorate will see the significant problems associated with a Political figure running their Police Service; see that it will lead to more crime, more victims, incompetence and a slow decline of what is currently the best Police Service in the world.
I’m hoping you will vote for independent candidates.
Independent Candidate for Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner
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