One could be forgiven for believing that the issue of how people might be disqualified from standing as Police & Crime Commissioners was “new” and that the Government hadn’t had the opportunity to think about it before recent weeks.
It is worth remembering that the Home Office consulted on these changes before the legislation was presented to Parliament. The consultation was rushed and Ministers refused to publish the responses, but many organisations and individuals submitted views.
I thought it would be worth revisiting what I wrote on behalf of North Wales Police Authority. The full submission can be found here. The relevant section is as follows:
From experience we recognise and anticipate the need for Commissioners to be appropriately briefed about a range of sensitive policing issues and would suggest that consideration should be given to an appropriate mechanism for vetting candidates. The criteria for disqualification from being a member of a police authority should apply to commissioners as well and even if there is reluctance to have a full positive vetting process, consideration should be given to a mechanism to confirm to members of the public whether a candidate (or a potential candidate) would be disqualified from standing so as to ensure that the candidates selected by political parties (or supported as independent candidates) and to ensure that any relevant information is placed in the public domain if an individual decides to pursue his or her candidacy. This would avoid the potential considerable difficulties post-election. Consideration should also be given to which conflicts of interests would bar a candidate from standing and how such conflicts are to be managed after the election. A member of the police authority who has a commercial interest (or a close friend or relative with a commercial interest) can ensure that they do not participate in decisions where there could be a conflict of interest. How would a commissioner manage such a situation if there is no other person who can take the decision in their place?
The rules for disqualification from membership of a Police Authority are set out in the Police Authority Regulations 2008. Importantly though, the appointment of police authority members follows a clear process (set out in the same regulations) which demonstrates that they are up to the job. The “vetting process” provides an opportunity to undertake a wider background check to establish whether someone can be trusted with confidential information – see here for more details.
I also pressed the point with officials, as did the Association of Chief Police Officers. We were told that the Home Secretary took the view that since she didn’t have to be vetted, neither did Commissioners. What a silly thing to say! As if the police and security services would desist from telling the Prime Minister if there were serious concerns regarding a potential Home Secretary! Indeed this very scenario was the basis of an episode of the BBC Comedy Yes Minister and was the reason for Jim Hacker’s elevation to Prime Minister. Crucially, if it emerged following appointment that a Home Secretary had behaved inappropriately in some way, he or she can be removed by the Prime Minister. Not so a Police & Crime Commissioner: they can be suspended if charged with a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of two or more years in prison and removed if convicted but that is a much higher bar than in similar roles where trust and confidence are important.
When Ministers finally realised that their position was unsustainable, they jumped in the opposite direction, without thinking through the consequences. As Ros Baston points out here, the debate in the Committee of the House of Commons covered the pertinent points. This didn’t stop Theresa May reassuring Simon Weston that he would be allowed to stand despite a teenage conviction. Was she lying or just careless with the facts?
Bob Ashford had been through the vetting process on a number of occasions in a professional capacity (Until March he was Director of Strategy at the Youth Justice Board). But the way in which Ministers framed the legislation means there is no opportunity for him to put his case: he could only sign a declaration which he knew to be false or withdraw from the election as he has now done.
The approach North Wales Police Authority suggested in the submission above is very similar to the points made by Vernon Coaker in the committee debate – there needed to be a clear process by which a candidate’s background is checked. Having this information made available to the public would enable an informed choice. According to Hugh Muir in the Guardian, Kevin Carroll of the English Defence League will be allowed to stand despite being convicted of hurling abuse at Muslims because that wasn’t an offence where he could be sent to prison. I think most people would agree that Bob Ashford’s conduct suggests he can be trusted with high office whereas Kevin Carroll’s suggests that he cannot.
Following so far? Still think these Ministers are competent? I could move on to explain the various other shortcomings of the legislation such as the use of an arcane legal form of two “Corporations Sole” in an effort to increase bureaucracy, the lack of proper checks and balances and the mistake of organising the election on a stand alone basis in November without providing any publicity for candidates. I’ll settle for just one more example: the process for determining the precept (the funding which goes from council taxpayers towards policing).
Ministers wanted the Commissioner to be the sole determinant of the precept – but eventually conceded that this was unsustainable and provided for the Police & Crime Panel to be able to veto the Commissioner’s proposals by a two-thirds majority. Problem is, they didn’t think through the mechanism. They didn’t use the tried and tested local government legislation – because they didn’t want it to look like a local authority. If a local authority wishes to over-rule its directly elected Mayor by a two-thirds majority, it passes an amendment to the budget – to reduce or increase the budget for a particular service or to increase or reduce the council tax by a specified amount. If the amendment is passed with the required majority (a vote which would follow on from a dialogue, previous votes and a dispute resolution procedure), everyone knows what happens next. If a Panel vetoes a Commissioner, all we know is that “the police and crime commissioner must not issue the proposed precept as the precept for the financial year” (Schedule 5, Paragraph 6 (2) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011). So does that mean they can issue a different precept (in which case more or less?) or none at all?
North Wales Police rely on the council tax precept to provide £60m income this year. My opponent says he wants to give away the reserves as a “rebate”. He hasn’t said how much and they are all committed – but if a Panel wanted to stop him doing something irresponsible and veto his proposal to give away say £15m, they could find that they had instead left a £6om budget gap. The Home Office are working on guidance and a timetable apparently – something that should have been in the Bill before it received Royal Assent.
It is desperately important that whoever is elected as Commissioner for each area does not exhibit this same blinkered “I know best” attitude as Tory Ministers. That is why I think the Labour Party is right to contest these elections and why I put myself forward. I know the Tories don’t have a monopoly on arrogance, but at least all of Labour’s candidates have been tested to ensure that they understand the role and are committed to principles of good governance. Independent candidates will not have been through such a process – and in North Wales at least, the Tories cannot even find a candidate to take forward one of their flagship policies.