Why is anyone surprised that a Chief Constable has been sacked on a whim?

Without going into the detail of what happened in Gwent, it is clear that the Police & Crime Commissioner there didn’t feel the need to secure the approval of anyone else before forcing the departure of the Chief Constable or to follow the process so carefully negotiated by ACPO. But far from being a surprise, I think it is clear this is exactly how the system was intended to work by its Conservative proponents.

There was much angst about this issue when the legislation was being considered by Parliament. Surely it would make more sense to require the agreement of the Police & Crime Panel before a Chief Constable can be forced out? Ministers conceded on a requirement for consultation with the Panel, but would not accept a veto. The result? Although a Chief Constable who wants to dig in can insist that the Commissioner presents their reasons to the Panel, even if every single member of the Panel tells the Commissioner that they are out of order, the Chief Constable is still sacked.

So it is no surprise that in practice, we find a Commissioner able to persuade a Chief Constable to announce their retirement without that consultative process being followed. It is the inevitable consequence of the approach Ministers took – and they were told it would be at the time.

As Chief Executive of North Wales Police Authority I did some serious thinking about the role of Commissioner and how the Government’s flawed framework could be made to work by someone who was determined to act with integrity and wanted to be inclusive. I wrote a paper on the subject which you can read here: The Good Commissioner

When I consulted several people on drafts of the paper I was met with the same question: “So are you going to stand?” In truth I hadn’t decided to stand when I started writing the paper but the process of writing it convinced me that I should.

More people chose to boycott the elections because they disagreed with the new system than actually voted. An even larger number simply didn’t vote as they didn’t feel that they had enough information – hardly surprising given the timing of the election and the lack of a free mailshot. Other people, concerned at the “politicisation” of policing voted for an independent – often an independent with police experience – thinking that they would be less likely to abuse the position.

The truth is that standing under the label “independent” just means that you are not revealing your politics. I stood as a Labour candidate because my values are Labour. I think it is clear that if my opponent had been as honest about his politics, he would not have won but that’s history. I don’t regret being honest. It was right for the Labour Party to put in place a rigorous process for selecting candidates and requiring each of them to sign a pledge promising to respect the independence of the police and to ensure that due process is followed. No such guarantees apply to independent candidates, nor are there any sanctions that can be applied to an independent Commissioner who fails to act with integrity. They can only be removed if they are convicted of a criminal offence. There is no party or other organisation which could disown them as they stand for themselves alone.

It is high time political commentators recognised that this is the added value which political parties bring to the electoral process, as well as enabling a large number of people to organise to win rather than victory going to the candidate with the deepest pockets.

So where next with police governance? While those who have been elected as Commissioners under whatever label have a duty and a responsibility to do the job and to do it with integrity, there is little reason to think that this is the system which the public want to oversee the police. So further reform is needed.

The key principles for police governance should be as follows:

  1. It needs to be clear where the buck stops. I think this should remain as the Chief Constable. A good Chief Constable will move beyond a command and control model to one more suited to tackling complexity, with internal governance arrangements designed to ensure that people throughout the organisation understand what needs to be done and why and take responsibility for getting things right. But the Chief Constable must bear the responsibility for the overall framework, for promoting high standards of integrity and protecting officers from political interference.
  2. Political oversight needs to be on a collective, consensual basis. Police authorities were criticised for not being high profile enough – but that wasn’t actually their core mission. Their job was to appoint the Chief Constable (and if necessary remove the Chief Constable) and set the budget and priorities. A third of their members were appointed on merit rather than elected, while the elected members were in proportion to the councillors elected across the area. This was designed to ensure that no single party dominated. They did their work in public (unlike commissioners, who can choose to hold the police to account in private) and usually operated on the basis of quiet consensus.
  3. The Police cannot solve problems on their own and their governance framework needs to emphasise working with other agencies. Local authorities and the police have a joint responsibility for community safety. Blaming each other for failures doesn’t help – what is needed is strong working relationships. Likewise with health and fire services.

In North Wales it is clear that there is a democratic deficit at the regional level. The six unitary authorities are too small to be effective so work needs to be done at the regional level. But simply expecting the leaders to collaborate to achieve this isn’t enough to ensure proper accountability to the public. The system needs to be changed to be effective – and the same is true in England. In London, policing is part of a regional governance arrangement. Regional – or more accurately sub-regional – governance is needed. It needs to be light touch and to have public support but it is certainly needed. The alternative – of decisions being made from Westminster doesn’t make sense.

It would be appropriate to address the future of police governance as part of this debate – and in Wales the model should be determined by the Welsh Assembly.

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