This article by Matthew Engel is interesting. But his conclusion that centralisation would be worse doesn’t mean we should keep commissioners. What we should replace them with is a system which requires local consensus on priorities, appointments and dismissals. Being high profile was never the success criteria for police authorities, but ensuring high quality members, held to account by their local authorities would be hugely more democratic than the system that we now have.
It should be no surprise that very few members of the public have asked public questions of their Police Commissioners, as reported by the BBC here. As I wrote while still in office as Chief Executive of the North Wales Police Authority, there are steps that can be taken by a Commissioner who wants to be accountable and who wants to build a local consensus on what is needed. I am sure that a few of them are doing their best in this regard. But the system as set out in law does not require this. Whereas the previous system required regular progress reports on a whole range of issues and the vast majority of them were published and considered in public by members who were expected to have put the time into reading them, the new system is designed to achieve the opposite – to give a single individual the authority to push through their personal agenda without needing to justify themselves to anyone (they can over-rule the Panel even if all members of the Panel disagree). Scrutiny of the Force is a matter for the Commissioner – so if the Commissioner wants to scrutinise in private rather than in public, that is their choice.
As recent events in Ukraine have highlighted, democracy as “one person gets elected and then does whatever they want” is inherently unstable. It may well appear to work well if the individual is intelligent, benevolent, honest and wants to listen to other opinions, then again, a committee system or parliamentary system can work really well when led by such a person too. Where those attributes are missing or there are really difficult decisions to be made which require a consensus rather than simply a choice to be made, systems which “hear all the voices” are much better.
The current commissioners will serve until May 2016. It is important that a better system then takes over.