With elections just round the corner, what impact have Police and Crime Commissioners had since their introduction? Sarah Ellson and David Northfield report.
The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) experiment is now three and a half years' old, ushered in by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to replace the old system of Police Authorities (seen by many as 'invisible') and intended to launch a new era of closer connection between communities and their police force. As we approach the first nationwide elections since the first PCCs took office, we look at some of the issues which have arisen in practice and consider where next for this still evolving model of police governance.
Chief constable relationships
One of the core responsibilities of PCCs is to 'hold the Chief Constable to account'. This includes decisions to appoint, suspend and dismiss the Chief Constable (CC). Within weeks of taking office, the PCC for Avon & Somerset found herself facing her CC in the High Court due to her decision not to reappoint him. She successfully resisted the challenge. Soon after, Temporary CC for Lincolnshire, Neil Rhodes, was granted judicial review of the PCC's decision to suspend him pending the investigation of a disciplinary matter.
Beyond these early challenges, no further cases have troubled the High Court, indicating the extent to which, in the main, PCCs and CCs have managed their relationships well without the need for the courts to intervene. Our analysis would be that navigating the appointment and reappointment processes, dealing with disciplinary allegations involving a substantive or temporary CC, and deciding how to move forward when the PCC and CC relationship may be quite strained has been challenging, particularly in a vacuum of previous experience. While at least one CC has moved on from their role following a disciplinary investigation, the overall sense is that most PCCs and CCs have managed their relationships well (and it is notable that Neil Rhodes was appointed to the substantive CC post by the PCC for Lincolnshire following the conclusion of his High Court challenge).
It is not just CCs who have been the subject of disciplinary issues. A number of PCCs have themselves been investigated by the IPCC following complaints about matters such as expense claims, disclosure of confidential information and driving matters. While none of these investigations resulted in formal action being taken against the PCCs in question - who can only currently be forcibly removed from office for criminal convictions or other matters impacting on their eligibility to hold office - they have sent a clear signal of the extent to which PCCs must be seen to be beyond reproach. The model of course expects the electorate to hold PCCs to account and 5 May 2016 provides the chance for the electorate to indicate the extent to which such matters influence their vote. The recent Panama Papers revelations are a timely reminder that the public expects full transparency from public officials and new and returning PCCs will need to ensure that their conduct and personal affairs are beyond reproach.
Notwithstanding the relative lack of formal government control (powers to recall or sack PCCs were discussed but have not come to fruition as yet) PCCs have been subjected to a level of scrutiny which Police Authorities could only dream of (or, perhaps, dread). The Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Keith Vaz, has considered the work of PCCs in close detail, making some trenchant criticisms of the system. The Labour Party consistently indicated that, had it been elected in 2015, it would have abolished the office of PCC (though it has recently dropped its opposition to the role) and the Liberal Democrats remain committed to replacing PCCs with Police Boards.
Beyond Parliament, a number of well-informed media observers with a sophisticated understanding of both the old and new models of policing governance have kept a watchful eye on PCCs' discharge of (and in some cases, failure to discharge) their statutory responsibilities. Moreover, buoyed by the historically low turnout of 15% at the initial PCC elections in November 2012 the press have not been slow to criticise PCCs. The fact that South Yorkshire PCC, Shaun Wright, ultimately resigned over the Rotherham child abuse scandal shows the extent to which non-legal scrutiny of PCCs can often be every bit as effective as more formal mechanisms.
Northamptonshire PCC Adam Simmonds recently told the BBC that: "everyone thought it was just about man-marking the chief constable. Four years later I think people do generally believe it's different - it can be bigger, can be more important, can be more insightful." That is absolutely correct. While as discussed above one of the core functions of a PCC is to hold the CC to account, PCCs control the entire policing budget, and have a duty to secure efficient and effective policing in their area. Parliament has given PCCs broad statutory powers, passing legislation which provides that PCCs may do 'anything which is calculated to facilitate' the exercise of their functions.
A number of PCCs have pioneered a range of innovations which show that there is substantial scope to reimagine what the role of a local policing body is and can be. PCCs have collaborated across police areas and with other emergency services (foreshadowing provisions in the Policing and Crime Bill, which is expected to give PCCs increased responsibility in this area). Olly Martins, PCC for Bedfordshire, held a referendum to seek to increase the police precept with the express aim of putting more officers on the beat. The office of the PCC for Northumbria has expanded the PCC's role in the initial triage of complaints against the police, leading to a substantial number being closed at an early stage with an acknowledgement and an apology. The government's stated willingness to expand the scope of the role yet further means that there is substantial room for further innovation.
It is fair to say that PCCs had an inauspicious start. A poor turnout at the 2012 elections (attributed to the late autumn timing and the lack of corresponding local elections) weakened their general claim to have a mandate and acted as a potent symbol illustrating the lack of public understanding about the role and its scope. A lack of consensus about whether there should even be PCCs undermined the role's authority further, something not helped by the extent to which some minor PR aberrations were given a disproportionate amount of attention by unimpressed media.
However, there are signs that the public perception of the role is maturing. A recent Guardian editorial described the office of PCC as "a serious job that should be taken seriously", and voter participation is scheduled to be at least twice that of the 2012 elections. In addition, the major political parties have begun to pay increased attention to PCCs and to take the election of their own candidates more seriously (though a by-product of this is that there are fewer independents, women and BME candidates in the current election, giving rise to legitimate concerns about the extent to which PCCs represent the communities they represent). It is to be hoped that the elections on 5 May will lead to greater public engagement and involvement, and that this in turn will help establish the office of PCC as an important and valuable tool in policing and governance in England and Wales.
The innovations discussed above are likely to be a portent of further imaginative thinking around the role of PCCs. It will be crucial for their advisors to ensure that PCCs are aware not only of the limits of what they can do, but also of the ways in which their statutory and common law powers can be used creatively and in a way which delivers efficient and effective policing for their communities.