Jenny Jones AM - Police reforms fail public interest test

Posted: 16/12/11

As a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, I believe the reforms currently facing police authorities represent a great challenge to the delivery of public interest in government.

Although the introduction of Police Commissioners was justified using the language of transparency and inclusion with the Tory manifesto promising to give people "control over policing priorities" and deliver "the empowerment of local communities" the measures in fact undermine one of the most crucial pillars of democratic empowerment by making heads of police forces far less accountable.

Chief Constables are effectively the chief executives of police forces and currently report to police authorities, the bodies made up of independent members, magistrates and representatives nominated by local authorities. Although there may well be a case for refining the processes by which membership of these bodies is decided to guarantee that the communities that the relevant force polices is best represented, the authorities do at least ensure that a broad range of people including judicial experts and democratic representatives whocan together assess how the force is performing and guarantee the involvement of the communit.y

Police Commissioners, on the other hand, will reduce this sense of accountability to a single person. Although some candidates may come from a policing background, there is no guarantee that those elected will have any experience of crime matters. Each Commissioner will therefore have to set up an advisory board without any guarantee of community involvement nor any real link to local democratic government. This will further remove the work of the police from popular scrutiny. In addition, rather than a broad church of voices, including those from different political parties that have popular support in the region, the new Commissioners are likely to be either members of, or receive definitive backing from, a particular party, ensuring that their work will inevitably be characterised by party political stances.

The situation in London will be different. Because of the existence of the Greater London Authority, consisting of a directly elected Mayor and the London Assembly and (for now) the Metropolitan Police Authority, we have existing democratic structures. The Mayor will become the Police and Crime Commissioner for London, but will be able to delegate those powers to another person. The Metropolitan Police Authority will cease to exist, the same as authorities in other areas, but the London Assembly will take over the scrutiny role, holding the Mayor (or the person delegated to) to account.

The changes are unsettling, and the Prime Minister's postponement of Commissioner electionsoriginally intended for May is a reflection of nervousness in Westminster and local councils (particularly among his Liberal Democrat colleagues) over the effects that the changes will have. With the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act now passed, the eventual creation of elected Commissioners seems certain. However, reintroducing a sense of accountability into the way police forces are scrutinised should be an immediate concern for those addressing the absence of wider public involvement in government.

Jenny Jones is a London Assembly Member and Green Party candidate for Mayor of London

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