Published on Monday, 01 October 2012 15:16 Written by Ken Hyder
Many decades ago I interviewed a pensioner after Margaret Thatcher was elected to her first term.
The pensioner was complaining that her local library had just been closed. I asked her who she had voted for.
She confessed she had voted Tory, but hadn’t expected all those savage cuts.
It was hard to understand her surprise. Especially as Thatcher was one of the most honest prime ministers of the last century. She set out her stall, and did her damnedest to deliver what she promised.
Now we have three Tory parties. They all do what you would expect of a Tory party. But the real Tory party (the one headed by David Cameron) is usually the most Tory.
Of course Cameron, a Tony Blair clone, is not as upfront as Thatcher was. He said the NHS was safe in his hands.
At first there was a lot of talk about efficiency, then Andrew Lansley reverted to type – the type supported by money from interested parties – and more and more the focus shifted to privatisation.
The fact that he was reshuffled does not mean the NHS is again safe in Cameron’s hands.
Which brings us to police commissioners – a move touted as being a great leap in police accountability. I believe in democracy. And I welcome an improved democratic system of holding the police to account for their actions and priorities.
Having a single police commissioner is not an improvement, however.
But before we look at why it is so potentially disastrous, let’s notice that like the NHS, once the process of organising police commissioners got under way, gradually privatisation started being linked with it.
Is there a connection? You bet there is.
But first, democracy.
With something as important as the NHS, democratic accountability is extra important. After all, in extreme circumstances, we are talking about life and death decisions and priorities which will affect life and death chances.
We should want the oversight in this kind of area to be democratic. If those elected get it wrong, then they should be deselected. And when it comes to day-to-day decisions I would prefer them to be made by people in the job for reasons of vocation, rather than people working for a private company motivated by profits.
Policing is just as important as health for different reasons. The police can pick you up and take you to a police station to question you, and hold you there according to the law.
They can focus on some crimes, rather than others, maybe targeting particular groups identified by race or sexual orientation.
For these reasons, just like the NHS, we should insist on real democracy – and staff motivated by vocation and not profit.
Over the last thirty years I have reported on policing for a number of national newspapers and I have built up a wide range of contacts in the field from chief constable rank and below, and specialist researchers and criminologists.
Since the police commissioners idea was first mooted, dozens of officers and criminologists have expressed their opinions to me in confidence. And not a single one has been in favour of the police commissioner option.
They say things like: “It’s too dangerous.”
And most of them say that the preferable option is very simple: give existing police authorities the increased powers the commissioners will have. Then get rid of the unelected magistrates and make all seats directly elected.
That way, they argue, the accountability will be in the hands of a dozen or so people, and it is harder to corrupt a dozen people than just one.
One senior researcher told me: “It’s not just bullshit from the Tories about having greater democracy, but it’s just not a good way to go about it.
“It’s also too early to redistribute power in this way. Nobody will take it seriously. I’d predict a poor turnout.
“It’s also a good opportunity to create a swell of political opinion against the Tories. I’m thinking of Labour commissioners in the Labour heartland being well-placed to argue for more money to do the job properly – and having a big political majority. In some places the local population is in the millions, meaning that the electorate is bigger than in any MPs constituency.
“If they take on the Home Office, it will be an interesting battle to observe. I can’t understand why the Tories went for this model – why should they create a rod for their own backs?”
He also said the privatisation process could be problematic. It would involve people selling their own jobs in effect. “The contracts could be going to companies who promise the earth but can’t deliver.”
The other problem he said was in setting priorities. The law covers a lot of ground. There are more laws available for pursuing than officers to pursue them. This opens the ground for commissioners to have a pet populist priority – just like Greater Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton in the 1980s who focussed on homosexuals.
Anderton stated that homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes who had AIDS were “swirling in a cesspit of their own making”, sparking off an earlier debate on public accountability and democratic oversight of the police.
Now the new commissioner’s post lays it open for particular policies to be pursued for political self-aggrandisement.
Already we have seen in London a battle between Scotland Yard and Boris Johnson’s office. Johnson wanted the Yard to form a capital-wide anti-gang squad. The Yard resisted, saying it was moving away from specialist squads and believing that local police in London should look after local gangs.
In the end, the Yard caved in. Now senior officers are boasting about how successful the move was, while displaying a reluctance to give Boris the credit.
There is nothing wrong with the people deciding, in my view. But the people deciding through a body of elected people, rather than one person with a personal-political agenda, is safer. The danger is of a commissioner bragging about how the police were forced to crack down on this or that group, or type of crime in order to secure a populist re-election.
There is a great deal of argument about police commissioners being politicised, but there should be no surprise that it is political … the root is the same.
The problem is not that it is political – more like it is not political or democratic enough. Politicians should be clear and transparent about their policing agendas.
One copper who made his position clear and who warned of the dangers of one-person commissioners has suffered. Many people inside and outside the job think Hugh Orde should currently be heading Scotland Yard. Instead he was rejected politically, and is now languishing as president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, an organisation itself being steadily undermined by the government.
He is suffering for being too political for the Tory party. He stood up and argued against the one-person commissioner move, and one senior officer commented: “He is last of a generation prepared to stand up and tell the truth as he sees it. Now all senior officers will be looking to job security and advancement and will be running scared of being controversial.
“But sometimes you have to be controversial if you believe in something strongly enough.”
If you compare the “political” Hugh’s record as Chief Constable in the most political of environments, Northern Ireland, he comes out better and more surefootedly adept than his bitter opponent, Home Secretary Theresa May, who at least provides a laugh with every gaffe. And a hairdo which Lady Gaga copied.
Many other senior officers, already frightened off speaking up by Orde’s experience, are staying silent. In public.
In private they are remarkably united. One Chief Constable said: “The whole police commissioner thing is a joke. A rather bad joke, for it could have terrible consequences.
“Most of us are keeping our heads down and getting on with the job. The cuts make it hard for us to deliver what we want to deliver to the public. At the same time there is a lot of pressure on us to privatise.
“Again, that’s a bit of a joke too. After the Olympics fiasco with G4S, some colleagues and their police authorities – like Surrey – are pulling back. But Theresa May is still gung ho in support of privatisation. It just doesn’t stack up.”
And interestingly the new policing minister Damian Green told prospective police commissioners in London that he wanted them to introduce more and more privatisation.
He said: “Every pound saved means a pound saved to be used on the front line putting officers on the streets.
“I want more officers to be out there getting on with the job of fighting crime – we all know they can’t do it if they are bogged down with red tape and form filling.”
First of all, who would you rather questioned your son or daughter if they were under suspicion: a police officer, or someone from G4S … if they could actually find someone from G4S willing to turn up?
And let’s look at all those jobs available for swapping. Nearly 7,000 frontline policing jobs have already gone since the last general election. Eight forces have already lost more than 10 per cent of frontline officers.
Trades union officers Ben Priestly of Unison and Peter Allenson of Unite have been looking at privatisation and the police.
They say: “Private companies running the police are accountable to shareholders, not local citizens. Commercial decisions will override community priorities. Citizens cannot complain to the Independent Police Complaints Commission about a private company in the same way they can about their police force.
“None of the previous experiments with police privatisation has demonstrated value for money; in fact, no force has yet dared to release the performance data of its private contractors. Where is the evidence that the private sector can run policing more efficiently than police forces?”
This government has a tendency to screw up its legislation, and the regulations governing the new police commissioners are part of the tendency.
Candidates who may have had a minor offence as a teenager found themselves disbarred and a number have pulled out. Even magistrates appeared to be disbarred until some nifty footwork allowed them to stand.
And there is the strange anomaly of it being a sackable offence for a police officer to be a member of the BNP, but a BNP member can turn out to be the police’s boss as a police commissioner.
A low turnout in November’s votes for commissioners will be a further embarrassment for the government who have been criticising some low-vote mandates for trades union strike action. Will they consider a turnout of say 30 per cent or 20 per cent to be invalid?
Another problem for the government might be the single-minded force of a commissioner’s arguments. The biggest move against a senior officer in recent years – pushing out Ian Blair at Scotland Yard – was regarded by many as valid. A number of officers observed that by his serial blundering Blair undermined confidence in his force, and morale in the Met was certainly very, very low.
His was the first modern-era scalp for being a poor chief.
This decisiveness might be a problem in other areas however. For example, when it comes to assistance, different forces currently contribute officers to support other forces when there is widespread public disorder. They also help out regionally with crackdowns on specific crimes.
Now, a strong commissioner with an impressive mandate might be saying to the chief constable: “Stuff that. I want all our officers here, looking after our own people. This is a local force. If the home office wants a reserve force then let them recruit a reserve force.”
Senior criminologist Marian FitzGerald said: “Anyone who has watched The Wire will know only too well the danger of electing commissioners with the power to hire and fire Chief Constables. They have seen the pressure such individuals can bring to bear as they chase headlines which will boost their chances of re-election.
“To this end they will not only override the best professional advice. In order to get some ‘quick wins’, they may even divert scarce police resources away from complex operations which, over the long term, could protect the public from serious harm.”
And the recent report on the Hillsborough disaster suggested that police officers conspired to present a phoney picture of what happened to get themselves off the hook, and used a local Sheffield MP to disseminate their lies.
There is no guarantee that this could not happen again in the future but the Hillsborough cover-up does support the argument for an elected body monitoring the police, not a single individual.
There are many serious disasters waiting to happen. Almost everything about the introduction of police commissioners has been inept, ill-judged, dangerous, unworkable and plainly wrong.
Of course, it could all be put right eventually. With a new government.
But in the meantime, by the end of November we will have a system where things are likely to go very, very badly.
And throughout the country, millions will suffer from a diminished form of policing, which will make the vulnerable even more vulnerable and unprotected.
For others, maybe youngsters coming into contact with the police for the first time, the people taking liberties with their liberty may not be ordinary bobbies at all, but amateurish makeweights in cut-rate jobs policing for profit.
Maybe in the meantime what we need is Batman and Robin. But who will be The Joker?