Speaking against elected police commissioners

Speaking in the police reform debate 13 December 2010 Steve McCabe MP said:

It is a pleasure to follow Nigel Mills, which is becoming a regular occurrence. We seem to be making quite a habit of it.

I am not sure that I share the hon. Gentleman's views on police commissioners, because I believe, as Conservatives used to believe, in the old maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". That is why I have real doubts about police commissioners. I invite any Conservative Member to show me a recent inspection report that raised major concerns about the functioning of police authorities. I am not saying that there are not things that we could deal with, but there have not been major concerns.

Even if there is some merit in the idea, I should like to know what the hurry is, especially at a time when we have so many other matters to contend with, such as massive cuts in the police budget, increasingly violent demonstrations, renewed terrorist threats and, I believe, a likely explosion in crime, especially if the Secretary of State of Justice gets his way and we have reduced prison capacity and reduced community justice budgets. I do not see the urgency at all. The Home Secretary said earlier that the money is not coming from police budgets, but surely the question is why she thinks she has any money to fritter away on non-essentials at a time like this.

I can see the reasons for the London arrangements in the Bill, because the Mayor doubles as the commissioner. However, little thought seems to have been given to the situation in other parts of the country that could also have powerful directly elected mayors. What will be the situation there, especially if there is a fundamental disagreement between the mayor and the commissioner? If I read the Bill correctly, a commissioner could well be nearly six months into his or her first term before their first policing plan was signed off. That does not sound like a model of urgency or efficiency. What would happen if a chief constable were profoundly to disagree with elements of the plan? That could be a recipe for stalemate.

We want the public to feel more engaged with the process, but, as I read the Bill, the police and crime commissioner will determine the manner in which their response to any recommendations on or criticism of their plan is published. That obviously means that they could choose to bury the parts to which they do not want to give exposure. Equally, I understand that they will be allowed to publish the plan itself as they see fit. If the idea is to ensure that people become more engaged with this process, I would have thought that the commissioners should be urged to publish the plan in a way that guaranteed maximum public access to it, rather than in the way that they see fit.

As this Bill begins its parliamentary route, we still have no idea what the salaries or pensions of the police and crime commissioners will be. Nor do we know anything about the salaries of the chief executives or the chief finance and accounting officers, but if they are anything like their equivalents in Birmingham, those people are going to be earning salaries greater than that of the Prime Minister, and I am not sure that that would be very smart at a time like this.

I welcome some of the measures in the Bill, particularly those relating to licensing powers. It is a good idea to give communities greater input and to listen to their representations and calls for the review of a licence. I shall be interested to see how that works, however, because my experience of licensing authorities is that they do not always pay anything like sufficient attention to local communities. I also welcome the doubling of the maximum fine for those who persistently sell alcohol to under-18s, and the increase in the period of suspension of the licence for premises involved in that activity. What most people want, however, is for the licence to be permanently revoked from premises that are persistently causing trouble and selling alcohol to under-18s.

I am slightly worried by what might be an unintended consequence of the powers for licensing authorities to impose conditions on a temporary event notice on environmental or health grounds. In a place such as Birmingham, that could result in the local authority tying good, honest charity events up in ridiculous bureaucracy and red tape. That must surely be an unintended consequence of the Bill that we would not wish to see.

I think it was Neil Carmichael who referred to clause 15, which covers the power to commission the supply of goods from any source. That sounds good on the surface, but what will be the safeguards against illegal favours or monopoly arrangements? That is not the sort of thing I want to see. I also wonder about the powers in clause 16 for the commissioner to appoint persons who are not on the staff of the local policing body. I am sure that that is intended to deal with joint appointments, but it could be a consultants' charter. I notice that clause 22(3) gives the Home Secretary the power to intervene if the budget is set too low and could endanger public safety. If this is such a good Bill, and if we can be so confident about the performance of police and crime commissioners, why would she have to take a power like that? It suggests to me that the Government have their own concerns about this matter.

Much in the Bill requires far more scrutiny in Committee. The Government need to explain a lot to reassure us that, while some of the measure's intentions are good, its practice will not prove wrong.

For me, the centrepiece of the measure is the wrong policy at the wrong time, which, I fear, will lead to the wrong outcomes. The Government's focus should be on preventing a rise in crime, helping victims and safeguarding our communities. It should not be on political experiments that waste money, risk politicising the police and take attention away from the need to bear down constantly on violent offenders and career criminals.

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