Proposals for directly-elected Police Commissioners in Wales

Nick responds to an Adjournment Debate on directly-elected Police Commissioners in Wales

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): It is a pleasure to see you presiding over us today, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate, and on the clear passion with which she has put her case. I disagree, however, with almost everything that she said. I am sure that this topic will be the subject of considerable debate over the coming weeks and months, not least when the Government bring forward the legislation that will provide for the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners as a replacement for police authorities.

I will try to take both the hon. Lady's points and those raised by other hon. Members in turn. First, the hon. Lady suggested that the consultation period was only eight weeks rather than 12. In the run-up to the formal consultation period, the Government, and I, did extensive pre-consultation with stakeholders, including police authorities and police chiefs. We have been anxious right from the beginning to discuss the matter with stakeholders, but we are also anxious to ensure that we introduce the Bill in time, and secure its safe passage so that we can hold elections in 2012.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I have also been taking soundings, from Mark Mathias, the chief superintendent for Swansea. As my constituency is in Swansea, I shall be neutral and use Cardiff as an example. In a middle-class area, such as Heath, voter turnout is very high, but in the Ely area, where there is a lot of crime, voter participation is very low, and there is a concern that there will be a tendency for the person running for office to say, "Let's do antisocial behaviour in a middle-class area and deploy the resources there, because that's where the votes are, and not do so much activity in the poorer area." The output, other than the loss of the money to run the democratic process- £50 million, I think, across the UK-is that the money that is left, which is being reduced, will be targeted in the area of least operational need. Does the Minister not think that that is an inherent problem of the whole system?

Nick Herbert: I do not agree. We live in the age of transparency, and the decisions of people in elected office are rightly subjected to intense public scrutiny. Those of us who are elected to any public office have a responsibility to represent all the people that we are elected to represent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree on that in relation to our own constituencies-that we must include the people who did not vote for us, and people from all sorts of backgrounds and different parts of the constituency. That is our obligation.

One thing that I will come on to is the experience of the Mayor of London. He represents a very large number of people. The enhanced visibility and accountability of that elected office has been a good thing, and it has broadly been welcomed by Londoners. I am sure that the Mayor has an acute sense of his responsibility to represent people in all sections of the community in relation to policing, and to hold the police to account. I do not, therefore, accept the hon. Gentleman's premise.

Chris Evans: I shall also use the example of the Mayor of London. Does the Minister agree that that is a political appointment? The concern expressed when I have spoken to the Gwent police authority is that the police force is being politicised. Politics does not have a role in modern-day policing.

Nick Herbert: I absolutely disagree. There are elected members of police authorities from all parties, and the chairman of a police authority can represent a party or be independent. I do not believe that the experience in London suggests that the Metropolitan police has become in any way politicised. Were that to be suggested to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, or to his staff, he would absolutely reject it. We need to ensure that the operational independence of the police is fully safeguarded, and the Association of Chief Police Officers is rightly concerned that it be protected. Of course, decisions were taken by the newly elected Mayor that resulted in the previous commissioner resigning, but I do not believe that that amounted to any kind of politicisation in the party sense.

Geraint Davies: There is an issue of geography, of making comparisons with London. We understand that London is one place-it is a metropolis. In south Wales, the perception of people in Swansea-if I may, representing Swansea West-is that the chief of police there is well integrated with local political stakeholders, including councillors, Assembly Members and MPs, and the worry is that with a ballot we would end up with a commissioner in Cardiff. We would become Cardiff-centric and, as I have already said, there would also be a propensity to be middle-class focused. All those things are beginning to take away to some other place the accountability of the police and their sensitivity to local problems. The problems of south Wales are very different from the problems of London, which is one place. Rather than getting closer to the people we would become more isolated, with decisions being made by middle-class people in Cardiff.

Nick Herbert: Again, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The chief constable has to represent the force and cover the whole area concerned. He succeeds in doing that, so why should not the elected individual who holds him to account? We are, of course, proposing the introduction of police and crime panels that draw on locally elected councillors to ensure that the local authorities in the police force's area have representation in holding the commissioner to account, and independence as well. That will be one way of ensuring that voices within the whole police area are heard.

I will now continue to address the points made by the hon. Member for Newport East. I have talked about the consultation period and the fact that we conducted extensive pre-consultation ahead of the formal consultation period. Even those who would disagree with us about the proposals, such as the Association of Police Authorities, would, I am sure, agree that we have been very ready to talk to them about the detail of all this and to consult widely.

Mr David: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: Yes, but I am being left with little time in which to respond to these important points.

Mr David: The Minister is being very generous. On the issue of consultation, has there been any with the Welsh Assembly Government?

Nick Herbert: Yes, and I will come to that. There certainly has been consultation, and it is important that there should be.

The hon. Member for Newport East suggested that the idea of police and crime commissioners is opposed by a wide range of people, including the Association of Chief Police Officers. Actually, it is noticeable that it does not oppose the introduction of commissioners outright; it rightly expresses its concerns about operational independence. Nor, even, is the Association of Police Authorities-although it does not support the proposal-mounting a great campaign against the change. I think there is recognition that it makes sense to work with the Government to ensure that the design of the proposals will be right. That is a sensible way forward. The Government, after all, have a mandate in this respect. Both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats stood on a platform of reform of police authorities. The Conservative party wanted to introduce a directly elected individual; that was in our manifesto. The Liberal Democrats wanted to introduce direct elections to police authorities. Therefore we have a joint mandate and the proposal is part of the coalition agreement. Our views were very clear and formed part of the manifesto that we put to the country. We are entitled therefore to introduce the Bill and proceed with the policy.

Geraint Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: I want to press on, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Concerns have been expressed about politicisation of the police. I reject them, for the reasons I set out. We need to maintain the operational independence of policing, but as I said to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) in debate last week, on the Floor of the House, someone has to hold the police to account. In my view that should be an elected politician. We cannot have the police answering to no one. Therefore what we are discussing is simply the nature of that accountability; but politicians will be involved in one way or another.

Other concerns were raised about extremism, and that is a familiar refrain. Again, I pointed out on the Floor of the House last week that the British National party secured 2% of the vote in the general election that we have all just fought. I do not believe that it is realistic, given the nature of the electoral system that we propose, to believe that such extremists would secure the general public's support as police and crime commissioners. We are happy to trust the public about that.

Chris Evans: I thank the Minister for giving way, as I know that time is of the essence. If an extremist should be elected, would there be a mechanism to remove that person?

Nick Herbert: We are setting in place a range of checks and balances in the consultation document; they will govern the activities of police and crime commissioners. Specific proposals will relate to recall, and so on, when there is wrongdoing. However, it is up to the general public to decide who they want to elect. As democrats we should trust the people. We go down a dangerous road if we start to prescribe who may or may not stand for public office.

Jessica Morden: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: I shall give way on this point, but I repeat that interventions are leaving me little time to respond.

Jessica Morden: In view of the sensitive information that a police commissioner might be privy to, is the Minister saying that there would be no checks at all before a candidate put themselves forward for election, or was successful?

Nick Herbert: Perhaps the hon. Lady could tell me what checks are placed on politicians elected to this House when they assume high office. That is not the basis on which we work. We have a system of public scrutiny but we trust the people to elect to office the politicians they prefer. In relation to the hon. Lady's contention about the appetite for change, I believe that there is a strong appetite for the police to be connected with communities, and visible and available. We live in the age of accountability and transparency, when people expect public bodies to answer for their performance. The problem with police authorities is that they are relatively weak and invisible bodies. The public do not, in the main, know who they are. Creating a single point of accountability, so that a single individual holds the police to account, will hugely enhance accountability.

We saw that in London: through the persona of the Mayor, albeit that he delegates decisions to his deputy, people feel that he has a responsibility for London's policing. That has broadly been welcomed, and I believe there will be a very beneficial effect on policing.

The proposal is an important part of the exchange we want to effect: we want to reduce the degree of central direction of the police that has accrued in recent years, as police forces have been subjected to increasing interference from the Home Secretary and the Government. In my view, the old, tripartite arrangement of a balance between the chief constable, the police authority-representing the local-and the Government or centre, has been distorted. Our proposal is an important reform, which will enable us to reduce central interference, target and central direction, while ensuring that the police are properly held to account, in this case by their communities. It is important to understand that that is the exchange that is proposed. I do not believe that we could cut back on all the central direction while leaving police authorities in their current form. They would not be strong or visible enough to hold the police to account and we would find that the police were not answering to anyone. That would not be acceptable to any of us.

As to the hon. Lady's point about costs, it is true, as my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for this matter said, I think last week, that we intend that the reforms-the introduction of both police and crime panels and police and crime commissioner-should not cost more than existing police authorities. That is the last thing that any of us would want in the current age, when resources are tight. There will, however, be a cost in relation to the elections, which will be held every four years. Those of us who propose the change must accept that; there is a price to democracy and that will be budgeted for separately. We shall set out the costs when we launch the proposals. There will be a full assessment of the cost when we introduce the Bill. However, we must secure the design of the proposals before we can set out the costs; that is what the consultation is about.

I do not accept any of the contentions that have been made, either in this place or outside it, that the restraints on spending that will necessarily have to be imposed overall on policing will result in an increase in crime. Indeed, those who contend that they will do so are unwise; I doubt whether there is any academic evidence to suggest such a link.

I have already addressed the matter of diversity-

Geraint Davies rose-

Nick Herbert: No, I am not going to give way any further. I have only four minutes in which to complete what I want to say, and I have some important points.

Police and crime panels will play an important role in ensuring that there is diversity. As to collaboration, we are placing duties on the police and crime commissioners to ensure that such collaboration as has happened in Wales can be extended. Crimes cross force boundaries and collaboration is necessary to deal with serious and organised crime, and to drive down cost. We want to ensure that such collaboration can continue.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly made an important point about the specific position of Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. We have made it clear that we shall work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the framework within which commissioners operate reflects and respects the devolved responsibilities. I visited Cardiff as the recess began in the summer, to have discussions with officials and to consult police authorities and police chiefs. Officials have maintained a dialogue with officials from the Welsh Assembly Government about all those matters. We were not able to meet Ministers at the time. I have spoken to them on the telephone, but we-my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I-plan to meet them in a short time to make sure that the consultation takes place.

I assure hon. Members that, whatever our differences on this matter, we intend to respect the devolved arrangements in Wales. That is particularly important with respect to those areas that are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, essentially relating to areas in which the police and crime commissioner will have a role. That includes community safety partnerships, which at present answer to the Welsh Assembly Government. We must get the design right for Wales, consult properly in Wales, and, where appropriate, secure the agreement of the Welsh Assembly to the proposals. We intend to proceed on that basis.

We want to introduce the reform and to include Wales. It is a reserved matter but we want the design fully to reflect the position in Wales. I am confident that the reforms will improve policing in Wales and rebuild the bridge between the police and the public, and that we shall continue to ensure that police officers are out in the streets doing the job that people want them to do, preventing crime and tackling it where it occurs. Our whole purpose is to improve policing and ensure that that essential public service is shaped to withstand the challenges of the future.

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14 September 2010

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