It's time for you to have a say on policing

Do you know who runs your local police force? They are supposed to be held to account by police authorities; but how many people could name their chairman? A recent survey found that a typical authority receives barely two letters a week from the public. Over the years, the police have become estranged from the municipalities from which they sprang and increasingly look to the Home Office. But they are a monopoly service and officers must be accountable for their actions and performance. Far better, surely, that they should answer to local communities than to box-ticking officials in Whitehall.

As a government, we are axeing policing targets, scrapping unnecessary forms and ditching the so-called Policing Pledge. The aim of these reforms is to restore professional discretion. We want cops to be crime fighters, not form writers. But what we also need is to swap bureaucratic control for democratic accountability; and this week legislation to do just that is due to complete its progress through the Commons. The Bill replaces police authorities with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners for the 41 forces in England and Wales (the City of London is an exception and London already has its Mayor). From the first elections in May next year, the public will have a real say over how their area is policed.

These new commissioners will be big local figures with a powerful mandate to drive the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour. They will have a broad remit to ensure community safety, with budgets to prevent crime, tackle drugs and work with local authorities and agencies. And in future their role could be extended to other elements of the local criminal justice system, ensuring that the police and those who manage offenders operate together, working to break the cycle of crime.

Commissioners aren't an American idea. We don't need to look across the Atlantic to see that an elected individual holding the police to account is popular. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has delivered on his pledges to tackle knife crime and put uniformed officers on public transport. He has committed to keep cops on the streets. Strikingly, at a time when most forces have frozen recruitment, the Met is about to begin hiring officers again. How many Londoners would prefer their police force to answer to an invisible committee?

Our critics say that elections will politicise the police - a peculiar argument when you consider that any Home Secretary is an elected politician and a leading member of the governing party. But if the police aren't to answer to an elected representative of the people, who exactly will they answer to?

It is fundamental to our system that the police must remain operationally independent. No politician can tell a constable - a sworn officer of the crown - who to arrest. Forces will continue to be under the "direction and control" of their chief constable and a new protocol will ensure this is the case.

But elected Police and Crime Commissioners will give the public a voice in how they are policed, setting the long-term strategy for the force and its budget, and appointing the chief constable. In turn, chief officers will be liberated to be crime fighters rather than government managers.

Some say that too much power will be vested in a single commissioner. But that argument ignores the strict checks and balances we are putting in place, including local Police and Crime Panels, comprising representatives from each local authority as well as independent members, to scrutinise the commissioner's actions.

We will demand transparency in a system that already has significant safeguards, with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, an Independent Police Complaints Commission and national checks to ensure the integrity of local crime figures.

Another concern that is often voiced is that extremists will be elected - even BNP candidates. This is nonsense: they polled just 2 per cent of the national vote in the general election. The same disreputable arguments - that you can't rely on people to make the right decisions - were advanced against votes for women.

Dig deeper and what you find is an elitist fear that elected commissioners might actually reflect public concern and pledge to get tough on crime. It is strange that so many democrats are wary of democracy.

For my part, I believe that we can and should trust the people. As David Cameron said recently, we have the finest police service in the world and should be proud of this British institution and protect what is best in it. But we also need to ensure that the police are able to meet today's challenges and command broad public support. Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, said that "the police are the public and the public are the police". Under our reforms, forces will continue to be run by chief constables - but their legitimacy depends on the principle that the police must answer to the people they serve.

Christopher N Howarth