The decision by the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner to suspend the Chief Constable following the verdict in the Hillsborough inquest is the most high profile illustration of the powers vested in elected PCCs. Prior to the arrival of the new ‘unshackled’ elected Commissioners in 2012, this would have been a decision which could only have been made by the Home Secretary herself. I have often heard the new democratic accountability model of local policing, where the PCC holds the Chief Constable to account on behalf of the public, described as ‘man to man marking’ (sic). PCCs are a powerful - and elected - match for Police Chiefs. But who ‘marks’ the PCC?
The answer is the local Police and Crime Panel. Yet, the public know very little about PCPs – only 15% of respondents to our 2014 poll said that they had heard of them and their media and online visibility remains pretty low – despite the fact they hold meetings in public.
The Committee’s 2015 inquiry looked in-depth at these issues. Our report called for more robust checks and balances in the accountability structures of local policing including more effective day to-day scrutiny by local Police and Crime Panels in between the four-yearly election cycle of PCCs. We also called for greater energy and consistency in the promotion of high ethical standards by PCCs.
In practice, PCPs work a bit like a Commons Committee with local councillors from each authority scrutinising the work of the PCC. But the councillors have limited powers –they can hold confirmation hearings for the PCC proposed candidate for Chief Constable, they can veto the PCC’s first proposed precept and they can suspend the PCC in very limited and defined circumstances. These functions must all be exercised with a view to “supporting” the PCC.
During our inquiry we found the experiences and capabilities of Panels, and their relationships with PCCs markedly different across the country. Some areas had responded to the new political relationships well, making greater use of joined up working to scrutinise and evaluate the performance of their local force. But it’s clear others found it more difficult to balance the tensions between the powers of an elected PCC and local accountability and that of “scrutiny” and “support”. The second round of PCC elections next month mean that these relationships will have to be re-established or reconfigured.
The Committee’s report also proposed an ‘ethical checklist’ for PCC candidates standing in 2016. The aim of the checklist is to help inform the public about the ethical approach of all candidates seeking election to the post of PCC. So far, 97 of the 187 candidates have signed up. This is encouraging but I hope that in the final week of the campaign, the public and the media will increasingly be asking those who haven’t signed up, whether they intend to? After the elections, we hope that Police and Crime Panels will use their scrutiny and support role to hold the new PCCs to their promises and help ensure that they live up to the standards of conduct and accountability expected by the public.
PCC posts are challenging, important and powerful, and set to become more so with proposals to give them responsibility for fire and rescue services. The public need to be in a position to make an informed judgement when they cast their vote next week and be reassured that the PCPs will hold the powerful PCCs to account.