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Standards are not an optional afterthought

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As the 40 newly elected PCCs start their roles, they can be under no illusion about the scale of the task they face; reduced police budgets, large scale commissioning, increasingly complex crime, a changing devolutionary landscape and then taking over responsibility for fire and rescue services. There’s no denying that these are among the most complex jobs in public life.

These roles are also unique – elected, accountable to the public by the ballot box alone and free from many of the constraints of the old Police Authorities.

The arrival of ‘unshackled’ high profile PCCs led to greater responsiveness to local problems and conditions in many areas – greater innovation, increased visibility and greater focus on community engagement.

First time around, however, there were also a number of standards-related scandals and insufficient challenge and scrutiny of PCCs’ decisions. These findings led my Committee to make a series of recommendations to help improve the accountability around these new roles.

Public trust

In our report we argued that the new PCCs, much like MPs and others, should receive an ethical component at induction to help ensure that these standards are properly understood and to equip PCCs with the tools they need to set the tone from the top.

I know only too well that discussions around ‘ethics’ can make people’s’ eyes glaze over or start people mumbling about additional bureaucracy. But events like the Hillsborough verdict and the appointment of the first Youth Crime Commissioner in Kent prove that standards cannot be an afterthought. Standards failures cost a disproportionate amount of effort, time and energy to put right and, more importantly, erode public trust.

Our ethical checklist for PCC candidates was intentionally a device to push standards to the fore in the run up to the elections in May. We asked all candidates to declare their approach so that the public would be in a better position to judge when casting their vote.

Some 102 of the 187 candidates for PCC posts signed up in advance of 12 May. This translated into 21 elected PCCs and since the election a further nine have signed up. In doing so, they’ve publicly declared they will publish a code of conduct, hold the Chief Constable to account for embedding the Police Code of Ethics, ensure open and transparent appointment process for key staff and proactively publish pay and rewards gifts, hospitality and business interests.

Scrutiny and support

As the Home Secretary has made clear a number of times, democratic accountability must mean much more transparency and scrutiny at local level. Police and Crime Panels are crucial here. Effective ‘scrutiny and support’ of PCC’s decision-making is the main accountability mechanism in between the four yearly elections and the way in which their decisions can be tested on behalf of the public.

To be effective, panels need timely and accessible information from the PCC across the full range of his/her role. The expertise of the panel can be used to challenge assumptions and think through the local implications of policies. Panels must also look hard at the PCC’s ethical standards and how he/she holds the Chief Constable to account for embedding the Police Code of Ethics. Our Inquiry found that there is plenty of best practice for Panels to learn from.

A ‘patchwork’ of approaches across the country is, to some degree, a natural and intended consequence of PCCs. In many areas, new and different approaches are leading to innovation and cross-cutting initiatives. My message to PCCs is that there is nothing about the Nolan principles that stand in the way of change. Addressing standards issues early and proactively and accounting properly for your decisions – however difficult – helps take the public with you. Standards cannot be an optional afterthought.

This blog originally featured on Policing Insight.

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