Caveat Elector

Or:  why it might not be such a great idea for ex-police officers to become Police and Crime Commissioners and the myth of political independence.

I have written previously about one ex-police officer-turned-Police and Crime Commissioner’s endless quest for the holy grail of free publicity.  It is inevitable that such incidents will raise again and again the thorny question of whether it is really appropriate for ex-police officers to be able to become Police and Crime Commissioners, particularly for the same forces where they served as officers so, with the second set of PCC elections taking place in May, this seems an appropriate moment to consider in more detail not only this question but also the related matters of the role of a Police and Crime Commissioner and the nature of political ‘independence’..

Keeping politics out of policing? 

The election of the first Police and Crime Commissioners in November 2012 was the fulfilment of a Conservative manifesto promise from 2010, a promise that had its origins in a Policy Exchange Report dating from 2003: Going Local; who should run Britain’s Police? 

The promise formed part of the new Government’s commitment to police ‘reform’, which can itself be traced back to David Cameron’s interest in the 1993 Sheehy Report.  As with every other aspect of the Government’s Localism agenda, Police and Crime Commissioners were clearly designed to keep the Government at arm’s length from any blame or responsibility that might result from cuts to policing and community safety budgets.  Nevertheless, the relationship between Policy Exchange and the Prime Minister’s own policy unit is itself well worth exploring, if you have the time.

When, in 2011, the timetable for the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners was announced, the Home Secretary said she was expecting ‘big hitters’: well-known public figures who might take on the role of fronting up crime and public safety provision and initiatives across the country.  There was even talk of Richard Branson taking up a post.  However, this ambition fell at an early hurdle, as potential candidates realised how complex (and controversial) the role was, how much time it would take up and how little (in their eyes) reward they would receive.

Meanwhile, retired police officers across the country protested about what they saw as a political takeover, complaining loudly about the need to ‘Keep Politics Out of Policing’, conveniently ignoring the fact that politics has always been an essential aspect of policing, not least because the spending of public money is, in itself, a political act.  Those senior police officers who have trodden the hallowed boards of the ACPO (now NPCC) corridor are certainly no strangers to politics.

‘In my day…’

The result was that the 2012 elections returned a rag-bag of victors: the 41 PCCs included a mix of local business people,  former armed forces officers, local and national politicians (most of whom had had previous careers as, for example, barristers, social workers, electricians), a TV presenter and eight ex-police officers, most of whom had stood as so-called ‘independents’ although one of these was, at the time of the election, a member of the Liberal Democrat party.   Of these, some had left the police early (no-one seems to have asked why*), many had served in the very forces they were now charged with overseeing and none had made it to the rank of Chief Constable (or the Metropolitan Police equivalent).

Here lies the first problem.  One of the roles of the Police and Crime Commissioner is to hold to account’  the Chief Constable of a police force, with the ultimate sanction of dismissal or termination of contract.  We are immediately confronted with the prospect of a retired police officer who failed to reach the top of his profession (and yes, they are currently all male), holding the career of a Chief Constable (maybe even the Chief Constable under whom he had previously served) in the palm of his hand.

This situation was designed to lead to conflict and promptly did so.  Very soon after the November elections, Carmel Napier, the then-Chief Constable of Gwent Police, left her post abruptly.  It later emerged that she had been told to “retire or be removed“, as the new PCC, Ian Johnston, an ex-Chair of the Superintendents’ Association, who had previously served with Gwent Police, believed her managerial style was “unacceptably dismissive, abrupt and unhelpful“.

Of course, the relationship between Chiefs and PCCs was always going to be fraught,  with the PCC always at risk of overstepping the line between policy and operations, but there is little doubt that the risk of overstepping that mark, of blundering accidentally or even deliberately into operational territory, is far greater if you are an ex-police officer who thinks they know how the job should be done/used to be done than it is by someone with no preconceptions but a wealth of transferable skills and experience gained in other, related fields.

Imagine how frustrating would it have been for Chief Constables who wanted to move on and make progress, who were under external pressure to adopt cooperative, partnership working  styles, such as that exemplified by Greater Manchester, to be repeatedly told ‘In my day…..’

*A non-exhaustive list of reasons for leaving early might include: demands of family; physical or mental health issues; ethical disagreement with local or national policing policies (eg the imposition of arbitrary numerical targets); equality issues; the offer of a better job elsewhere; a move to academia;  coming in to an inheritance; the avoidance of disciplinary action.

‘She’s not that into you…’

More recently, Surrey’s PCC Kevin Hurley hit the headlines following the appointment of Lynne Owens, the ex-Chief Constable of Surrey Police, as Chief Executive of the National Crime Agency.  Mr Hurley acquired lots more free publicity by announcing that he had ‘considered’ taking disciplinary action against Mrs Owens before she left the force – though he hadn’t actually done so.

(It’s probably worth noting that, when Mr Hurley was still a Chief Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, there was a period of time during which Mrs Owens was the Deputy Assistant Commissioner to whom his own line manager reported.  So much for ‘flatter management‘ eh?).

Mr Hurley’s primary objection to Mrs Owens’ appointment at the NCA appeared to be that the Home Secretary hadn’t asked for his opinion: indeed, his deputy claimed Mrs May had acted without ‘due diligence’., as if the application process were not itself sufficiently robust. Maybe Mr Hurley had forgotten that, in 2012, he had sought the Tory PCC nomination in Surrey but that, when he was rejected, he stood against and then beat the official Tory candidate on a ‘Zero Tolerance Policing ex Chief’ ticket. In politics, these things have a way of coming back to bite you.

 Not Supercop

There is some evidence to indicate that the public has expressed a preference for ex-police officers to be Police and Crime Commissioners.  However, there is a real possibility that this preference stems largely from widespread lack of awareness of what the role actually entails, widespread not just amongst the electorate but also amongst journalists, politicians, candidates, the police and even, in the early days, some Police and Crime Commissioners.

Many people believe the role of a PCC to be primarily about policing when in fact it is about consultation and commissioning, breaking down silos and joining up public and criminal justice services.

The Government is, as the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out, largely to blame for this widespread misunderstanding.  In late 2012, it ran a populist TV advertising campaign, portraying PCCs as some kind of vigilante ‘Supercop’, an image which has stuck and which some PCCs now exploit.  This misrepresentation was exacerbated by the Policy Exchange-run website which became the go-to resource for information on PCC candidates but which was (deliberately?) mis-named ‘Police Elections’.

The Government then refused to allow PCC candidates to send the freepost leaflet to which candidates for parliamentary and European elections are entitled, with the inevitable result that most people had no idea for what or for whom they were supposed to be voting.  Indeed, the vast majority of people didn’t vote at all: the election was held on a rainy day in November, with no simultaneous ballots and the turn-out was 15.1%.  Hardly a triumph of popular democracy.

So before the country heads to the polls in May, it would be good if more people understood the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, which is more like that of a glorified MP than that of a glorified Chief Constable.  Indeed, the PCC replaces not the Chief Constable but the Police Authority, the body closely linked to local government which used to hold the Chief to account.

However, PCCs have a much wider remit than the Police Authority did, dealing not just with policing but also with wider aspects of community safety, so it’s wise to focus less on the word ‘police’ and more on the word ‘commissioner’.

PCCs are intended not to run the police but to scrutinise them.  They are the Voice of the Public. The role includes not only extensive consultation with that public, including harder-to-reach groups, but also commissioning services for victims, crime prevention and community safety, such as drug and alcohol services, and bringing together community safety and criminal justice partners to make sure that locally agreed priorities are joined up.

The nub of the role is for PCCs to decide what services they are going to buy with their ever-decreasing funds and who they are going to buy those services from.  For example, do we want ‘the police’ to do our policing?  Or are we happy for it to be farmed out to G4S?

Sadly, the public knows little of this and, unsurprisingly, appears to care even less and meanwhile an ever-increasing slice of public service is being handed over to people who may have no proven skills in the wider areas of consultation or commissioning.

And now the Home Secretary says that she wants to add to that extensive remit responsibility for the Fire and Rescue Service, though it is hard to see what police forces and fire and rescue services have in common other than the occasional blue light.

Nevertheless, such a move will make PCCs even less like police, even less like that mythical Supercop.  In fact, PCCs are very emphatically #NotPolice but full-time, professional politicians, a fact that many ex-police officers  still try to gloss over.

The NARPO army

From this vantage point, the worst-case scenario would be a cohort of ex-police officers organising themselves to stand in every area and allowing, if not encouraging, the public to fall for the ‘Supercop‘ myth.

This would be the opposite of the heightened accountability promised by the Home Office.  It would be an obfuscation of political intent, a confusion of the interests of the public with those of the police, a deliberate subversion of the Home Office’s desire for independent scrutiny of policing.  Indeed, it would be little short of a coup.

The eight current ex-police officer PCCs are: Cheshire’s John Dwyer (ex-Cheshire Constabulary, highest, rank, Assistant Chief Constable) , Durham’s Ron Hogg (Labour) (ex-Durham Constabulary and ex-Cleveland Police, Deputy Chief Constable), Surrey’s Kevin Hurley (ex-Metropolitan Police, Chief Superintendent, not Chief Constable as his Zero Tolerance ticket might have implied); Gwent’s Ian Johnston (ex-Gwent Police, Chief Superintendent); West Mercia’s Bill Longmore (ex- Staffordshire Police, Superintendent); North Wales’s Winston Roddick (ex-Merseyside Police, highest rank unknown); Gloucestershire’s Martin Surl (ex-Gloucestershire Police, Superintendent) and Dorset’s Martyn Underhill (ex-Metropolitan Police and ex-Sussex Police, DCI).

Some of these PCCs have done an excellent job and there is no question that some ex-police officers would be able to carry out this incredibly demanding role without finding themselves compromised at any stage.  There is, however, a huge question over whether every ex-police officer candidate will possess the necessary distance, the necessary critical eye, the necessary wider vision and experience to do the role full justice, to be able to be the voice of the public rather than that of the police.

This is particularly the case if they are elected in the force area where they were an officer, where they have an intimate knowledge of existing procedures and personnel.  Contemplate for a moment the example of Martin Surl, who retired from Gloucestershire Police as a Superintendent in January 2012.  By the November of the same year, he was PCC and holding the Chief Constable to account as the voice of the public.   How can a situation which leaves so much potential for conflict of interest be in the spirit of the policy and of the legislation?

Moreover, what if there were a concerted effort to encourage ex-police officers to stand for election, to add the hefty PCC salary to their policing pensions? We know that ex-sergeant Mike Pannett, who served in both the Metropolitan and the North Yorkshire Police Services and who objected vociferously to the very concept of PCCs back in 2012, has now changed his mind and is standing for election in North Yorkshire.  Imagine if he were followed by ex-colleagues country-wide.

Certainly, such candidates would have little problem tapping into the waiting army of their local branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers (NARPO), relying on their ex-colleagues not only to provide the necessary 100 signatures for nomination, but also to cough up £50 each for the £5000 deposit and to pound the streets delivering leaflets in an effort to keep the public out of policing.

We have already examined the potential for dramatic conflict between the incoming PCC and the incumbent Chief Constable.   Some PCCs are currently extending their current Chief’s contract, in an effort to provide some certainty in the face of the uncertainly of politics.

What would the effect of such a ‘coup’ be on community representation?   It would very likely lead to an almost total lack of diversity.  PCCs are supposed to represent the public in all its glorious variety.  Most local politicians, drawn directly from their communities and from a variety of professional backgrounds, are already too male, pale and stale.  If that tendency to male, pale staleness is exacerbated by the election of homogeneous PCCs, who all previously did the same job, who all have similar mindsets, the ideal of diversity flies out the window.  Eight out of 41 PCCs are currently white, male, late-middle-aged ex-police officers :  do we really need more?

It might also be worth reflecting on the high percentage of police officers who have previously served in the notoriously change-resistant Metropolitan Police Service and the possibility that male ex-police officers may also be members of closed organisations such as Masonic Lodges (yes, women can be masons too, but it is much less likely).  Dorset’s PCC, Martyn Underhill, was forced to declare his Masonic membership shortly before his 2012 election, when all four Dorset candidates came under close scrutiny, and this membership is still listed on his website under  ‘Disclosable Interests’  Did candidates in other areas face the same level of scrutiny?  Will they face it this time around?

The ‘coup’ will never happen, you say; but if you asked for the names of some possible candidates it would be easy to suggest some and who is to say what axes they might have to grind?  If we were looking for (in)credible people who might fit the bill, how about David Morgan QPM in Dyfed-Powys?  Ex-Met PC and numerical targets whistleblower James Patrick in Essex?  Ex-Met PC and self-styled policing commentator Cate Moore in Lincolnshire?  Ex-Police Federation Rep Clive Chamberlain in Somerset?.  Ex-Chair of the Police Federation Association Jan Berry in Kent?  The list could easily go on.  Of course, Jan Berry was shortlisted for the Tory PCC nomination in Kent in summer 2012, and championed by Nick Herbert MP, only to be beaten to it by Craig McKinley, a former deputy leader of UKIP and now a Tory MP, who turned out to be the highest spending candidate of the entire PCC election (and still lost).

The opacity of independence

On what ticket would these putative candidates stand?  As ‘Independents’?  They would patently not be that – they may not belong to a mainstream political party but they would be affiliated to their own ‘ex-policing’ party in all but name.  Or they might even be allowed to join Mr Hurley’s personal ‘Zero Tolerance’ party, which would open the door to all the advantages of party affiliation.

The question of ‘independence’ is of course wholly relevant.  ‘Independence’ is the least transparent of political labels.  Political alignment is a kind of shorthand.  It lets voters know what the candidate’s core values are, which way s/he is likely to lean in a gale. And, unlike with ‘independent‘ candidates, for whom there is no pre-selection, no pre-scrutiny, it lets the voters know who is funding the campaign, that there’s a group of people who trust this individual enough to let him or her be their representative. This is particularly important in PCC elections, as there is so little central direction for PCCs.  There’s nothing equivalent to the Westminster whipping system for PCCs, who have to be responsible for their own decisions.

People tend to think that political ‘independence’ means ‘thinks like me’, which it almost certainly doesn’t.  What ‘independence’ does say is ‘I won’t tell you what my views are, which philosophy I adhere to, what floats my boat, who is pulling my strings.‘  So unless you as a voter are prepared to quiz an independent candidate personally, at length and in depth, and then hold them to account for their views, voting ‘independent’ is a bran-tub, a raffle, a lucky (or unlucky) dip.

As we have already noted, during the 2012 election, many retired and former police officers, not only those who were candidates but also those who styled themselves as commentators, focussed on the need to ‘Keep Politics Out of Policing’ .  However, just after the elections, it became apparent that, although he was running as an Independent, Winston Roddick was in fact a member of the Liberal Democrat party, but had not wished to disclose that during the elections.  Moreover, not long after that election, Mike Pannett, who is standing as an independent in North Yorkshire and has adopted a ‘Now then, lad’ Herriott-esque approach to campaigning, started to tweet frequently about his visits to the Shadow Policing Minister, Jack Dromey MP, to whom he appears to have been an informal adviser in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.  Maybe this helps to explain why the Labour Party has dropped its former objections to Police and Crime Commissioners and now has a policing policy fit for the year 2000.

Follow the money

It is of course also salient to ask who is funding these campaigns.  NARPO members may be prepared to stump up £50 for the sake of old times, but they won’t want to fund a £20k campaign.  I use this figure as an example because it is just less than ex-police officer Martyn Underhill spent on his successful 2012 campaign.  A significant proportion of his funding came from the founder of Lush Cosmetics, more from local landlord Dave Wells.  Other ‘independent’ candidates may have funded their own campaigns or they may have sought support from elsewhere.

Certainly, PCC candidates and postholders will frequently be approached by companies with services to sell, companies such as Arquiva and, yes, G4S.  In addition, many retired police officers work for security-related organisations which would have a vested interest in gaining a foot in the wider PCC community.  It might be in the interests of any of these companies to fund a PCC campaign in expectation of plenty.

Caveat elector

There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong in any of this but, as candidates are not obliged to name their funders before the elections take place, it does mean that the electorate is voting blind and that the candidates may not be quite as ‘independent’ as they claim, in the widely understood sense of that word, so beware, elector, beware.

What is wrong is for anyone, including  former police officers and particularly including some incumbent PCCs, to misrepresent the role of Police and Crime Commissioner.  It is not solely or even primarily about policing. It is not about wreaking vengeance on criminals or masquerading as Supercop.  Police and Crime Commissioners are not thief-takers or peace-keepers or law-enforcers.  They are communicators, consultants, negotiators, networkers, commissioners, contract sponsors and overseers of huge and complex budgets and, above all, they are scrutineers.  It’s a politician’s role, a very powerful one which is set to become increasingly powerful, with deliberately weak oversight in the form of the Police and Crime Panel.  And it’s a role that needs desperately to be filled by someone with the relevant experience, qualities and skills.

This does, of course, pose some legitimate questions about the selection processes followed by some of the mainstream political parties, and I will be addressing this matter in a future article.

In the meantime:  caveat elector.

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2 thoughts on “Caveat Elector

  1. There are a couple of issues that are intertwined here. First, there is a concern about ‘independent’ candidates, because the ‘independent’ label gives little indication of a candidate’s political leanings. This complaint regularly crops up whenever non-aligned candidates win elections. In some parts of the country, there is a long tradition of independent councillors, and you can perhaps accept it where there is a possibility that the community will know these individuals and know what their ‘independence’ means. That’s probably unlikely for PCCs covering areas with populations numbering into the millions. Of course, ‘independent’ simply means the individual is not standing as a party candidate – the electorate may not realise what the individual’s political leanings are, and will probably not know whether they have any particular backers whose opinions and aims they also may not agree with. However, the same applies to the political party candidates. The main parties are ‘broad churches’, and you probably don’t know which particular wing of the party your local party candidate belongs to. The main parties also don’t have a national manifesto for PCCs as far as I can see, which means you are effectively voting for just another anonymous individual. It doesn’t matter what party label they have, you don’t really know where they stand on criminal justice, police objectives, budget choices, etc. The only guide is their own election material (or maybe you could have paid £25 to have a glass of fizz go and listen to Michael Gove, as one Conservative PCC candidate recently offered). So you might as well vote for an independent.

    And of course, the political parties also have their mysterious funders and backers…

    The other concern is about ex-police officers standing. Given the low turn-outs, there is a risk that if the whole force turned out to vote for a particular candidate, this could swing the vote. Public surveys have also shown that they believe the best persons to be PCCs are those with experience of policing. Which seems obvious – except that the role, of course, is to hold the chief constable to account, not to be a good cop. But then there is a general public unhappiness with careerist politicians who have done little else in life than sit on comittees, work for parties, etc, but seem to think they are the best people to run public services. What we probably need, in policing, education, health, social services, etc, etc, are more people with relevant real-life experience and skills, who understand the internal needs of their service – but who importantly must also have the right values to serve the public. I can see the dangers of ex-cop candidates being elected with a particular axe to grind. But I can also see the benefits of ex-cop candidates who know the business and who have the right values and interests at heart.

    It’s not unusual to see candidates representing particular issues in wider politics. In general elections, we’ve seen doctors standing as ‘NHS’ candidates where local hospitals have been threatened with closure. Single-issue protest candidates are not unusual. I haven’t seen the ex-cop PCCs act as if they have an ‘axe-to-grind’ or pursuing ‘single-issue’ themes. Kevin Hurley made it very clear what he stood for, and seems to have stuck to his guns. Ian Johnston had his concerns and seems to have addressed them in a defensible way – unlike some other party aligned PCCs who failed to grasp the limitations of their powers. There is a big danger with trying to exclude people with certain backgrounds from standing for election – it is not good for democracy. The fault lies with a system which deliberately seeks to invest powers in a single individual rather than a committee/panel. Elected PCCs, just like elected mayors and presidential systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Police authorities were anonymous, largely unaccountable, and of questionable effectiveness. Membership of authorities changed with local election results and were subject to internal ‘coups’. With the PCC system, if the voters make a mistake, they have to live with it for four years. Maybe parties provide some sort of filter to ensure a candidate is of the appropriate quality – but the evidence for this is sparse, based on the record of MPs. But disenfranchising some people because of their background is a route to be avoided.

  2. Rachel, thank you so much for writing this. It’s an incredibly important perspective that I’ve not seen attempted elsewhere. I realise some will find this a contentious piece. They will largely be people attached to Policing in some way. Which of course, begins to prove your point. I personally advocate judging each person as an individual but the idea that an ex Police PCC somehow better represents ‘the people’ is worthy of Hans Christian Andersen.

    As an adendum, I did laugh when I saw my name in the ex Police list. I can assure the people of Lincolnshire that they don’t have to worry….this time!

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