The Empire Strikes Back

As in physics, so in politics. Every force in one direction meets opposing forces in the other. Reform produces counter reform. Progress depends simply on which is the more powerful.

This government has been extraordinarily reforming. It has taken on major vested interests across the public sector, whilst handling a coalition and the worst economic inheritance since WWII. Prime among those vested interests have been the police and the web of vocal lobbyists that surround them, from the Federation and ACPO to retired old sweats and local government insiders.

Their reaction, simmering for years, has finally found its form. Interestingly, that form has not come from the police. They, perhaps to their surprise, may have found something in the clarity that Police and Crime Commissioners bring. They may even be feeling a breath of wind beneath their wings, freed from the suffocating bureaucracy of committee-based decision making. They have wisely stayed out of this debate.

Instead, the reaction takes the form of resurgent local government interests. They have long resented inconvenient strangers, like directly elected PCCs (or mayors, for that matter), amidst their comfortable fiefdoms.

The Liberal Democrats – the party of local government interests, if a party at all – wants to replace PCCs with Police Boards. Labour, no less comfortable with direct accountability, has intimated the same.

How ironic that the scandal which finally outed this reaction – the outrageous failures in Rotherham – should prompt calls for a return to precisely the kind of oversight which produced those failures.

It was the leaderless and incompetent committees and ‘safeguarding’ boards of Rotherham Council which failed to challenge officials who were not doing their job. No one took responsibility in the miasma of ‘task and finish sub-groups’ and multi-agency gobbledegook that passed for accountability. How, precisely, would a police committee improve things?

For all its problems – and undoubtedly there are improvements to be made to PCCs – it is the unambiguous accountability of direct election which has left Shaun Wright with nowhere to hide. It has guaranteed a reckoning for someone with responsibility in that terrible scandal, albeit 18 months later than many would like. But an end there is; he will not stand again, and if he did his voters can pass their judgement.

What are the chances of such clarity in a council committee? How many councillors lose their jobs when things go wrong? Without direct accountability we have a system where people who fail get recycled on the merry-go-round of council preferment.

Questions about accountability between elections are not unique to PCCs. They apply to all democratic posts – MPs, councillors, AMs and MSPs alike. They are the problems of democracy. I do not accept that PCCs are different because they are powerful. That is the point of PCCs.

They are powerful because the system is powerful. They are powerful in order to be accountable. And they have to be accountable in order to be powerful. Diffusing that accountability into a committee takes us back to where we started. The system wins. The public lose.

By all means strengthen the public voice, but give people someone to sack when it goes wrong. And give that person the power to stop things going wrong. But steer clear of the cosy committees.

Anything else is reaction. The system is fighting back. The forces for reform must be bolstered once more.

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