One interesting observation from the Home Affairs Select Committee report on PCCs published today is that the role of Police and Crime Panels should be strengthened.
The report is generally very encouraging for PCCs. It recognises our birth pains and the early challenges of establishing a new democratic office. It expects, rightly, that more must be done by PCCs and others to ensure the system works. But it makes clear that PCCs are more accountable and are providing real leadership for their forces.
I welcome this, but when it comes to Police and Crime Panels it drifts back into stale old thinking about the nature of scrutiny. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a committee it sees scrutiny only in terms of what a committee can provide. Hence it wants to see Police and Crime Panels strengthened.
I see no need for this particular change whatsoever. In fact it harks back to the days of insiders cutting deals with each other to ensure certain things get looked at and others don’t.
The idea that PCCs are under-scrutinised is absurd. PCCs have been relentlessly scrutinised by the press ever since they were created. How many stories can you recall of scandals in Police Authorities? Not many. And that’s certainly not because the scandals weren’t there.
The press, not dreary committees, provide real scrutiny of public bodies. That is their purpose and they are far more effective than cosy old committee insiders in the style of the Police Authority. It’s the press who expose MPs’ expenses. The press unpicked the Plebgate scandal. They have challenged PCCs over their Deputies, their decisions, their spending. That is a hundred times more effective than a committee meeting.
The point of PCCs is that they are accountable because they have power. They cannot hide behind a Police and Crime Panel because that Panel has constrained their decisions (except in very few cases – as we are often reminded). They answer for their decisions because they make those decisions. If the public don’t like it, they have the ultimate power – at the ballot box.
Take power away and you lose accountability too. Wrap up a directly-elected politician with a mandate from the public in a bureaucracy with no mandate and you lose both power and accountability. PCC powers are significant because the role they perform is significant. They will face their electorates alone and those electorates will decide their fate.
If we need further checks on PCCs let’s make sure we leave that intact. Introduce a two-term limit or the right of voters to recall their PCC. But steer clear of the committees.
Who guards the guardians? Not a committee. Not a panel. We, the people.