Don't back down on police accountability, Jacqui

It's extremely disappointing that the Home Secretary has apparently abandoned proposals to make the police properly accountable to the public by electing Police Authorities. Unfortunately, the reason she has got the jitters about the plans is exactly why directly elected authorities would be a good idea.


The reasons she has given for backing down are threefold:


i) Elections would "politicise" policing and possibly allow "populists" to be elected.


ii) The Tories can't be trusted to run policing as she would want.


iii) Senior police officers and existing authority members don't like the idea.


Each of those arguments is not only invalid but actually contain the strength of the proposals. Let's look at them one by one.


i) Elections would "politicise" policing and possibly allow "populists" to be elected.


First off, this argument is heavily soaked with selective and biased words. Of course elections would allow populists in, if a populist is by definition the person whose ideas the public most support. That is the point of democracy, and "populist" is simply an insult designed to suggest that an idea with popular democratic support is inferior to a highbrow, Westminster-village idea that is unpopular because the public are somehow too stupid to appreciate its genius.


Second, policing and the fight against crime are too important not to "politicise" (for which read "place under democratic control"). Many would argue that protecting the public from violence, theft and harm from others is the first and most fundamental duty of the state to its citizens. It is the public who pay for the police, the CPS, the courts and the prisons, and it is they who are at the sharp end if policing fails and crimes are committed. Why should they not be allowed to control the police? Who knows whether the system works or not better than them?


Even Jacqui Smith's own Government have run on a platform of "tough on crime and the causes of crime", and make great play of their policies on policing and criminal justice. Even this policy of allowing elections to police authority was being touted as an example of how great the Government were (back when they thought it was a good idea), and thus as a political benefit of the Government. Policing policy can never be anything other than a political and politicised issue, and it is already too divorced from the people.


ii) The Tories can't be trusted to run policing as she would want.


This is the nub of the actual problem Jacqui has developed with the idea.It seems that she has no problems with elected representatives of the people controlling policing as long as that elected representative is her.


She and other Government members today have been pointing to the fact that Boris Johnson as Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority had the power to effectively force out Sir Ian Blair as Met Police Commissioner. What is the problem with that? Johnson had made clear all along during his election campaign that he would be taking up the Chairmanship of the MPA, and there was never any illusion that he approved of Blair's methods or right-on attitude. In a choice between the two, Johnson was the one with a million-vote mandate.


The reason that handing power back to the people is such a good idea is precisely that everything would not be uniformly mismanaged from an overcentralised headquarters in the Home Office. The Home Secretary would not be able to constantly micromanage police officers she has never met, in areas of the country she has never visited, fighting crimes she has never experienced. Unfortunately, Ms Smith has made this decision on the basis of the problem that currently bedevils the British State - politicians cannot resist grabbing all power possible to themselves, irrespective of whether they are the best at exercising it, and simply cannot bear to give it up even when centralisation clearly fails.


Essentially, she doesn't want anyone running the police who doesn't do what she wants, even if the people disagree with her.


iii) Senior police officers and police authorities don't like the idea.


Of course they don't - given the choice, wouldn't we all want to be an unaccountable law unto ourselves?


Police officers must remember that they are not a private enterprise, subject only to external regulation, they are one of the most crucial arms of a democratically controlled state. Nor are they the Home Secretary's personal force, they are the employees of the whole nation and as such they should be answerable to the population they serve. Unfortunately, whilst most frontline officers share most of the basic views of the public - catch criminals, punish them firmly, don't excuse serious crimes with simple warnings, stuff the Human Rights Act and stop pursuing politically correct thought crimes - their senior officers are increasingly well versed in the nanny state managerialism espoused by the Home Secretary. For some (as it was for Sir Ian Blair), the management-speak of meetings with the Home Secretary is far more comfortable than the sharp and simple demands of a public that wants criminals caught and locked up.


The opposition of existing members of police authorities is particularly unsuprising. At the moment they are a mixture of appointed quangocrats and appointed councillors, who are predictably keen to avoid actually having to run to hold their seats and having to justify their views and activities to the public. Who knows, without googling, who is on their local police authority? Other than Boris Johnson, prominent because of his public election, I can't name any of the others on my local board. Can you?


In proposing elected police authorities, the Government were on the right track. Not only had they recognised the accountability deficit that exists in policing, they were beginning to acknowledge that the current arrangement of centralised government, placing huge responsibilities at the fingertips of one individual politician in Whitehall with little personal experience of the issues, simply does not work. Unfortunately, they seem to have lost the courage to push it through to its logical conclusion. We must recognise that it is a difficult thing for politicians to let go, stop trying to juggle everything at once and trust the people, but if we are ever to have an effective, cost-efficient public sector, do it they must.

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