Where is the localism?

On Wednesday the TaxPayers’ Alliance published its one year assessment of the Coalition’s performance measured against our Manifesto objectives. One of the objectives was to introduce elected police commissioners. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill was quietly making its way through Parliament, so we scored this objective 5/5. But last night the measure was overturned in the Lords meaning it makes its way back to the House of Commons, and suggests we should re-think our score.

It’s hugely disappointing and a setback for a great policy. Police Authorities, as they are currently constructed, are not democratically accountable, save for some notional accountability through the presence of elected councillors. They tend to react inwardly to protect their Chief Constables rather than properly engage outwardly with taxpayers. In fact, their attempts at connecting with the public are misguided and often waste money too, as our report on Local Policing Summaries showed.

Dissenting Lords have instead voted for an amendment proposing that local police leaders should be chosen by a panel. A panel choosing a Police Commissioner does nothing to give genuine power back to local people to decide on their policing priorities. It’s simply more bureaucracy and elitism, demonstrating distrust of – and disdain for – local residents. Where is the Government’s localist agenda? It’s something that both parties of the Coalition are keen to ham up in speeches, but it’s not reflected in last night’s vote.

Although perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. All parties have form for talking local, but acting central. Local politicians from the Lib Dems and Labour – whose Peers put the kybosh on the Bill – often put up vehement opposition to deconstructing Local Education Authorities and their legacy structures, in their attempts to stop schools becoming truly independent. The Conservatives seem loath to debate genuine fiscal decentralisation, which would add proper accountability to notional power.

It would be tempting to say last night’s vote was about a flex of muscles, to show that the Lib Dems have the power to block policy they don’t like. Whether that's true or not, petty party politics shouldn’t get in the way of something that would mean residents finally get a say in the priorities for their local police force. And it’s important to remember that not only was this proposal was part of the Coalition Agreement, direct elections for Commissioners or Authorities was in both parties' election manifestos. At present local forces spend lots of money and time coming up with ways to try and engage and connect with their communities. But 188 Lords have just voted down the one real way to do that: through genuine accountability. Let’s hope that the Government show perseverance and that the Bill is not watered down before it is sent back to the Lords.

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