Elected police chiefs should be given more powers to protect us

Tara Majumdar
IN LESS than a month, all communities in England and Wales outside of London will undergo radical democratic change. On 15 November, 41 Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected with the one objective of cutting crime in their local areas. London isn’t being left out: the Mayor already has similar powers.

Police and Crime Commissioners will be responsible for £13bn of funds annually and have democratic control over areas that are in some cases, three or four times bigger than the constituencies of local MPs. They will decide how much council tax will be spent on policing, how big the police budget should be, hire and fire chief constables and determine local strategies for reducing crime.

The danger is that Police and Crime Commissioners will not be able to fully deliver. As it currently stands, they will only have responsibility for local police forces and victims’ services. But to make any long-term impact, Police and Crime Commissioners cannot just react to crime when it happens. They need the power to prevent crime from happening and stop people from reoffending once they have served their sentences. To do this effectively commissioners need to be given responsibility for the whole justice system – including prisons, probation, courts and fire and ambulance services – which would effectively double their budgets to £27bn per year.

Criminal justice and emergency services are most effective when working together. In Bristol, the city council, police and probation have jointly developed the IMPACT programme to reduce offending among the most prolific criminals. Individuals on the scheme are more closely supervised and receive intensive support for mental health, housing and educational needs. In Gloucestershire, fire and rescue, police and ambulance services operate a joint control centre to better coordinate responses to 999 calls. It is possible to join up services to deliver less crime and safer communities.

Giving Police and Crime Commissioners control of the entire budget would lead to more collaboration. In many places, police force boundaries already reflect those of other criminal justice and emergency services. In London the courts, prisons, police, probation, fire and rescue and crown prosecution service operate in the same areas. Yet under its current powers it isn’t possible for the Mayor’s Office on Policing and Crime, the London equivalent of a Police and Crime Commissioner, to bring all these services together to fight crime.

In addition. the success of competitions in prisons and police support should encourage Commissioners to be imaginative about working with new providers of justice and emergency services. A number of private companies are already delivering non-emergency ambulance transport and fire and rescue services at airports. Making good use of private sector expertise will help Commissioners push through transformation and make better use of their workforce. The flexibility to choose and appoint providers that deliver the best service will allow Commissioners to radically change the way services are delivered.

Integrating criminal justice budgets would provide Police and Crime Commissioners with a single, meaningful budget to bring down levels of crime. In London, the Mayor’s Office would have a budget of £4bn on a per capita basis if it was able to assume responsibility for the full range of services. It would also encourage a sharper focus on achieving value for money. Justice and police services have had their budgets reduced by nearly a quarter in this Spending Review and should expect further cuts in the next Parliament. With greater powers, Commissioners would be able to pass on savings directly to local communities through reductions in council tax. This would encourage local service leaders to consider how budgets are managed and how productively they are operating. Local autonomy would encourage smarter spending on preventative activity and drive down demand for expensive criminal justice services, such as the courts and prison.

The government’s reforms rightly seek to shift accountability for local crime issues to a locally elected official. But the coalition has only given them half the power and half the budget to do the job properly. The revolution needs to go even further.

Tara Majumdar is a researcher at the think tank Reform. The new report Doing it Justice is available at www.reform.co.uk