Tim Hollis: A radical reform that could harm the relationship between police and public

WELL before the General Election, the Conservative Party made it clear that they considered the current arrangements for police accountability to be in need of reform.

They believed that the Home Office and central government had exercised too great an influence on operational policing priorities and wished to see local communities have a greater say on how they are policed. I do not disagree with their analysis on that point. They then declared their intention to introduce directly-elected police commissioners.

From an early stage, the Association of Chief Police Officers expressed deep reservations at the proposal. This is not, as some have suggested, the reaction of vested interest seeking to maintain the status quo – we know that change is required – but it is a serious note of caution voiced by the leadership of the British Police Service.

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Today, we have a coalition Government seeking to deliver radical reform across the public sector. In the Queen's Speech, there was the commitment to introduce "directly-elected individuals to hold the police to account. They would ensure that local policing activities meet the needs of the local community, help build confidence in the system and bring communities and the police together".

At present, chief constables have responsibility for the "direction and control" of a police force and we are operationally independent. We are held to account by a police authority which is responsible for ensuring an "effective and efficient" police force.

I do not consider that my operational independence is at risk under the proposed new arrangements, but I do have real concerns over the wider implications.

To what extent is an elected individual for policing covering a large area and a wide range of communities realistically able to represent the complexity of their views on local policing? With the exception of those standing as independents, the individuals will need to come from a party and a place. To a significant extent, their views on policing will be influenced by their background politically, and their experience of policing where they live. Can one person represent the wide range of views of rural communities, as well as those living in towns and cities, where the social and demographic mix is so complex?

Equally important, what will be the relationship between the police commissioner and the other elected representatives across the force area, specifically the MPs and councillors on the local authority? They, too, have a very real interest in policing and in representing the views of local communities. When it comes to setting policing priorities, who has the most powerful mandate?

In my five years as Chief Constable of Humberside, I have witnessed the strong working relationships that have developed between police and the four unitary authorities in my force area. This has underpinned much of the improved performance achieved in recent years, and will be even more important as public sector budgets come under pressure. What will be the relationship between those local partnerships and someone setting priorities for the force as a whole?

The police authority is currently a precept-setting authority so relations between members, and the leaders of the local councils, is critical when annual budgets are set. The majority of our police

authority members are councillors from those same authorities, hence there is a direct link between the police authority and the local authorities. Will the new police commissioner have similar precept setting powers?

There is another level of complexity. This region's four police forces and police authorities are working together to achieve greater efficiencies and to tackle the very real threats posed by serious and organised criminals operating across force boundaries, and preying on local communities.

We are rightly proud of the joint operational units which have been created to provide the necessary higher levels of protection. One can reasonably predict that a person seeking to become an elected police commissioner will adopt a manifesto promising to deliver better policing locally. What will their attitude be if I decide, as a Chief, to deploy officers to regional units working outside my force area? That, too, is unclear.

Professionally, I understand the new Government's desire to reinforce the relationship between the police and their communities at local level. A good deal of effort has gone into that aspect of policing in recent years. We are proud of what we have achieved.

I also welcome their intention to loosen the grip of Whitehall on setting policing priorities and holding police to account. My concern is the current lack of detail as to how elected police commissioners will undertake their work and the nature of their relationship to other agencies, particularly at local authority level, with whom the police work so closely.

I do not disagree with the view that existing accountability

arrangements need to be reviewed and refreshed. I know that members of the existing police authorities have ideas as to how that might be brought about.

My concern is that in seeking to be radical and reforming, the Government may introduce a fundamentally new element of policing which does not fit easily with the relationships between local police and their communities which have grown up over the last 180 years.

Indeed, the proposed changes may not, in reality, bring communities and police together in the way they envisage. An important debate is underway.

Tim Hollis is Chief Constable of Humberside Police and Vice President of the Association of Chief Police Officers.