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Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke slams elected police commissioners

PUBLISHED: 08:04 16 August 2011

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke. Picture: James Bass

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

Former home secretary Charles Clarke has backed the EDP’s call for the government to scrap its plan for directly-elected police commissioners.

Fears that political interference could undermine policing are among the key concerns voiced by the influential former MP.

The coalition’s plan for elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) is aimed at ensuring the forces of law and order listen to the concerns of ordinary people.

Ministers say the role, which is an integral part of reforms in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, would transfer power to people instead of the “remote and invisible” police authorities which it will replace.

However, Mr Clarke, who was police minister from 1999 to 2001 and home secretary from 2004 to 2006, said there were real fears over direct political involvement in operational policing.

He said: “Senior police officers generally are very concerned about the elected police commissioner’s role because they believe it will bring serious uncertainty to the way in which they carry out their policing decisions.

“I would say I’m delighted the EDP has come out against the idea of elected police commissioners for Norfolk. I hope that all the MPs in Norfolk will listen to their position.”

In particular Mr Clarke points to the interventions carried out by London mayor Boris Johnson, who sacked the Metropolitan Police leader, Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, in 2008 and this year removed his support from Paul Stephenson.

Mr Clarke said police must be able to focus upon their operational responsibilities without political distractions, and directly-elected commissioners would bring partisan politics into the heart of operational policing and diminish police confidence.

He added: “The campaigns will oversimplify the difficult issues around policing.

“For example, it is quite possible to run a campaign saying ‘arm the police in Norfolk’, even though it is not a matter that should be decided by elections of that kind.

“Or we could see a campaign from other people saying the police should not be policing the drug consumption issues, because drugs should not be illegal.

“These kind of campaigns, which would be very populist in tone, would simplify and distort.”

Yesterday the EDP voiced its message to the government that an elected leader of our constabulary is not needed or wanted.

Here’s a recap of what we said:

“As things stand, next May we will go to the polling booths to vote for an elected Police and Crimes Commissioner with a mandate that includes the power to hire and fire the chief constable and setting the force budget. The cost nationally of this new system, according to Home Office figures, will be more than £130m, plus another £50m for elections every four years.

That is hardly chicken feed in an age of austerity and belt-tightening.

It is open to debate what makes the government think an elected commissioner is better qualified to oversee Norfolk Constabulary than the chief constable and Independent Police Authority.

Officially the reason for the reforms given by home secretary Theresa May in July 2010 is that they are about ‘reconnecting police and the people’. In Norfolk that would appear to be trying to solve a problem that does not exist.

Our chief constable is accountable to the local Police Authority and has to stand by his record. The letters pages of this newspaper are not inundated with readers’ grumbles against the constabulary.

Indeed the EDP has been proud to use the headline ‘safest county in the country’ more than once in recent years.

And in the past few weeks HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has praised efforts by Norfolk and Suffolk constabularies to work jointly to make combined savings of £38m over the next four years. That praise has been nothing less than effusive: “the collaboration proposals are some of the most ambitious and well-planned in the country”. The change plan was described as “exemplary”. HMIC has advised other forces to talk to ours for advice on how to make savings in backroom functions while protecting the frontline.

So Norfolk Constabulary does not appear to be broken and does not need fixing with the government’s broad brush approach.

Police and politicians have never made comfortable bedfellows and there is a very real danger in these reforms of creating a politicised police force. What if the commissioner wanted to be populist and put more bobbies on the beat in the city? That would be interfering with the chief constable’s guaranteed operational independence. If he refused, presumably the commissioner could say, Lord Sugar-like, “You’re fired!”

What if the US President-style commissioner wanted to extract Norfolk from the cost-cutting exercise with Suffolk and exert his own authority? Presumably the savings would be lost from shared IT, human resource, finance and administration and in creating joint policing and criminal justice units? That would mean the commissioner would have to raise the council tax precept. But that might be rejected by the newly-created independent Police and Crime panel, set up to replicate the police authority, who have power of veto over precept levels.

Oh dear, now the election of a commissioner has actually created problems where ones did not exist.”

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