Norfolk PCC Stephen Bett defends his role after Lib Dems pledge to scrap police and crime commissioners

Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen Bett in the control room at Wymondham HQ. Photo: Bill Smith

Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen Bett in the control room at Wymondham HQ. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant

Norfolk's police and crime commissioner (PCC) found himself at the centre of a row last night, after coalition politicians pledged to scrap the controversial post.

Stephen Bett was forced to defend his role after it emerged that the Lib Dems' general election manifesto would include plans to replace PCCs with police boards made up of elected councillors.

Mr Bett admitted he would 'make mistakes', but said his team had already scored valuable successes in forging closer bonds between public sector organisations, including those dealing with victim support, domestic abuse and mental health.

'After making sure all these people are on board, it has never happened before and that is what this job has achieved,' he said.

'We have been in position for almost two years and we are fighting a culture of a silo mentality in the public bodies that says: 'This is my area of business and no-one else's'. It is up to my team to prove their worth and I think they will.'

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The last year has been a difficult one for Mr Bett, who was elected as an independent PCC in 2012. He is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission for claiming more than £3,000 in mileage from his home to official headquarters.

He has always maintained that he has done nothing wrong, and that everything he had done had been 'above board'.

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'The press and the media have focused on a lot of the negative things, and not all the positive things that have been done,' he said.

'I am in a business where I have a final say on a budget of £151m and I have no template to work under, other than to make sure the police are happy and the public services work as well as possible together. And I am under the cosh as far as money is concerned and I have had to take out £21m in the last five years.

'Will I make mistakes? Yes I will. Let's face it, if you want to analyse one person and put them under a microscope for everything they do, the press and the media can make you look terrible if they want to. But I feel that this office, with the people I have got around me and the top constabulary that we have, can make a huge difference to the safety and security of Norfolk people.'

While Norfolk's Lib Dem MPs did not criticise Mr Bett, they agreed that commissioners across the country had failed to fulfil their objectives.

The accountability of PCCs has come under scrutiny in South Yorkshire, where Shaun Wright has resisted calls for his resignation after a report revealed thousands of children were abused in Rotherham while he was in charge of the town's children's services.

And the public support of such roles has also been questioned, with only one in ten eligible voters turning out in a by-election to find a new PCC in the West Midlands.

North Norfolk MP and care minister Norman Lamb said: 'It is fair to say the commissioner, and his deputy, in Norfolk have played a valuable role in the need for collaboration between the mental health services and the police.

'I acknowledge that, but if you look across the country there is a massive question mark over the success of PCCs. There is a real issue of democratic legitimacy when turnouts are so low, and the truth is that the quality of PCCs that emerged nationally is very variable. We have to make a judgement on whether the system as a whole can be justified for the money it costs, rather than focus on individuals.'

Norwich South MP Simon Wright added: 'It's clear from experience in Norfolk and across the country that police and crime commissioners simply do not enjoy the support of the general public. Turnouts for elections have been pitifully low, and there is little evidence that PCCs have improved accountability within policing.'

Clive Lewis, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Norwich South, said: 'I know Stephen Bett has had some issues, but I thought that him and his deputy Jenny McKibben have made a great team, and I have found them very competent in dealing with a difficult situation. 'The Lib Dems, from my point of view, are blatantly positioning themselves on another popular position. After voting for it initially, they are turning around against it, so I am a little bit cynical.

'I got the impression that the coalition knew they were going to be making swingeing cuts to our police services, and the PCCs were set up to basically be the fall guys. Overall I don't think they have bedded in nationally, and I don't think the public would miss them if they were to go.'

George Freeman, the Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk said: 'The idea behind PCCs was to make sure that police forces are accountable to the people and the places that they serve, through the creation of an elected commissioner to work alongside the professional chief constable. This model works well in many countries, especially in big countries. As with so many government policies, rural areas often have different priorities.

'Norfolk's police are very highly ranked and clearly doing an excellent job, and I think that the current commissioner should be allowed to complete his term to allow local people to decide.'

nWhat do you think? Write, giving full contact details, to EDP Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.

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