Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Can't a "third way" on elected police commissioners be found?

The EDP has a rather understated story that Norfolk County Council will oppose government moves to introduce an elected police commissioner for the county. I say understated, because at first I couldn't believe they missed the chance to plaster "Tory splits" or "Coalition Collision Course" all over the front page, but then I realised that the council were merely backing the EDP stance on the issue and they might not want to frighten their new found buddies.

Anyway, the usually very sound Cllr Ian Mackie - a good man who will one day make an excellent County Council Leader - uses the chance to sound off about his own party's plans. Unfortunately though, I believe my old friend has it wrong on three counts.

Firstly he says that we have a "high profile" Chair of the Police Authority in Stephen Bett. I am sure he is high profile - in the council chamber. But on the streets of Norwich, or rural Norfolk for that matter, outside in our communities I suspect very very few people know who he is. I am involved in politics and even I had to google him to make sure I got the right name. When the EDP did us all a service by publishing the pictures of the members of the police authority, I could name just 2 of them - my old ward colleague Paul Wells and Green Councillor Phil Hardy - and I suspect I was 2 names ahead of 99% of the county. I urge our elected County Councillors to understand that to them these people may be "high profile" but to the rest of us they are not. The members of that police authority collect handsome allowances for their positions and the county council enjoys, as they would, the status and responsibility that brings to them. Good news for the people of Bowthorpe or Thorpe Hamlet - where Wells and Hardy represent - but how should I hold the police accountable? Difficult to say. And who gave those 2 no doubt superb public servants that role in the first place? Or any of them for that matter? People doing their shopping today in Norwich Market I doubt could tell me, either.

Then Cllr Mackie urges the government to let Norfolk decide who we wish our police to be run. Quite right. But nobody asked us about the current settup either. I didn't get to choose how my police are run, nor did I get to vote for my County Council reps on the Police Authority. So why are there no plans for referenda asking the people of Norfolk which system we wish to use? We could combine it with another poll to keep costs down, perhaps, but I do object to people using as an arguement against change that localism is vital (which it is) without asking local people if they want change.

And lastly there is the wonderful news that Norfolk is the safest county in England - good news that is I am sure in no small part down to the work of people like Cllrs Wells, Hardy and Mackie. But it shouldn't be the case that just because we are a low-crime area that I as a taxpayer - or to be more precise a police precept payer - have no control over how that money is spent or what the policing priorities are. The police do a vital job but they spend public money. Schools and hospitals have boards where the public have their directly elected members, why not the police? Actually, just because something is working doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to hold that something to account.

You may read this and think I am madly in favour of police commissioners. I am not. I am in favour of democracy, accountability and open public services. I believe that like schools, the police authority should be much more open in its work. I don't want to vote for a County Councillor who then votes for another County Councillor to sit on this body. Nobody then feeds back to me, not my County Councillor or even the ones on the body itself.

Come on Norfolk, we can do better. Don't oppose this because you like the cosy relationship between the police authority and the County Council. Why not have accountability? Why not attack government plans using a plan of your own to improve the relationship between the police authority and the people of Norfolk rather than just clinging to the EDP's statist status quo ideals?

As I say, I am not wildly up for elected commissioners but they are, in my view, a darn site better than what we have at the moment. But I am surprised nobody can think of a better solution than both of them, to what is a very real democractic deficit at the heart of our public services.

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