Labour votes down its own policy on abolishing PCCs in astonishing debate at Newcastle City Council

June 5, 2015 11:41 AM

Introducing a motion, Liberal Democrat Greg Stone said

I should start this evening by taking the opportunity to distance my party from the decision to support the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners as part of the Coalition Agreement. Now that we are no longer bound by that Agreement, we consider we are no longer obliged to support the principle of PCCs.

The origin of this policy lay in the Conservative party's manifesto, not ours; it was never viewed with great enthusiasm by Liberal Democrats at national level, still less at local level. Our preference here in Newcastle was not to contest an election for a position we essentially disagreed with. In the event, we acceded to the wishes of our colleagues in Northumberland who felt it was important that the interests of the rural part of the force area were taken into account in the PCC election.

As such, we now find ourselves in the unusual position of having common ground with the platform on which the city's Labour MPs were elected a few weeks ago: as I'm sure members opposite will be aware, the Labour manifesto contained a commitment to abolish Police and Crime Commissioners and to restore their powers to local policing boards. I applaud that view and I am inviting members opposite to support their own party's policy tonight. We recognise that Labour leadership hopefuls are falling over themselves in a rush to abandon their less popular policies, but on this one, we believe their policy is right and they should have the courage of their convictions.

I was pleased to see that one of the obstacles I envisaged would be put in the way of doing so - that scrapping PCCs would require Government legislation - has been removed by Her Majesty 's Speech to Parliament last week. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill allows responsibility policing to be restored to local government, albeit in the person of an elected Metro mayor, similar to the current arrangements in London. I look forward to hearing from the party opposite on whether they are minded to support such a proposal as they seem a little uncertain to date.

For our part, we feel that the local policing board approach has merit. We didn't feel that there was much wrong with the previous police authority. However, given the enthusiasm for transferring powers to the Combined Authority, this might be a sensible alternative. We believe there is also merit in considering whether the North East needs three separate police forces - it is not impossible to envisage a reorganisation which allows for two forces, one for each Combined Authority area, or even a single regional force, as long as they retain suitable local reporting arrangements and neighbourhood policing. This approach could also lead to significant management savings - not least in terms of removing the £344,000 annual cost of the Northumbria PCC's office, the £60,000 cost of her chief of staff, and of course the significant cost of additional branding of buildings, equipment, and publicity with the name of the Commissioner. This could be better spent on frontline officers.

LM, one of the arguments put forward in favour of PCC's was that they would lead to greater democracy and accountability in terms of governance of policing and police performance. I regret to report that there is little evidence that the change has led to improvement. Turnout for the PCC election was less than 1 in 6 - something that the PCC herself ascribed to the "bungling incompetence" of the Government, rather than lack of enthusiasm for the change.
She is of course entitled to her view - but any assessment of competence should also take into account that under her stewardship crime levels have increased across the Northumbria force area after 18 years of decline, and at a time when most other force areas have overseen a reduction in crime. The PCC is ultimately accountable for this.

It is also only fair that the PCC should ultimately be accountable for what appears to be a breakdown in the working relationships between the PCC herself, the former Chief Constable, and her senior management team. We would at this point wish to put on record our thanks to the outgoing Chief Constable for her dedicated work, and extend our best wishes to the incoming Chief Constable, who has an admirable record of service both within Northumbria Police and in other forces. But we also feel that under a system designed to improve accountability and transparency, we are not necessarily being told the whole story about the change in personnel. It would be in the public interest to release Mr Bennathan's report into this affair, and for the commissioner to confirm the cost to the taxpayer of these proceedings.

There are also other questions that arise from the way that the PCC has discharged her responsibilities - including over the establishment of Victims First Northumbria, of which she is a director, and the impact on employees of Victim Support. There are questions about the setting up of advisory panels where the membership has not been disclosed despite requests, and the non-publication of information relating to the PCC's Independent Audit Committee. Anyone who cares to inspect the audit committee's work during 2015 is unable to do so - there is no information published on the PCC's website despite me having raised this with her office.

In conclusion Lord Mayor, our view is that the position of Police and Crime Commissioners is now under review nationally in light of forthcoming legislation, and that locally, having a PCC has not led to an improvement in performance, transparency, or accountability. We therefore feel that the time is right for a rethink.

Seconding the motion, Cllr Robin Ashby said ;

It's time to dispense with Police and Crime Commissioners.
History will have but a small footnote about this interesting but ultimately useless experiment.
They say there's wisdom in crowds. The lack of crowds at polling stations up and down the country withheld the hoped for democratic legitimacy that such elections were intended to bring.
They might also be a warning to those who would foist a directly elected super mayor onto us.
Although needless to say Lord Mayor you would remain super.
The PCC seems to many to be without a purpose.
Support for our local Police & Crime Commissioner and the role cannot be garnered by the cult or personality we seeing being thrust at us - at our expense - by the present incumbent.
Her name and occasional photograph leapi9ng out at us isn't the same as getting on with the job of holding the police to account for us.
That task could be done very adequately in the past by Police Authorities without lots of the high price help we see today.
I agree with the idea that police oversight powers would far better be exercised by the Combined Authority with all party participation.
That concentration might also help generate consensus for all blue light services to work from common back office services, increasing cost effectiveness and improving the efficiency of delivering the public wants to see.
In Parklands Ward, its Bosson not Baird that's seen as the boss.
He's the Sergeant that leads the team that brings us the local policing we want.
We don't want expensive image building with an eye on the next election, thank you very much.
Let's get rid of this structure and out something fit for purpose in its place.
I second the motion.