Bishop of Southwark speaks about reviewing the powers of Police and Crime Commissioners

On 31st October 2022, the House of Lords discussed a question for short debate tabled by Lord Lexden, asking whether the government planned to review the powers of the Police and Crime Commissioners. The Bishop of Southwark spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate and setting out for us with his habitual clarity the issues at hand. I am particularly saddened to hear that the good name of a distinguished former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, has been traduced in the way that the noble Lord has described. However, I wish to approach this debate with a different focus.

Any hierarchy, any delivery of service, any public-facing organisation is fraught with multiple expectations and with the frailties and capacities of those who lead. For instance, diocesan bishops have wide discretion but are constrained by resource, custom, law, synodical structures and vocation.

The issues around effective delivery and of accountability in policing are very old. Historically, constables were at the direction of magistrates, who continued to sit on watch committees and police authorities until recent times. However, the growth in the size of forces and their operational complexity fuelled a sense of operational independence, away from political interference and amateur direction. It also allowed for co-operation at a national level where crime issues crossed county borders. Direct local accountability was seen to threaten professionalism, and it threatened the fight against crime nationally.

However, a police service insufficiently accountable fostered a culture apart from public concerns. In some places, it allowed corruption to be covered up and prejudices to become ingrained, and performance to become unchallenged. The alternatives, it seems, were national direction or local accountability, and the Government in 2011 opted for the latter by sweeping away local police authorities and replacing them, as we have heard, with directly elected police and crime commissioners.

Of the several commentaries on the progress of this innovation, the research commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in 2018 bordered on the excoriating. The more recent article by Simon Cooper in the journal Policing is more nuanced. It provides evidence for the sort of direct accountability and scrutiny the Government hoped for and for greater efficiency of action, but there is concern over idiosyncrasy of decisions, the increase in the removal of chief constables and the reluctance of suitable applicants to replace them.

This brings me to the special case of Dame Cressida Dick, who announced on 10 February this year that she would step aside as Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis in the midst of publicly expressed concerns about recent actions by the force. My thoughts on the matter are in no way related to the merits or otherwise of how the then commissioner carried out her role. Like others, however, I am concerned at the deficits in the process of removing her, identified by Sir Tom Winsor in his report of 24 August on her resignation, which was commissioned by the then Home Secretary—I have lost track of which one.

According to the former Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Dame Cressida was informed that morning that the mayor would publicly announce that same afternoon his lack of confidence and intention to begin the statutory process of removal. She had until then to act, and chose to go. The mayor, for whom I have a good deal of respect—in fact, a very great regard—has alluded to an “apparent degree of bias” in the report. There are questions about leadership and protection of the Metropolitan Police, but it remains the case that the process set down in Section 48 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 was not followed. The commissioner was not suspended. The commissioner was not formally informed of an intention that she should retire or resign and was given no opportunity to respond, and the Home Secretary’s consent was not obtained to remove her. Virtue lies in following agreed procedures when it is inconvenient to do so, not just when it is easy, especially when one is talking about a service which, in turn, is about ensuring law and order. I remain saddened and disappointed that this happened in this way.

There is some merit in examining a revision of the regulations applying to police and crime commissioners and mayors under the Act, or a code of practice on its operation, and I hope the Minister might indicate some willingness move in that direction.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con, Minister of State – Home Office): I take the point that publicity around the role of PCCs could be improved. I am going to get to the subject of the relationship between PCCs and chief constables. It would be important to answer the right reverend Prelate’s concerns and the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the breakdown in communication and trust between those two roles. For a PCC to deliver to the community they serve, they need to have a strong working relationship with their chief constable. That has to recognise the operational independence of policing but also the local mandate of the PCC to deliver on local priorities.

The right reverend Prelate referred to the situation with Dame Cressida Dick. During the debate on the review of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, a week ago, I referred—at some length, I am afraid—to the mayor and MOPAC’s complex relationship with the Home Secretary in regard to this. I refer noble Lords to that in Hansard. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I do not think that anyone is blaming anyone; it is a complex relationship, and the lines unfortunately crossed on a number of occasions.

Through the PCC review, we heard loud and clear the need for clarification of the working relationships between policing system partners. This is one of the primary reasons why we consulted on the Policing Protocol Order 2011—I note the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—to ensure that we are able to support effective and constructive working relationships in the policing sector as well as possible. These responses are currently being considered, and we will update in due course.

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