Give our new police chiefs power to make a difference29 October 2012
On 15 November the people of Yorkshire will have a voice over how their police are run for the first time. The Government has called the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, and rightly so. From the ashes of invisible and bureaucratic police authorities will rise directly elected, democratically accountable commissioners to decide how more than £1.2 billion of taxpayers’ funding is spent in the four police force areas in Yorkshire and Humberside.
Real democratic oversight will mean better, cheaper and more local policing that responds to the priorities of Yorkshire’s constituents, not the whim or will of Whitehall. Yet as they stand the Government’s reforms risk being discredited before they have even begun. Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected with responsibility over just policing, only one of many local agencies involved in the fight against crime, and yet be held accountable for crime reduction as a whole. Without powers over prisons and probation, Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioners will be unable to influence levels of reoffending in the county, the second highest of any region in England. Without oversight of ambulance or fire and rescue they will be unable to join up emergency services to improve response times or deliver more preventative services to stop crimes from happening in the first place. Whoever Yorkshire elects will be inherently limited in their ability to fulfill their election manifestos as a result.
The Government has already hinted at a wider role for Police and Crime Commissioners. In July, the Swift and Sure White Paper heralded the potential of PCCs to transform criminal justice “from an uncoordinated and fragmented system into a seamless and efficient service”.
As recent Reform research shows, the best criminal justice services demonstrate how such integration can be achieved. In Red Hook, New York, for example, the integration of local police, probation, court and rehabilitation services within a community court has dramatically cut crime and improved public satisfaction in a neighbourhood once described by Life Magazine as “the crack capital of America”. Since 1998, violent crime in Red Hook has more than halved and the number of burglaries has fallen by two-thirds, while approval ratings for police, prosecutors and judges have increased threefold. A similar story can be found in Warwickshire, where two new joint Justice Centres have brought police, courts, probation, youth justice and victim support together under one roof to provide a “one-stop shop” for justice. The centres have not only improved community satisfaction but also enabled services to work together better on the most high profile repeat offenders. Police and Crime Commissioners, as a single point of accountability and budgetary control, would be able to make such innovation the rule, rather than the exception.
Greater integration will not just reduce crime; it will allow Police and Crime Commissioners to reduce costs for taxpayers too. In 2009, the UK had the most expensive criminal justice systems in the developed world, spending more as a proportion of GDP on public order and safety than any other country in the OECD. The 2010 Spending Review set out 23 per cent real terms savings for this Parliament, and evidence suggests that criminal justice services should expect further budget cuts in the next. If healthcare spending is protected in line with GDP, as seems likely, criminal justice services will face 3.4 per cent annual budget cuts between 2014-15 and 2016-17. As the Justice Select Committee remarked last year, the criminal justice system is “facing a crisis of sustainability”.
With end-to-end oversight, Police and Crime Commissioners would be able to put the criminal justice system on a sustainable fiscal footing. The integration of local justice services in Warwickshire, for example, has generated £9.5 million in one-off savings and £800,000 annual returns. Leading fire services such as Greater Manchester have shown how to reduce costs and make communities safer at the same time, by shifting their resources into fire prevention. These lessons must be learnt by all criminal justice services. On Monday, in his first speech on law and order since taking office, the Prime Minister said: “prevention is the cheapest and most effective way to deal with crime – everything else is simply picking up the pieces of failure that has gone before”. Yet he failed to propose the means to bring such an approach about. With powers over preventative as well as reactive services, Police and Crime Commissioners would be well placed to drive lower crime and thus put criminal justice spending on a sustainable downward trajectory, passing on savings to their electorates in the form of lower local taxation.
A more integrated approach to justice could be complimented with more creative commissioning of services, in particular through the use of private providers. The success of private provision in prison and police support services should give PCCs the confidence to extend competition to other areas, including fire, ambulance and probation. Private firms already deliver fire services at airports and non-emergency ambulance services around the country, offering scope for further savings. Privately managed prisons have shown the value of private sector expertise in joining up housing and rehabilitation services for offenders as they leave the prison walls. At HMP Doncaster, for example, the private company Serco now works in partnership with two charities, Catch22 and Turning Point, to prevent prisoners from committing further crimes when they leave custody. In the last inspection of the prison, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons said that the prison was “leading the way in terms of the rehabilitation revolution”. Those candidates already rejecting the use of private firms, of which there are several in Yorkshire, may find their options limited if they actually achieve office.
The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners on 15 November represents a welcome step towards local direction and accountability in policing and criminal justice. But the new commissioners risk losing the confidence of the public if they do not have the tools to effectively address the causes of crime as well as crime itself. The police are just part of the story. If the Government wants to introduce a real revolution in law and order, it should follow this flagship policy to its logical conclusion and devolve powers and budgets for all criminal justice and emergency services to PCCs.
Will Tanner is a Researcher at the independent, non-party thinktank Reform, whose new report, Doing it justice, is available at www.reform.co.uk.