Police Commissioners need to be transparent in what they do

Published at: December 17, 2012 11:45 AM

Discussing the first ever Police and Crime Commissioner elections, Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary wrote:

Police Commissioners need to be transparent in what they do – the danger is they won’t when dealing with lobbyists and privatisation

The Tories are pushing for private companies to take over major police roles, with insufficient safeguards.

It's hard to believe that in just six days' time, almost 37 million people are being asked to join in the biggest vote since the general election. Ministers seem to be working hard to make their new police and crime commissioner elections a shambles – providing too little information, costly elections in cold dark November, the helpline not working, ballot papers reprinted. Little wonder that the Electoral Reform Society is predicting most voters will stay home.

Yet there's an awful lot at stake. People have told me they are worried about what the posts are for, the cost, and the impact of elections on impartial policing. And indeed that is why Labour opposed the plans in parliament and why we've said reforms are needed.

But now that the government has decided to go ahead, vital policing decisions will lie in police and crime commissioners' hands. And it is because we believe the future of public policing is at stake that Labour is standing candidates and urging people to vote.

The first task for new commissioners will be to cope with next year's budget cuts. David Cameron and Theresa May are cutting 20% from police budgets and 15,000 officers, then expecting commissioners to take all the flak. These elections are an important chance for people to send a message to the government that they are cutting too far and too fast. Cutting 15,000 police officers is a big mistake and Labour candidates have said that, if elected, their first act will be to hammer on May's door and use their mandate to demand a rethink of next year's further budget cuts.

The new commissioners will face serious decisions on the future of policing and private contracts. A strong push is under way both from Tory government ministers and from private companies to contract out large swaths of public policing, yet there has been no debate about the risks or the safeguards needed.

In the West Midlands and Surrey, the Home Office is pushing the police to explore massive long-term contracts with a single company with nothing ruled out, even neighbourhood patrols and investigations. Ministers don't rule out privatising police community support officers either. Private companies are lobbying hard for business and there are insufficient safeguards against corruption.

As the emergency service of last resort the police rely on being able to switch resources quickly to deal with new threats – yet building that flexibility into long-term contracts can be hard and costly. Accountability is also a problem. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has no jurisdiction over private contracted staff even if their failure leads to serious harm. The public needs to be able to trust that policing decisions – whether to investigate or to stop someone in the street – are made in the interests of justice, not the corporate balance sheet. That's why Labour candidates are campaigning against these plans and are committed to more transparency too. Labour candidates are campaigning hard against these plans, and we're calling on the government to introduce more rules and safeguards too. A free-for-all by Tory or independent candidates over police privatisation is positively dangerous.

Public-private partnerships can be effective for things like new technology. But all contracts must pass tough tests. There should be clear red lines drawn about what is acceptable to protect public policing, resilience and public confidence as well as strong tests over value for money. And there has to be stronger protection against corruption.

We need commissioners who will work with councils, communities and other organisations to prevent crime, as well as making sure the police can take strong action when problems arise. That is why Labour candidates are highlighting the importance of partnerships to tackle issues such as antisocial behaviour and domestic violence too.

But for all our campaigning we know many people are still concerned about the impact of elections on public policing. More must be done to protect a longstanding tradition of impartial policing in Britain. That's why Labour candidates have signed stronger pledges to maintain the operational independence as we don't believe the government has done enough to protect the operational independence of the police.

For the future, we've set up an independent review into policing involving national and international experts to report next year, as we believe reforms will be needed. But for now we have to do our best to support effective policing.

The government's carelessness towards policing comes across loud and clear in its approach to these elections. It is doing considerable damage to effective policing at the national level. In the next six days we need to campaign hard to stop it doing damage locally too.

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