On 31 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Lexden to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the powers and functions of Police and Crime Commissioners.

1. Police and crime commissioners

1.1 Who are they?

Police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are directly elected politicians who are responsible for securing an “efficient and effective” police force for their area. The role was created in 2012 to replace police authorities, with the first elections taking place that year. The most recent elections took place in May 2021.

A PCC represents every police force area in England and Wales with the exceptions of London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire where the powers of the PCC are held by an elected mayor. There are also different arrangements in the City of London. There are no PCCs in Scotland or Northern Ireland because policing is devolved.

1.2 What is their role?

PCCs have several key functions, including appointing a chief constable, holding them to account, and if necessary, dismissing them. These functions are set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which states that PCCs must also:

  • secure efficient and effective police for their area
  • set the police and crime objectives for their area through a police and crime plan
  • set the force budget and determine the precept (a council tax charge for policing)
  • contribute to the national and international policing capabilities set out by the home secretary
  • bring together community safety and criminal justice partners, to make sure local priorities are joined up

PCCs are not responsible for operational policing. This function has remained with chief constables. The Policing Protocol Order 2011 provided a framework for how the relationship between PCCs and chief constables should work. It said that:

The PCC and chief constable must work together to safeguard the principle of operational independence, while ensuring that the PCC is not fettered in fulfilling their statutory role.

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 also introduced opportunities for PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue governance in their area and thereby become a police, fire and crime commissioner (PFCC). Currently, four areas have a PFCC: Essex, Staffordshire, West Mercia and Northamptonshire.

1.3 How are PCCs viewed?

The government has been positive about the impact of PCCs. The former minister for crime and policing, Kit Malthouse, has said that the role “brought real local accountability to policing” and worked to “give local communities a stronger voice”. In a 2016 report, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee also considered the impact of PCCs. The committee said their introduction had “worked well to date and had some beneficial effects on public accountability and clarity of leadership in policing”. However, the committee said that the reform was “still relatively new and understanding its impact is still a work in progress”.

Research commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and reported on in the Independent, highlighted issues with the role. Following interviews with retired senior police officers, it was found that there were negative views of individual PCCs as well as concerns about the politicisation of police governance. The relationships between chief constables and PCCs was another area of concern, as was the lack of checks and balances on the power of a PCC.

There have also been various calls to make improvements to the PCC model of governance. In an article published in the Journal of Policing in 2021, Simon Cooper, the director of criminal law at the University of Essex, argued that his research had shown that PCCs “can bring a number of significant strengths to the accountability of chief constables”. However, he said that it also highlighted “some concerning imperfections” and recommended that the home secretary change current governance arrangements. For example, he said that the home secretary should review the suitability of the policing protocol in consultation with the parties it applies to.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has also said that there were mixed views among its membership about the merits and value of the PCC role. It argued that more work was needed to raise awareness of the role and to give the public the tools to judge performance, ensuring genuine accountability at the ballot box.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour) has criticised the behaviour of some PCCs and its impact on recruitment and retention of chief constables. In an article for the House magazine in 2018, Lord Hunt argued that “the power of elected PCCs to remove their chief constable almost at will is almost certainly off putting for applicants”. He said the chief inspector of constabulary and the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council had both raised similar concerns and that intervention from the Home Office was required to solve the issue.

The House of Commons Library has summed up some of these general issues in its briefing on PCCs. It said that concerns include that:

  • public understanding of and engagement with PCCs is poor
  • relationships between chief officers and PCCs are not facilitating effective management of police forces
  • PCCs are ineffective and provide weak leadership of police forces
  • PCCs are too parochial and struggle to drive collaboration between forces on crime threats across police borders

There have also been specific incidents involving PCCs which have received public attention. For example, the PCCs for Cleveland and Cambridgeshire have both resigned (in 2020 and 2019 respectively) as a result of allegations of inappropriate behaviour. More recently, in July 2022, the PCC for Nottinghamshire was banned from driving after being caught speeding five times in 12 weeks.

2. Government review

The Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto made a commitment to “strengthen the accountability of elected police and crime commissioners and expand their role”. In July 2020, the government announced the details of a two-part internal review into the role of PCCs.

2.1 Part one

In a statement to the House of Commons in July 2020, Kit Malthouse, the then minister for crime and policing, explained that part one of the review would focus on changes required to strengthen the PCC model which, where possible, could be delivered ahead of the 2021 PCC elections. Commenting further, Mr Malthouse said that the review would:

  • consider how to strengthen the accountability, resilience, legitimacy and scrutiny mechanisms of the existing model to drive up standards
  • identify and share best practice across the sector
  • examine the effectiveness of the relationship between PCCs and chief constables and the checks and balances currently in place
  • help the government to map out its longer-term ambition for the PCC role

In addition, Mr Malthouse said that the government was clear that further reform of fire and rescue services was needed. He said that the review would therefore consider “further options and opportunities to strengthen fire governance” and would draw on lessons from the first cycle of governance transfers to PFCCs.

The former home secretary, Priti Patel, set out the findings of part one of the review in a statement to the House of Commons on 16 March 2021. Ms Patel explained that the review had collated views and evidence from stakeholders across policing, fire, and local government as well as voluntary and community organisations. Public views and opinions were also considered through polling and focus groups.

On policing, Ms Patel said that the Home Office would bring forward a range of measures to:

  • strengthen PCC accountability
  • improve their transparency to the public
  • clarify the relationship between PCCs and chief constables
  • bring more consistency to the PCC role
  • raise professional standards
  • improve the checks and balances currently in place

For example, to explain the role of PCCs and make their record on crime more transparent, Ms Patel said that the government would:

  • amend the specified information order—which requires PCCs to publish certain information—to require PCCs to provide a narrative on their force’s performance against the government’s crime measures and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) force performance reports
  • change the voting system used to elect PCCs (and other roles) to first-past-the-post

Ms Patel also announced several measures to “sharpen local accountability” and clarify the framework guiding the relationship between PCCs and chief constables. This included amending through legislation section 38 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to make the chief constable dismissal process “more rigorous and transparent”.

In addition, to ensure that all PCCs adopt best practice and to improve the resilience of the office of the PCC, Ms Patel said that, amongst other measures, the government would bring forward legislation to mandate that each PCC must appoint a deputy (who must be of the same political party where the PCC represents a political party).

Focusing on fire, Ms Patel said that the government was clear that further reform was required to respond to the recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower inquiry and the Kerslake report, and to build on the findings from Sir Tom Winsor’s state of fire and rescue report. Going forward, she explained that the government’s reform agenda would focus on three key areas: people, professionalism and governance. Ms Patel said that findings of the review signalled that there was strong support for a directly elected individual taking on fire functions. As a result, she said that the government would be launching a consultative white paper on fire reform which would be used to set out its agenda in further detail. The government published the white paper in May 2022. It is currently analysing the feedback it received.

In her statement, Ms Patel also highlighted mayoral devolution, saying that the review had “cemented our view that the join up of public safety functions under a combined authority mayor has the potential to offer wider levers to prevent crime”. As a result, she said that the Home Office would remove barriers to more mayors taking on these functions and work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop a devolution and local recovery white paper. This was later replaced with the levelling up white paper which was published in February 2022.

In March 2022, Ms Patel made a further written statement on the review in which she updated the House on two of the measures related to part one. The first issue she highlighted was a government consultation which had found “broad support” for giving PCCs wider functional powers so that they had parity with the equivalent powers held by fire and rescue and most mayoral authorities. Ms Patel said that giving PCCs this new power would “make it easier for them to act creatively to reduce crime and to make better use of police resources”. The second measure Ms Patel focused on was the pledge to consult on changes to the policing protocol order. She said that she was launching a stakeholder consultation to seek views from policing partners on how to refresh the document to provide a “brighter line” on the boundaries of operational independence.

2.2 Part two

Part two of the government’s internal review was launched in July 2021. In the terms of reference, the Home Office explained that this part of the review would focus on “ensuring PCCs have the tools and levers they need to better equip them to fight crime and on scrutiny of the PCC model”. In addition, in a letter to all PCCs announcing the review, Kit Malthouse said that it would:

  • work alongside the Ministry of Justice and probation service to examine the role of PCCs in offender management aligned to existing operating models
  • consider the role of PCCs in the partnership landscape and assess whether their current set of tools and levers are sufficient to drive and co-ordinate local activity to reduce crime, combat drugs misuse and tackle anti-social behaviour
  • focus on local criminal justice boards, community safety partnerships and violence reduction units
  • bring forward a stakeholder consultation on giving general power of competence to PCCs, as afforded to local authorities

Mr Malthouse said that the government would continue to build on work carried out in part one of the review. For example, he said that the review would assess the police and crime panel model and examine the role of the Independent Office for Police Conduct in assessing criminal wrongdoings by PCCs and the issue of vexatious complaints. However, Mr Malthouse explained that the review would not consider the role of PCCs in enforcing victims’ rights and commissioning support services as this was being covered by the Ministry of Justice in its work on the upcoming Victims’ Bill.

In her March 2022 written statement, Ms Patel gave an overview of the government’s conclusions to part two of the review. The full recommendations were set out in an annex to the statement. Recommendations mentioned by Ms Patel in the statement included:

  • To cement PCCs’ role in offender management by creating a new statutory duty to “lock-in” collaborative working between PCCs and the probation service.
  • To improve the way PCCs work in partnership with others to fight crime and support victims by: strengthening the guidance that underpins the role of a PCC in bringing together partners to fight crime and drugs misuse; giving PCCs a central role on local criminal justice boards; supporting their work on violence reduction units; and clarifying the local crime prevention landscape through an in-depth review of community safety partnerships in England and Wales.
  • To improve public confidence in policing by clarifying the role of PCCs in holding the police to account and working with the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the College of Policing to ensure PCCs have access to the best possible evidence about what helps foster local confidence in policing.
  • To improve PCCs’ access to criminal justice data by issuing new central guidance to support a more data-confident culture. This will be accompanied by further steps to strengthen checks and balances on PCCs.
  • To help ensure there is effective local scrutiny by focusing on improving the recruitment and retention of independent members on police and crime panels.
  • To help ensure the public can complain about their PCC if needed and trust their complaint will be handled fairly and consistently by considering how complaints of criminal misconduct are handled and what scope there is to align a new code of conduct with the regime for mayors and councillors in local government.

Ms Patel explained that there was already a high bar in place for PCC conduct and that the review did not recommend introducing an option to recall a PCC. She said that following the conclusion of the review:

My department will work with our partners to deliver the recommendations, including legislating where necessary, and when parliamentary time allows.

3. Read more

Cover image by Andrew Martin on Pixabay.