Police and Crime Commissioners (Wales) – Westmister Hall Debate
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to debate the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales.
Public confidence in the police authority that covers my constituency has been rated as among the lowest in the country. As recently as 2008, Gwent police were working to raise public confidence in their service from a very low 39%. Even now, just 53% of people are satisfied with the service that they receive, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. For a service built on giving the public the confidence to sleep soundly at night, that is shockingly low, and that is why I am in favour of the PCC role. It is a link between the public and the police who serve them, and a check and a balance that is independent of the police. If the job is not being done well, the public have the final say. Those are principles that we as Members of Parliament can appreciate.
However, many have argued that there is no appetite from the public for PCCs. For example, the Welsh turnout for the PCC elections was a meagre 14.9%, with a polling station in the Gwent area reporting a turnout of zero. One year on, those poor figures still colour many opinions of PCCs. So why is there a troubled mandate? Well, the original November polling day was the worst possible time to hold an election; the large areas covered by each police authority make traditional campaigning very difficult; and this was compounded by the Government’s decision not to use freepost leaflets. It all adds up to a system set up to return pretty meagre results. Having said that, let us stop using the small turnout as a stick with which to beat PCCs.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): My hon. Friend described the turnout as meagre. Does he recall the sensational world record low turnout at a polling station in my constituency, where there was a nil vote?
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend amplifies the point very well.
We should judge PCCs on their ability to restore confidence in the police in the future, not on the botched system that installed them. The charity, Victim Support, encouraged PCCs to sign pledges to champion the victims of crime. It asked for the police to be more victim-focused and more effective at meeting their needs, and to give victims and witnesses a strong voice in the wider criminal justice system. Those are the sorts of issues that we should be considering when deciding whether PCCs have been worth it.
Unfortunately, Gwent’s PCC has been making headlines by not following another principle that Victim Support alluded to: the need for PCCs to be both open and accountable. Anyone following the story of PCCs across the country will be disappointed with the saga of Gwent PCC Ian Johnston and his turbulent first year. Mr Johnston instigated the retirement of Chief Constable Carmel Napier on May 23, despite the fact that Gwent police reported crime figures that at one point in 2012 showed the highest reduction in England and Wales—15% overall.
A lack of openness has threatened to damage the PCC role. First, Mr Johnston’s request for the chief constable to retire was revealed only in a leak to our local newspaper. When asked why this had taken place, Mr Johnston said that it was in part because there had been doubts about the crime figures produced by Gwent police. Although we all agree that that sort of scrutiny is exactly what we expect from a PCC, since then, colleagues and I have been demanding evidence that the figures were a case of statistical sleight of hand.
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems thrown up by the Gwent saga is the fact that the PCC has been intervening in what are effectively operational police matters? He has seen himself as a chief constable in waiting as well as a PCC, which points to a weakness in the legislation. There is not a clear definition of what is strategic and what is operational.
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will ask the Minister about the Government’s and MPs’ scrutiny of PCCs and their role.
Everything is coming out in dribs and drabs, and it has threatened to undermine the public’s confidence in Gwent police, and the voters’ confidence in the PCC role. Our PCCs must appreciate that although they are in a position of authority, they are not above authority. They must face tough questions, too. The furore around policing in Gwent is reducing, and a new chief constable, Jeff Farrar, has been appointed. Having seen his work on Operation Jasmine, an investigation into terrible care home abuse, I am confident that he will be an asset as the head of Gwent police.
As we move forward, I propose three things. The lines of communication from the PCC must be as open and detailed as possible. In Gwent, having to drag out information from the PCC has been a painful process, and that cannot be right. It benefits no one if information is hard to obtain. That was the old system, which we should be moving away from. That is particularly relevant, given that police forces face Conservative cuts of 20%, which go too far, too fast.
The Welsh Labour Government are doing all that they can by funding 500 new police community support officers during their Assembly term, and by protecting the community safety budget, but it may not be enough. A PCC who is open and transparent could go a long way to help staff and the public understand the difficult decisions that will be taken at this difficult time.
Secondly, from a Gwent perspective—this is the nub—we need confidence in the data collection and performance measurements used to review our police. We have all heard constituents’ concerns that the figures do not translate to what they see on the streets. As their elected representative, Mr Johnston needs to look into the public’s concerns and regain the confidence of all of us. Let us see whether the Gwent police internal review of crime recording ever comes to anything.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s visit to Gwent as part of its national crime data integrity programme would be a perfect opportunity, once and for all, to look into the claim that crime reporting was being capped in Gwent. Will the Minister consider that?
Finally, let us measure PCCs against criteria such as victim satisfaction levels within the justice services in the coming year.
Paul Flynn: I have no disagreement with my hon. Friend about the qualities of the new chief constable. Does he recall that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), asked the police commissioner:
“Would you be surprised if people decided not to apply to come to Gwent given the circumstances surrounding the departure of the Chief Constable? Do you expect a good field of candidates?”?
The commissioner replied:
“I think we will get a very good pool of talent from which to select the next Chief Constable.”
Does my hon. Friend not think that it would have been advisable to ensure that there was a large pool of talent and a choice, rather than what we had, which was one candidate for the job?
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is always best when the top jobs are filled through good competition. Having said that, I think that Chief Constable Farrar will do a good job in the future.
Wayne David: Does my hon. Friend agree that one lesson that must be learned from the developments in Gwent during the past 12 months is that the PCCs have incredible powers? In Gwent, the chief constable was in effect dismissed in a way that was legitimate according to the law, but which negated any kind of natural justice. She was basically told to retire: “If you don’t retire, you’ll be sacked.” What is more, that was without any established employment procedures or practice at all. Again, that was done under the legislation, but it does create a big question mark, because I do not think that any other post in the public sector has as much unaccountable power as a PCC.
Nick Smith: Yes. My hon. Friend makes the point very powerfully. That is what happened in the Gwent area, and I think that we still need to unpick what happened on that occasion. That is why we need to have that extra, important look at crime data recording in Gwent and get to the bottom of that question, which is at the core of Ms Napier’s resignation. It is now up to the Government to detail how they will scrutinise the role of PCCs in Gwent and across the country.
The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Damian Green): It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on obtaining the debate. He raised a number of interesting and legitimate questions relating to the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales, and I will seek to respond to all of them. I hope that he will agree with me that police officers and staff in the whole of Wales—not just in Gwent—are making a significant contribution to the successful fight against crime. In that context, I am grateful for his support for the role of the PCC.
Paul Flynn: The Minister will have noticed that the trend of reducing crime was accelerating before the arrival of the PCCs, but does he really think that a level of support for a candidate of, say, between 6% and 8% of the total vote is any kind of meaningful democratic involvement?
Damian Green: I agree with the point, which many people have made, that one would have wished the turnout to be higher. It was not ideal, but the fact was that 5 million people cast votes in last year’s elections and that is approximately 5 million more than ever had a say in the police authorities that the PCCs replaced. Police authorities were unaccountable, invisible bodies. Now, people have the chance to elect the police and crime commissioner.
Stephen Doughty: Is the Minister aware of the complaint that has been made by four of the five candidates for the north Wales police and crime commissioner elections in recent days—both about the IPCC decision and about other matters that have come out as a result of that investigation? Notwithstanding what he has just said, will he look further into the matter?
Damian Green: The point about the IPCC—the clue is in its title—is that it is independent. It is not for me or any Minister to intervene in its investigations. It is independent. It looked into that complaint, and I have just read out its verdict.
Wayne David: Regarding the situation in north Wales, surely the Minister will agree that it is at least morally wrong that a Liberal Democrat candidate was elected but never declared that he was a Liberal Democrat. That was the case with Mr Roddick.
Damian Green: What candidates choose to describe themselves as at elections is, perhaps happily, not a matter for Ministers. I merely observe a point that has been made by many others after people have claimed that being an independent means that one is not a politician: being an independent means that someone is a politician who will not tell people what their politics are, which is what I have always believed.
Paul Flynn: The point is a serious one. In the dark age before 1987, when my constituency had a Conservative Member of Parliament, a certain Winston Roddick had stood and described himself as a Liberal Democrat. He stood in north Wales as an independent, and then metamorphosed into a Liberal Democrat overnight. Is that not likely to bring the whole process into disrepute?
Damian Green: There is a long history of people changing parties throughout long political careers—indeed, the greatest ever Englishman—Winston Churchill—did it. I feel that it is not necessarily for the House to comment on the issue.
Many PCCs have done extremely good work. In Gwent, Ian Johnston has actively promoted a drug intervention programme, which has seen a 15% rise in participants over the past year. I shall be non-partisan about the issue. Only one of the four PCCs in Wales is in my party, but I have examples of all of PCCs doing good work.
In south Wales, Alun Michael has launched a number of evidence-based initiatives with partners—for example, working with two health trusts to analyse and reduce the number of violent incidents that result in victims being taken to A and E. In north Wales, Mr Roddick has asked the chief constable to devise an operational delivery plan to tackle rural crime, with a rural crime team already in place to act as a contact point for farmers and residents. In Dyfed Powys, Chris Salmon has worked with his chief constable so that all stations there now operate on a “when we’re in, we’re open” principle—if a member of the public calls at a station when an officer is in, the caller will be attended to.
The point that I made about public scrutiny bears repeating. PCCs are subject to public scrutiny in a way that police authorities never were. The public now know whom to turn to and whom to hold responsible if they have concerns regarding policing in their area. We know that 73% of the public in England and Wales are now aware of the role of PCCs, which contrasts with the 7% of the public who knew what to do if they had a complaint under the old police authorities.