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With a little help from a few of my friends

With a little help from a few of my friends

🕔07.Oct 2012

In a little over a month’s time, barring an unprecedented reversal in political sentiment, or a slump in voter turnout to minuscule levels, Bob Jones will become the West Midlands’ first Police and Crime Commissioner.

And one of the first things he will find in his in-tray is a lengthy report setting out why he should carry on with the “ambitious reform plans” set out by the very police authority of which he has been a Labour member for more than two decades.

This document should be familiar to Coun Jones, for he contributed to it along with other colleagues including Bishop Derek Webley, the authority’s Independent chairman, who is also contesting the PCC elections on November 15.

If the Government thought that PCCs would replace police authorities with a new era of forceful, individuals from outside of the party political establishment brimming with new ideas, then Ministers better be prepared for disappointment.

It’s not just in the West Midlands that the old guard is preparing to move into the new PCC roles – existing police authority members across the country have their eyes on becoming commissioners, as do plenty of ex-MPs and sitting councillors.

And if Commissioner Jones fancies a little help from a few of his friends when he assumes the £100,000-a-year role, he has already announced that fellow Labour police authority member Yvonne Mosquito will be his deputy. It is possible that other deputies will be appointed, or special advisers co-opted, and I would not be surprised if there was a high profile role for Bishop Webley.

The report – Issues and Challenges: the Viewpoint of the West Midlands Police Authority – takes something of a self-congratulatory tone from the body whose days are numbered and makes it clear from the outset that the authors are far from sold on the concept of PCCs.

In an introduction, Bishop Webley warns: “PCCs are so new that as I write, no-one knows exactly how they will work day-to-day.  In contrast, the Authority’s established committee structure and working practices, with public meetings, agendas, reports, and minutes, offered transparent mechanisms for decision making and scrutiny.

“Key decisions in recent months have seen hundreds of people come to observe our meetings, along with local and national media coverage.  The PCC should consider developing decision-making and scrutiny processes that are at least as transparent and accessible.

“The people of the West Midlands demand efficient and effective policing, and they expect the opportunity to participate in and influence decisions.  A PCC will wish to respond appropriately to this legitimate aspiration.”

The aim, clearly, is to portray the West Midlands Police Authority as a beacon of reasonableness and efficient public consultation, which is stretching the truth a bit. Where the Bishop talks about hundreds of people attending meetings to see key decisions being taken, he presumably has in mind the furore over spending cuts, or more probably the Project Champion row.

Certainly, plenty of people were keen to attend meetings about the fallout from an ill-devised scheme to flood largely Muslim parts of Birmingham with covert CCTV cameras off the back of an anti-terrorism exercise, but it was the lack of poper consultation that led to widespread condemnation and forced the force to dismantle the cameras.

The Issues and Challenges report accurately sums up the mistakes made: “The experience of Project Champion, an abortive project to install overt and covert CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras in Birmingham, taught the Authority a difficult but valuable lesson in how human rights considerations must guide decision-making.

“Proportionality in the protection of the right to privacy should have guided our consideration of Project Champion, as should a much more candid communication of the threat that Project Champion intended to address.  Since then, the Authority has given close scrutiny to how the Force uses its surveillance powers, and has been very satisfied with the standards and processes in place.”

Presumably, Bishop Webley, Coun Jones, and their police authority colleagues know that PCCs will be under a statutory obligation to consult widely with all communities before drawing up policing plans, and to consult regularly in the future. One of the prime aims of introducing commissioners, according to the Government, is to improve police accountability and make decision making more transparent.

The West Midlands PCC, whoever that is, should not be particularly challenged when it comes to “developing decision-making and scrutiny processes that are at least as transparent and accessible” as those employed by the police authority.

The Issues and Challenges report sets a fairly grim background for the PCC, pointing out the severe financial problems facing the force, which has to cut its budget by £126 million by 2015. Key issues for the commissioner include the proposed privatisation of non-front line police services, collaboration with neighbouring forces and the thorny question of whether officers should be forced to take early retirement as a money saving venture.

And in a blatantly political note, the report states that there have been ”no material changes to the social and economic factors which partly lay behind the August 2011 riots” in Birmingham and other parts of the West Midlands and “it is reasonable to presume that such events could be repeated and there is therefore a need to make contingency plans for such an eventuality”.

On the subject of the Force’s miserable detection rates – only 11.3 per cent of domestic burglaries are solved, 20.7 per cent of robberies, 31.6 per cent of serious sexual, and 8.8 per cent of vehicle crime – the issues report has the following to say:

“The Authority and Force have considered detection rates in great detail.  The Authority recognises that detection rates influence public confidence in policing and improvement milestones are in the Policing Plan.

“Serious criminal offenders must of course be brought to justice.  However, the Authority shares the Chief Constable’s view that a combination of crime prevention and detection is the most effective and efficient way to reduce crime, and that the balance of resource allocation should reflect this.”

On the matter of those improvement milestones, that’s a target of solving 50 per cent of violent assaults, 15 per cent of burglaries, 19 per cent of robberies, 10 per cent of vehicle crime and 35 per cent of serious sexual offences.

It would be interesting to discover from the public consultation that the force says it is committed to carrying out whether most people in the West Midlands regard detection rates of less than 20 per cent for robberies and burglaries to be robust, or quite possibly something of a cop out.

Issues and Challenges Viewpoint of WMPA FINAL 5 Oct 2012




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