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Police and Crime Panels -holding the Police Commissioners to account

September 18, 2012 7:31 PM
By Cllr, Duwayne Brooks, London Borough of Lewisham in Fighting Crime - Locally by the Lib Dem LGA group
Cllr. Duwayne Brooks

Cllr. Duwayne Brooks

Since the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act became law in September 2011, one of the LGA's priorities has been to help with the establishment of police and crime panels in England. They can be made up of between 10 and 18 councillors as well as two independent members.

The Act creates police and crime panels to hold police and crime commissioners to account, and gives them certain powers to do this:

  • They can compel the police and crime commissioner and any member of their staff to attend meetings of the panel
  • They can request papers from the PCC who has to supply them except where they are operationally sensitive
  • On a two-thirds majority the panel has the ability to veto the police and crime commissioner's precept and choice for chief constable.

The legislation also makes local authorities in England responsible for setting up panels. However, the Home Secretary was left with the power to set up a panel where the councils in a force area are unable to do so. The LGA therefore put a programme of support in place to help councils in England. This focus on just English panels was a result of a disagreement between the Welsh Assembly government and Whitehall, which left the Home Office with direct responsibility for setting up the four panels in Wales.

LGA members and officers have run a series of events on Police and Crime Panels, and you can download a range of guidance and information on both panels and commissioners from the LGA at www.local.gov.uk/pcc.

As councils started work on setting up police and crime panels, the LGA created an online network on its Knowledge Hub (https://knowledgehub.local.gov.uk/ or go to www.local.gov.uk) to swap information and good practice. This support will continue as the Police and Crime Panels get to work. Councillors can also call the Police and Crime Panel advice line on 020 7664 3241.

The network now has over 160 members drawn from councils directly involved in setting up and supporting panels, and has provided a good means of sharing and resolving issues.

A key issue, especially for Lib Dems, has been the need under the balanced appointment objective in the Act for the membership of the panel to reflect the political make-up of the relevant authorities in the force area when taken together.

The Act itself was vague on how the balanced appointment objective should be met, so the Home Office produced guidance on how it thought the political composition of the panel should be worked out, which can be found the Home Office's Police and Crime Commissioner bulletin No. 6: http://tinyurl.com/92j5zme.

The LGA produced its own guidance on how councils could go about achieving a balanced panel within the restrictions of the legislation, such as looking at co-opting additional councillors on to the panel to make it politically balanced.

But ultimately, the LGA can only advise and not force the councils in a police area to make their panels fully proportionate! Councils decide how they interpret the legislation, and the law only says the balanced appointment objective has to be achieved 'so far as is practicable'.

While some councils listened to the advice, and expanded the panels to allow proportionality, we know of one police area where at the moment this has not led to any Liberal Democrat representation and the LGA Lib Dem Group continues to work with local Lib Dem councillors in that area to try and find a solution. As the Lib Dem lead on this issue I will do my best to ensure Lib Dem representation on all panels.

With the main elements for setting up panels already in place it is no surprise that in many areas the panels have had their first meetings. At these meetings panels are looking ahead to what they will need to do once police and crime commissioners are elected.

A number of important tasks face panels in the first few months:

  • New regulations from the Home Office mean that commissioners have until the end of January to put their precept proposals to the panel, which then has just a week to decide whether to veto the precept.
  • Panels will also have to consider and make recommendations on the police and crime plans that commissioners need to have published by the end of March 2013.
  • There is a strong likelihood given the number of chief constables who could retire, and the number of police and crime commissioners talking of appointing a deputy, that some panels will also be busy conducting confirmation hearings during December and into early 2013.

Panels provide the main means for councillors and councils to hold the police and crime commissioner to account, but all Lib Dem Councillors can still use the scrutiny processes, questions and motions at council meetings to which allow them to raise issues with their panel members.

Of course more traditional Lib Dem campaigning methods on the doorstep and in the media can also be used to make the Police and Crime Commissioner take action to address failings in the police. I know how important it is to keep holding those running the police service to account, so no matter whether you are a councillor or an activist, keep campaigning on crime and asking the right questions!

Finally, don't forget that the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC) has produced a series of leaflets and artwork on Police and Crime Commissioners that local Liberal Democrat councillors and campaigners may find useful in the next couple of months. Log in at www.aldc.org for more details.