This week, the news media is full of concern for certain newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) making personal appointments to their staff. At face value it does seem rather strange that we are replacing one partially elected body with a handful of appointees with another, but perhaps a more serious issue does sit behind this rather ticklish situation.
In the run up the last year’s election of PCCs, it was highlighted that central to their role would be the power to ‘hire and fire’ Chief Constables – all police officers are technically ‘Agents of the Crown’ and therefore fall outside the scope of much of UK employment law as applied to the remainder of us. Therefore, it is more than reasonable that certain safeguards need to be in place that represent the interests of those who foot the bill for them – us. With PCCs now firmly in place the Home Secretary and other Ministers could put their heads on the pillow at night safe in the knowledge that if any abhorrent Chief Constable were to go off the rails (just think Greater Manchester Police some years back) it would be the PCC who had to deal with this – and if they did make a bit of a hash of dealing with it they could turn around and wash most of the dirt off their hands, by saying “you elected the PCC and they have the powers” so let them get on with it!
But how can you offer an elected individual the power – invested in them through the ballot box – to ‘fire’ if you cannot allow them to hire? If we must trust the PCC to make the right decisions in holding the Chief Constable to account over their performance in the job then does it not follow that we must also trust them to make the right appointments? What we need to concentrate upon here is the word ‘trust’. There is a case to be made that we have seen a progressive erosion of the level of trust that we in civil society place in public officials with successive populist headlines in the press of ‘councillors with their noses in the trough’, senior officers with salaries in multiples higher than the PM and now ‘jobs for the boys’ (and girls) appointed by PCC’s. In other countries, and foremost amongst these is the USA, much is made of the ‘revolving door’ issue of elected officials bringing in with them a cadre of appointees only to see them disappear when the winds of political change blow and a new mayor or ‘Commissioner’ is brought in.
So what is at question here is the whole issue of executive powers invested in someone through an open and fair democratic election. It would be a fair bet that in more than one police authority there is someone looking carefully at the content of the ‘swearing in’ oath that the PCC made. For decades Tony Benn amongst others has observed that we are often too concerned with the mechanisms of giving power to people and not enough attention is made of who has the power to take that power away from them.
In the final analysis, any democratic society must be judged on the basis of where real power lifes – is it in the hand of the elected or in the hands of the electors? Any lack of transparency or any fudging of this will always lead to problems. There can be little doubt that an already democratically infirm role such as the PCC is now further weakened by these recent revelations and it will take all the political skills that elected PCCs have to bring to bear and shore up the trust we hold in them.
But is it not the weakness of Ministers in not seeing this potential moral hazard in the first place? Any fracturing of trust in PCCs could be potentially problematic upstream for the Home Office, the Cabinet and all those who made the rash statement in the run up to the elections that PCCs were not intended to be in any way political. Perhaps the Home Secretary may not be able to rest her head on her pillow at night safe in the knowledge that if something does go pear-shared, others will take the blame?
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.