Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Memorandum submitted by Robin Bennett (PR 113)


1 This is a personal submission to the committee. I am an independent member of West Mercia Police Authority with 10 years of experience in the area of police scrutiny and governance. I care passionately about our system of policing whereby the police act on behalf of the public, policing by consent, and want to be sure that any governance change builds on, and develops from, these principles.

2 As the proposals in the Bill have developed I have had discussions with local MPs and have also  sought public opinion locally to gauge opinion.

3 I believe that the proposal to introduce Police & Crime Commissioners is unnecessary, unwise and unaffordable and have used my submission to explain my rationale.


4 The submission I would like to make relates to Part 1 of the Bill and in particular the plan to abolish Police Authorities and replace them with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners. I understand that the Bill is designed to increase public accountability; my experience tells me that the Bill will have entirely the opposite effect in practice, and will introduce additional costs and bureaucracy into a system that actually works well enough already.

5 I have a background in police/public engagement. I served in a voluntary role for five years as an Independent Custody Visitor (visiting police cells unannounced to check the welfare of detainees) before applying and being appointed to West Mercia Police Authority. I have served the authority with energy and enthusiasm since 2007 and have taken a particular interest and lead on volunteers, public engagement and the Special Constabulary.

6 My four-year term on the authority has come to an end and so I hope that my submission will not be seen as a plea from a "turkey wanting to cancel Christmas"! My opinion is formed from my experience, not from a personal interest in my role continuing.

7 In common with most independent members of Police Authorities, I have a "day job". In my case, I am the director of a successful small business. My experience and interest in public engagement is what informs my view; I have no political axe to grind, quite simply I am committed to the tradition of policing by consent and the Peelian principle "the police are the public, and the public are the police".

8 For the last 12 months or so, I have operated a blog to show the public what I do on their behalf within West Mercia Police Authority – you may also find it useful: http://robinbennettpa.blogspot.com. I don’t claim that it is a thrilling read but it does at least demonstrate the depth and breadth of our role on the Police Authority incorporating scrutiny, challenge, support, public engagement and leadership.

9 My passion for this area of policing may be unusual but it is very real – I am truly proud of the way that the British police are influenced, directed and scrutinised by the public and do not want to see a change to this governance mechanism unless the change is a good one. In my own business, I would only implement a change if it was necessary, beneficial and affordable and I’ve tried to apply the same logic to the change in police governance. In other words:

(a) Is the change required (i.e. is the current system failing)?
(b) Is the proposal likely to improve matters?
(c) Can the change be afforded?

I believe that the plans in the Bill fail each of these three tests.


10 The most often-cited reason for creating the role of Police & Crime Commissioner is that Police Authorities are invisible and that the public do not know the names of the members of the authority.

11 That may well be true but it surely isn’t relevant. The important issues are that the police do the right thing and what the public want them to do; that the police are effectively governed; that risks in the system are minimised; and that the public know who to contact if they want to engage with the service.

12 Most citizens don’t know or care which individuals sit on the boards of the public services that they rely on (or indeed the private companies whose services they use) as long as they get the service they need or want; but they do need to know who to contact should they have a query, complaint or want to engage with that service.

13 So are the police doing the right thing and do they have the confidence of the public? The statistics over the last few years demonstrate that this is the case. Crime levels are falling and public confidence is rising. This hasn’t happened by accident, this is a direct result of the current system of governance and management.

14 Are the police doing what the public want them to? All Police Authorities spend a great deal of time and energy both engaging directly with the public to discuss priorities and scrutinising the force to ensure that beat meetings and other local direction happens and is effective.

15 Are the police effectively governed? Yes, the recent round of inspections of Police Authorities by HMIC said that no authorities were failing in their task. Chief Constables have to account to their Police Authorities in private and – most importantly – in public. Independent members bring expertise and experience of, for example, directorships in business to bear. Councillor members have a direct public mandate and can speak on behalf of their electorate.

16 Is the current system allowing the canker of corruption to influence policing? No, the current system has almost "engineered out" the risk of corruption between individuals at the top of British policing with its complex but necessary system of checks and balances. It has been a very long time since there was a corruption scandal in British policing.

17 Similarly, with a broad mix of individuals sitting on Police Authorities the risk of inappropriate or ineffective relationships between the governors and the officers ceases to be an issue (a topic I will return to later).

18 Are there sections of society that feel under-represented and feel that they cannot influence the police? There are always going to be sections of the community who feel like this, but the current system, by design, ensures that the Police Authority represents the people it serves both geographically and politically so that all sections of society have the opportunity to get involved – the Big Society in action.

19 Finally, do the public know who to contact if they have a query or problem relating to policing? Police authorities spend a great deal of time and effort to ensure that their websites are helpful in this regard and leaflets, other publications and public meetings remind the public that they are there to help. Googling "police complaint" and your county name (for example try "police complaint Shropshire") will point the concerned citizen to their Police Authority website and member contact details. As members living within our communities, we are ideally placed to respond to local concerns.

20 The current system of governance is simply not failing. It has lead to better police performance, increased public confidence and is designed to represent the political and social mix of the area being policed. There is no groundswell of public dissatisfaction. There have been no incidents within the governance system to cause public concern or outrage. In summary, there is no compelling reason to change.


21 The frank answer to this is that it may do in certain force areas and if certain conditions hold true. However, there are so many ifs, buts and risks that the likelihood of the new system improving matters for the majority of citizens is surely very small.

22 Firstly, the person elected would need to be an exceptional individual. I wrote an article for a local magazine entitled "Wanted: crime-fighting superhero with the power of 17 men" and my tongue was only just in my cheek. The 17 members of West Mercia Police Authority (and presumably all other authorities) have such a breadth and depth of experience, expertise and geographic knowledge that a single individual replacing this body would need to be truly exceptional.

23 Secondly, the public would need to feel "connected" to the person and feel that they have direct access to them. West Mercia Police Authority represents more than one million people across three large rural counties and with four top-tier local authority areas. A Shropshire citizen will not feel that a Worcestershire-based Commissioner represents them, and vice-versa. On a purely practical level, how will this single person be able to cover such a massive geographic area and create personal relationships with the force officers and partner agencies across the patch?

24 Thirdly, to truly scrutinise the force this individual will need to spend time with officers at all levels. One of the key strengths of the current system is that authority members don’t only interact with and challenge the chief officers, my own blog shows that we regularly attend beat meetings, go on patrol with local officers, PCSOs and Specials, and hold meetings in public and in private with team Inspectors and territory Superintendents. It is this depth of interaction with the force that enables us to challenge the chief officers so effectively and it is only possible because we are a body of 17 people of mixed outlooks, backgrounds and interests living across the force area.

25 Fourth, this individual will need to be able to sustain a professional, challenging and effective one-to-one relationship with the Chief Constable over a four-year period. If the relationship breaks down for any reason the governance model fails.

26 Finally, I would like to return to the issue of corruption and inappropriate relationships. The Commissioner model, like any system relying on a few powerful, highly-paid individuals at the top of an organisation, is susceptible to the poison of corruption. Chief Constables will have a great deal to lose if they upset or disappoint their Commissioners. Commissioners will have much to lose if they disappoint their public. This pressure to deliver, in a framework of diminished public and peer review and scrutiny, will leave doors ajar which have previously been firmly closed. I fear that corruption will become a regular fixture at the top of British policing.


27 In the current financial climate, the answer seems to be a categoric "no".

28 The lowest estimates from government cost the change at £50m+ with similar on-going running costs for the new model as for Police Authorities. There is no likelihood at all of the new governance model saving money year-on-year or contributing to the 20% cuts that the government is expecting from the police service.

29 The public care much more about the number of officers in uniform patrolling their streets and answering their calls for assistance. They care much less about the governance model and rightly so. They will surely not welcome an increase in governance costs if that money could be spent on front-line policing.

February 2011