Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Local Government Group (LG Group) (PR 60)

LG Group Written Evidence to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill Committee

About the Local Government Group

1. The Local Government Group (LG Group) is made up of six organisations that work together to support, promote and improve local government. The six organisations are:

a. The Local Government Association (LGA)

b. Local Government Regulation

c. Local Government Improvement and Development

d. Local Government Employers

e. Local Government Leadership

f. Local Partnerships

2. The LGA is a cross-party and politically led voluntary membership body. Our 422 member authorities cover every part of England and Wales, and together they represent over 50 million people, spending around £113 billion a year on local services.

3. The 22 Welsh unitary authorities are in corporate membership through the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) which retains full autonomy in dealing with Welsh affairs. In this respect, while this written evidence covers proposed changes made under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill relevant to both England and Wales, the Welsh Local Government Association [1] has adopted its own position on how police accountability in Wales can be improved. For more details on the Welsh Local Government Association’s position, please contact either Rachel Morgan (02920 468 651) or Naomi Alleyne (02920 468 660).

Summary of evidence

4. The LG Group welcomes this opportunity to comment on the content of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, and highlight issues of concern to members of the Public Bill Committee assigned with the task of scrutinising the draft legislation.

5. On policing, the LG Group agrees that local accountability on policing needs to be improved and communities should be given a say in how their streets are policed. However we do not believe introducing Commissioners is the best way to do this since it could weaken the ability of the police, councils and other public services to cut crime. It could also fragment local partnerships. The LG Group has instead developed an alternative model [2] for improving police accountability in England, based on existing best practice. Published in July 2010, this model looks to: reinforce links between neighbourhood policing, councillors and local residents; integrate police within councils at a management level; and offer real financial savings.

6. In line with the cross-party political steer of the LGA, the LG Group is seeking amendments to this draft Bill to ensure that the proposals put forward are effective and deliver a tangible improvement to policing. As a result, we highlight below suggested amendments with regard to Commissioners, police precepts, and Police and Crime Panels. Our written evidence also highlights concerns around operational independence.

7. On licensing, the LG Group welcomes the Government’s desire to rebalance licensing by better supporting licensing authorities to take action locally. Operating the licensing system has cost council tax payers over £100m more than anticipated. The LG Group welcomes Government’s intention to "enable licensing authorities to set…fees based on full cost recovery" [3] although we urge the Committee to seek an amendment to the Bill that would insert a new locally-set fees structure based on full cost recovery. In the current economic climate, the opportunity to do so via this Bill must be seized upon.

8. As detailed below, other LG Group concerns include the Late Night Levy, Temporary Event Notices, and the below price sale of alcohol.

Policing

Improving police accountability

9. Since 2008 the LG Group has argued that police accountability structures in England have needed reform. We believe that in the last few decades the Home Secretary has acquired greater and greater powers at the expense of the other two elements of the tripartite police accountability structure; chief constables and police authorities.

10. The result of the Home Secretary’s closer involvement in policing has been an increasing focus on the part of the police on centrally set targets and performance measures at the expense of local priorities. Local communities and residents have increasingly felt they have little or no influence on how the areas they live in are policed. The LG Group believes that successful policing depends on the active involvement of the public in tackling crime, and without their cooperation it will be much more difficult to cut crime.

11. The LG Group also believes that the police are unable to prevent and cut crime on their own. Youth diversionary activities, better education, CCTV systems, target hardening and rehabilitation of offenders can only be provided by a wide group of agencies. Effective partnerships are therefore vital to cut crime, and any changes to police accountability need to strengthen partnership arrangements rather than weaken them.

12. While the LG Group agrees with the government on the need to increase local accountability and give people a say in how their streets and neighbourhoods are policed, we do not believe that introducing directly elected individuals is the best way to strengthen police accountability. We are concerned that reforming police accountability in this way could fragment local partnerships, and lead to a focus on more visible forms of local policing at the expense of less visible and just as important work such as tackling serious and organised crime.

13. The LG Group has therefore set out an alternative model for improving police accountability in England. This seeks to reinforce the links between neighbourhood policing teams, councillors (particularly Community Safety portfolio holders) and residents; and strengthen community safety partnerships. It would see police authorities replaced with Local Government Policing Executives made up of policing champions appointed by councils and which could also be required to reflect the overall political balance across the authorities involved. The Executives would be held to account by a joint overview and scrutiny committee drawn from councils in the area.

Operational Independence

14. The LG Group believes the Government’s commitment to protect police operational independence will make it difficult for commissioners to hold chief constables to account. It is right that the police operate free from political interference, but all public officials including chief constables should be fully accountable.

15. The LG Group therefore believes that operational independence should be replaced with the concept of operational responsibility developed by the Independent Commission on policing for Northern Ireland. We would support the recommendation by the Home Affairs Select Committee for a definition of operational independence through an official Memorandum of Understanding.

Commissioners’ Precepts

16. One area of weakness with the current system of police accountability is the lack of clarity around how much the police cost and how they spend their funding. The public generally do not look at the elements that make up their council tax bills, focusing on the headline amount they have to pay. Continuing to include the police precept on council tax bills means the public will for the most part remain unaware of what the commissioner is raising locally to pay for the police. Setting up a new collection system for the police precept so the public were clear how much the local police cost them would be costly and duplicate the existing system. The LG Group however believes consideration should be given to there being a separate bill from police commissioners sent out with the council tax bill, with the precept collected by local authorities. This would enable the public to make judgements about value for money.

Police and Crime Panels

17. Given the executive powers that commissioners will have and their role in ensuring public order it is important in the LG Group’s view that they are subject to appropriate checks and balances between elections. We therefore welcome the proposal to establish police and crime panels made up of councillors to hold the commissioner to account. Providing representation for every council in a force area including district councils is an approach we strongly support. We also agree with the ability of the panels to co-opt members to sit on them.

18. The LG Group supports the powers for panels to veto by vote the commissioners proposed precept and their recommended appointment for chief constable. This model for challenging the police precept is highly preferable to the public referendum the Home Office proposed in its ‘Policing in the 21st Century’ consultation, which would have been costly and difficult to administer within the council tax setting timetable. However we believe that the required threshold of a three quarters majority to exercise either veto is too high to provide checks and balances on the commissioner. Other than the veto by a two thirds majority given to the Greater London Assembly and to councils with directly elected mayors over their mayors’ budget proposals, checks and balances in the UK are usually provided by simple majority votes. Having the panels exercise their veto on a two-thirds majority vote would strengthen the check on the commissioner without impeding the commissioner in delivering their priorities.

19. As commissioners will be important public figures responsible for seeing the law is upheld in their area, it is important that they are seen to comply with the law. The LG Group therefore believes that the threshold for panels to suspend commissioners when they have been charged with an offence should be reduced to offences that carry prison sentences exceeding six months (as opposed to two years). We also believe that panels should have the power to summon chief constables to answer questions relating to decisions taken by the commissioner so they can provide better scrutiny and oversight of the commissioner. As currently drafted the Bill only allows panels to question commissioners and their staff.

Licensing

20. The LG Group welcomes the Government’s desire to rebalance the Licensing Act by providing greater powers to licensing authorities to take action locally, within a revised licensing framework.

Fees

21. Operating the licensing system has to date cost council tax payers over £100m more than anticipated as a result of the current centrally set fee structure not allowing licensing authorities to set cost-neutral local charges.

22. The LG Group welcomes the Government’s intention to "enable licensing authorities to set licensing fees based on full cost recovery" [4] although we are disappointed that a proposed new fees structure has not been included on the face of the Bill particularly given some of the Bill’s proposals will add to burdens on councils. Including the new fees framework within the Bill would be the quickest and simplest way to bring about implementation. In the current economic climate, there is a real imperative to make this important change.

23. The LG Group believes the fee structure should allow for full recovery of costs not just to licensing authorities but all responsible authorities, including for example the police. If implemented in this way, such a fees structure would negate the need for a heavily bureaucratic (and expensive to administer) late night levy (see below).

Late night levy

24. Councils want to encourage thriving town centres and night time economies, yet LG Group analysis of the detail behind the Late Night Levy reveals that it is highly bureaucratic and administratively expensive, meaning it will only be worthwhile for a minority of councils (those with a large number of late night premises in their area). Furthermore, it does not address the fundamental problem of council tax payers subsidising the licence fees as the bulk (70% minimum) of the levy is payable to the police.

25. The Group believes that a fully flexible locally-set licence fee framework which allows councils to recover all costs associated with licensed premises, including those costs incurred by licensing authorities and all responsible authorities, including the police, would be simpler and fairer. This would also be in line with localism principles allowing councils the power to set their fees and the freedom to distribute the funds as best suits the individual locality.

26. This would be far more desirable and effective and could be utilised by all councils as opposed to the Late Night Levy (which only applies after midnight and after much of the alcohol related problems have taken place).

27. The LG Group would therefore welcome the inclusion of such a fees framework on the face of the Bill, introduced by Government amendment during either the Commons or Lords Committee stages.

Annual Fees & Receipts

28. The LG Group welcomes the proposal for licensing authorities to gain a crucial new power to suspend licences where annual fees are not paid. This will help councils to recover money owing and to tackle the minority of rogue businesses who do not comply.

29. However the Bill also mandates the issuing of a receipt for payment of the annual fee when a premises holder pays the fee after the licence has been suspended. The Bill also states a specific format and set timescale for this receipt. The LG Group believes this is excessive and does not reflect other fee paying regimes. Many councils already issue receipts (or will do so if requested to) and so it should be a matter of good practice only and not laid out within primary legislation.

30. Given the Government’s desire to reduce regulatory burdens, this is an example of unnecessary and costly legislation, and the administration costs will be passed on to the trade in the fees.

Below cost price alcohol

31. Licensing premises to sell alcohol is only one of several factors that affect how people consume alcohol, and other interventions – such as increasing the cost of alcohol – may be a more effective way of achieving the government’s stated policy goals. The LG Group regrets therefore that nothing has been included on the face of the Bill on the below cost price sale of alcohol.

32. However the Home Office has committed to "taking forward proposals to implement the ban on sale below cost without delay" [5] . Clarification must be given however on how this will be implemented, and reassurance provided that the burden of implementation will not fall on councils.

Temporary Event Notices (TENs)

33. We welcome the modification to allow council’s environmental health departments to object to TEN applications and we are pleased that councils will also be given more flexible powers to allow temporary events to go ahead, rather than having to adhere to the current rigid rules which have led to the cancellation of events, despite their potential benefit to the local community.

34. The Group is concerned however by the extension of temporary events to seven days’ duration, from the current three day limit per event. This change could result in more contentious, costly disputes between operators, the police, councils and the local community

35. Through this legislation we are pleased that the loophole which previously allowed licensed premises to avoid existing controls by using temporary event notices will be closed. However we have concerns about the proposed process, which means only following a representation will licensing authorities be able to insist that relevant licence conditions also apply for the duration of the TEN. We believe that all existing premises licence conditions should apply apart from those that will be altered by the TEN (such as the hours).

36. If there are conditions on a premises licence which apply for example to midnight (e.g. keeping doors and windows closed during 'live' entertainment, requiring door supervisors to quietly 'disperse' crowds at the end of the evening etc) then a TEN which extends the hours for alcohol and regulated entertainment to 1am should automatically be subject to those very same conditions.

37. However there needs to be a mechanism whereby unlicensed premises can be properly conditioned when using a TEN, particularly in view of the extended time limits on events. To avoid an increase in counter notices to TENS and resultant hearings and associated costs, we would welcome a provision for applicants to voluntarily offer appropriate controls or measures when submitting the TEN.

38. This mechanism would be equally useful for licensed premises using the TEN for an activity for which there are no relevant conditions that would be automatically provided, for example the addition of regulated entertainment, where the licence currently may not include noise control conditions.

Under-age sale of alcohol

39. The Group supports the intention to reduce underage sales and increase operator awareness of the seriousness of licensing offences.

40. We are unconvinced however that operators who previously did often accept two-day closures, would be willing to consent to a seven-day closure, and may instead opt for trial at the magistrates’ court and attempt to delay / avoid closure. We also question whether doubling the fines for underage sales (from £10,000 to £20,000) will prove to be a deterrent given that magistrates have not to date handed out the current maximum fine.

Advertising licence applications

41. The Bill as introduced requires licensing authorities to advertise licence applications it receives. This is a potentially expensive (for example if required to advertise through local newspaper adverts) and administrative burden.

42. The LG Group would welcome clarification that the requirement will only be for online adverts to ensure that licensing authorities are not burdened with yet another unnecessary bureaucratic procedure.

Licensing Policy Statements

43. The Group welcomes the proposal to introduce a more flexible system for consulting and publishing licensing policy statements, as it allows councils to respond to the needs of the community and of businesses, rather than to Whitehall-imposed timescales.

January 2011


[1] http://www.wlga.gov.uk/english/

[2] For more information, see http://www.lga.gov.uk/lga/aio/12504618

[3] See paragraph 31, http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/consultations/cons-2010-licensing-act/responses-licensing-consult?view=Binary

[4] See paragraph 31, http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/consultations/cons-2010-licensing-act/responses-licensing-consult?view=Binary

[5] See paragraph 30 of Government’s response to Home Office consultation on rebalancing the Licensing Act 2003: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/consultations/cons-2010-licensing-act/responses-licensing-consult?view=Binary