Police and Crime Commissioners: power to remove Chief Constables - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Police and Crime Commissioners: power to remove Chief Constables

1. It should not have come as any surprise that the election of Police and Crime Commissioners was followed by a number of high-profile clashes between Commissioners and Chief Constables. Within a few days of the election, Avon and Somerset Chief Constable Colin Port declined to re-apply for his job after the incoming Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, indicated that she wanted to recruit a new Chief Constable whose tenure would cover her entire term of office.[1] In Lincolnshire, Chief Constable Neil Rhodes was suspended by Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Hardwick—who also referred him to the IPCC—but was reinstated following a High Court judgement.[2] In Gwent, Commissioner Ian Johnston invited Chief Constable Carmel Napier to retire, indicating that he was prepared to initiate the statutory process for her removal if she did not do so.[3]

2. The procedures for a police and crime commissioner to suspend or remove a chief constable are set out in Schedule 8 to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011.[4] If the commissioner suspends the chief constable, he is required only to notify the police and crime panel that he has done so.

3. The removal of a chief constable is effected by the commissioner "calling upon" the chief constable to resign or retire. The chief constable must resign or retire if called upon to do so.[5] Before calling upon the chief constable to resign or retire, the commissioner must first initiate a scrutiny process by giving to the chief constable a written explanation of the reasons why he is proposing to remove them, which is copied to the police and crime panel. The commissioner is required to consider any written representations made by the chief constable in response to the explanation, which are also copied to the panel. If, having considered these representations, the commissioner still intends to remove the chief constable, the police and crime panel must make a recommendation to the commissioner within six weeks as to whether or not he should do so. Before making a recommendation, the Panel may hold a scrutiny hearing at which the commissioner and chief constable are both entitled to be heard, and may consult HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary. The Commissioner must consider the panel's recommendation and may decide to accept or reject it. It will be noted that the role of the panel is purely advisory. The final decision to dismiss a chief constable rests with the commissioner alone, though clearly it could in certain circumstances be very difficult for him to do so in the face of firm objection from the panel, particularly if the panel's view were supported by HMIC.

4. Suspension or removal of a chief constable is a radical step, and not one which should be undertaken lightly. As we have previously noted, it is potentially operationally disruptive and costly, and damaging to the reputation of the force and individuals concerned.[6]

5. Neither of the two chief constables removed so far has been subject to the Schedule 8 process. Mr Rhodes was invited to re-apply for his job at the end of his contract and Mrs Napier was persuaded to retire voluntarily before the process was initiated. In Mrs Napier's case, in order to avoid going through the statutory process, when the Commissioner met her to invited her to retire, he had to state explicitly that, although he was asking her to retire or resign, he was not "calling upon" her to retire or resign under the Act,[7] a position which some might regard as convoluted. In the Lincolnshire case, the Commissioner notified the Chair of the Panel that he had suspended the Chief Constable but claimed that his reasons for doing so were confidential. The Panel was not further involved in the suspension until after the High Court case was resolved.[8]

6. Mrs Napier told us that her initial instinct had been to stay and oppose her removal under the procedure set out in the Act.[9] She decided to resign when she took legal advice and

    ... found that the Government had drafted the legislation, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which apparently gave the PCCs unfettered powers to appoint, suspend, and remove Chief Constables. Therefore no matter what process I went through with the Police and Crime Panel, the outcome could be the same because the PCC is the ultimate decision-maker about what has happened.[10]

7. While we make no comment on the merits of Mr Johnston's decision to invite Mrs Napier to resign, it is common ground that she personally was given no prior indication of his concerns about her performance. The Commissioner arrived at a scheduled bilateral meeting on 23 May and read out a prepared statement in which he listed some broadly-drawn concerns about her management style and the fact that she was opposed to the very concept of police and crime commissioners. Although the statement says that the Commissioner's intention was not to "humiliate or upset" the Chief Constable, it is clear that she interpreted this denial as a veiled threat to do precisely that, if she refused to go quietly.[11]

8. Early indications are that it is very easy for a police and crime commissioner to remove a chief constable, even when the stated concerns of a PCC are about operational policing matters or are of an insubstantial nature. The statutory process provides little safeguard, since there is nobody—not the police and crime panel, not the Inspectorate of Constabulary, not even the Home Secretary herself—who can over-rule a commissioner who has set his face to dismissing a chief constable. And even the limited scrutiny process can easily be sidestepped with the threat of a potentially embarrassing public scrutiny process in which there is clearly scope for a commissioner to cause serious damage to a chief constable's reputation and, by extension, the reputation and morale of the force. Though we make no comment on the merits of these cases, it is notable that the reasons given by commissioners who have suspended or dismissed chief constables so far have been unpersuasive, in the case of Avon and Somerset where the Commissioner cited contractual issues; "irrational and perverse", in Lincolnshire (according to the High Court); and unsubstantiated by any concrete examples in the case of Gwent.

9. We were disappointed that, shortly after we took evidence from Mr Johnston, he took to Twitter to criticise a member of the Committee for asking questions that he believed had been prompted by Gwent MPs, describing the proceedings as "sad really". Mr Johnson even described Mr Ruane as a "plant of Gwent MPs".[12] This disdainful attitude towards scrutiny by Parliament, as well as an indication of a clear over-sensitivity to criticism, from a politician elected by less that 8% of the electorate, who had managed to side-step the statutory arrangements for local scrutiny of his decision to sack the Chief Constable, is further evidence, if any were needed, that the checks and balances on police and crime commissioners are too weak.

The situation in Gwent has highlighted that the wide discretion of commissioners to dismiss chief constables is a significant issue, and shows that statutory provisions intended to give police and crime panels a role in respect of dismissals, albeit a consultative one, can be evaded. Some will argue that it represents an undermining of the independence of the office of chief constable if it becomes too easy for their political masters to dismiss them over any minor disagreement or personality clash. On the other hand, it is essential to commissioners' role as directly elected office-holders that they have the power to dismiss chief constables, and commissioners can and should provide robust, critical challenge to chief constables. It is right that commissioners should have the initiative in removing a chief constable, but we recommend that police and crime panels should fully exercise their powers of scrutiny in examining and deciding whether the proposed removal of a chief constable is justified. Such decisions, once made, should be accompanied by all the reasons arrived at in the case. We will return to this important area of policy when we come to consider the work of police and crime commissioners one year after their election, in November this year, by which time there may well be further examples of these powers being exercised in practice.

1   Statement: Chief Constable, Avon & Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, 22 November 2012 Back

2   Home Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14, Leadership and standards in the police, HC 67-II, QQ 340ff Back

3   QQ 1-108 Back

4   Paragraphs 11-15 Back

5   s. 38 Back

6   Home Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2013-14, Police and Crime Commissioners: Register of Interests, HC 69, paragraph 8 Back

7   Ian Johnston Note for 23 May meeting with Chief Constable. Back

8   Home Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14, Leadership and standards in the police, HC 67-II, Qq 337-579 Back

9   QQ 79-86 Back

10   Q 85 Back

11   Q 80 Back

12   The Gwent PCC Twitter account posted a message, in response to another user, which read "... Suspect [Chris Ruane MP] was the Gwent MP's 'plant' sad really." Back

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Prepared 20 July 2013