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Why PCCs are more accountable than regional mayors

The Mayoral ‘horse trading’ involved with combined authorities puts at risk key police governance functions says West Midlands PCC Simon Foster

This month marks 10 years since the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012. It is a moment for reflection on the lessons learned, what has been achieved and what the future will bring. I am a supporter of Police and Crime Commissioners and see the role as critical, not only to police accountability and strategic direction, but increasingly important in securing effective partnerships in the criminal justice system, providing good services for victims of crime, addressing wider community safety issues, preventing violence and reducing the harm caused by the criminal drug economy. I also want to see PCCs supporting a more joined up approach to planning for emergencies.

These are complex issues that are vital to the public. They require a focused, full-time effort, led by someone who is democratically elected and directly accountable to the people. Committees do not have the legitimacy or visibility to fulfil these functions. Appointed deputies, despite their abilities and efforts, do not have the crucial public mandate or the authority to effectively fulfil the role. That is why I am opposed to merging the PCC role into a mayoralty in the West Midlands. It is a commitment that I was elected on. 

The transfer of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s powers and responsibilities to the West Midlands Combined Authority would enable the Mayor to abolish the right of the people to vote for a democratically elected and directly accountable PCC, overriding the wishes of the local elected leaders in our area.

It is a profoundly undemocratic and divisive proposal, taking away control from West Midlands residents and denying them a say in how their region is governed. In view of the breadth, scope and level of public interest in crime, policing, community safety and criminal justice, the people should be entitled to vote for a democratically elected and directly accountable PCC.

West Midlands Police has a budget of £680 million. It would be the largest, most complex and high risk combined authority function, yet under the alternative mayoral model, it would be delegated to the mayor’s appointee with the consequence, that the public are excluded from determining who is to represent them in fulfilling the functions of the police and crime commissioner.

PCCs are prohibited from engaging in operational policing. Combined authorities operate in a local government environment, with mayors engaged in horse-trading with local authorities. Key statutory police governance functions, such as setting strategic direction and precept, holding to account, and appointing and dismissing Chief Constables, will be at risk, particularly in areas like the West Midlands where there are political differences between a mayor and local authorities.

Furthermore, PCCs have a leadership role in the local criminal justice system, community safety, victims’ services and violence reduction. Transferring the function will diminish meaningful attention to this work. Maintaining a separate PCC function provides co-ordination, leadership and legitimacy by a democratically elected, directly accountable and visible individual.

The last ten years have been some of the most difficult policing has faced in recent times.  The West Midlands was hardest hit of all; austerity meant we had 2,221 officers cut – or 25 per cent of our force – and many hundreds of essential police staff, including 300 Police Community Support Officers were also lost. The so-called “Police Uplift” will restore only about half the lost officers.  There is no levelling up, when it comes to policing in the West Midlands.

At the same time, there were huge cuts to the services that are vital to preventing crime in the first place, such as youth clubs, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment services, local council funding and probation services. It is no surprise that violence affecting young people started to rise from the middle of the last decade. In addition, the wider criminal justice system was defunded. I will continue to lobby government to restore our lost officer numbers and renew investment in preventative public services and the wider criminal justice system. 

My predecessors both rose to these challenges: Bob Jones, who tragically died in 2014, and David Jamieson who stepped in following a by-election. They worked with successive Chief Constables to restructure and reorganise the Force to cope with the cuts as best they could – though the consequences for neighbourhood policing were particularly damaging and long-lasting. They embarked on an ambitious transformation programme that bought the Force’s processes and technology more up to date. They pioneered new preventative work, such as the Gangs and Violence Commission and the ethical oversight of predictive analytics. 

Since becoming Police and Crime Commissioner on 13 May 2021, I have built on their legacy where appropriate, and developed new initiatives for the benefit of the West Midlands. I take the trust and responsibility placed in me very seriously indeed. I was elected on a Manifesto that was titled: Justice, Safety and Security. My Police and Crime Plan is a comprehensive agenda for change, development and progress in policing, rebuilding community policing, putting prevention at the heart of what we do and ultimately delivering justice, safety and security for the people of the West Midlands.

Community policing is the bedrock of British policing. It embodies the principle of policing by consent on which policing in our country is built. I am rebuilding community policing, because over the past decade it had been dismantled, as a consequence of ill advised, misconceived and poor decision making on the part of central government.  It was a big mistake. It was counter-productive and a false economy. We have all been paying the price. It had a serious adverse impact on police presence, response times, the conduct of investigations and the ability to prevent and tackle crime, to the detriment of the people of the West Midlands.

Preventative, proactive, problem solving, requires visible, local community police officers. I am working with the Chief Constable to put 450 additional police officers into neighbourhood policing, to keep people, their families and local community safe - to strengthen the local bonds between the public and the police, so as to improve our ability to proactively solve local issues, before they become critical problems. I am pleased to say we already have 211 of those officers in place, with a further 45 to be allocated imminently. That will amount to about 60% of the target, with the remainder to follow.  I have appointed a new Chief Constable, Craig Guildford, who starts in just a few weeks’ time, and he shares my commitment to neighbourhood policing.  We can expect him to make important changes to restore the links between West Midlands Police and the communities it serves   

I am focused on justice schemes that work to prevent people from committing crime in the first place, because the prevention of crime is always better than having to deal with the consequences of crime. I appointed the West Midlands first Victims’ Commissioner, Nicky Brennan, who leads our work to reduce Violence Against Women and Girls. As part of this, we have secured significant funding for our Safer Streets projects and launched #NoExcuseforAbuse. Our Violence Reduction Partnership is doing pioneering work to prevent violent crime, protect people and save lives. 

I also believe in providing people with the choice of restorative justice. I support the New Chance diversion scheme offering hundreds of female offenders in the region the help they need to rebuild their lives and step away from criminality. It is estimated the investment in the New Chance programme has saved several million pounds in costs associated with offending. Since 2016, 700 women in our area have been helped by the programme.

Then there is the Offender to Rehab Programme, a scheme that targets drug addicted prolific offenders in Birmingham. The initiative sees drug rehabilitation experts support addicts who are stealing to feed their addiction, with the aim of getting them off drugs and away from crime.  The reduction in shoplifting saved retailers an estimated £1 million. The scheme has also prevented about £350,000 being spent on illegal drugs by users. The programme has now been shortlisted for a Howard League for Penal Reform Community Award.

These projects, along with greater efficiency and effectiveness in West Midlands Police, are all the product of a directly elected individual with the powers, the mandate and the focus to make change happen. It is the role I hold as a PCC, that has made these achievements possible. The first ten years of PCCs, and the initiatives I have led and championed since 2021, illustrates the potential of the role and the need to ensure it develops and grows into the future.

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