Shaun Wright’s refusal to resign strengthens case for PCC abolition
Rotherham case highlights problems with the elected police positions and the need for reform
Police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright insisted he would not leave his post in South Yorkshire in the wake of the Rotherham child abuse scandal.
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Thursday, 28 August 2014
When the home secretary, Theresa May, introduced her groundbreaking [read gimmicky] policy for elected police and crime commissioners nearly two years ago, much attention focused on the fact that she was giving a single individual the power to hire and fire chief constables.
Very few realised then that the well paid new police commissioners themselves would be unsackable and that the system came without any mechanism to recall an out-of-control police and crime commissioner between elections.
Labour’s policy debate on the future of police and crime commissioners is currently poised between reform and abolition.
The decision of the South Yorkshire PCC, Shaun Wright, to resign from the Labour party rather than resign as his force’s £85,000-a-year police commissioner has already fuelled the demands for a commitment to scrap May’s initiative.
The South Yorkshire case is not an isolated example. Only this week, Labour also suspended its Bedfordshire PCC, Olly Martins, from the party after a leak of confidential information about a death in custody was referred to the crown prosecution service.
There have been so many controversial incidents involving some of the 41 elected police and crime commissioners that the Commons home affairs committee declared after they had been in office for only 18 months that the behaviour of some of them had “fallen far short of public expectations”.
They documented irregularities including allegations about the way three chief constables had been forced out and the way others had hired “crony” deputies.
Some PCCs had developed innovative approaches to tackling crime but the MPs concluded urgent reforms were needed to ensure the new system did not put public trust in the police at further risk.
Even Theresa May herself had to admit their track record after their first 12 months was “mixed” but she always stressed it was for the local electorate to decide whether or not to kick out an errant police commissioner.
The flaw in the system lies in the fact that the public have so far shown little interest in taking part in this devolution of democracy. The initial mandate for elected police commissioners rested on a turnout of only 15% – the lowest in a peacetime election – which left them with only wafer-thin legitimacy.
The problem is shown up most starkly by the Shaun Wright case. He was elected in November 2012 by only 74,615 Labour voters, out of a potential electorate of more than 1 million, to hold the South Yorkshire police force to account. Only 145,000 people took part in that election – just under 15% of the electorate. His nearest rival, an English Democrat called David Allen, polled 22,608 votes.
Wright may argue all the principal facts about the Rotherham child abuse scandal and his responsibility for children’s services at the time were known about before his election and that this week’s report has simply underlined its horrific scale. Indeed his statement resigning from the Labour party but refusing to step down as commissioner underlined that he had already resigned from public office in 2010 over the abuse scandal. He went on to imply that he had a fresh mandate when he was subsequently elected a police commissioner to deliver a major transformation in the way the South Yorkshire police deal with sexual exploitation.
Few would agree with him. Indeed his own scrutiny panel – which is supposed to provide a check on the commissioner – has called for his resignation, as has the home secretary. Without official Labour backing it is hard to see how he can continue to claim he has any kind of electoral mandate. There is little evidence he had much of a personal vote when he was elected.
The home secretary could push through an urgent change in the law to ensure commissioners would go in such circumstances, but it is difficult to see how it would work retrospectively. Police commissioners are not operational police chiefs. They are supposed to hold the police to account but Wright’s behaviour is now undermining public trust in the police.
The dismal thing is that even if Wright did fall on his sword, the subsequent by-election is likely to be another expensive exercise in public apathy. The little noticed West Midlands PCC by-election to replace the late Bob Jones attracted a turnout of only 10% at a cost of nearly £4m. Any election in South Yorkshire is not likely to be much different.
The episode has only served to highlight how much unfettered power individual police commissioners have been given and strengthen the case for their abolition.