Two stories in the last month underpin this blog. One relates to issues around the departure of Gwent’s Chief Constable (who has given evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee this week) and the other is the story concerning the Care Quality Commission’s cover up of the assessment of the Furness Maternity Report. I think they underline some important issues about accountability in public service and policing. I think this matters to all of us; particularly police officers as independent crown servants.
I want to say from the outset that I do not know whether the decision for the Chief of Gwent to go was right or wrong, the following points are brought into focus by this case.
I should start off with some principles before I go on. It is generally a bad idea in any institution for one person to have too much power and too little accountability. Past and present history and indeed life shows this! In most modern democracies this â€œbalance of powersâ€ has been honed over many years and often through war and revolution.
Most democracies have something called the executive, (the government who are those making decisions and deciding direction), the legislature, (parliament, those who actually have to pass laws and to whom the executive is accountable) and the judiciary who sit independently and are responsible for upholding the law. The three have clear separation of powers as they are all intended to keep each other in some form of check. Most forms of governance in the public sector follow these principles. If you look at companies they are meant to balance power on boards in different ways; how banks do this is clearly one of the key issues post the banking crisis!
This balancing act is a moving position. The Human Rights Act, for example, has strengthened the judiciary’s ability to challenge UK legislation. Unsurprisingly those in the executive often feel constrained by legislature or judiciary and what can feel a cumbersome approach to getting things done. I love Churchill’s expression, “Democracy is the worst form of government; except for all the others that have been tried”
Changes in areas like elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners are trying to redefine executive figures and give more freedom to act. The deal here is to create more direct democracy so executive figures are less accountable to a legislature body on the basis they are personally directly accountable to the electorate at the end of their term.
Applying this approach to balancing power within public agencies has some similar principles. It is not a good idea for public officials to be unaccountable. In policing history it is fair to say Chief Constable’s, up until the 1990s were not accountable enough. It is worth a look back to Chief Constable Sir Ken Oxford, (a man credited with the remarkable expression “Arrogance is the spice of leadership”) who was Merseyside’s Chief Constable at the time of the Toxteth Riots. His battles with Margaret Simey, chair of the Merseyside Police Authority were famous. Councillor Simey was branded a radical; but through today’s eyes seemed to want some pretty reasonable questions answered by the police. It was very hard to ensure this accountability. This is a feature of the issues in Hillsborough.
It is still an issue today in some places. The Care Quality Commission’s cover up is not good news for trust in any public institution. It seems outrageous that public officials could and should be able to mask over serious issues without any real accountability to democracy. I was even more surprised the people involved escaped unnamed initially; something that does not feel right for a public servant.
In our own case I think the 1996 act setting up Police Authorities, fixed term appointments for Chief Constables and Deputies and stronger intervention regimes; plus a series of police scandals did re-balance power considerably. Police Authorities were always able to dispense with the services of Chief Constables, with the Home Secretaryâ€™s support.
The current government decided to abolish Police Authorities to create PCCs to strengthen police accountability and introduce direct democracy in policing.
The power to remove the Chief has moved across to the PCC, albeit it does not now require the Home Secretary’s permission. There is a process for the Police and Crime Panel to examine the decision and report but they cannot veto this, as they can (oddly) with an appointment of a Chief. This is the area that has come into focus after Gwent. The question now is whether too much power has moved across to PCCs?
Senior leaders in any organisation have to be accountable and in cases where there is failure may need removal. This is no different in policing and PCCs, must have this power,Â as Police Authorities did.
There is, in my view, a specific difference with Chief Constables compared to other public services. This is simply because they have a very specific operationally independent role that parliament sought to protect.
This is the aspect of our role as crown servants, we are asked to make decisions about the delivery of policing and are accountable for them to the law. This unique status is one you all hold, but as the Chief Constable these often involve very big decisions: how to police a counter terrorism operation, a major demonstration, the arrest of a public figure, how to ensure the correct resources are applied to these tasks, and making sure policing is delivered fairly (and without favour) to all communities. The Chief’s operational independence encompasses all the decisions we make as independent servants when he or she is held to account. Decisions in these areas can be unpopular. Sometimes it means the interests of the few are protected over the many.
When you are making decisions where you are accountable to the law, whilst you are correctly answerable for your actions, great care has to be taken to ensure you are not vulnerable to interference or removal because someone disagrees with you.
The issues raised in recent weeks do perhaps highlight that the removal provisions for Chief Constables may not require any real rationale, nor are there meaningful checks to prevent a removal on the grounds of disagreement over operational practice.
As with most issues in life this isn’t really going to be a problem very often. PCCs and Chiefs are working well across the country. The new model has brought some new opportunities, however separation of powers, checks and balances are really not about when things work well, they seek to avoid things going badly wrong when they go off course.
We do need accountable Chief Constables who can act independently and courageously in the public interest and within the law. If in fact the provisions do permit the arbitrary use of power to remove them with no checks then we have to reflect whether in fact operational independence will really be a feature in practice for policing in the future.