Today’s report from the National Audit Office has identified a number of gaps in the Home Office’s policing oversight framework, which could limit the public’s ability to hold elected police and crime commissioners to account. However, even though it has been in place for only a year, the new framework has the potential to be an improvement on the system it has replaced.
The Home Office introduced police and crime commissioners in November 2012 as a major reform to how police forces are governed. The Home Office set out an accountability framework for policing with the aim of balancing an increase in local autonomy with the Home Office’s own need to obtain assurance that police forces are securing value for money from the funding it gives them.
The NAO finds that gaps in this framework – such as the limited effectiveness of police and crime panels, and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s lack of authority to carry out routine inspections of commissioners or their offices – could limit the degree of assurance the Home Office can take from the new accountability structure. Because police and crime panels, who scrutinize commissioners, lack powers to act on the information they receive, there are few checks and balances on commissioners between elections.
The NAO report finds that the introduction of both commissioners, who hold chief constables to account, and police and crime panels, who do the same for commissioners, has increased the potential for local tensions. Nationally, six commissioners share a chief financial officer with their force, raising a potential conflict of interest. Shared chief financial officers might struggle to provide unfettered advice to both the chief constable and commissioner when they disagree.
Those in the sector to whom the NAO spoke to believe that elected commissioners are potentially better able to hold police forces to account and drive value for money than the unelected police authorities they replaced. According to elected commissioners, so far there has been a significant increase in engagement with the public compared to the previous situation under police authorities.
The NAO also reports that commissioners are not publishing all the data that the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 requires, limiting the public’s ability to hold commissioners to account. Furthermore, being able to take performance data at only face value limits the public’s ability to hold commissioners to account. The Home Office and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary are now working together to agree how to provide better information to the public.