Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Police elections plan is dropped

Police handcuffs
New plans to increase police accountability will be drawn up

Plans to directly elect some members of police authorities have been scrapped following opposition from senior officers and Labour council chiefs.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she would "step back" from the move aimed at making police in England and Wales more accountable to local communities.

She told The Guardian she feared the police would become politicised.

But the Tories - who want directly elected police chiefs - said Labour was incapable of giving up central control.

Details of the government's plan were expected to be laid out in the Policing and Crime Bill, announced in last month's Queen's Speech, but it is understood the proposal has now been removed.

Along with more directly-elected mayors, the plans were meant to breathe new life into local democracy and give citizens more control over how their own local areas are policed.

'Fundamentally flawed'

But they were bitterly opposed by many local councillors, who currently sit on the 43 police authorities in England and Wales, overseeing the work of their relevant force, who faced being sidelined.

I think it is right to step back to focus on the radical changes we are already making to the police at the neighbourhood level, and to think about what recent events mean for the politicisation of the police
Jacqui Smith, home secretary

They were also attacked by the chairman of the influential home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who described them as as "fundamentally flawed" and raised fears police authorities could be "captured" by far right groups.

In a letter to Jacqui Smith, Labour MP Mr Vaz said there was "considerable concern" that elections could reduce accountability.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Labour group on the Local Government Association, told the committee the proposals could "fragment" the relationship between police and councils.

The home secretary defended the plan as recently as last month, telling a meeting: "People with bizarre views can be elected and that is a challenge for us as a democracy but I have faith in the public who I think will elect the person who is going to represent them best."

She told The Guardian on Thursday that she was still in favour of the idea in principle but wanted to "step back" from it.

She has asked former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who came up with the idea of police authority elections in 2003, to prepare a report on proposals for Labour's next manifesto on how to make the police more accountable.

'Fundamental shift'

In the newspaper interview, she said: "Looking at what has happened over the past two months, there has been a fundamental shift in the way people think about the politicisation of the police.

The danger of politicisation of the police comes from the complete micro-management that has been the hallmark of this government over the last 11 years
Dominic Grieve
Shadow home secretary

"I put that down to the London mayor's intervention in the resignation of Sir Ian Blair and the events surrounding the Damian Green affair.

"I think it is right to step back to focus on the radical changes we are already making to the police at the neighbourhood level and to think about what recent events mean for the politicisation of the police."

Sir Ian announced in October he was resigning as Metropolitan Police Commissioner after the new mayor, Boris Johnson, made it clear in a private meeting that he did not have his confidence.

More recently, the arrest of Tory MP Damian Green and a raid on his Commons office led to Tory accusations that the police investigation was politically motivated.

Ms Smith has stressed the police acted independently.

Speaking to the Guardian, she added that initially there had been some support from senior police officers for directly elected members but after Sir Ian Blair's resignation, officers had voiced concerns about "politicisation and operational independence".

"They said to me there is a real risk that something that is very important in British policing - about non-politicisation - is at risk of being undermined, and I think when you are faced with something that fundamental, it is quite important that you do take stock."

'Micro management'

But Kit Malthouse, London's deputy mayor for policing, accused Ms Smith of "crumbling" in the face of pressure from Labour councillors, adding: "It's a bit pathetic of her, frankly, to blame the London mayor."

Mr Johnson's administration favours allowing London's mayor to appoint all the members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, but does not see the need for a directly elected Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

The Conservatives said the government's decision showed it was incapable of relinquishing control of police from Whitehall.

Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: "The danger of politicisation of the police comes from the complete micro-management that has been the hallmark of this government over the last 11 years.

"Our plans to replace police authorities with directly elected police commissioners are entirely different from those of the government.

"They are about both restoring the professional judgement of the police, while making them accountable to and able to work with the public, not Whitehall diktats."

But the Association of Police Authorities welcomed the government's climbdown.

A spokesman said: "The introduction of direct elections would have compromised the uniquely balanced accountability provided through the current composition of police authorities which works in the interests of everyone in our local communities.

"It is right to resist the potential for extremists or single issue groups to exert control of local policing, which must remain free of party-political influence."



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