IT HAS been two years since the police authorities were replaced with directly elected commissioners to hold the police to account. Amid claims the role is a ‘failed experiment’, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne speaks to Crime reporter Rachel Millard
TWO YEARS ago the county was decidedly un-gripped by an election for the first police and crime commissioner, with only 15% bothering to go to the polls.
Today the Conservative winner of that election works amid an uncertainty far greater than how many people will vote next time – there might not even be a post to run for. With the Labour Party promising to scrap, if elected, what it calls the “failed [Conservative] experiment” of police and crime commissioners, Katy Bourne and her team have a battle on their hands.
Pledging to run again, Mrs Bourne has come out fighting, calling any reversal to the “much less transparent, accountable and extremely bureaucratic” Police Authority a “kick in the teeth” for democracy.
Fresh from a PCC conference last Wednesday, she said “People now have somebody who is directly elected to represent them”, adding that proposals being looked at by Labour could lead to three policing boards in Sussex.
She continued: “Shadow policing minister Jack Dromey was talking saying they would have members of probation on there, they would have the Crown Prosecution Service on there.
“Well, we have already got that in Sussex: the criminal justice board. There is one of them, and it is very effective.”
As well as thinking it is very effective, Mrs Bourne was elected the criminal justice board’s chairwoman in February 2014.
Mrs Bourne and her PCC colleagues around the country faced a huge battle from the outset in simply raising the profile of the role, one she feels she is winning.
“I find now when I speak to members of the public they don’t ask me what is the point of the role anymore,” she said. “They are keen to understand actually what the role means for them.
“They also understand that there is somebody they can go to, somebody who will represent them in policing.”
Getting her role across and talking to people is part of the reason, she said, for what some criticise as too much spent on communications (her head of communications earns £69,502; she earns £85,000), although she does not agree.
“Well for a start this office does not spend a huge amount on publicity so I would completely reject that,” she said.
“But one of the most important aspects of my role is engaging with the public, so 1.6 million people. I need to be talking to them; I need to understand what their needs are in policing.
“There will always be a cost to that, but I don’t believe in spending money frivolously and certainly anybody can see our accounts for that.”
Public accounts show that overall her office last year cost about the same as the Police Authority did in its final year: £1.184 million. (not including allowances paid to the 20 members of the Police and Crime Panel, which oversees the PCC). Its budget is predicted to rise to £1.36 million by 2018/19.
Mrs Bourne said her office has to do more than police authorities ever did, including commissioning all victims services, for which she takes full responsibility next year.
Her office has already started on that, joining with Surrey and Thames Valley PCCs to sign a contract worth £1.8 million a year with Victim Support to support victims in their areas.
Mrs Bourne, who considers the contract one of her highlights so far, said: “The deal that we have driven out locally over the three-year contract has actually saved in Sussex alone about £300,000 over the three years.
“That is money that can be spent back in Sussex on better services, so we get a few more bells and whistles, if you like.
“Most importantly I think for me is that we get to manage the contract ourselves so I can see how it performs.”
Saving money is top of the list for a police force that has to save £54 million by 2019 because of government budget cuts, on top of massive cuts already enacted.
Last year, the commissioner injected more money into the budget by raising the amount people pay for policing through their council tax. The 1.95% increase meant every household started paying an extra £2.70 each per year.
The raise was despite Mrs Bourne being lauded in a speech by Home Secretary Theresa May for freezing the precept (as she did in her first year), and she feels it demonstrates her political independence. “That flew in the face of what the Conservatives would say – they believe in real low taxes,” she said.
“It is not an easy decision to make for me: it was very, very difficult to do but was the right decision to make for policing.
“I had to explain myself but if there is any clear message I think it is that I may be Conservative but I am an independent thinker.”
Her office had originally wanted to raise the precept by 3.6%, which was supported in a public consultation, but the government later said any rise above 2% would require a local referendum.
Now Mrs Bourne is consulting on another rise, of 1.98%, to help finish paying for all the plans that were stymied by the 2% cap, mainly tackling sexual abuse, in particular against children, and cyber crime. It would still be far less than most pay for policing.
As to whether a second rise in two years was complying with the spirit of the Government’s cap, she said: “I think it is important that I let the public speak on this, so I am asking them for their views because at the end of the day I am there to represent them.
“Who knows what is going to happen this year – the DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government] may actually turn around and cap it even lower – we just don’t know at the moment.
“The chief constable came to me and said, ‘We need the money to do this’. He only got half of that and so his argument to me this year was, ‘we only got half of it last year, could we have the other half?’ So I said, ‘well we could but I am going to ask the public again’.”
So far, Mrs Bourne said, money from last year’s increase has gone towards setting up a Sussex-wide unit to tackle serious sexual offences. It will contain 36 specially trained officers, of which 22 are in place.
She said: “You cannot under-resource a historical case. They can take two three or four years; you just don’t know how long they are going to take.
“So the police look ahead and they have to plan accordingly. It is not easy times but I feel very reassured that Sussex Police are on top of this and keeping a really good brief on it.”
The force was not painted in a particularly reassuring light in a recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which raised concerns about its approach to recording crime.
Based on samples of records from 2012 and 2013, inspectors flagged up cases not properly recorded as crimes, including rapes. It also said victims were not always asked about their offenders getting out-of-court punishments, supposed to be a condition of the punishment. Improvements have since been made.
Mrs Bourne, who holds the police to account as a key part of her role, said: “HMIC did this report 12 months ago so bear that in mind – it is historical. However it is good that they do them, because it gives me more inside knowledge.
“They certainly test policing and I use it as part of my tools to hold the police to account, so I really welcome the work that HMIC does.”
She added: “I think training had a lot to do with it and going back and letting victims know, because I think officers perhaps did not have an understanding. The crime recording methodology says quite clearly if a victim believes it is a crime you record it as a crime and that absolutely is how the instructions are.
“I am very pleased that Sussex is in a much better place than it was 12 months ago.”
Inspectors said performance pressure was not the main reason for the crime-recording problems, but that training and workload were more to blame.
The commissioner, who removed performance targets in Sussex Police based on directions from the Home Office, agrees targets can have “unintended consequences”. She said: “It can force people to chase the targets and therefore certain things might happen.”
She does turn, however, to figures to highlight her work, claiming solved rates for burglary in Brighton and Hove improved by 61% in a year after she challenged police to improve. She said: “Burglary was a target under the previous police authority. I think the target for solved burglaries was 17%, which meant that they expected the police to solve less than one in five.”
Her office has since told The Argus the 61% figure was based on Sussex Police figures for dwelling burglaries in Brighton and Hove, showing that the solved rate increased from 11.1% between September 2012 and August 2013 to 17.9% the following year.
According to Sussex Police, crime-solved figures seen by the Argus for all types of burglary, including attempted burglary, in Brighton and Hove, the solved rate has remained about 10% for the past two years. Mark White, from the Sussex Police Federation, which represents rank and file members, said he did not think individual members noticed any significant changes to policing due to the introduction of the PCC, “bearing in mind she does not get involved in operational decisions”, but said there is a good working relationship. He said: “Her accountability lies with the public and I think it is probably how they judge her that counts the most. I do feel sorry for her in light of the ever-increasing government cutbacks, which means she has to oversee policing in Sussex with one arm tied behind her back.
“We do meet with her and are able to have frank exchanges of views. We keep her in touch with issues raised by the rank and file and we have raised issues with her which has led to her intervention which we have been very pleased to see. She has been able to assist us in attempting to solve them.”
Others outside of the police echoed that thought. Countryside Alliance spokesman Michelle Nudds said having a figurehead was useful.
She said: “Katy Bourne has held meetings with our county members twice now and I think having a police and crime commissioner as a focus for questions and comments about rural crime has been popular with them.
“Issues they brought up included thefts of farm machinery, heating oil and dogs, problems with illegal hare coursing and trespass on their land and fly-tipping in the Downs National Park.
“We have also raised the issue of harassment of hunts going about their lawful business by aggressive ant-hunt protesters. Being able to speak to a single, identifiable person in all these cases has been very useful.”
Opponents, however, said they have yet to be convinced.
Chris Oxlade, Labour parliamentary candidate for Crawley and one of the 20 members of the Conservative-dominated Sussex police and crime panel, said: “The Police do an incredible job despite the deep financial cuts the Tory-led government has pushed onto them.
“There are immense pressures on forces across the country and here in Sussex, tens of millions of pounds worth of cuts are needed in the next year which will affect front line services.
“It would be interesting to see any evidence that PCC’s have dramatically helped police forces. Despite the Tory-led government claiming they will save money over police authorities, it just seems that it’s an expensive additional tier of bureaucracy.”
What is the PCC?
- The role of the PCC is to be the voice of the people and hold the chief constable to account
- In turn, the PCC is held to account by the police and crime panel
According to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, they must:
- secure an efficient and effective police for their area;
- appoint the chief constable, hold them to account for running the force, and if necessary dismiss them;
- set the police and crime objectives for their area through a police and crime plan;
- set the force budget and determine the precept;
- contribute to the national and international policing capabilities set out by the Home Secretary;
- and bring together community safety and criminal justice partners, to make sure local priorities are joined up
Katy Bourne highlights some key achievements in office as:
- Awarding the contract to Victim Support
- Aligning all local authority community safety partnership activities to the police and crime plan
- Giving grants grassroots community safety initiatives
- Establishing the Sussex Youth Commission n Supporting restorative justice practices