Parliament has issued its report on the investigation into the sacking of police chief constables by Police and Crime Commissioners. The investigation looked at three cases: Within a few days of the election, Avon and Somerset Chief Constable Colin Port declined to re-apply for his job after the incoming Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, indicated that she wanted to recruit a new Chief Constable whose tenure would cover her entire term of office. In Lincolnshire, Chief Constable Neil Rhodes was suspended by Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Hardwick—who also referred him to the IPCC—but was reinstated following a High Court judgement. In Gwent, Commissioner Ian Johnston invited Chief Constable Carmel Napier to retire, indicating that he was prepared to initiate the statutory process for her removal if she did not do so.

Many people will be surprised to realise that the PCCs have the power to sack police chief constables, and that this and other powers (or the threat of their use) were exercised so soon after the PCCs took their posts. The PCCs were brought into power in an election characterised by indifference – for example, Gwent PCC Ian Johnston was voted in by 8% of the electorate, according to the report.

The Home Affairs Committee also expressed considerable concern about what had happened. Their report says: ‘Suspension or removal of a chief constable is a radical step, and not one which should be undertaken lightly. As we have previously noted, it is potentially operationally disruptive and costly, and damaging to the reputation of the force and individuals concerned.’

However, in these three examples, this ‘radical step’ was taken in these cases without the processes  and consideration that parliament envisaged, according to the report, which notes: ‘Early indications are that it is very easy for a police and crime commissioner to remove a chief constable, even when the stated concerns of a PCC are about operational policing matters or are of an insubstantial nature. The statutory process provides little safeguard, since there is nobody—not the police and crime panel, not the Inspectorate of Constabulary, not even the Home Secretary herself—who can over-rule a commissioner who has set his face to dismissing a chief constable. And even the limited scrutiny process can easily be sidestepped with the threat of a potentially embarrassing public scrutiny process in which there is clearly scope for a commissioner to cause serious damage to a chief constable’s reputation and, by extension, the reputation and morale of the force. Though we make no comment on the merits of these cases, it is notable that the reasons given by commissioners who have suspended or dismissed chief constables so far have been unpersuasive, in the case of Avon and Somerset where the Commissioner cited contractual issues; “irrational and perverse”, in Lincolnshire (according to the High Court); and unsubstantiated by any concrete examples in the case of Gwent.’

Of note also in respect to the Gwent case are these observations in the report:

‘We were disappointed that, shortly after we took evidence from Mr Johnston, he took to Twitter to criticise a member of the Committee for asking questions that he believed had been prompted by Gwent MPs, describing the proceedings as “sad really”. Mr Johnson even described Mr Ruane as a “plant of Gwent MPs”.[] This disdainful attitude towards scrutiny by Parliament, as well as an indication of a clear over-sensitivity to criticism, from a politician elected by less that 8% of the electorate, who had managed to side-step the statutory arrangements for local scrutiny of his decision to sack the Chief Constable, is further evidence, if any were needed, that the checks and balances on police and crime commissioners are too weak.

‘The situation in Gwent has highlighted that the wide discretion of commissioners to dismiss chief constables is a significant issue, and shows that statutory provisions intended to give police and crime panels a role in respect of dismissals, albeit a consultative one, can be evaded. Some will argue that it represents an undermining of the independence of the office of chief constable if it becomes too easy for their political masters to dismiss them over any minor disagreement or personality clash. On the other hand, it is essential to commissioners’ role as directly elected office-holders that they have the power to dismiss chief constables, and commissioners can and should provide robust, critical challenge to chief constables. It is right that commissioners should have the initiative in removing a chief constable, but we recommend that police and crime panels should fully exercise their powers of scrutiny in examining and deciding whether the proposed removal of a chief constable is justified. Such decisions, once made, should be accompanied by all the reasons arrived at in the case. We will return to this important area of policy when we come to consider the work of police and crime commissioners one year after their election, in November this year, by which time there may well be further examples of these powers being exercised in practice.’

What to make of all this? While the appointment of PCCs created barely a ripple of interest when proposed, it is clear that those who hold this post have considerable power potentially to disrupt the running of the police force they are appointed to work with. 

The public, to protect its own interests and ensure that the police in their area are able to function, will have to become more involved in the PCC process. This should, I believe, include voting in the next PCC election to ensure that disruptive PCCs who arbitrarily seek to dismiss chief constables are themselves dismissed.

There is a PCC website, which provides some basic information. The PCCs have set four-year terms and a maximum of two terms. We, the public, need to step up and resolve this situation. PCCs have extensive powers, and this first election has seen people elected without most of us exerting any kind of scrutiny to ensure that those seeking election were likely to be fair and impartial, as their oath calls on them to be.  

I would also call on parliament to urgently work to strengthen the oversight process to ensure that PCCs are not able to make such far-reaching decisions without proper scrutiny, checks and balances. This is a matter of concern to us all.Image