Public Services Management: Councils unite against police Bill: Criticism of proposed changes in the role of local authorities crosses party lines. Andrew Evans reports

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A QUIET revolution has been taking place this summer in the political leadership of Britain's 153,000-strong police service.

In county halls across England, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors have replaced Tories as chairmen of local police authorities. Together, the two opposition parties now chair an unprecedented 40 out of 52 UK authorities. These changes were a result of the county elections of 6 May, which left the Conservatives in overall control of only one English county and minority control of three.

Before the election, with the Tories in control of 20 counties, there were 21 Conservative chairmen of local police authorities. Now there are five, all of whom owe their position to the support of magistrates.

The role of magistrates has been enhanced in recent years, first by the increase in the number of hung counties and, since 1990, by legislation requiring council committees to reflect the overall political balance of the council.

Humberside council discovered a new ruse last year when it cut its police committee from 24 members to just six: three Labour, one Tory and two JPs. This allowed Labour to retain the chair on the outgoing chairman's casting vote, while still observing the laws on proportionality and JPs' seats.

It is against this background that Home Secretary Michael Howard, in a Bill to be introduced in November, is proposing radical reforms to the role and constitution of police authorities in England and Wales. And his proposals, due to take effect from April 1995, have succeeded in uniting united magistrates and councillors of all major parties in opposition to them.

The Government wants provincial police authorities in future to consist of just 16 members: eight councillors, three JPs, and five Home Office nominees. Chairmen would be appointed by Mr Howard from among the 16.

At present they average 30 members, ranging from 16 in Hertfordshire and South Yorkshire to 45 in Greater Manchester and the Devon and Cornwall combined police authority. Chairmen are elected by the members.

The new authorities wouId be 'free-standing corporate bodies' levying their own council tax, and individually liable to capping. At present only the Metropolitan Police and the six joint boards set a council tax and are subject to capping.

The budgets of the 35 shire police authorities are absorbed within county councils' overall budgets, which are themselves subiect to capping. Within these limits, counties have some leeway to under- or overspend government targets.

The Government's aim, set out in its Police Reform White Paper on 28 June, is to make police authorities 'stronger and more effective', and to give them 'broader local representation'. Chairmen would be appointed to provide 'effective leadership'. Ministers, while relaxing many detailed controls, also want greater overall control on UK police expenditure, which totals about pounds 7.3bn this year.

The proposed changes tie in with the start of a series of structural changes to local government, in both England and Wales, which would also sever traditional links between police authorities and individual county councils.

Mr Howard's proposals, which do not extend to cover both Scotland and Northern Ireland, would reduce the number of JPs' seats on police committees from 423 to 126 and councillors' seats across the UK from 1,059 to 516.

In Cambridgeshire, uniquely, five university appointees would also lose their seats. Total membership of UK police authorities would fall from 1,504 to about 880, and English and Welsh police authorities would become semi-detached from local government.

The Magistrates Association wants JPs to have five of the 16 seats, with Home office nominees reduced to three. Chairman Mrs Joyce Rose, a former member of the Hertfordshire Police Authority, says: 'We represent the community, but we also bring the only bit of expert knowledge of the system.'

The local authorities, which strongly object in principle to the loss of council control, have also argued that eight councillors is too few.

Steve Murphy chairs both the Greater Manchester Police Authority and the police committee of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. He says the proposals would disenfranchise two of Greater Manchester's 10 boroughs, and defends his 45-strong committee as appropriate for the largest UK police force outside Ulster and the Met. 'The problems this proposal generates are colossal,' he says.

But Gordon Berry, who chaired Humberside's committee of six last year, disagrees. 'It worked extremely well,' he says, 'and 16 would seem to be perfectly adequate.' The Humberside committee now has 24.

John Collins, Labour chair of the Association of County Councils' police committee, fears that there will be greater secrecy in decision-making. 'The White Paper makes no provision whatever for meetings in public.'

The Home office says meetings in public are 'implicit' in the White Paper, but could not say if this would be written into the Bill.

Francis Robinson, one of the five surviving Tory police chairmen, shares the concerns of his Labour colleagues. His 39-member Thames Valley authority includes Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire, and he says 16 is 'inappropriate and, in many cases, unworkable.

'Constitutionally, we all disagree with the idea that the Home Secretary should have the power to appoint the chairman,' he added.

Mr Robinson points out that ministers would need to vet the CVs of councillors before choosing authority chairmen. Chief constables would probably be asked for advice. 'And the last thing they want to do is to have to give opinions about the people who chair their authority,' he said.

In theory there is nothing to stop councillors, even Labour councillors, being appointed to chair the new authorities. And in some areas, such as Durham, Northumbria, South Yorkshire, Gwent and South Wales, the political balance is such that ministers might feel obliged to do so.

But depending how the legislation is framed, it is possible that councillors could actually be prevented from chairing the authorities.

This is because the new police authority chairmen would be paid a salary. And local government employees earning more than pounds 23,370 a year are prevented by law from taking part in political activity. If police authority chairmen were 'employees' of the authority with salariesexceeding the statutory limit, they could not also be councillors.

The Home Office has given no indication of the likely salary. But it would probably not exeeed the pounds 29,380 paid by the Government to Tom Heaney, chair of the Northern Ireland Police Authority. Ulster's police authority, which for security reasons meets in private and does not publish the names of its other members, is the only government-appointed police authority in the UK.

The Police Bill, which will also cover the Sheehy recommendations on police ranks, pay and conditions, is expected to be introduced in the House of Lords.

There have been hints that Mr Howard may be willing to compromise on the overall size of the new authorities. But councillors will be relying on the Lords, with their traditional concern for constitutional issues, to reject what local authorities see as the Bill's 'anti- democratic' proposals for police authorities.

(Photograph omitted)