Powerful directly elected figureheads modelled on police chiefs in cities such as New York would replace appointed police authorities under the plans outlined in the Conservatives' manifesto chapter on law and order. They would replace authorities in all areas apart from London, where the Mayor would take direct responsibility for policing.
The commissioners would set police budgets, appoint chief constables, agree policing plans, monitor performance and take over responsibilities for collecting fines.
The proposals were dismissed by opposition parties, with Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, claiming the posts would be open to abuse from extremists and could provoke conflict between chief constables and their political masters.
Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, said Tory pledges to increase police numbers were based on "fantasy savings".
Launching the policy in Manchester yesterday, Mr Howard said the proposal would hand power over policing priorities to local people. He declared: "The clearest line of accountability in any organisation is to a single individual: a person who sits behind a desk with a sign that says I'm responsible, the buck stops here."
In practice, the powers of the new commissioners would be strictly limited. They would not interfere in day-to-day operational policing and the Home Office would retain powers over policing standards and the appointment of chief constables.
The 12-page Tory manifesto for crime includes pledges to recruit 5,000 extra officers every year, create 20,000 new prison places and boost community sentences. The Tories would end the early release scheme for prisoners, ensure judges give clear maximum and minimum sentences in court and set new mandatory sentences under a "three-strikes" rule for drug dealers and burglars.
Under the proposals, drug dealers convicted for a third time would face at least seven years in jail, while burglars convicted for a third time would serve at least three years.
Mr Howard praised the work of the former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and the city's former police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who were credited with cutting crime dramatically after pioneering the concept of "zero- tolerance" policing.
He also heaped praise on the former Middlesbrough police officer turned elected mayor, Ray Mallon, known as "Robocop", for his blitz on petty crime.
He said: "When I was Home Secretary I had a clear mandate to beat crime. When Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York he had a clear mandate to beat crime. Here in Britain today, Ray Mallon was elected with a clear mandate to beat crime. Ray is not a police commissioner, he is an elected mayor, but he was elected on a crime-fighting platform.
"I don't just want people to feel safe in their homes, I want them to feel safe everywhere. If they don't I want them to exercise their dissatisfaction through the ballot box."
But Mr Oaten branded the proposals "a dangerous idea which could lead to all sorts of extreme groups being elected to run local policing". He added: "It could create conflict between chief constables and elected officials leading to a breakdown of community policing."
Ms Blears added: "Michael Howard's record on police is one of broken promises and fewer officers. The Tories twice promised more police in the Nineties, yet while Mr Howard was Home Secretary officer numbers fell by 1,132.
"Claims about police numbers are being made without making clear how they would be paid for, other than through fantasy savings to the asylum system. At the same time the Tories are committed to cuts of pounds 35bn to public spending."
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