Who will police the police?

A number of retired chief constables are hoping to be in Britain's first wave of elected commissioners. But should they be allowed to oversee the forces they once worked for? Paul Peachey and Olivia Lee report

They have lined up as the anti-politicians: the ex-cops promising to be tough on crime while holding their old forces to account. But in the biggest shake-up for decades, retired senior officers face scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest as they prepare to contest elections to powerful watchdog posts that will shape the future of British policing.

Recently retired chief constables are considering entering races to hold their successors to account – despite attempts by MPs to bar those who have retired after 2008 from this round of elections in the areas that they used to run.

Votes in November will transfer the powers of police authorities to hold chief constables to account to 41 directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs). The commissioners will have the powers to hire and fire chief constables and set budgets and priorities. MPs on the powerful Home Affairs Select Committee called for a ban on chief constables from standing during a four-year cooling-off period because of possible conflicts of interest. "I think that was a very sensible recommendation," said Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. But the Government ruled against the suggestion, raising questions of whether a former chief constable can be an effective watchdog of former colleagues.

One former chief constable who left his force last year, is seeking a Labour nomination, and a second, who left in 2010, is considering a run. The former drugs tsar and ex-chief constable, Keith Hellawell, has also indicated he wants to run as an independent.

"It's a legitimate question for me to address," said Meredydd Hughes, the former South Yorkshire chief constable who left in October last year and is now seeking to become PCC for the force. "It is for me to convince first the members of the Labour committee and, if I do that, then hopefully the electorate. When I was in the police service holding people to account, I would say, 'I'm friendly but I'm not your friend'."

Mr Hughes, who opposed the creation of PCCs, said that a close working relationship between the PCC and the chief constable would be a better one than "daggers drawn", that he said might be the case with an elected politician. "He [the new chief constable] is not a personal friend and he and I would both understand the new nature of our relationship," said Mr Hughes

The former Gloucestershire chief constable, Dr Tim Brain, who retired in 2010 and has yet to decide if he will stand for the PCC election, said there should be no restrictions on who could stand. "If I was being cynical, I would say [MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee] are motivated by the fact they have a nice, cosy club of politicians and don't want outsiders muscling in," he said.

Early prospective candidates for the posts, which offert salaries from £65,000 to £100,000, include police officers from constable upwards. Retired military officers are also well represented. Many of them have set themselves at odds with local and national politicians who dominate the early runners.

In a tweet, Martyn Underhill – the former superintendent who led the inquiry into the murder of Sarah Payne, and is now standing for PCC in Dorset – said: "Look at how the Government has dealt with the fuel strike, poor advice, garages shutting, chaos, do you really want a politician running our police?"

Few high-profile figures have so far declared, raising concerns that the election on 15 November could see a low turnout. The Police Foundation, which has charted those preparing to stand, said the worst possible scenario was a list of candidates that failed to catch the national imagination. "Will they represent the authority of the public if they're voted in by half of the votes of a 15 per cent turnout?" said its deputy director, Jon Collins.

Former senior military figures, including Colonel Tim Collins, best known for his speech to troops before war in Iraq, and Sir Clive Loader, the first commander-in-chief of the Air Command, have tossed their hats into the ring. John Prescott is the highest-profile politician to stand, despite arguing against the measure while in opposition. Several other Labour ex-ministers are standing, and a former Tory MP, Humfrey Malins, has declared for the job in Surrey.

Elected commissioners: the key battlegrounds

Wales

The former minister Alun Michael is seeking to stand in South Wales. The election pits the experienced national politician against Paul Cannon, a retired detective, and Simon Weston, who was badly injured during the Falklands War, and would indicate whether figures with a national profile are favoured over those with executive experience. Mr Michael's son, Tal, is planning to run in North Wales after quitting the police authority. The former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies has expressed interest in running in Gwent.

West Midlands

Candidates for the PCC in the West Midlands have warned they may not sign off on Britain's biggest private policing contract. The issue is also likely to feature in the election for Surrey. Those who have expressed interest in the job are mainly councillors or members of the police authority. The forces are awaiting responses from the private sector for "transformational" ideas to save money for the force. John Prescott, who is running in Humberside, has said he will lead a campaign to keep policing in the public sector.

South Yorkshire

A race being watched keenly because of Meredydd Hughes, who is seeking the Labour nomination, and who quit as South Yorkshire chief constable last year. He has previously come out strongly against the idea of investing the power of a 17-person police authority in one man – but has committed to trying to make the scheme work. Critics have warned that he could usurp the authority of the chief constable. With Labour tipped to get the job, other candidates for the party nomination include police authority members.

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