Chris Bryant: Just look at London to see if politics and police mix

A week in Westminster

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The Independent Online

Apolitical policing is meant to be as quintessentially British as queuing, but on Monday the Government is going to have another go at trying to ram through its US-style proposal to put policing in England and Wales into the hands of directly elected crime and policing commissioners.

So far they have failed to convince the Lords that this is a sane idea, so this week they announced that instead of holding the first elections on the same day as the locals, they will be next November, costing an additional £25m on top of the £87m cost of the commissioners themselves.

If you were to listen to Theresa May and David Cameron, you would think that this is the cure-all for every policing problem in the land. Over-assertive policing of the G20 demonstrations? No worries, a directly elected commissioner will sort that out. Complete absence of policing in some parts of the country during the summer riots? The commissioner will get on to it. Too much bureaucracy, inept investigations into phone hacking? Ditto.

The trouble is, of course, that we already know what happens when you put a directly elected politician in charge of the police. That's precisely what London has. Yet Boris Johnson did not immediately return from his holiday while the riots proceeded and apparently attributed any police failings to lack of resources, saying they were "overstretched". Indeed, he actively tried to dismiss hacking allegations as '"codswallop" and "a politically motivated put-up job by the Labour Party".

So I'm completely opposed to these politician commissioners. What is needed is police in sufficient numbers to tackle real local problems, whether that's blue collar, white collar, no collar or dog collar crime.

That's not to say I want the streets to be permanently patrolled by police. My first political memory is living in Madrid under Franco and driving past the political prison at Carabanchel on a misty day when the Generalisimo was visiting. Every 50 yards there was a Guardia Civil in patent leather tricorn hat and long cape carrying a machine gun. The security state was very much in evidence. But cutting 16,000 police officers here is a mistake. Even the extra 2,000 we could afford if we put a stop to the commissioners would be a step in the right direction. And when South Wales Police loses 500 staff, it won't find it so easy to help out in London and Bristol again.

The downside of e-petitions

There is some frustration around that during the recess the Government went ahead with a system for parliamentary e-petitions whereby the public can sign up to demand a debate in the Commons. The Government has suggested that anything getting over 100,000 online signatures will get its day in the Chamber. Unfortunately, the Backbench Business Committee, which is in charge of allocating debates, is granted only about one day every fortnight by the Government and there is already a substantial backlog. So the debate on restoring the death penalty promoted by the likes of Guido Fawkes may not see the light of day for many moons (if that's not a contradiction in astrology). It's something I regularly get asked about in the Rhondda, but I've always been clear that I will never vote for it. There is a real limit to government by referendum.

Tribute to a fellow former priest

Just hours after the depressing debate on abortion counselling last Wednesday which saw MPs take metaphorical lumps out of each other (and hang their heads in shame at the paucity of the debate), there was a striking moment in the 14th-century Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. It was a memorial service for the talented and witty former minister David Cairns, who died 9 May aged just 44. Striking for several reasons. Although David was Labour through and through, there were plenty of colleagues from other parties and it was a Catholic mass which fully acknowledged David was openly gay. (His elegant partner Dermot gave the eulogy.) My, times change. Dermot told a splendid story of how civil servants would keep David's feet firmly on the ground, even when he was staying at Hillsborough Castle as Northern Ireland minister. Having prepared for a speech at an open-air event, David was told that the audience was all lined up, and that if there should be inclement weather "we have identified a suitable bus shelter". Incidentally, David and I were the only two former priests to be elected in 2001 and every year he would beat me for the informal parliamentary award for best behaved former priest.

Must have seemed like a good idea at the time

The next few weeks will be particularly fraught in the Commons as the draft new parliamentary boundaries for England will be published on Tuesday and MPs get to see them on Monday. This has all been dreamt up for the partisan benefit of the Coalition, but as the number of seats is being cut by 50 there will be a quiet crisis on the green benches of both sides of the House as MPs start fighting turf wars, invariably with people on their own side. Scotland and Northern Ireland are to follow soon, but Wales, where the most savage cuts of all come, won't be out till January. I suspect many MP will wonder why on earth they voted for this.

Some questions for the Kremlin

David Cameron is off to Moscow tomorrow. Russia is obviously an important partner. The problem is that, politically, the country seems to have stepped backwards over the past few years. The free media has been closed down. Corruption is endemic, in business and in politics. Torture is a standard part of the criminal justice system and, as the Khodorkovsky case has shown, the courts are an adjunct of the will of the Kremlin. Cameron has shown himself easily gulled so I hope this time he is going in eyes wide open. He can't avoid the matter of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, and he must make it clear that those involved in the corruption unveiled by Sergei Magnitsky and in his death are simply not welcome in the UK.

twitter.com/ChrisBryantMP

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