Leading article: Policing does not need a Prescott

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The Independent Online

It can hardly be what Lord Prescott intended.

But by throwing his hat into the ring to become the elected police commissioner for Humberside, he has managed at a stroke to highlight a great deal that is wrong with the whole idea of elected commissioners, both in practice and in principle.

In support of his ambition, Lord Prescott argues that he has the relevant experience – by virtue, presumably, of having been the local MP, Deputy Prime Minister and a minister with responsibilities for local government. This is not necessarily such a good thing. Local knowledge is undoubtedly a plus – one might even say an essential – for the new positions. But the concept of elected police commissioners was to bring in new blood and give local people a voice over and above party politics – or so, at least, it seemed at the time.

Lord Prescott already has many forums from which to seek to influence policy. What is more, he wants to be nominated by the Labour Party. The result, if he were elected, would be no new voice and a large measure of politicisation, as local party stalwarts and Lord Prescott – because of his own deeply political instincts – sought to exert influence their way. As such, the commissioner would risk becoming either a hostage to, or just another arm of, local politics. This was always a fear, but one that Lord Prescott's interest suggests was justified.

A more positive aspect of elected commissioners is that they will not, contrary to widespread belief, wield anything like the same power as their counterparts in the United States, which could disappoint some voters, come November. Their job will be to set priorities for the police and oversee the budget, not to run operations or hire and fire. It is a role designed primarily to address complaints before the last election that the police are unresponsive to local concerns and out of touch.

But the introduction of another layer into policing, especially if it becomes party political, is a recipe for new conflicts and confusion. Between them, elected mayors and elected councillors should be enough of a guarantee that the concerns of local people will be heard.