Leading Article: Howard's loss is the public's gain

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time around, Michael Howard had an alibi. Deciding not to implement the daring proposals of Sir Patrick Sheehy's committee on police pay and conditions was no retreat, he could claim: it was merely a decision not to put into effect the recommendations of outside advisers. Yesterday's U-turn on the Home Secretary's plan to award himself the right to appoint the chairmen of police authorities was a climbdown pure and simple. Mr Howard's political loss will be the public's gain.

The 43 police authorities of England and Wales have two tasks: to make chief constables answer to their local communities, and to exercise managerial oversight of the organisations they run. The current system, which has its roots in the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act and the 1964 Police Act, does the first of these moderately well. Local councillors and magistrates occupy seats on police authorities in a ratio of two to one. They are often effective in voicing local concerns when police officers spend too much time harassing young blacks, or cause too many accidents by jumping red lights at high speed in pursuit of criminals.

The current system is less good, however, at the managerial side of the job. With an average membership of 30, police authorities are too ungainly to function as a public- sector equivalent of the non-executive directors on the board of a company. Since all but one of the authorities in England and Wales are chaired by a local councillor, their meetings are also more likely to ramble ineffectually than would be the case under an independent chair.

Hence the Home Secretary's wish to cut the authorities back to 16 members each, to bring aboard five professionals from outside the ranks of local government and the magistracy, and to give himself the power to appoint one of these outsiders the chairman. Given the Tory history of arrogating power to central government, the last of these ideas was met with a chorus of protest from police, local councils, and both Labour and Tory politicians.

By indicating yesterday, in a written answer to a parliamentary question, that he will allow the new authorities to pick chairmen from among their own number, Mr Howard has made a wise concession. The new authorities will still be able to exercise proper managerial oversight of the police; but public confidence in the independence of the police will remain untarnished - until next time.