Police chiefs have accused Priti Patel of a ‘power grab’ which would allow the Home Secretary to intervene in local law enforcement matters and silence chiefs who want to speak out on matters issues deemed politically sensitive.
An extraordinary row erupted behind the scenes, with police bosses accusing Patel of trying to win new powers without parliamentary approval.
The vehement backlash from police chiefs and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) comes after an attempt by the government to redraft a written protocol that attempts to define where policing responsibility lies.
Parts of the plan were called “deeply dangerous” and “a power grab threatening operational independence” by a police chief. Police and crime commissioners, in a private response, described some of the government‘s proposals as “ultra vires”, meaning going beyond the legal authority of the Home Secretary.
Ten years ago, the government handed over local policing powers to PCCs as part of its localism agenda. But one government proposal makes it easier for the interior minister to intervene in such matters, while another increases the pressure on chiefs and PCCs to respond to the interior minister.
A Home Office source with extensive knowledge of Patel’s thinking dismissed the criticism. They said: ‘It’s not a power grab, it’s not a threat to operational independence, but it’s about clarifying who has the duties and responsibilities in the policing world. Shouldn’t the role of the Minister of the Interior be to ask questions? »
The row at the top of the criminal justice system in England and Wales centers on the Home Office’s attempt to overhaul the policing protocol, which was first produced in 2011 and came into force in January 2012.
The Home Office’s draft of its new version, seen by the Guardian, has been sent to police chiefs and PCCs for their input, with the consultation closing on May 2. It sets out how government, police chiefs, police and crime commissioners should work together.
It is widely accepted that after a decade updating the original version is a good idea. But the new draft protocol gives the interior minister the right to demand answers from police chiefs, which the PCCs say impinges on their role.
A police chief said the protocol had “expanded” the role of the Home Secretary beyond what is written in the law.
Another said: ‘Your party gave these powers, if they don’t like it, get them back with legislation in parliament. Many chiefs believe the way it is written now is ultra vires. They are angry.”
Since Patel became Home Secretary, her department has been keen to get more involved in policing under a policy called “lean in.” The police chief said: “They’re using the term lean. For the first time, chiefs lean.”
A Home Office source said the changes made sense and expressed bewilderment at the opposition. “We’re going to write more clearly who owns what, who can request information, and who can do various things,” they said.
The 2012 version of the protocol clearly stated that the introduction of PCCs had “enabled the Home Office to step back from day-to-day policing”.
The new version, according to police chiefs, is trying to claw back power without parliamentary approval, with Patel and his officials keen to expand his “legitimate role in keeping PCCs and CCs”. [chief constables] render accounts”, and thus facilitate the taking to task of the chiefs of police.
The proposed protocol says: “We propose to lower the threshold for intervention by the Home Secretary in appropriate circumstances. This would allow the Home Secretary to intervene earlier if necessary, reducing the risk of not providing effective policing.
The government’s proposals would also increase pressure on police chiefs to provide the Home Secretary with the information she requests, which they are not obliged to do. The document says: “In order to ensure that the Home Secretary has the necessary information to respond to the public and to parliament, PCCs and CCs should expect the Home Secretary to ask chiefs information on police matters.”
In its private response, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners said: ‘There is no formal legal power for the Home Secretary to require the police and crime commissioner to provide information…As As such, any attempt to create legal liability for police and crime commissioners to provide information to the Home Secretary through protocol would be ultra vires.
The proposed protocol also contains a requirement that police chiefs act “in a politically neutral manner”, which has been added to the previous restriction that they must be impartial.
This is opposed by police chiefs. One chief said they would be ‘chained’ and unable to comment on public policies they believe could affect tackling crime – such as the effects of austerity. Another leader said he was so vague he could not speak publicly on issues of political conflict – such as tougher penalties or opposing the decriminalization of cannabis, which is backed by some politicians front line.
The elected police and crime commissioners have said such ‘recentralisation’ cannot be done through ‘amendments to protocol’. Instead, they said, “The creation of new strategic oversight powers can only be achieved through primary legislation and must be subject to the scrutiny required by primary legislation.”
In another section, they say, the “proposed change seeks to alter the constitutional relationship between the police, the people and the central government, which is one of the great forces of British policing”.
The deep apprehensions arise despite the protocol’s foreword which gives this assurance: “The protocol cannot create new laws, give actors powers they do not already have, or take away from any competent body the power discretion to use its existing powers”.
He adds: “By updating the protocol, we intend to clarify the role of the Home Secretary in the policing landscape, as well as the role of chief constables, PCCs and police and crime commissions. .”