Blog Post

The power struggle at the heart of police accountability in London

Who holds responsibility for managing the Metropolitan Police? Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes explores the tensions that exist between the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London:

As the selection process for the next Met Commissioner grinds on, the question of whose head is on the block for the performance of London’s police still doesn’t have a straightforward answer. Because of a fudge during the establishment of the Mayor of London and turf wars in Whitehall, London’s police accountability is rather muddled.

Polling last year confirms Londoners have sensed this – 30% of Londoners blame the Met for levels of violent crime, 28% national Government, and 20% London Government. Almost half think the Prime Minister and Westminster currently have the most power over London’s police, versus a third for the Mayor.

No wonder Londoners are confused. The Met Commissioner has two masters – what makes this spicier is that one master has more power than the other. On one side, the Home Secretary, with statutory authority to hire and fire Met Commissioners, the prerogative to set national policing standards, the option of legislative powers to reform or even abolish the Met, and provision of £2.8billion of the Met’s £4billion budget. On the other side, the Mayor, who sets both the police’s strategic direction via the Police and Crime Plan and the Met’s annual budget, including levying a precept on Londoners’ council tax. While the Mayor’s views on a prospective new Met Commissioner must be taken into account by the Home Secretary, they can be ignored – and the Mayor has no statutory power to dismiss a Commissioner. Less formal scrutiny, by way of the media, doesn’t tend to fall equally on both the Mayor and Home Secretary. It is usually to the Mayor that the media gravitates when a major incident hits the city, as the postholder is seen as the voice of the city.

With this split come flashpoints. Take the Mayor’s budget setting – with 70% of total funding from the Government, a bit of squeezing by Whitehall leaves the police short of money. Mayors are left in an invidious position: choosing between spending less on the police or scraping together the money from elsewhere. Yet the latter is constrained by how little tax raising powers Mayors have, and the Government limiting increases in those they do have (e.g. Council Tax).

Put all this together, and you could have a scenario where the Government cuts funding grants, refuses extra tax-raising powers or limits council tax rises and then accuses the Mayor of failing to keep the city safe. But, in reverse, you might also have the situation where a Mayor blames the Government for refusing to properly fund the city’s police when things go wrong.

In fact, this is precisely what happens meaning London’s policing accountability resembles the internet meme of two identical Spiderman characters pointing at each other. The thing is, because of the messy state of affairs, with confused yet asymmetric accountability, it’s fair cop (excusing the pun) for Londoners to look to them both for leadership on policing and answers when things go wrong.

This messy situation came to a head in February when Dame Cressida Dick resigned as Met Commissioner, citing a lack of confidence from the Mayor. In response, the Home Secretary launched a review to “establish and assess the full facts, timeline of events and circumstances which resulted in the stepping aside of Dame Cressida Dick as Met Commissioner”. The review, led by Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Tom Winsor is expected to offer “advice, options and recommendations on how accountability and due process in these respects may be strengthened”.

While this shines a light on the muddle at the heart of police accountability in London, others have also said there’s more than a whiff of party politics at play. After all, few serious political figures – the Home Secretary included – battled hard in public to defend the departing Commissioner.

Under cover of this review, the Home Secretary might choose to erode the Mayor’s formal powers even more. This would be the wrong thing to do. The problem is not that there’s too much devolution of power to the Mayor and the city, it’s that there’s not enough.

But there are further important points to consider. First, if the Mayor is on the hook for the performance of the police, it is only right and proper that much more of the funding is under their control. The situation can’t continue where there’s the constant threat that the majority of funding could be cut by the Government. Instead, serious fiscal devolution needs to happen so more money is raised directly from the city to spend on policing and not come via Whitehall.

Second, the recruitment and dismissal of the Commissioner needs to be in the Mayor’s gift. This would considerably strengthen the accountability of the police to the city and address a key aspect of Sir Tom’s remit. This would also bring the Mayor into line with all other Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales who already have this power.

Third, the Home Secretary should not assume reducing (or removing altogether) the small role the Mayor plays in Commissioner recruitment would mean the Mayor is left with no power to influence who is running the city’s police. It seems highly unlikely a Met Commissioner would survive in post if any Mayor with their huge citywide mandate publicly stated no confidence in them, regardless of any statutory involvement.

Fourth, any Home Secretary should be careful what they wish for – do they really want to be the only one on the hook for London’s policing, particularly at a time of scandal, falling public confidence and a desperate need for police reform? They could be left with no other Spiderman to point at. Polling already shows that almost half of Londoners thought cuts to police numbers and budgets were primarily a result of decisions by the Government, with just a quarter pinning responsibility on London’s Government. Being even more accountable risks even more blame.

Fifth, the same reasons that are regularly given by Whitehall for why London’s policing can’t be truly accountable to the Mayor need addressing. Yes, there are national functions in the Met, but these could be moved to the National Crime Agency, which is directly accountable to the Home Secretary.

It would be a backward step if Sir Tom’s review led to an eroding of the Mayor’s powers, which are already under threat on a number of fronts, from strategic planning to public transport. The Mayor’s role in policing was a key part of the proposed new model of city governance put to Londoners in a referendum which they overwhelmingly backed. It would also run counter to the Government’s stated aim of more devolution.

Londoners could also question the obsession over processes for what might appear party political reasons at a time when public confidence in the police is falling fast and the Met is in desperate need of reform. This is an opportunity for Sir Tom and the Home Secretary to prove all of these critics wrong and give London a police force truly accountable to the city.

Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.