Amid concerns about pandemic-induced unemployment and poverty, safety remains a central concern for Londoners. But can voters count on the next mayor for solutions?
Concerns about crime and safety tend to loom large in both national and local election campaigns. But frontline policing has been put under an increasing spotlight throughout the pandemic. Last year, the incumbent Mayor Sadiq Khan provided additional funds to plug some of the funding gap caused by coronavirus, and also published an Action Plan aiming to improve transparency, accountability, and trust in policing in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
But how much control does the Mayor of London really have over policing and community safety in the capital?
How are responsibilities allocated?
When London’s mayoralty was established 20 years ago, it was given powers over policing in the capital (with the exception of the City of London, which has its own police force), which included appointing members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and setting the Met’s annual budget.
Mayoral responsibility was formally strengthened in 2012, when the coalition government transferred authority over policing in England from low profile, indirectly appointed Police Authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). These were to be directly elected everywhere other than in London, where the Mayor took on the role. The mayor delivers his PCC responsibilities, which include setting policing strategy, determining headline budgets and holding the police to account, through the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), headed by a Deputy Mayor for Policing (currently Sophie Linden); according to MOPAC’s website the Mayor “is responsible for the totality of policing in the capital’. The Met Commissioner (currently Cressida Dick) remains responsible for the day to day running of the police.
The job of governing London’s police force is a serious one. One in four English police officers works in the Met and it’s more than four times bigger than the next largest force (Manchester). The Met Commissioner is recognised as the most senior police officer in the land and the force plays an important national role in areas like counter-terrorism, cyber-security, VIP protection (e.g. royals, national politicians, visiting heads of state, etc.) and the policing of major national events.
But even when it comes to control of the police, things are a little more complicated than they might first appear.
As the Mayor for London’s website concedes, the Met Commissioner answers to the mayor, ‘with a separate reporting line to the Home Secretary on national matters. She must at all times retain the confidence of both the Mayor … and the Home Secretary”. The Mayor and the Home Secretary in particular are jointly responsible for appointing and, presumably, dismissing Commissioners – though Boris Johnson seems to have assumed de facto responsibility for the latter when he let go of Commissioner Ian Blair in 2008, with little involvement of the (Labour) Home Secretary.
Where does the funding come from?
Perhaps more importantly, the Mayor of London is dependent on national government for police funding.
True, the mayor has the power to raise some funds himself, principally through the ability to set a precept on Council Tax – in recent years he has set as high a precept as he is legally allowed to do so. But according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Policing, about 70 per cent of Met funding comes directly from national government. And Sadiq Khan claims that national government has not been generous to the London service – according to the Mayor, grants from central government have been cut by 40 per cent since 2010 on a like for like basis.
One result of this has been a 10 per cent decline in Met police numbers over the last decade – from roughly 33,000 in 2010 to 30,000 in 2020, even as London’s population has grown fast and demands on the police have, arguably, grown even faster. Cuts to civilian staff and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) have been greater still. And all the while the police have been busy selling off police stations and other capital assets.
In this context, it’s worth noting that London has a much smaller police force than New York, though New York has a similar population size and few of the Met’s national responsibilities – perhaps because the New York Police Department is funded through city rather than national taxes. (New York has 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees. London has around 30,000 police officers and 8,500 civilian staff.)
Where do non-police factors fit in?
A still more fundamental limitation on the Mayor’s control over crime and safety comes from the fact that community safety is not something delivered by the police alone.
Levels of crime and anti-social behaviour are shaped by a wide range of factors including deeply entrenched cultural norms, broad economic trends, spending on welfare and social services – in particular, youth services – and the performance of the wider criminal justice system. Prison and probation services, for instance, play a vital role in preventing re-offending.
But the Mayor’s powers over these non-police factors are limited, especially when compared to that enjoyed by other global city mayors.
The Mayor has little control for instance, over youth service funding, school policies, sentencing, prison or probation and in particular little power to resist the public spending cuts in London, which have, for instance, seen a real decline in funding of youth services. The Mayor, national government and the boroughs do appear to be working closely on the Violent Crime Reduction Unit which aims to foster a more joined-up, preventative approach to knife and gang crime.
In summary, while the Mayor of London has an important role in directing the policing of the capital, his or her control, especially financial control, is limited. The next Mayor will continue to have relatively little power over many of the broader determinants of crime and safety – all of which leaves space for plenty of disagreement and political finger-pointing over who is responsible for crime committed in the capital.
Note: This blog post was first published on 24 January 2020 and has been updated to account for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.