England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Co-operating on combating crime


It’s one of the most radical policies of the coalition, it could make a huge difference to policing in England and Wales, writes Mark D’Arcy, but almost no-one outside the politeratti is talking about the impending arrival of elected Police and Crime Commissioners. Who will they be? What will they do? And how will they work with other local agencies.

A good man to ask is Alun Michael, Labour candidate for PCC in South Wales. His CV includes 16 years as a Cardiff City councillor, spells as a journalist and a youth worker with young offenders, 25 years as an MP, serving as Jack Straw’s deputy in the Home Office, and for a short, unhappy term, as First Minister of Wales.

If elected, he’ll be drawing on all that experience – and the key lesson he takes from it is that policing policies have to be driven by local conditions, and that a good relationship with officers and elected members in local authorities is essential, if that is to happen.

“At the moment there is a formal relationship between local authorities, the police and the police authorities,” Michael says. “There’s also a relationship at a more local level via crime reduction partnerships, and now local strategic partnerships. But the important thing is to make policy together and the whole relationship needs to be refashioned and made much more practical and down to earth.”

And his policy agenda will require a lot of co-operation and consultation. Michael served on the Commons Justice Select Committee, which, shortly before the last election, published a massive report on “Justice Reinvestment,” the idea that money earmarked for spending on prisons could be much more productively spent on preventing crime, through rehabilitation, and even “pre-habilitation” of offenders. The obvious example, he says, is drug-related crime, where treatment programmes can prevent addicts from committing vast numbers of crimes – burglaries, car thefts, street crimes and the like – to feed their habit. But getting those services in place (and what works may vary from community to community) requires considerable cooperation between the Police, social services, education authorities and the NHS.

Similar multi-agency cooperation is needed on youth crime, he says. And even the emerging problem of e-crime – where criminals can commit fraud across borders – requires local action, because local initiatives are the best way to teach people how to protect themselves.

And from his years in the Home Office, Michael believes that there are big gains to be reaped from sharing data between agencies. They simply don’t realise how much they can do, he says: “In my constituency in the mid-90s I remember local authorities saying they could not share information about bad tenants with the Police, and the Police would not share information with them about people with criminal records who might be a nuisance in the neighbourhood…

“In ’98, I was in charge of the Crime and Disorder Act and I said I wanted to put a clause in which would make it OK to share this kind of information, for the purpose of preventing crime…. Officials told me it was already the case that this information could be shared – but it became clear that no-one believed it, and that Data Protection was interpreted as meaning ‘if in doubt, don’t share.’ Local authorities and other agencies are still stuck on this point, and there was a lot of shaking of heads even after I made it explicit in law. So it’s important to say to them that it is OK to share information, so long as it is for the prevention of crime.”

PCCs were the creation of the Conservatives, rather than Labour, and Michael is not a true believer in the concept. But he sees possibilities. “You’ve got to connect the local to the strategic, and good local councillors understand their community better than anyone else – they’ll know about the problems, the opportunities. And at grassroots level, there’s real potential for them to get the Police into far better contact with their community. The councillors must be the voice of the public, the voice of the people.” In Wales, in particular, the devolved government and the system of unitary local authorities, combined with the new elected PCCs offers great potential for even more “joined-up” crime prevention services.

This article first appeared in c’llr magazine, October 2012.