After what seems like an age, and just when it looked like it had all been investigated and resolved, the issue of expenses claims by Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen Bett has surged back into significance with the decision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission to appoint the City of London police to undertake a criminal investigation into Mr Bett. Police officers will gather evidence. They will likely question Mr Bett under criminal caution. A report will be prepared for the IPCC, and one of their Commissioners will have to give attention to the question of whether the report indicates that Mr Bett may have committed an offence.
If you want to know more, including specifics about the expenses, see Sally Chidzoy's article for BBC News online here, or if you are quick, at Look East on iPlayer (here at 4 mins 30 for the next few hours) -hence the photo and this article expanding on my comments in that piece.
My concern however is with what Mr Bett did next. He issued a statement that to protect the cops, the Office of the PCC, etc., he would reluctantly be stepping aside temporarily- and while everyone was wondering whether any PCC in such a position should do the same, or whether that would invite just too many allegations, my “Say what?” expression pictured above was around the question of what it means for a PCC to step aside.
Legally, PCCs can't step aside. I don't mean that Mr Bett has done something illegal. It's just that there is no legal status for a PCC to step aside into. A PCC holds their office all the time. They are still a PCC when they are sleeping, still a PCC when they are on holiday, at the weekends and in the bath. If they step anywhere it is not aside but down. A PCC can step down by resigning, but if he or she wants to step up again they'll have to win another election, like the one they've just caused to fill the vacancy they have created. But there is no stepping aside.
A PCC could be suspended, but only by a Police and Crime Panel, and only if the PCC had been charged with a crime, and not just any old crime, but one that meets certain requirements for severity of potential maximum punishment. At that point the PCC would no longer receive their pay and pension contributions and the Panel that had decided the suspension would need to decide on a temporary replacement from among the PCC's employees.
But you'll have noticed that the PCC cannot suspend themselves, or decide their own replacement. They can't even ensure that the job goes to the Deputy they may have appointed.
So what can Mr Bett mean by “step aside”? As Sally Chidzoy reported, there seems to be a bit of confusion at Mr Bett's office, and at the Home Office, about the resultant status of Mr Bett. And while he may or may not be doing the job, he is still entitled to be paid, which should be very popular given this is all about whether he was claiming money he shouldn't have.
As far as I can see, all Mr Bett can mean by standing down is to exercise his powers to delegate as many of his functions as he can to whomever he chooses, and walk out of the building until it all blows over. Except that legally there are three functions he cannot delegate to anyone. These are:-
- Issuing a Police and Crime Plan – well, OK, he's done that a year or so ago and has a couple more years to go before he has to do it again.
- Hiring or firing the Chief Constable – and again this looks fairly trouble-free, as he's only just appointed a Chief, who has been Acting Chief for a while, so presumably he gets on with him and wasn't planning to lose him soon.
- Setting the budget requirement – which he needs to do to set the police bit of the Council Tax – should be safe till January/February at best on that one.
Thankfully the IPCC will treat this with the utmost seriousness and sort it all out in a few weeks, yes? You might think that, particularly if you hadn't been paying attention to what really happens, but the truth is, as someone with a gift for understatement once told me, “IPCC investigations take a long time”.
What this means in practice is that you don't measure the duration of an IPCC investigation with a stopwatch, or even with a calendar. Really you need to get yourself to Greenland and plant a flag at the current extent of the ice sheet and, when you return at the end of the affair, check to see if the word “Greenland” still sounds ironic.
The first IPCC investigation into a PCC was due to a complaint made by, er, yours truly, also about expenses as it happens, and the IPCC started to investigate it in December 2012, a few weeks after the PCC election. 18 months later, as I set off to the TV studios to talk about the situation in Norfolk, I was simultaneously receiving an email from the IPCC that referred to that as the “outstanding” investigation. OK, they had made a referral after a mere 9 months, and had a decision from the CPS after another 3, and there was another month before they gave me a copy of the report only for me to spot the obvious mistakes leading them to “further investigatory work” as a matter of priority, 4 months ago.
That might not happen in this case, but it could be best to be prepared just in case you can't set the Council Tax next year without making a nonsense of your whole “stepping aside” thing, that's all I'm saying.
It would be tempting to criticise this state of affairs as what you get when you rush legislation through Parliament, as happened with PCCs, but I can't honestly do that. I think the rush had to happen if the reform was to get through at all. No, there's a very good reason why those functions are reserved to the Commissioner, and why he can't “stand aside” from them – those three powers are fundamental to the office of PCC. The PCC as the voice of the public sets the priorities, comes up with the money to fund them, and if the PCC reasonably does not have confidence in the person charged with delivering on those priorities, the PCC can replace them with someone who does command that confidence.
So, if Mr Bett has stood aside then, even if someone else gets to put their name by the press releases, Norfolk will not have the PCC they were promised, because that person will not have those powers, unless Mr Bett resigns or is charged and suspended. If Mr Bett has done something wrong he should resign right now. Otherwise he must keep calm and carry on, though that is difficult to do when you've just issued a statement about how you accept the need for you not to be around.
Oh, and should you think this PCC's conduct, past or present, is more evidence against the PCC reform, then remember – he used to chair the Police Authority.