Having decided that the time had come for a particular child of mine to stay in his own bed till morning, I have spent the past few nights enforcing this particular policy, and enduring the inevitable protests. At times these have gone on till hours of the day I last saw when I was a police officer getting up and ready for the early shift.
So it was that this morning's meeting of the Lancashire Police and Crime Panel looked like an excellent place to get a couple of hours of child-free kip. To be fair to myself, the previous meetings of this august body had done little to dispel that notion. I am a veteran of meetings and committees and, in its first year, as the Panel began to explore its area of work, apart from some unpleasant sniping from one member who has now departed, there was little in the way of 'action' to keep people awake. I duly settled into my seat and waited for the soporific effects to do their work.
But it was not to be.
I had wondered if it would be different this time. This was the first meeting of the Panel after the announcement that the investigation into Clive Grunshaw's former expense claims had been referred by the Independent Police Complaints Commission to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and therefore the first instance of feedback about the complaint being given to the Panel, albeit minimal. It was possible that some of the Commissioner's political opponents might take this as an opportunity to make a few cross words, and the presence of a couple of reporters lent itself to that possibility, but in the end the item breezed through without comment.
So, time for a snooze? Not quite. The PCC began with his by-now-familiar impression of a harbinger of doom. “So much money has been taken away”…”tipping point”…”Government moving the goalposts”, etc. and the Chief Constable joined the refrain. Then one Councillor, Simon Blackburn, Labour Leader of Blackpool Borough Council said there was a basic issue of fairness – 95% of the people who paid Council Tax wouldn't venture into the Town Centres at night, so why should they pay for the policing of the problems there? Shouldn't the alcohol industry be paying for it?
But then the awkward bit – “Why is the impetus to do this coming from local authorities and not from the police and the Office of the PCC?”
Now, even I have recognised the need for PCCs to have a little time to bed in, and so have refrained from criticising their individual performance in any detail. That comment seemed a little spiky, especially when reinforced with the suggestion that soon followed, that Council leaders were really looking for the PCC to bring authorities together, and the implication that he was failing to do this.
The Panel Chair, Kate Hollern, Labour Leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council, diverted the discussion onto the issue of a minimum price for alcohol, a difficult issue for Conservatives given the Government's official used-to-be-for-it/now-against-it stance. The Commissioner took the lifeline and before long we were back to the Chief Constable talking about the importance of back office staff, de minimus positions and the loss of analysts.
At which point, Cllr Blackburn intervened again, saying how nice it was to be able to talk to the Chief Constable, and how valued his contribution always is, but the Panel is really there to hold the PCC to account and it would be nice to have the PCC answer the questions, not the Chief. Ouch!
At this point, despite knowing that Cllr Blackburn was the Labour leader of Blackpool Council, the party from which Mr Grunshaw has just been suspended, I still felt it necessary to check this via Google. Yes, still Labour. Currently quitting smoking – perhaps that explains the tetchiness?
Peter Gibson, Conservative Leader of Wyre Borough, noted that, despite austerity, crime figures continue to fall, and research shows the public thinking that public services generally have improved despite cuts, and further Council leaders sought to urge the PCC to tackle problems with extended drinking hours under the Licensing Act.
There was further discussion. The PCC went on a bit about the 'bedroom tax' and how he'd like the flexibility to use the Council Tax to address some of the Police budget problems, and someone pointed out that he's already had a significant rise in Council Tax this year, and that his financial documents worked on the assumption of a further 2% rise in the next year
The PCC said that last year it was 2% “if that's a significant rise”, and that “I will be guided by what the people of Lancashire tell me”, a reference to his Office's report of some cheerful survey work suggesting 83% would be happy to pay more for policing. (At which point I should note that we don't know how many of this amiable bunch actually pay Council Tax, which is surely needed to make the answer in any way meaningful.)
Cllr Blackburn said Blackpool assumes a 0% rise and “What are the people of Lancashire telling you that the people of Blackpool are not telling me?” On remaining unconvinced by the PCC's flannelling around policing being “more tangible” than Council services, Cllr Blackburn continued, saying that if any local authority leader thought 83% of the public would support an increase, they would have had a referendum by now, not just the what-we-can-get-away-with attitude that the PCC was displaying. Cllr Blackburn felt a referendum would fail, and the survey could not safely be used in the way the PCC was using it.
Then the Chair (yes, still Labour), began to question how robust were the set of assumptions in the PCCs report, leaving Jennifer Mein, Labour Leader of Lancashire County Council to perhaps attempt to throw Clive a rope. She asked what a 1% change on the Police precept would mean for a Band D household.
Clive knows what to do with a rope, and promptly fashioned it into a noose for his own neck. Neither the PCC or his finance officer knew the answer, so Jennifer supplied her own – “Coppers”, by which I think she meant pennies, but it works either way.
The finance officer did say a 1% change was worth about £600,000 to the PCC's budget, but then the PCC was castigated by the Conservative leader of West Lancs district for having the assumption that the Council Tax payer would pick up the PCC's bill, and there was more widespread concern about his increase being added to a County increase, a District increase, etc. That's the thing with those pennies – they add up to over a million pounds quite quickly.
At which point Councillor Blackburn said to the PCC “if you come with a 2% uplift come budget time I for one will not be happy with it”. I checked. Still Labour. Looks like the PCC's proposed precept will not have the easy ride it did last year.
This was not the PCC's happiest meeting, and most of the flak came from what might previously have been regarded as his own side. This is good. I have used party labels above to illustrate this point, but actually if they do their job right they will hold him to account regardless of party, and so really this was their best meeting to date. But it also raises the question as to whether there has been what would in Tony Blair's time been described as a 'withdrawal of love' from this PCC, which does not tend to end well for the subject.
One further vignette from the meeting. The forward plan references a review of the lease on the Lockside offices formerly occupied by the Police Authority, and currently by the same people now working for the PCC. In future the PCC's staff may be split between Police Headquarters at Hutton and a public-facing office at County Hall. When asked about this the PCC said “The Lockside offices may have been functional for the Police Authority, but they are not functional for the PCC as no-one knows where they are.”
So no-one knew where the Police Authority was and it didn't matter? Was there ever a more concise argument for their abolition?