In early June, I was surprised that the Chief Constable of Gwent Police, Carmel Napier, had retired after barely two years in the post and when, everyone thought, she had many more years in front of her.
It had been common knowledge in Gwent, since last November’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections, that Carmel Napier and Ian Johnston, the ‘Independent’ PCC, did not get on and I had assumed that Mrs Napier had ‘had enough’. How wrong I was. A few days later, a ‘note’ for a meeting between Carmel Napier and Ian Johnston, written by the PCC, was leaked to the local press. The note set out that Ian Johnston had given Carmel Napier an ‘ultimatum’: either you retire, it stated, or you will be dismissed. Johnston identified four reasons why he wanted her out. The first three were about style and manner, and the fourth, incredibly, was that she did not accept the “very concept of the office of PCC”.
The note had an explosive impact in the Welsh media and Gwent Labour MPs roundly condemned Johnston’s actions as “tantamount to bullying”. News of the dismissal and the way it was carried out also reached the UK media and concern was expressed by Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and a range of police experts and academics, including Peter Neyroud, the former Chief Executive Officer of the National Policing Improvement Agency.
Carmel Napier may not have been the most popular of Chief Constables and her brusque manner did not go down well with everyone, but many people were shocked by the speed and the apparent ease with which the Gwent PCC was able to dismiss her. Ian Johnston made it clear to both the Gwent MPs and the Home Affairs Select Committee, when he gave evidence earlier this month, that the legal advice he was following indicated that the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which created PCCs, gave him the power to summarily dismiss her. Securing her retirement after 30 years of service was simply an easier way to get rid of her. The fact that Mrs Napier took retirement rather than contest a ‘dismissal’ was due to the legal advice which she too had received about the huge power of dismissal which PCCs have.
The enormous powers vested in PCCs have not only led to problems in Gwent, but also in Lincolnshire, where the Chief Constable was recently suspended, and in Gloucestershire, Suffolk, and Avon and Somerset, where Chief Constables have resigned citing the election of a PCC as their reason.
The scenario which many increasingly fear is that a far-right candidate is elected as a PCC, on another very low turnout in the next PCC elections in 2016, and then that person dismisses a Chief Constable for not following the PCC’s agenda. Significantly, in the case of Gwent, the day-to-day differences between the PCC and the Chief Constable were essentially around operational policing issues: Ian Johnston is a former Gwent Chief Superintendent and he felt that his own views and priorities should prevail over those of the Chief Constable. And although operational matters are supposed to be the preserve of the Chief Constable, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a PCC with extreme right-wing politics insists on their own particular idea of policing. The Gwent example establishes that if any PCC is not able to get their own way, then the PCC can dismiss the Chief Constable.
Until now, policing in Britain has been essentially ‘non-political’. The creation of PCCs has changed this. Whether or not PCCs are elected with political labels, they undeniably have the power to determine policing priorities over and above the local Chief Constable. And, as was the case with Ian Johnston, they can claim to have a validity because of an electoral mandate, no matter how small that is.
If Labour wins power in 2015, it will have to decide what to do about PCCs. Over the next few months there will be a serious debate, not only about keeping or scrapping PCCs, but, if they are to go, what should be put in their place. What is certain, however, is that the example of what has happened in Gwent will weigh heavily on the minds of Labour Party members.
This article was written for LabourList.