Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Police and Crime Commissioner's poor performance - and on so many levels

Every quarter the Police and Crime Commissioner is expected to appear before the Cheshire Police and Crime Panel for a scrutiny session in public.  

Our last meeting was on 23 September.  As the meetings are webcast you can view the meeting by following this link

The panel meetings start at 10am and the Police and Crime Commissioner's scrutiny session typically lasts an hour and is expected to start at 11am.  However on 23 September the Police and Crime Commissioner was late.  In fact he was so late that, as a panel, we began discussing postponing the meeting.  

When he and his entourage finally arrived he complained that he had had problems parking and getting into the building.  Given that there is a public car park at Wyvern House, a long drive where he could have got out of his car and, of course the building is a public building where both CWaC and Winsford Town Council provide services to the public I struggle to understand how he was nearly 15 minutes late - and especially as he and his entourage only had to make the short journey from Police HQ in Winsford to Wyvern House which is also in Winsford.

I was brought up that if you arrive 'on-time' you are late... specifically so you can deal with the minor delays that happen to all of us.

Now our scrutiny sessions are an opportunity to ask questions and on occasion challenge the police and crime commissioner about how he is performing his duties.  They are a blend of questions that are asked on notice, and those that arise on the day.  Personally I'm not a great fan of questions on notice as you tend to get officer drafted responses - however I accept that if you don't give notice it can be perfectly reasonable, depending on the topic, for the commissioner to respond that he needs to undertake further research.

On Monday 19 September I tabled 6 questions for the Commissioner.  They were all focused on Police and Crime Support Officers.  There are over 200 PCSOs in the Cheshire Police area.  Many of these PCSOs are solely funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner out of the police precept  - however others are part-funded by the Borough Councils, Town and Parish Councils and other organisations such as Housing Partners such as Social Landlords.

Most, if not all of these part-funding organisations have a Service Level Agreement that sets out what the Partner organisations can expect if they pay - what is generally reckoned to be - about a third of the costs of the PCSO.  The annual contribution is around £12,800 per co-funded PCSO.  Those SLA agreements deal with 'tasking' of the partner funded PCSO amongst other things.  Interestingly the agreements also seek to pass any potential employment related costs - such as TUPE redundancy cost onto the partner organisations and not the police!  The offer to the partner organisations is that they can influence how 'their' PCSO is tasked locally - why otherwise part fund a PCSO?

So my questions were:
  1. whether the commissioner is to continue his predecessor's policy of one PCSO per ward; 
  2. whether he welcomes funding from partners - such as from the unitary authorities, Town and Parish Councils, social landlords and the like; 
  3. what steps he is taking to secure funding from partners if any; 
  4. what steps he is taking to ensure fair funding of PCSOs - and in particular the potential triple if not quadruple taxation of a social housing tenant in a parished area who is paying for a PCSO via the Police and Crime Commissioners precept, the Borough Council's precept, the Town/Parish Council's precept, and via the rent paid to the social landlord;
  5. what incentive do Town and Parish Councils have to continue funding PCSOs if one is to be provided by the Chief Constable; is he ready for an increase in Town and Parish Council's ceasing to fund 'their' PCSO in this budget round; and finally 
  6. How many PCSOs are habitually available in Frodsham.
Now I expected that with the Commissioner having been given a week's notice he would have provided me with word-perfect, pre-prepared answers.

He didn't.

As you can see from the webcast he waffled, dodged, evaded - and gave me the very clear impression that he simply did not understand the issues.  And it wasn't just me, one of my colleagues on the panel, and not a member of the Conservative party said to me afterwards: 'Can he ever answer a question?  He just waffled.'

His first answer that surprised me by how poorly informed he was came when he indicated that his predecessor did not have a policy of one PCSO (and indeed one Special Constable) per ward.  This was the policy of his predecessor and was regularly discussed at the Police and Crime Panel.  I even have correspondence from the former commissioner confirming this policy and if he challenges me over it - I will publish it - as well as referring him to earlier webcast meetings of the Police and Crime Panel where this policy was clearly set out.

This is a significant point - as, why should partner organisations part-fund PCSOs if they are going to be provided for them anyway?  Parish Councils in both CWaC and Cheshire East have already ceased their funding on this basis.  

Also this raises questions of double, triple or even quadruple taxation.  Just how many times and in how many ways should you pay towards a single PCSOs?

We all pay council tax.  The council tax in Frodsham is made up of contributions to:
  1. CWaC
  2. Police and Crime Commissioner
  3. Fire and Rescue Service
  4. Frodsham Town Council
In local government speak these are 'precepting organisations.'

Elsewhere in the Borough there can be a fifth element to the council tax.  It is called 'special expenses.'  Special expenses is CWaC's way of charging a defined community for the costs of services CWaC provides to that defined community which elsewhere in Borough are provided by Town or Parish councils.  In Frodsham the special expenses figure is zero simply because it is the town council that provides these very local services such as 'our' PCSO.

Three of the four precepting organisations either provide or part-fund PCSOs - the only one that doesn't is the Fire and Rescue Service.  However even though Frodsham Council Tax payers pay three organisations that fund or part fund PCSOs we only have one PCSO and that's the one part paid for by the Town Council.

The situation is even worse if you are a social housing tenant and your landlord part funds PCSOs.  You'll be paying a contribution through your rent for those PCSOs too.

Now within CWaC we used to have at least 12 parish or town councils that funded PCSOs.  Great Boughton Parish Council has already ceased funding a PCSO,  Tarporley Parish Council looks set to cease funding a PCSO.  This takes us down to 10.  This is in addition to Weaver Vale Housing Trust that ceasing funding 'their' PCSOs last year.   You'd have thought the Police and Crime Commissioner would have been across this issue as it threatens not only the funding of PCSOs but also the partnership working which part funded PCSOs embody.  He wasn't.  

The withdrawal of partnership funding in my view should be a matter of significant concern for him.

Parish and Town Councils typically work out their budgets in November - as they formally set them in January.  So Town and Parish councils will be deciding now whether to continue co-funding their PCSOs.  I pointed this out to the Commissioner and sought to encourage him to work with Town and Parish Councils now.  He declined to do so saying he would have a review - but that it wouldn't be completed in the timeframe that would assist town and parish councils setting their budgets now.

You'd have thought the Commissioner was interested in preserving the maximum number of PCSOs in Cheshire - seemingly not though given his answers.

Now, so far as I am concerned it is too early to determine whether this Commissioner is simply badly briefed, badly informed, or whether he is simply not up to the job.  I suspect it is the latter - especially as he was on notice of the questions I was going to ask and the preparation required to answer my questions shouldn't have taken anyone that long.  Also we have to remember that our current Commissioner remains a Warrington Borough Councillor and a Parish Councillor so you'd have expected him to be familiar with Cheshire Police's partnership working with councils.

However, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.  But lets see if he is actually able to answer questions next time.

If I was to mark him on his present performance though he is firmly in the 'must do better' category.  He has to grasp that he is there to be accountable and part of his duties includes answering questions.  And if he is to do that effectively he has to do his homework first.