Priti Patel accused of 'power grab' over new policing proposals
Chief constables and commissioners speak out against measures to make it easier for the Home Secretary to intervene.
Police chiefs have accused Priti Patel of attempting a "power grab" by allowing the Home Secretary to meddle in local law enforcement concerns and muzzle chiefs who wish to speak out on politically sensitive subjects.
Behind the scenes, an unusual feud has erupted, with police chiefs accusing Patel of attempting to get additional powers without legislative consent.
Chief constables and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) have reacted angrily to the government's attempt to rewrite a written protocol that attempts to establish who is responsible for policing.
Aspects of the plan were called "profoundly dangerous" and "threatening operational independence" by one chief constable.
Police and crime commissioners labeled several of the government ideas as "ultra vires" or beyond the home secretary's legal power.
A Home Office official familiar with Patel's thinking dismissed the wording used, not the act itself. “It is not a power grab, it is not a threat to operational independence, but making clear whose job and whose responsibility things are in the policing world. Should it not be the home secretary’s role to ask questions?”
The Home Office's attempt to amend the policing protocol, which was initially prepared in 2011 and went into effect in January 2012, is at the heart of the dispute at the top of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
The Guardian obtained a copy of the Home Office's updated version, which was distributed to chief constables and PCCs for feedback, with the consultation concluding on May 2. It outlines how the government, chief constables, and police and crime commissioners should collaborate.
It is commonly recognized that upgrading the original edition after a decade is a good idea. However, the new draft protocol provides the Home Secretary with the authority to seek responses from chief constables, which PCCs say limits their authority.
According to one chief constable, “It was your party that gave these powers away, if they don’t like it, take it back with legislation through parliament. A lot of chiefs believe the way it is written now is ultra vires. They are angry.”
Since Patel became Home Secretary, her department has sought more participation in policing under a strategy known as "lean in". “They use the term leaning in. For the first time, the chiefs are leaning out."
A source at the Home Office said the adjustments made sense and expressed surprise at the criticism.
The protocol's 2012 revision stated unequivocally that the creation of PCCs had “allowed for the Home Office to withdraw from day-to-day policing matters," according to the source.
Police leaders consider that the new version attempts to reclaim authority without legislative consent, with Patel and her officials intending to increase her “legitimate role in holding PCCs and CCs [chief constables] to account” enabling her to call police leaders to task.
According to the proposed protocol, “We propose to lower the threshold for home secretary intervention in appropriate circumstances. This would equip the home secretary to intervene earlier as required, thus reducing the risk of failing to deliver effective policing."
Government plans would also put more pressure on police chiefs to furnish the home secretary with the information she requests, even though they are not required to do so. According to the memo, "In order to ensure that the home secretary is equipped with the information required to respond to the public and parliament, PCCs and CCs should expect the home secretary to ask chief constables for information about policing matters.”
The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners stated in a private response that “there is no formal statutory power for the home secretary to require the police and crime commissioner to give information … As such, any attempt to create a legal responsibility for police and crime commissioners to provide information to the home secretary through the protocol would be ultra vires.”
The new protocol also includes a need that chief constables operate politically neutrally, in addition to the prior requirement that they be unbiased.
Chief constables are opposed to this. One chief stated that they would be "fettered" and unable to remark on public policy issues that they feel may have an impact on crime combating, such as the impacts of austerity.
Another chief claimed it was so vague that they couldn't openly speak out on political concerns like stiffer penalties or opposing cannabis decriminalization, which is backed by certain frontline politicians.
In an alternate section, they say the “proposed change seeks to alter the constitutional relationship between the police, the people, and central government, which is one of the great strengths of British policing."
Separately, Patel will announce in a letter to police forces on Monday that she is loosening restrictions on the use of stop and search powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
Officers have the authority under Section 60 to search persons without reasonable reasons in a place where they predict major violence and to search for weapons before they may be used or those used in a recent assault.
The move basically repeals restrictions imposed in 2014. Changes include decreasing the level at which stop and search powers can be authorized and prolonging the duration of the powers.